A dynamic, hip, inked leader offers salvation to the left

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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.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • tmatt

    Shared on Facebook:

    Richard wrote: “Have you ever even read her book or interviewed her? Here is something from a Conservative LCMS pastor: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/geneveith/2013/11/the-nadia-bolz-weber-phenomenon/

  • tmatt

    A truly amazing lack of comments on this post.

    • wyclif

      Perhaps the lack of commentary reflects the fact that we’ve been to this puppet show before.

      • tmatt

        Good. Then you share my views that — in terms of accurately representing her theological views — she was really taken seriously in the WPost piece?

        • wyclif

          I’m not actually commenting on WaPo’s editorial policy at all, but rather that I suspect there is a deep weariness in my circles about celebrity Christianity. The “new thing” that Bolz-Weber represents to the religion news public is that this is occurring within burned out mainline churches. Since I am an Anglican, I’m sure you can appreciate why I would see that she is a huge step up from, say, the exegesis of Madame Schori, but still mostly sizzle and very little steak.

          • tmatt

            To be clear: I am an Orthodox Christian. Big O Orthodox.

    • Nils

      Animated conversation is continuing over at Gene Veith’s blog.

      • tmatt

        Keep us posted. But is the commentary on journalism issues or are we talking about debates about the validity of her beliefs? This is the site for the former, not the latter.

        • Nils

          Veith focuses on the WaPo article about her. I can’t say that the comments section really deals with Get Religion’s mission, though.

          • Nils

            Though I think Jordan above asked the same question there, too, which does have journalistic merit.

  • Jordan McKinley

    Mr. Mattingly, I’ve heard you on Issues, Etc., so no doubt you’re familiar with big names in the history Confessional Lutheranism. As a confessional Lutheran, I find it odd that some within confessional Lutheran circles are interested in this woman at all, let alone interested in her preaching. Martin Chemnitz, one of the writers of the Formula of Concord and an editor of the 1580 Book of Concord wrote this in a little piece on the doctrine of the ministry (which might shed some light as to why you aren’t getting many comments):

    7. Are they to be heard, or can they be profitably heard by the church who have no proof of a legitimate call?
    No. Ro[mans] 10:14-15; Jer[emiah] 27:14-15. And for this reason the prophets and apostles so earnestly emphasize the prerogatives of their call at the beginning of their writings. And experience shows that they who thrust themselves into ecclesiastical functions without a legitimate and regular call experience little blessing of God and contribute little to the upbuilding of the church.
    (Martin Chemnitz’s Ministry, Word, and Sacraments: An Enchiridion, p. 28)

    • tmatt

      That has nothing to do with my post, really. Do you believe that her views were adequately explained in this WPost piece? How do you know what she believes, based on the info in the story?

      • Jordan McKinley

        My apologies. I should have replied to your comment about the lack of comments.

        WaPo’s story wasn’t inaccurate. It merely misses what Confessional Lutheranism is really all about: preaching Law AND Gospel, not one or the other. This distinction could get lost, however, even if someone from a religious news source were writing the story. Even the Reformed, who talk about Law and Gospel, often mean something different all together, especially if they’ve been influenced by Karl Barth.

  • Ben

    Terry, I’ll be the latest reader to put this forward: Please reconsider this policy of not having a liberal Christian be a part of the GetReligion team, so there’s some sense of dialogue or seeing different angles. When I read this story earlier I knew exactly what you’d say, and I guess you can claim Mission Accomplished on that front, but it’s harder and harder to feel engaged.

    • tmatt

      You know I would say that the WPost didn’t tell us enough information about her beliefs or work to know what she was really saying?

      What part of my post did you feel was inaccurate on the JOURNALISM in this Post feature?

    • tmatt

      You knew I would say that the WPost didn’t offer enough information about her beliefs or work for readers to know what she was really saying?

      What part of my post did you feel was inaccurate on the JOURNALISM in this Post feature? You felt, for example, that her views on the resurrection were adequately explained?

      • Ben

        Nothing at all inaccurate. I knew you’d mention lack of doctrinal detail, and I agree with that. I knew the tmatt trio would be rolled out. Fine. All I’m saying is I wouldn’t mind hearing someone more open to her theological worldview listen to those quotes in the story and draw out for us context and questions left behind by the reporter. I’m more likely to be enlightened rather than tugged at to be outraged.

        And maybe I’m naive, but just adding one person from the left might encourage a little more civility and charity because it’s now “mixed company.” Maybe we wouldn’t get little asides like “she is totally ‘inclusive’ (while she is married to a male Lutheran pastor and they have two kids).” Whatever that is supposed to insinuate…. Or this: “Of course, Post readers know that traditional Christian churches refuse to allow people…..”

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    The intro of the story made her sound like a Mark Driscoll for the liberals, but there seems to be some real meat in there. I have to admit, I am very heartened by her rejection of ‘social work Christianity’ – she’s correct that it’s about more than ‘be nice because being nice is nice’.

    Indeed, it sounds as if it’s completely possible she may believe the Resurrection is a thing that actually happened (and not just the ‘after the crucifixion, the apostles felt the presence of Jesus so strongly it was as if he was actually alive again’ line of tosh I’ve seen peddled).

    This bit made me think of Pope Francis and what he’s been saying about who is ‘the Church’ (and that really is not the connection I was expecting to make going in to this post):

    “She is part of society’s outsiders, she writes in her memoir, its “underside dwellers … cynics, alcoholics and queers.”

    From his sermon at Tuesday morning’s Mass:

    “The Church is not the Church only for good people. Do we want to describe who belongs to the Church, to this feast? The sinners. All of us sinners are invited. At this point there is a community that has diverse gifts: one has the gift of prophecy, another of ministry, who teaching. . . We all have qualities and strengths. But each of us brings to the feast a common gift. Each of us is called to participate fully in the feast. Christian existence cannot be understood without this participation. ‘I go to the feast, but I don’t go beyond the antechamber, because I want to be only with the three or four people that I familiar with. . .’ You can’t do this in the Church! You either participate fully or you remain outside. You can’t pick and choose: the Church is for everyone, beginning with those I’ve already mentioned, the most marginalized. It is everyone’s Church!”

  • Jeremiah Oehlerich

    I’ve heard of Rev. Bolz-Weber for some years now via ELCA friends on social media. I’ve never heard them refer to her by the official title as a “Rev.,” but rather simply by name. I wonder how much an individual’s attitude towards his (or in this case her) title influences a title’s use in a news story.

    Of course that makes me wonder, should a reporter use titles even if the person being cited shirks the use of the same title?

  • KS

    An ordained and married Anne Lamott …

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

    This post is a good orthodox (small “o” intentional) criticism of a liberal pastor. But as a journalistic criticism of a news article, I have to ask why the emphasis on doctrine? The article tells us what she believes: God’s grace for hurting and difficult people. I don’t imagine doctrine is any more important to the members of Rev. Bolz-Weber’s church than it is to the reporter.