The fact that I had nice words to say yesterday about the Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber and her memoir Pastrix has attracted lots of notice on both the Christian left and the Christian right. As you will recall if you read my earlier piece, I expected to hate the book, given how radical Bolz-Weber is, and I expected her to be liberal Protestantism’s flavor-of-the-month. That’s not what I found when I actually engaged with the book. Even though I will never agree with Bolz-Weber on some fundamental Christian dogmas and doctrines, I admire her heart, her voice, and her ragged humanity. From what I can tell, some on the Christian left were startled that a conservative Christian found anything nice to say about one of them, and some on the Christian right are appalled that I found anything nice to say about a pastor who upends so many orthodoxies (many of which I myself uphold).
I was thinking this afternoon about what it was, precisely, that makes me like Bolz-Weber in spite of the fact that we are on opposite sides of some important controversies. I think it comes down to this: she’s a radical. She seems to know, as so many ideological Christians on both the progressive and conservative side do not, that Christianity is not educated academics and/or the comfortable middle class at prayer. It is — it has to be — something far more challenging, and, yes, radical. Peter Kreeft spoke to this point about politics in a 1996 First Things essay in which he, a traditionalist, discovered he had more in common with a socialist friend than either of them had in common with their lunch partners who were a conventional liberal and a conventional conservative. It emerged in a discussion about architecture and aesthetics. Kreeft wrote:
It became obvious to all four of us that there was some sort of a serious spiritual division between “us” and “them”: with the radical and the traditionalist on the one side, and the liberal and the conservative on the other. It was more than a set of aesthetic preferences. It soon became clear that it unexpectedly flowed over into social and political issues. Dick and I discovered that we shared a preference for “small is beautiful” populism, a suspicion of bigness whether in government or business, a lack of interest in economics, a dislike of suburbs, a love of nature, and a concern for conserving the environment. (I’ve never understood why “conservatives” aren’t in the front rank of conservationism.) We didn’t get into moral and religious issues, but I suspect that even there we would have found a psychological kinship beneath our philosophical differences.
I think what Kreeft touches on here probably has something to do with the affinity I felt for Nadia Bolz-Weber after reading her book. Robert Inchausti’s great book Subversive Orthodoxy is also helpful here, at least a bit. The book is about a wide range of modern Christian writers and thinkers whose radicalism (relative to our time) comes not in rejection of small-o orthodox Christianity, but because of it. Inchausti examines figures like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Marshall McLuhan, Dorothy Day, Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Luther King Jr., Wendell Berry, and Jacques Ellul, among others. He writes (emphases are the author’s):
[U]nlike their more utilitarian peers, they desire to live in the truth more than they desire to be effective in the world, and this puts them on the far side of a very deep and very important intellectual divide: it puts them in the camp of the stoic poor, the moral outcasts, and the political and literary pariahs. … [T]he primary moral task from a Christian perspective is to perceive evil. And this requires on to see what isn’t there and through the things that are. This is possible only for someone who is suspicious of virtue and who believes in a reality greater than his own.
To be perfectly clear: I think Nadia Bolz-Weber is quite wrong about some important things, and I think she’s bound to believe that about me. But she’s onto a way of approaching Christianity that I believe is critically important, and one that I try to emulate as well, from an orthodox (and Orthodox) Christian perspective. If Jesus was who He said He was, then we have no choice but to be radical — but to be as radical toward our own hearts as we are towards the world. This is hard, and it’s a lifelong struggle. But there it is.