Nadia Bolz-Weber is an edgy, hard-hitting, and often witty pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Her latest book is filled with autobiographical stories and a number of anecdotes which focus around the subtitle: they are often cranky, sometimes beautiful, and they reflect a sinner-saint.
The book traces Bolz-Weber’s path towards the ministry through her years in recovery from alcoholism to her starting a church: “House For All Sinners and Saints” and the struggles and triumphs she experienced throughout these events. I’ll not summarize the entire contents of the book but rather I have selected one story to give a brief sample of how the book flows.
The most poignant story in the entire book, in my opinion, is that of Bolz-Weber’s relationship with Chris Rosebrough from Pirate Christian Radio, a very conservative Lutheran (from the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod [LCMS]) who runs a very conservative radio show. He is, in many ways, all that Bolz-Weber would oppose. And Rosebrough often criticized Bolz-Weber on his show. Then, one day, they had a chance to meet and they talked through the core of Lutheran theology: salvation by grace. Bolz-Weber wrote, “[The other people witnessing their meeting] 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… God made my enemy my friend that day” (113).
Later, Bolz-Weber experienced criticism from her “own side”–liberals [her word, I’m not trying to use it in a derogatory fashion]–and talked with Rosebrough [who is, again, staunchly conservative] about it. They didn’t have to agree on the issues to carry on a conversation about God. “Chris [Rosebrough] doesn’t agree with me [about various issues]… 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… [H]e knew what it felt like… [He] said that he loved me and would pray for me. His enemy” (119-120).
Awesome, heart-stopping stories like this are scattered throughout the book. But they are in-between stories that will surely polarize readers. One is a story about a transgender girl turned boy and how Bolz-Weber helped hold a ceremony to help recognize “Asher”‘s new name and identity as a boy. Another story is about her time away from Christianity in which she worshiped a “goddess” instead.
Pastrix ends on a note about Bolz-Weber’s vision of church. Mary Magdalene becomes her foil as she reflects upon the meaning and purpose of church. She wrote, “Like Mary Magdalene, the reason we can stand up and weep and listen for Jesus is because we, like Mary, are bearers of resurrection, we are made new” (201).
There are no words minced in this book. The f-word is sprinkled throughout (and even featured twice in one chapter title). Bolz-Weber continually describes situations or feelings as “s***.” She is completely unapologetic in her approach in this regard.
This raised red flags for me. What does the Bible tell us about the Christian life, and does it say anything about the requirements for teacher, overseer, elder, and deacon? How might Bolz-Weber apply these to her life as a pastor? No, I’m not saying that as a woman she shouldn’t be a pastor–I’m firmly egalitarian. But I wonder about how she would take a passage like James 3 (specifically 3:1-2; 9-10):
Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check… With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.
Teachers are called to a higher standard. James noted that obviously people stumble, but that does not mean that we should give up or simply embrace whatever wrong behavior we are engaged in. “This should not be!” I wish Bolz-Weber had engaged with this issue in her book.
Another huge issue with the book for me is Bolz-Weber’s exegesis. It seems to me her preconceptions about what the text should mean often shape how she reads it. Specifically, this relates to the question of sanctification. Are Christians really in the process of being made new? If so, how does she reconcile this with the way she seems to conceive of “sinner-saint”–a valid concept–by which she seems to simply mean that one does not even have to try to change? She wrote:
Repentance in Greek means something much closer to ‘thinking differently afterward’ than it does ‘changing your cheating ways.’ Of course repentance can look like a prostitute becoming a librarian, but it can also look like a prostitute simply saying, “OK, I’m a sex worker and I don’t know how to change that, but I can come here and receive bread and wine and I can hold onto the love of God without being deemed worthy of it by anyone but God.”
It seems her primary point in this passage is that God’s grace is firm and sure and we, as sinners, can hold onto that. But I can’t help but feeling Bolz-Weber misses the mark at an astonishing margin in that she never discusses the need to go beyond that. Paul discussed various types of sins in 1 Corinthians 6, and then he went on to say “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” That is, God’s work does not simply end with justification, it continues on into sanctification. We are sinner-saints in the sense that we are yet sinners but God has saved us; but also, we are being made saints by the work of the Holy Spirit. We are to flee from sin, not ignore it.
Bolz-Weber’s entire autobiographical account does speak to the way that the powerful message of grace changes someone, but she never draws this point into the open. Moreover, when she speaks about the life of others, sin is often treated lightly or even entirely ignored. It seems that she is fully willing and able to apply the Law to her own life, but she does not universalize it; she does not make the Law applicable to everyone. Thus, it seems to me she fails to properly preach Law and Gospel.
Pastrix, was a book I really wanted to love. But… I didn’t. There are a number of great insights and anecdotes scattered through the pages, but ultimately readers have to slog through gobs of unnecessary cursing, shock-value stories, and more to find them. One moment, it had me cheering along with Bolz-Weber; the next, I found myself confused about what she was trying to communicate. Ultimately, the book left me wondering who, exactly, the intended audience was supposed to be. It’s not the type of book I’d hand to someone to try to convince them of Bolz-Weber’s view. Nor is it the type of book that I, as someone who agrees in part with her, particularly enjoyed. It seems to me the audience is ultimately those who already agree with her on basically everything. That isn’t a problem, as it is perfectly acceptable to write books that preach to the choir, but I am left confused as to why Bolz-Weber actually did write Pastrix.
Throughout the book it seemed that she was trying to convince me of something, but it never really became clear what that message was. There are times when I really did “get it.” It was like she grabbed that which is Lutheran in me and just played it for all it was worth. But then she failed to make it universal; it applied to her, but she never made Law and Gospel universal. She would discuss intense need for grace which is free and abundant and ever-flowing. She would point out how we need not do works to access this. But then, so often, it seemed she would conflate this with the notion that Christians are not all called to move away from sinner and towards saint. There seemed to be no sanctification in the work. It was all about the initial call to grace; but little about the enduring, sanctifying work of the Spirit.
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