Nadia Bolz-Weber is a tattooed, non-conformist, cutting-edge kind of person. She’s also a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, two strikes against her for us Missouri-Synod Lutherans. But she has the ear of “progressive Christians.” And the thing is, she preaches the Gospel.
For all of her ministry to gays, the poor, and other outcasts, she does not approve of the leftwing social gospel that dominates most mainline liberal churches. She is supernaturalist. She proclaims Jesus. She focuses on the theology of the Cross, not theologies of glory. She teaches salvation by grace through faith. She quotes Martin Luther. She is having an impact.
Can we bracket all of the ELCA things we disapprove of? Can we refrain from simply attacking her? How can you account for the Nadia Bolz-Weber phenomenon? Her audience is mainly “progressive Christians” who haven’t heard this sort of thing in a long time. Does she illustrate my thesis that Lutheranism is the true emergent Christianity? That is, that the way to reach postmoderns is not to water down faith (which was the tactic, mostly unsuccessful, to reach modernists), but to emphasize faith as Lutheranism does, in a way that is different from much of contemporary Christianity?
Her message: . . . .God doesn’t love you more if you do good things, or if you believe certain things. God, she argues, offers you grace regardless of who you are or what you do.
Christianity, Bolz-Weber preaches, has nothing to do with rules; it is the process of things constantly dying and then being made new. Those things, she says, might be the alcoholic who emerges into sobriety, some false narrative we have about ourselves, religious institutions that no longer inspire.
“I think God is wanting to be known. And my experience of God wanting to be known is much more in the person who is annoying me at the moment rather than in the sunset,” she says. God is present in these challenging interactions, she says.“I never experience God in camping or trees or nature. I hate nature,” she told the Austin crowd as she paced the stage. “God invented takeout and duvets for a reason.”
This emphasis on experience over rules challenges conservatives, but it also bothers progressives who have turned church into what she views as essentially a nonprofit organization.
“This isn’t supposed to be the Elks Club with the Eucharist,” Bolz-Weber said in a taxi ride before her Austin talk. Religion should be “something that’s so devastatingly beautiful it can break your heart. Instead it’s been: ‘Recycle.’ And ‘Don’t sleep with your girlfriend.’ ”
Bolz-Weber says she abhors “spirituality,” which she sees as a limp kind of self-improvement plan. She prefers a cranky, troublemaking and real God who at times of loss and pain doesn’t have the answers either.
“God isn’t feeling smug about the whole thing,” she writes about Jesus’s resurrection and the idea that the story is used as fodder for judgment. “God is not distant at the cross. . . . God is there in the messy mascara-streaked middle of it, feeling as [bad] as the rest of us.”
This very physical way of talking about God is thrilling to a lot of people who grew up in liberal Christianity.
“Here’s Nadia — boom!” said Jeff Krehbiel, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastor in the District who leads a national group on revitalizing U.S. congregations. “For her, this isn’t some metaphor, this is something real that changed the world and changed my life. How do we talk about this as people who want to use their heads? . . . I think people like her are resonating with a growing group of Christians who are asking the same kinds of questions.”
To Carmen Retzlaff, a newly ordained Lutheran pastor who came with her husband to the Austin talk, Bolz-Weber is liberating — partly because she’s “unapologetic” about her faith. “She talks a lot about JEE-sus” — Retzlaff giggles here — “which hasn’t always been a place of comfort in an increasingly secular world. I really love that.”
As far as I know, she and I are the only Lutherans on Patheos. Read her blog, Sarcastic Lutheran.
She also has a book out, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint