As a compelling speaker and New York Times best-selling author, Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber is a force within progressive Christian circles. Ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), she has been profiled by The Washington Post, CNN, NPR and, most recently, an enjoyable Religion and Ethics Newsweekly segment for PBS. The tattooed, foul-mouthed Lutheran “Pastrix” has accelerated her popularity with the publication of her second book Accidental Saints and continues with a 2016 European book tour. Quite the popularity for an ELCA pastor.
If you didn’t know any better, you might suspect the media attention is because Bolz-Weber pastors a hip evangelical mega-church on the outskirts of Portland or Seattle. But, no. Bolz-Weber is the founding pastor of Denver’s ELCA House for All Sinners and Saints, with an average Sunday attendance of 190. So what exactly makes Bolz-Weber’s preaching so alluring to mainstream culture?
Well, some media attention might be attributed to Bolz-Weber’s public relations savvy. She is a fervent Twitter enthusiast, hardly missing a day to tweet about playing Pokémon Go with her two kids or boasting of baptizing adorable babies. But as much as her insightful, sarcastic musings on God make me want to be her best friend, I can’t overlook the tweets affirming problematic moral theology. (For example, Bolz-Weber has tweeted endorsements for Planned Parenthood on more than one occasion.)
We will make our own decisions about our own bodies and we will not live in fear. You do not get to have our fear. #PlannedParenthood
— Nadia Bolz-Weber (@Sarcasticluther) November 30, 2015
— Nadia Bolz-Weber (@Sarcasticluther) December 8, 2015
Sure it could be partly social media savvy. But I think the Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein touched on the root of Bolz-Weber’s allure by attributing her popularity to edgy packaging mixed with a strong message that leaves both the religious left and religious right uncomfortable. Boorstein writes, “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.”
Bolz-Weber is simultaneously fascinating and puzzling to Christians of various stripes. Religious progressives and some conservatives want to claim her as their own, though neither side can quite figure her out.
Bolz-Weber’s “former fundamentalist” upbringing in the Church of Christ in notoriously evangelical Colorado Springs appeals to liberal Christians. When it comes to social policy she is no card-carrying conservative. Nor does she hold back from broad-brush chiding conservative Christians for marginalizing the vulnerable. “The thing that’s so puzzling to me about conservative Christianity in America. Is that what I read from Jesus are things like that, ‘the first shall be last, the last shall be first,’” she told PBS. “Look who he hung out with. He befriended tax-collectors and prostitutes and he kissed lepers.”
Even so, Bolz-Weber doesn’t toe all the liberal Christian theological lines either. “I’m actually a very orthodox Lutheran theologian,” said Bolz-Weber in the Religion and Ethics Newsweekly segment for PBS. In her sermons (published on here on her Patheos blog), she acknowledges humanity’s innate brokenness and need for confession, the Gospel, and affirmation of the Divinity of Jesus Christ, and the very present evil force (no, not Republicans) at work in this world. Bolz-Weber actually discusses sin. How often do you hear these types of message in a Mainline Protestant church?
Never will I forget one of my first assignments for the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD). I was sent to report on a seminar featuring Bolz-Weber at Washington, D.C.’s Calvary Baptist Church. The topic was the “decline of institutional churches.” I was surprised Bolz-Weber started off by discussing pitfalls of liberal Christianity. “If a community has a more ‘progressive’ ethos and is open and affirming, then they start to sort of soften the edges,” said Bolz-Weber. “We should get t-shirts that say ‘don’t turn down the Jesus.’” After raffling off a ham and tattoo gift-certificate for charity, the “punk” Pastrix told the largely liberal audience to beware of deemphasizing “the proclamation of the Gospel.”
I’ll admit that I was still learning during that first year at the IRD and made a few hasty presumptions about Bolz-Weber’s theology in my report. Compared to several other seriously-problematic liberal leaders within Mainline Protestantism that I’ve become acquainted with, Nadia Bolz-Weber isn’t so bad. If she and I sat down for coffee, we would probably agree as much, if not more, as we’d disagree (though I’d buy her a muffin as I insist she have a change of heart when it comes to the marginalizing of the unborn and Planned Parenthood support).
Over and over again Bolz-Weber insists she doesn’t possess a clever strategy to reinvent Christianity. Her goal is to simply reveal the “rough edges” of herself that ultimately reveal the necessity of Jesus Christ. “I do admit some fairly ineloquent things about myself in my preaching and in my books, but for me there’s a purpose in it. It’s to create a space around me that other people can step into to maybe safely consider that thing for themselves.” I believe her.
Bolz-Weber’s message is provoking because it is convicting—one which both conservatives and progressives need to hear. But being human, she isn’t perfect. Just like each one of us sinners and saints.