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Behind The Façade Of Novelty

.. is what, exactly? A few days ago, one of you sent me this Washington Post profile of Nadia Bolz-Weber, an angry Lutheran hipster pastor who has tattoos and piercings and who likes to cuss. Here’s a clip:

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.

She sounds like an interesting person, but I couldn’t get an angle on her for commentary, and couldn’t figure out why, until Terry Mattingly posted this at Get Religion today:

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.

TMatt’s point is that the story is very long on describing Bolz-Weber’s style, but has very little describing the substance of her faith. Look, I belong to an ancient Christian church that’s pretty weird by the standards of where we worship. Our pastor goes around town in a black cassock, even in the height of a Louisiana summer, because that’s what Russian Orthodox priests do. So I’m not necessarily averse to unconventionality in worship style. But the Post story gives very little idea as to why people keep coming back to Bolz-Weber’s small church (only 180 members), aside from the fact that they relate to her. Surely there’s more going on with her than the tattoos and the attitude, yes? I don’t want to take a position on her ministry because I don’t really know what she stands for, and the Post didn’t help me answer this question.

On the other hand, maybe the medium — a pissed-off, foul-mouthed, tatted-up lady preacher who can’t stand “fundamentalists” — is the message.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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