Not long ago, I noted with surprise the praise conservative seminarian Bart Gingerich gave to Nadia Bolz-Weber’s memoir Pastrix. Bolz-Weber is a tattooed, punk, very liberal Lutheran pastor who has received some national attention lately. She sounds on paper like the progressive Christianity flavor of the month, which is why it was startling to read Gingerich’s qualified praise for her and the book. One of you readers kindly bought a copy for me, which I’ve just finished.
Gingerich is right. Bolz-Weber is something else. I disagree with her fairly radically on many points of moral theology, but there’s something so winning and authentic about her. I really like this chick. Let me explain why.
What I expected to find was a cartoon version of a liberal Christian. I had in mind the female Episcopal priest whose seminary memoir I reviewed back in the 1990s. It was trite and filled with self-righteousness and progressive cliches. There’s a scene in that book in which she expresses her confusion over some inmates to whom she’s teaching a Bible class not appreciating her liberating instruction that they could interpret Genesis however they wanted, because really, who’s to say what’s true? They reacted badly to this, and responded well to the Muslim convert among them who praised Islam for its strict and clear rules. The takeaway from this anecdote is that gosh, people can be so confusing, not knowing what’s best for them. It never occurs to her to wonder why convicts might feel a deep need for clear, strong religion. Like I said: clichés, and prissy ones at that.
Even though she far to the theological left, this is absolutely not Nadia Bolz-Weber. She is a foul-mouthed hot mess, for sure, but there’s something so authentic and broken and great about her. Look at this excerpt, which comes toward the end of a chapter in which she talks about working as a hospital chaplain, and discovering that there really isn’t a thing you can say to people in profound grief and pain that will help. She talks about how much she loved reading liberal Christian theologians in seminary, because they “rescued” her from her fundamentalist upbringing. But those who speak of Jesus as a wonderful teacher, diminishing His divinity, only take you so far:
This was the bonus to liberal Christianity: I could use my reason and believe at the same time. But it only worked for me for a short while. And soon I wanted to experiment with harder stuff. Admiring Jesus, while a noble pursuit, doesn’t show me where God is to be found when we suffer the death of a loved one or a terrifying cancer diagnosis or when our child is hurt. admiring and trying to imitate a guy who was really in touch with God just doesn’t seem to bridge the distance between me and the Almighty in ways that help me understand where the hell God is when we are suffering.
That’s classic NBW: praising liberal Christianity, but then frankly admitting its limitations. Reading this book, I found myself routinely pushed to the edge by the author’s raw voice and liberal theology, but just when I would think that I was done with her, she would come back with an observation — usually a self-critical observation — that pulled me back in, and made me reconsider my own thoughts and practices.
Her chapter about how she befriended Chris Rosebrough, a fiercely conservative Christian partisan who runs an Internet station called Pirate Christian Radio, is a great example. Rosebrough roasted her and her theology on his program. When he showed up to hear her speak at a conference one day, she was anxious and angry. “Pirate Christian is my enemy,” she writes, describing her feelings at that moment. “Oh, and by the way, f**k him.”
But then he came up and introduced himself after her talk. Pirate said he disagrees with a lot of what she believes, “but something tells me that out of all these liberal Christians, you and I have a couple things we might agree on.”
And then they started to talk, there in front of everybody; those who knew of their feud might have expected fireworks:
But instead, they saw us share a thirty-minute public dialogue about our own brokenness and need for confession and absolution, why we need the Gospel, and what happens in the Eucharist. And as he talked, he cried. Twice.
I found him to be hurting and tender and really smart.
I looked him in the eye and said, “Chris, I have two things to say to you. One, you are a beautiful child of God. Two, I think that maybe you and I are desperate enough to hear the Gospel that we can even hear it from each other.”
God made my enemy my friend that day. And I have not been plunder for the Pirate ever since.
And then, NBW talks about how she was jumped viciously by fellow liberals for being insufficiently (in their view) supportive of gays in the church — this, despite that fact that many in leadership in her parish are gay, and she has been openly and strongly pro-gay. When she compromised on a particular issue, some on her own side tore into her. That stung, she said; she was used to being attacked from the religious right, but to have her own people — the religious left — rip her really hurt.
The Pirate Christian called her to offer support.
Here’s the thing: Chris doesn’t agree with me or the more-liberal-than-thou group about the issues of GLBTQ inclusion in the church. But the one phone call I got in the middle of being attacked by my own tribe was from someone who is on the other side of the issue entirely. But he knew what it felt like for your own people to turn on you and he knew it felt like shit. Chris said that he loved me and would pray for me. His enemy.
I am miles away from Nadia Bolz-Weber theologically, but I sure would love to have her in my foxhole if I got in trouble. How strange it is to me that the two most interesting Christian books I’ve read this fall — Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic is the other one — were written by unconventional liberal Christians whose views on many things I either do not share or strongly oppose, but whose hearts I admire, and who had some things to teach me about being a Christian.