It says a lot, in this financially tight age in American newsrooms, when editors put a reporter on an airplane and send her halfway across the nation to hear somebody preach.
In other words, the team at The Washington Post has decided that the work of Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber is a truly national story, one with policy-cultural implications for American religion. After all, we know that the Post isn’t into covering mere “local” stories away from the Beltway.
That recent news feature on this rising star of oldline Protestantism is also interesting because she was about to visit Washington, D.C., for a speaking engagement, which means that the earlier feature story served as a kind of PR-friendly advance story to help build the gate and attract the base, to put this in political/entertainment terms. There was no need to head to Austin to catch the Denver-based punk pastor earlier on her tour, since she was coming to DC (which allowed the Post to feature her work a second time).
Interesting. So what is going on here?
What’s going on is that Bolz-Weber represents a charismatic development in the old, graying world of liberal mainline Protestantism, a highly symbolic slice of America’s religious marketplace that has been caught in a downward demographic spiral for several decades. Apparently, the consumer-friendly world of shopping mall faith likes what this woman is pushing, including her personal style — which the Post features in the lede:
AUSTIN – Nadia Bolz-Weber bounds into the University United Methodist Church sanctuary like a superhero from Planet Alternative Christian. Her 6-foot-1 frame is plastered with tattoos, her arms are sculpted by competitive weightlifting and, to show it all off, this pastor is wearing a tight tank top and jeans.
Right up front, why strip this preacher of her title? Where is “the Rev.” in front of her name?
Also, it helps to know that she is (for the most part) drawing crowds in the hundreds, while a successful megachurch Christian pastor draws regular Sunday flocks that number in the thousands. How do Bolz-Weber’s market statistics compare with someone like, oh, that charismatic feel-good superstar, the Rev. Joel Osteen? Don’t ask.
Glance at the photos and videos from Bolz-Weber appearances and it appears that she is drawing a larger version of the usual liberal Protestant house, with a heavy emphasis on older singles and white people with gray hair and comfortable clothing. For the Post team, that means (hang on, because this gets complex):
To Bolz-Weber’s bafflement, this is now her congregation: mainstream America. These are the people who put her memoir near the top of the New York Times bestseller list the week it came out in September. They are the ones who follow her every tweet and Facebook post by the thousands, and who have made the Lutheran minister a budding star for the liberal Christian set. And who, as Bolz-Weber has described it in her frequently profane dialect, “are [mess]ing up my weird.”
A quick tour through her 44 years doesn’t seem likely to wind up here. It includes teen rebellion against her family’s fundamentalist Christianity, a nose dive into drug and alcohol addiction, a lifestyle of sleeping around and a stint doing stand-up in a grungy Denver comedy club. She is part of society’s outsiders, she writes in her memoir, its “underside dwellers … cynics, alcoholics and queers.”
Which is where — strangely enough — the match with her fans makes sense. The type of social liberals who typically fill the pews of mainline churches sometimes feel like outsiders among fellow liberals in their lives if they are truly believing Christians; if they are people who really experience Jesus and his resurrection, even if they can’t explain it scientifically; if they are people who want to hear words from the Apostles in church, not Thich Nhat Hanh or Barack Obama.
In her body and her theology, Bolz-Weber represents a new, muscular form of liberal Christianity, one that merges the passion and life-changing fervor of evangelicalism with the commitment to inclusiveness and social justice of mainline Protestantism. She’s a tatted-up, foul-mouthed champion to people sick of being belittled as not Christian enough for the right or too Jesus-y for the left.
This is good stuff. The issue is whether the story will deliver the doctrinal details to flesh out the flash.
Here at GetReligion, we think this kind of detail is important since, from Day One, we have been saying that the press doesn’t devote enough ink to the religious, doctrinal content of liberal faith groups. All too often, stories about religious liberals focus on politics and that is that.
It’s clear that this Post piece is arguing that the faith content and the style of this preacher have substance and should be taken seriously. That’s good. So what is she saying? Are readers given substance, or just style?
Readers never find out much about the content of her religious past, other than the fact that (damn the Associated Press Stylebook, full speed ahead) she was raised “fundamentalist.” What does that mean?
Early on, she says, she was aware of hypocrisy, homophobia and sexism in her fundamentalist upbringing. … She dabbled for years with Wicca and experimented with every liberal faith group, from Unitarians to Quakers.
So apparently her church contained hypocrites (welcome to our fallen world), people who opposed the ordination of women and it taught that sex outside of marriage is sin. That could be most Southern Baptists, normal evangelicals, charismatics, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and most of the world’s church-going Anglicans. In other words, readers are told next to nothing about her religious background by the Post, other than the vague content of a convenient label. Maybe she was raised in the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod, since she is now doing mission work for the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America?
And what about the content of her faith? I, of course, was looking for information related to the “tmatt trio,” that set of questions I have used for years when covering debates among Christians, the questions that I have learned yield the most crucial information (as opposed to a predictable set of answers). Often the words people use when declining to answer these questions are more interesting than the standard liberal or orthodox responses. Those questions again are:
(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?
(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?
(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?
The story never really needs to address the moral theology question, other than to say that she is totally “inclusive” (while she is married to a male Lutheran pastor and they have two kids). Of course, Post readers know that traditional Christian churches refuse to allow people who are struggling with sexual issues of various kinds into their pews and confessionals, along with all of the other sinners (which is everyone in creation). That whole, “Your sins are forgiven, go thou and sin no more” message is not truly inclusive.
And salvation theology? There is a tiny vague hint there, coupled with the only content that hints at her doctrinal approach to the resurrection:
Her message: Forget what you’ve been told about the golden rule — 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.
And later there is this crucial passage:
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.’?”
Wait a minute? The powers that be in liberal Christianity are telling people, male or female, not to sleep with their girlfriends? This same passage rolls on:
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.”
Now, the resurrection is a “story”? One that gets twisted into something related to the cross and eternal judgment and salvation? The key there: Is “story” her word or the word chosen by the Post team?
That’s interesting. I have no idea what it means, but that’s interesting.
Details, details. I have no idea if Bolz-Weber believes in the resurrection as the pivotal event in creation history, as described in the Nicene Creed. Frankly, her doctrinal approach sounds completely conventional, echoing the resurrection-as-meta-narrative approach passed along for several decades in mainline seminaries. She sounds like a liberal Lutheran, with tattoos and new, hip tattoos — like a radical, candid version of an emergent evangelical.
Meanwhile, her 5-year-old House for All Sinners and Saints (which means in the basement of an Episcopal parish) has grown to 180 worshippers and Bolz-Weber is worried that it’s getting too big, too successful.
That’s the story, right there. Even without all of those other missing details.