Book Review

Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint By Nadia Bolz-Weber

Eric Landry
Friday, February 28th 2014
Mar/Apr 2014

I think it's a safe bet to assume that Nadia Bolz-Weber isn't the only female pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. I would even venture to guess that she is not the only female pastor with tattoos! And, having been around Lutherans for a number of years now, her "earthy" language certainly isn't unique. So, what is it about Nadia Bolz-Weber that has sent her new book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint to the top of the best-seller charts? It's because we don't often hear the following from tatted-up female clergy in mainline churches:

I am not the only one who sees the underside and God at the same time. There are lots of us, and we are at home in the biblical stories of antiheroes and people who don't get it; beloved prostitutes and rough fishermen. How different from that cast of characters could a manic-depressive alcoholic comic be? It was here in the midst of my own community of underside dwellers that I couldn't help but begin to see the Gospel, the life-changing reality that God is not far off, but here among the brokenness of our lives. (9)
I was stunned that Good Friday by this familiar but foreign story of Jesus' last hours, and I realized that in Jesus, God had come to dwell with us and share our human story. Even the parts of our human story that are the most painful. God was not sitting in heaven looking down at Jesus' life and death and cruelly allowing his son to suffer. God was not looking down on the cross. God was hanging from the cross. God had entered our pain and loss and death so deeply and took all of it into God's own self so that we might know who God really is. Maybe the Good Friday story is about how God would rather die than be in our sin-accounting business anymore. (86)
I really hate that Jesus' Gospel is so much about death. I hate it. I wish that Jesus' message was, Follow me and all your dreams of cash and prizes will come true; follow me and you'll have free liposuction and winning lotto tickets for life. But obviously he's not like that. Jesus said, "Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me." He says, "The first shall be last and the last shall be first," and infuriating things like "if you seek to find your life you will lose it but those who lose their life will find it." And every single time I die to something’my notions of my own specialness, my plans and desires for something to be a very particular way’every single time I fight it and yet every single time I discover more life and more freedom than if I had gotten what I wanted. (187)

Bolz-Weber seems to grasp the Reformation's hundred-proof message of grace, and sadly that's not something we in the sideline churches expect from our mainline cousins anymore. We expect to hear a lot about gender inequality in the church (and Bolz-Weber also talks about that in her book). We expect to hear a lot about the church's role in promoting social justice (and Bolz-Weber also talks about that in her book). We expect to hear a lot about the full-inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons in the life of the church (and Bolz-Weber also talks a lot about that in her book). But when the same people who seem so wrong on so many things also write so eloquently about the theology of the cross, we're conflicted! That unsuspecting turn is part of what makes Bolz-Weber's book so interesting.

Pastrix is essentially a story of Nadia Bolz-Weber's life and current ministry. There are seriously funny parts, like when she thinks back on her profession of faith in a Church of Christ congregation: "Twelve-year old Church of Christ kids experience a wave of devotion like a Great Awakening comprised only of sixth graders." As a church planter, I also appreciated her reflection on the difficulty of starting a church and the disappointment church planters often feel when their good ideas for growing the church don't amount to much: "I had decided the event was a failure since there wasn't the right number of people and no one chipped in any money. How small." As local news outlets in Denver began to take notice of Bolz-Weber and her congregation, House for All Sinners and Saints, she started to receive speaking invitations. If you're familiar at all with the "conference circuit," the presentations are always supposed to be about the successes that you too can enjoy if you slavishly adopt the speaker's model.

Thankfully, Bolz-Weber realized during one seminar that "the very best thing we can do for each other is talk honestly about being wrong." These are the parts of the book that endeared her to me and made me think she would be an interesting person to talk to about life and ministry.

One recurring theme throughout Pastrix is the struggle that Nadia Bolz-Weber has with not putting people into categories of good and bad, realizing that every time she does her categories are blown open by someone who does not quite conform to them. Bolz-Weber wants the same courtesy extended to her, responding to her profile in the Washington Post via Twitter that she is "kind of neither" a liberal nor a conservative. After reading the book, I think it's pretty clear that she is only conservative insofar as she professes an orthodox belief in the person and work of Jesus Christ. But even there I wonder if she has any room in her system for seeing sin as more than just horizontal mess’does Jesus' death on the cross actually atone for personal sin against a holy God? She is definitely liberal in the modern theological sense of the word by seeing the Bible as a culturally conditioned book that is only valuable insofar as particular passages line up with her own ideas about God. She is also liberal in her sexual ethics, writing about living with her husband before they were married but while he was still in seminary. Her rejection of biblical sexual ethics extends naturally to her acceptance and approval of homosexuality as a legitimate expression of human experience for Christian laypeople and clergy.

But the old tropes of "liberal" and "conservative" are tired and worn out. They don't really work to pigeonhole people the way we have used them in the past. Partly that's because in "postmodernity" (also a tired word), we don't ascribe to systems of belief that in turn form us. Rather, we create our own systems’sometimes even self-contradictory systems’based on our experience of reality, and that's my main concern about this book and Bolz-Weber.

The book reflects her struggle to understand God: first as a child of the church, then as a rebel, then as a grateful recipient of God's grace, and now as a preacher of that grace to others who feel marginalized by the church. That story is fascinating, but it is a story based firmly in Bolz-Weber's own experience. From that experience she sifts Scripture and tradition looking for those parts that affirm her experience and are true "for her." So, while parts of her gospel message will deeply resonate with Reformation-minded readers, there will be other parts of her message that give us whiplash. I am left to wonder at the end of her book if her message will change and evolve over time in response to her changing experiences. Is there any norm out there that challenges her experiences’even the ones that seem profoundly true? Is she formed by something bigger than her own experiences, or is everything ultimately up for grabs?

I enjoyed reading Pastrix. Many of the parts I liked best were those that resonated with my own experience, either as a church planter or as a person in need of grace. But I leave this book not confident that what Nadia Bolz-Weber believes God offers to those down-and-outers to whom she ministers are the same things that I believe God offers to those who despise their own righteousness and cling solely to the righteousness of another. Maybe I'm reading my theology into her narrative. If we believe and preach the same gospel, then despite her radical departure from historic Christian belief, especially in the areas of gender and sexuality, she will be a force to be reckoned with in and out of her own mainline circles. If, as I fear, her conception of grace is smaller than the Bible's message of God's cosmic rescue plan for rebels, then her challenging message and personality will quickly be eclipsed by the banality of a dying mainline theology.

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Eric Landry
Eric Landry is the chief content officer of Sola Media and former executive editor of Modern Reformation. He also serves as the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas.
Friday, February 28th 2014

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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