DO NOT DISMISS the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber and her book’s quirky title, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, when you encounter them this week. And, you will encounter her, most likely in multiple sightings. Nadia is debuting as a major Christian author, this week, thanks to Jericho Books—an imprint of the world’s second largest publisher, Hachette. Millions heard her on National Public Radio.
In her rock star packaging by Jericho, it’s easy to dismiss her as yet another Rob Bell wannabe. We’ve all seen the row upon row of earnest young pastors—most of them male, truth be told—vying for the outsider aura that Rob rode to international success. The Pastrix cover shows more of Nadia’s tattooed arms than her face. She’s even got the now trademark Rob Bell dark casual clothes topped by dark-rimmed spectacles (although Rob has since abandoned the glasses). The new book’s title encourages readers to appreciate Nadia as “cranky,” “beautiful”—and, hey, as much a “sinner” as a “saint.” Flip open the cover and you’ll see that this inspirational book is sprinkled with R-rated language. Cool! Right?
But do not misunderstand Nadia. And, do not misunderstand this introduction as slamming either Nadia or Jericho. Read the Spirit says: Blessings on Jericho! Blessings on Nadia’s work! May readers flock to this new book. In fact, click on the book cover right now and order your own copy from Amazon.
Here’s why: The real appeal here is not the tattoos, nor the deliberately sexy appeal of the book’s cover. In fact, Nadia is an extremely important new voice because she speaks for the millions of men and women who so completely reject organized religion that the idea of walking into a church is offensive to them. That’s Nadia’s own story as a young woman. Now, a wise and compassionate prophet, Nadia started at the bottom—literally in church basements in 12-step programs—and rediscovered the spiritual treasures of faith one gem at a time. Including liturgy.
Including liturgy. Yes, you read that correctly. And, that’s truly a world away from the Rob Bell model.
Nadia is a pastor authentically arguing for rediscovering the sacred gifts that millions of Americans still are abandoning each year. She’s not a religious anarchist. Far from it! She’s a card-carrying mainline Protestant, now. She even titles one chapter: “Thanks, ELCA!” She’s spent years in study, many kinds of pastoral experiences and she’s proud to be serving in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
As Nadia tells the story in the middle of her book, she began her journey so far outside the realm of organized religion that she was stunned to attend a worship service and discover all the unison prayers and readings, singing and rituals. Driving home with her husband Matthew after this startling experience, she asks, “So if I go back—and I’m not saying I will—but if I do, will they do those same things and say those same things again next week?”
He says, “That’s what we call ‘liturgy.’ People have been doing those things and saying those things for a couple of millennia, and I’m pretty sure—next week, too.”
Nadia writes: “It was in those first couple months that I fell in love with liturgy, the ancient pattern of worship shared mainly in the Catholic, Lutheran, Orthodox and Episcopal churches. It felt like a gift that had been caretaken by generations of the faithful and handed to us to live out and caretake and hand off. Like a stream that has flowed long before us and will continue long after us. A stream that we get to swim in, so that we, like those who came before us, can be immersed in language of truth and promise and grace. Something about the liturgy was simultaneously destabilizing and centering; my individualism subverted by being joined to other people through God to find who I was. Some how it happened through God. One specific, divine force.”
Now are you ready to order a copy of her book? Click that cover, above, to visit Amazon. This is a terrific book for individual reading and group discussion—especially as congregations approach the Advent and Lenten seasons again.
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH NADIA BOLZ-WEBER ON ‘PASTRIX’
READ THE SPIRIT EDITOR DAVID CRUMM: Let’s start at the end of your story—the amazing congregation you now serve, called A House for All Saints and Sinners in Denver. It’s an ELCA congregation meeting in an Episcopal church. You call it HFASS for short. What is it?
THE REV. NADIA BOLZ-WEBER: Oh, it’s so many things! But when I talk about A House for All Saints and Sinners, I have to say this: You have to be deeply rooted in tradition in order to innovate with integrity. We are deeply rooted in the liturgical and sacramental traditions of the Lutheran church. But, our altar is in the middle. We’re in the round. The liturgy is led by sometimes as many as 18 different people who show up—we organize as people gather. They may do the prayer of the day or the benedictions. We very much share leadership and the liturgy. Then, there are a few things that are set apart for me to do, like the words of institution and the sermon.
DAVID: You’re describing something very much like the Iona Community’s form of worship. Read The Spirit has been part of a couple of pilgrimages to Iona, off the coast of Scotland. And we’ve worked closely with Iona writers over the years. (Here’s one example.)
NADIA: Yes, there are similarities. And I’ve worked with Iona’s John Bell a number of times.
DAVID: At HFASS, you operate quite simply, right?
NADIA: We don’t have a big paid staff. It’s a congregation of a couple hundred people, but the staff? It’s me and an intern. We have a culture of permission-giving here in the sense that somebody, a couple of months ago, said: “You know there are about 25 social workers in our community—so we could form a group to share among social workers.” Great idea. Boom—they did it. Then, someone said, “We should start a community garden.” Boom—they did it.
There is every kind of person here. Adults and children. There may be a statewide elected official next to an ex-convict next to a soccer mom next to a teenager holding her baby. It’s very difficult to figure out what all those people have in common when you walk in on Sunday.
DAVID: I’m told your church is so popular, these days, that you’ve got a problem very few churches ever face: You’ve got to slow down the waves of visitors!
NADIA: We worship at 5 p.m. Sundays and it’s OK for people to visit—and they visit in large numbers. During the summer, we’ve had tour buses pull up! We’re in a space that holds our 150 people, but if we have big groups show up—we can barely get inside. We’ve got a volunteer who manages visiting groups. If someone reads this and is thinking of visiting—you’re welcome. But, if it’s a group, we’ll send you a three-page document that explains how we worship. One thing that visitors need to know is that I do use salty language in sermons. Another example: If you visit, we encourage people to participate. We do things differently. So, we want visitors to be prepared.
DAVID: So, you’ve brought up the salty language. There are occasional R-rated terms in your book. It’s not overwhelming, but it’s obvious to anyone who opens the book. I’m curious: How did discussions with Jericho go, concerning this issue?
NADIA: This is why I chose Jericho! I had many open doors from various publishers, and I went with Jericho because they were willing to publish this without editing my content. That was non-negotiable for me. I did not want to pretend to put on some show of outward piety just to get published. Jericho let me write like I speak.
LITURGY: ‘INTEGRITY … WORN SMOOTH BY GENERATIONS’
DAVID: I’m strongly urging readers to buy your book, because you’re such a fresh and rock-solid voice proclaiming that there truly is sacred value in the best of religious traditions. Certainly, you reject some traditions like patriarchy and so much of the other social baggage that churches have carried into the 21st century. But you love liturgy.
As I read your book, I was reminded of writers like Frederica Mathewes-Greene in her books encouraging Western Christians to explore Orthodox liturgies. I’m a fan of her book Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy, for example. So, talk more about this.
NADIA: As someone who is prone to cynicism, I discovered that the liturgy has real integrity. It has its own integrity. It doesn’t demand mine to in order for it to be efficacious. Liturgy is so solid—so worn smooth by the generations—that I can trust it in a way that I can’t trust some smiley preacher in Dockers and a golf shirt walking out on stage to give me his advice. I don’t trust the emotionalism of praise bands. That whole experience tweaks my cynicism. But the Kyrie? The Kyrie has managed to stay Greek, when the rest of the liturgy went to Latin. You have to trust something so stubbornly defiant.
There have been so many times in my life when I’ve come to the point of saying: What else can I say but the liturgy? I can rest in these words. I can trust these words in a way that I can’t trust my own cleverness. As a result, there are some ways in which my church is much more liturgically traditional than other Lutheran churches. We have some practices in our church that other congregations threw out a long time ago.
DAVID: But, lest anyone mistake you for an arch-traditionalist—readers of your book will find that you reject lots of other long-standing Christian traditions. Like patriarchy. You’ve been fighting against that all your life, you tell us. You flat-out rejected a lot of that negative baggage when you were a teenager. And some progress has been made. The world’s largest Christian churches—Catholic and Orthodox—still refuse to ordain women. But most mainline American denominations do.
You’ve said that it’s actually boring to talk about the fact that you’re a woman in ministry. The gender of clergy shouldn’t be an issue for discussion anymore.
NADIA: Yes, but 2,000 years of male domination in the church doesn’t go away easily. I would love to stop talking about this, but it’s naïve for me not to realize it’s still an issue in many places.
DAVID: One of the strategies you propose is to consciously re-establish the pastorate of Mary Magdalene as an ancient model for women in ministry.
NADIA: I love that she’s somebody who was freed from many things. She experienced some kind of death and resurrection in the presence of Jesus. I love that.
I love that she was this deeply faithful and deeply flawed women and was chosen to be the first witness to the resurrection. The men? They high tailed it out of there after the crucifixion—but she kept showing up at the tomb even though she didn’t know what she was going to find. And I love that she mistook Jesus for a gardener. I have this vision of her having to live down that embarrassing moment of mistaking him for the rest of her life. But just think about the power of that experience! She was devastated. She went there and she mistook Jesus for a gardener. She thought she understood the story—then, at the sound of her name, she turns. And as she turns—she has to rethink everything. I love that.
DAVID: You once were a standup comic. I’m discovering that some of the most powerful preachers today share this experience. I’m thinking of pastor, author and comic Susan Sparks. And there’s rabbi, author and comic Bob Alper.
NADIA: For me, it’s been a long time. I haven’t done standup for probably 19 years. It was a period in my life when I couldn’t afford therapy so being caustic and cynical on stage was the next best thing.
Comics and preachers have a lot in common. There aren’t may professions in which a whole group of people just sit and listen to one person talk. If you’re a good preacher, then you also understand the need for an economy of language. You make your point through crafting language. But preaching also is a challenge in which—like Emily Dickinson put it: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”
Good preaching tells the truth slant. You sort of close one eye, tilt your head, say what you see—and you and hope to help the people around you to see in new ways, too. At its best, standup is prophesy. Good comedy and good preaching both are truth telling.
Care to read the Emily Dickinson?
Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise,
As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.
(Interview with Nadia Bolz-Weber originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)