Review of “Pastrix” by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: the Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint (Nashville: Jericho, 2014).

It is not often that a book explicitly and self-proclaimedly Lutheran makes the New York Times bestseller list. But then Nadia Bolz-Weber prefers to stand in unusual places, so the fact that her memoir does so as well is perhaps appropriate. Bolz-Weber herself is, as she unashamedly portrays in the book, not one to conform to stereotypes. A recovering alcoholic and Lutheran pastor, Bolz-Weber is much in demand as a speaker who talks in unconventional ways about the power of the resurrection in the midst of the brokenness and beauty of life, and of God’s knack for choosing the unexpected places to manifest grace.

This makes it sound, however, as if the book is lovely and pious. It is lovely at points, but it anything but conventionally pious. Bolz-Weber writes as she speaks—in anecdotes and theological reflections peppered with cuss words and reflecting the anger and frustrations she often feels with situations and people including, often, herself. If you are easily offended by four-letter words, people who don’t behave nicely, or acceptance of LGBTQ persons, you will likely be offended by this book. In which case, I very much recommend you read it. Not because it will change your perspective on any of that necessarily, but because the other things that Bolz-Weber has to say are so important that you should not miss it based on these points of disagreement.

Bolz-Weber’s memoir is, at its heart, about the search for community. About the things that prevent and break community, and about the unexpected ways God creates community amidst brokenness. The ongoing theme is death and resurrection, and that this is the consistent way of God in the world—bringing life from death.

But this too might give you the wrong impression—that this is a churchy book about ecclesiology or theology. It’s not; it is a memoir, and Bolz-Weber’s story is more colorful than most.

Although a memoir, the book does not move chronologically. Instead each chapter has a theme and includes one or more significant stories from Bolz-Weber’s life, often highlighting not just her experiences but particular people she has met along the way and what she learned by having them in her life. Sometimes these stories of others end joyously, sometimes tragically—from her husband and her loving, pious parents and other caring people to the addicts, boyfriends, scam artists, and broken and hurting people who have impacted her. In that sense, the book is as much about these others’ lives as it is about hers.

Bolz-Weber, however, does not tell this story from an aloof position. The stories of the addicts, the angry, the depressed, the self-destructive, the sexually unconventional—these are her story as well, and she tells it with a good deal of fearlessness. Not as a thing from the past that can be told and set aside but as illustrations of the continuing story of how God meets us precisely as we are trying our best to run away, in whatever form that running takes. There is no sense in the book that Bolz-Weber is saying, “I used to be a mess, but God cleaned me up and straightened me out, and now I am not a mess.” God’s hand in cleaning and straightening (through God’s many hands in the Other) in not, for Bolz-Weber, a thing of the past. She (like we) remains a mess in all kinds of ways, still running into God and God’s restorative power in places she avoided finding it.
A number of stories are particularly memorable. I will relate one.

When Bolz-Weber was beginning to gain some notoriety as a pastor and speaker, she attracted the attention of a person who calls himself “Pirate Christian,” and who through his online radio show attempt to combat what he sees as apostasy, heresy, and various distortions of the faith. While Bolz-Weber was at first pleased that her work had shaken things up enough to attract his attention, she became angry and felt attacked and persecuted. Then, the Pirate Christian showed up at a conference where Bolz-Weber was speaking. He waited in line to talk to her after she spoke. She relates:

God, please help me not to be an asshole is about as common a prayer as I pray in my life. And in situations like being faced with my enemy in public, what else do I have at my disposal but prayer?

Chris extended his hand to me, and after fighting off the urge to tell him to fuck off, I took it.

“It’s weird, Nadia,” he said. “We obviously disagree about a lot, but something tells me that, out of all these liberal Christians, you and I have a couple things we might agree on.”

“Great,” I said, after a moment of stunned silence. “Let’s…uh…let’s talk about that.”

…. Since Pirate and I were in the middle of a fellowship hall at the conference, the crowd around us who knew about our feud perhaps expected a showdown. But instead they saw us share a 30-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 looked him in the eye and said, “Chris, I have two things to say to you. One, you are beautiful child of God. Two, I think that you and I are desperate enough to hear the Gospel that we can even hear it from each other.”

The grace of the Gospel coming from unlikely sources is the ongoing motif. Bolz-Weber’s mission is to those people traditionally marginalized in or by the church, but even this comes with complications. Bolz-Weber talks about how, when her church gained some notoriety, people started coming in from the suburbs to attend, upsetting the balance of quirky outcasts by the introduction of polo-wearing dads and van-driving soccer moms.

As the weeks progressed during the early summer, I found it increasingly difficult to muster up a welcoming attitude toward a group of people who unlike the rest of us could walk into any mainline protestant church in town and see a roomful of people who looked just like them….My precious little indie boutique of a church was becoming treated like a 7-Eleven, and I was terrified that the edgy, marginalized people whom we had always attracted would now come and see a bunch of people who looked like their parents and think, “This isn’t for me.” And if that started to happen I would basically lose my shit.

Bolz-Weber, however, soon realizes that the radical acceptance of the Gospel and the community it creates must extend to these people as well. That to welcome the Other does not just mean creating a different community of the homogenously marginalized but extending grace to the traditional insiders as well. She closes the chapter saying

It goes without saying that House for All Sinners and Saints is stronger now because of those newcomers. You can look around…on any given Sunday and think I am unclear what all these people have in common. Out of one corner of your eye there’s a homeless guy serving communion to a corporate lawyer and out of the other corner is a teenage girl with pink hair holding the baby of a suburban soccer mom. And there I was a year ago fearing that the weirdness of our church was going to be diluted.

For Bolz-Weber the struggle of community is always about overcoming, through the shaking up of the presence of God, our tendency to draw lines of inclusion and exclusion, our tendency to cling to tribalism and its safety, even the tribalism of the different. And that the grace of God won’t stand for that.

The writing of a memoir is a tricky thing. There needs to be a reason for it, a justification. To simply tell one’s story for its own sake might seem hubristic, and some will no doubt be put off by Bolz-Weber’s choice to pursue this project, seeming as it does to focus on her persona. But beyond the surface of the genre, astute readers will see that it is about more than Bolz-Weber’s life or her church—subjects that would certainly be considered self-aggrandizing if they were the ultimate focus. In this sense the subtitle of the book is not really indicative. It is not about Bolz-Weber’s faith, it is about God. God who shows up unexpectedly with power unmake (in ways that seem like death) and remake. Power to bring life out of things we’ve killed through choices and mistakes. And that this power is in the person of Jesus, and that Jesus comes with this power through the Other—sometimes the through the Other of the church and its members, sometimes through no-nonsense sisters or rehab counselors or crass stand-up comedians. It always comes from outside us as a moment of grace. Bolz-Weber’s book is a reminder that we find God’s power hidden under the opposite of where we expect it—whatever that opposite may be for us—and if we have the eyes to see it and the honesty to face it, God brings life.

The question of what to do with the contents of the book is intriguing. This is certainly not a how-to book. Bolz-Weber is not trying to say, “Here’s what we did, and you can do it too!” as if there is a formula or a technique behind House for All Sinners and Saints. Those interested as pastors and laypeople in trying to make their churches more welcoming to different sorts of people will no doubt find inspiration here, but not much in the way of practical advice, except the general observations that it will be difficult and painful and that there will be a lot of stumbling along the way. Those who preach and teach may find a good deal of sermon-worthy material, and that is no small contribution. Perhaps its greatest use, however, is the same as that of so many good stories, whether fictional or not: that the reader is reminded of the unexpectedness of grace and its bearers. That the reader might be provoked to reflect (either alone or with others) on the unexpected moments of grace in their own lives and churches and the people through whom God has brought that. That such reflection changes how we order our lives and our communities may not be the guaranteed result, but it would be a good one.

Judith Stack-Nelson has a Ph.D. in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary and has taught at a variety of undergraduate and graduate institutions including St Olaf College, Augsburg College, and Fuller Seminary.

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