Nadia Bolz-Weber bounds into the University United Methodist Church sanctuary like a superhero from Planet Alternative Christian. Her 6-foot-1 frame is plastered with tattoos, her arms are sculpted by competitive weightlifting and, to show it all off, this pastor is wearing a tight tank top and jeans.
Looking out at the hundreds of people crowded into the pews to hear her present the gospel of Jesus Christ, she sees: Dockers and blazers. Sensible shoes. Grandmothers and soccer moms. Nary a facial piercing.
To Bolz-Weber’s bafflement, this is now her congregation: mainstream America.
-by Michelle Boorstein
“Bolz-Weber’s liberal, foulmouthed, articulation of Christianity speaks to fed-up believers” (November 3, 2013)
The Washington Post
I saw this on Facebook, opened the story, saw the photo of Nadia Bolz-Weber, realized this article was published at The Washington Post (only slightly less liberal than the New York Times and MSNBC.com), and I figured it was some sort of hyper-liberal take on a version of Christianity reformatted for progressive audiences.
Then I started reading and realized that, bumps and bruises included, I kind of liked Bolz-Weber.
Actually, I like her “process” and the people she represents, people who have struggled with the traditional church, people who are looking for something a little more authentic and “edgy.”
I’m not a social liberal. Far from it. I’m not impressed by tattoos and piercings just because someone thinks they’ll look more “relevant” if they decorate their body. If it was just a matter of this Pastor serving a counter-culture audience, I wouldn’t give her a second thought, but she’s attracting “mainstream America,” Mr. and Mrs. Button-down USA.
I sometimes think of what attracts non-Jewish people to Hebrew Roots or Messianic Judaism out of more traditional Christian venues. I wonder if it’s (more or less) the same things that are attracting “straights” to people like Bolz-Weber?
“You show us all your dirty laundry! It’s all out there!” the Rev. John Elford of the University United Methodist Church booms, as if he is introducing a rock star, leading the cheering crowd into an impassioned round of hymn-singing.
Bolz-Weber springs onstage to do a reading from her book, but first she addresses the language that’s about to be unleashed on the pulpit: “I don’t think church leaders should pretend to be something they’re not.”
The crowd erupts into applause.
I know this sort of thing would make a lot of more traditional Christians cringe. Lately, I’ve been talking about how the Church (which ranges from Fundamentalist Christian to Hebrew Roots) has been throwing stones at those in other denominations and others who have left the faith altogether.
I can only imagine that they would throw a few rocks at Bolz-Weber. I mean, if anybody is different, she’s different.
Bolz-Weber’s appeal is unquestionably part packaging: dramatic back story, cool appearance, super-entertaining delivery. She launched a successful church for disaffected young people and has headlined youth gatherings tens of thousands strong. For a part of American religion that’s been in a long, slow institutional decline, this gives her major credibility.
This one paragraph says a lot.
The packaging, cool appearance, dramatic back story and entertaining delivery I can live without. All of that is superficial and if that’s all you’re looking for, then your faith is as shallow as a mud puddle in your backyard after a ten second rain shower.
The success with disaffected youth, on the other hand, earns Bolz-Weber some cred. The mainstream Church will never see these kids, they’ll never understand these kids, but it doesn’t mean God doesn’t love the goths, emos, and other youth out there who depressed, drunk, high, homeless, runaways, sexually active straight, gay, bi, and everything else that “white-bread, apple pie” teens in conservative churches would never ever dream of being, and who would cast the disaffected into the pit of hell before they even die.
The last part of the paragraph got my attention: “American religion that’s been in a long, slow institutional decline…”
That’s the part that made me think of Hebrew Roots and Messianic Judaism, among other things.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that the Church should be in the entertainment business just to attract people. Quite the opposite. I don’t think people want to be entertained. I think they want to be informed and more. I think people are searching for authenticity in their faith, I think they want to be challenged. I think they want to struggle to find answers rather than have them served up to them on the aging, traditionalist, fundamentalist, evangelical platter.
Fundamentalist Christianity celebrates the Reformation, which is interesting, because reformation suggests change, re-evaluation, and looking at the Bible, Messiah, and God in (you should pardon the pun) fundamentally new ways. This is opposed to the oldie but goody religion many churches present, that “old-time religion” and “if it was good enough for grandpa, it’s good enough for me” way of looking at Christianity.
Again, I’m not talking about entertainment, I’m talking about seriously challenging the old, traditional interpretations and assumptions about what the Bible is saying and who the Bible is talking to.
I think that’s what Bolz-Weber represents for some people. I think that’s what Hebrew Roots and Messianic Judaism represents for other people.
Her message: Forget what you’ve been told about the golden rule — God doesn’t love you more if you do good things, or if you believe certain things. God, she argues, offers you grace regardless of who you are or what you do.
I agree that God loves us no matter who we are and what we do, however, my opinion is that the offer of grace is contingent upon us being willing to accept the offer. I don’t agree that what we do is irrelevant, since much of the Bible speaks of disciple, obedience, observance, and so forth.
But Bolz-Weber is successful in communicating that you don’t have to wear a suit and tie, vote Republican, or listen to country music in order to be loved by God and in order to have a relationship with Him.
You can be different…really different, and still be a human being created in the image of God.
“This isn’t supposed to be the Elks Club with the Eucharist,” Bolz-Weber said in a taxi ride before her Austin talk. Religion should be “something that’s so devastatingly beautiful it can break your heart.”
So many religious groups are “the Elks Club with the Eucharist” or “the Elks Club with Oneg,” a social club where any true encounter with God takes a seat way in the back of the bus. An encounter with God is “something that’s so devastatingly beautiful it can break your heart.” I think “beauty” and “awe” and “astonishment” that God is who God is and that we can encounter Him in the midst of our worship has been left behind or worse, been denigrated as too “emotional.” No, emotion shouldn’t drive our worship, but we should still be open to a God who is more than just black ink on the white paper of our Bibles. God is real. God is holy. And He’s “something that’s so devastatingly beautiful it can break your heart.”
And God wants broken hearts and broken spirits.
For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it;
You are not pleased with burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.
–Psalm 51:16-17 (NASB)
The article continues:
Bolz-Weber says she abhors “spirituality,” which she sees as a limp kind of self-improvement plan. She prefers a cranky, troublemaking and real God who at times of loss and pain doesn’t have the answers either.
I think God does have all the answers (though He doesn’t always tell them to us), but I prefer “cranky, troublemaking and real” disciples of Messiah “who at times of loss and pain” don’t “have all the answers.” I don’t have all the answers and sometimes, I’m “cranky, troublemaking and real.”
“God isn’t feeling smug about the whole thing,” she writes about Jesus’s resurrection and the idea that the story is used as fodder for judgment. “God is not distant at the cross. . . . God is there in the messy mascara-streaked middle of it, feeling as [bad] as the rest of us.”
This very physical way of talking about God is thrilling to a lot of people who grew up in liberal Christianity.
I like how the God Bolz-Weber describes isn’t distant and unknowable, but close, passionate, caring, involved. Did God cry as Jesus bled on the cross? Did God weep and wail each time another group of Jewish women and children were herded into a Nazi gas chamber? Does He grieve every time we grieve, not because He can’t see beyond death, but because He knows we can’t see that far?
Therefore, when Mary came where Jesus was, she saw Him, and fell at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews were saying, “See how He loved him!”
–John 11:32-36 (NASB)
I just wanted to make sure you caught that. He cared. It mattered to him that the sisters of Lazarus grieved, and hurt, and cried. Even though he knew Lazarus would be resurrected (to die again at some future date), he wasn’t callous about it. He didn’t treat Mary and Martha like spiritual morons because they couldn’t see what he could see…that the death of their brother was very temporary.
Grief is real. So Jesus wept. Jesus cared. Jesus loved. Jesus was real. Jesus is real.
Sometimes, that “realness” doesn’t translate very well into a Sunday morning service, at least for the Christians who seem to be leaving the church in droves.
To Carmen Retzlaff, a newly ordained Lutheran pastor who came with her husband to the Austin talk, Bolz-Weber is liberating — partly because she’s “unapologetic” about her faith. “She talks a lot about JEE-sus” — Retzlaff giggles here — “which hasn’t always been a place of comfort in an increasingly secular world. I really love that.”
Real faith. Real, raw, edgy, bleeding, living faith. Faith lived on the razor’s edge, sharp and dangerous. I think people want to feel alive, active, and interactive in church, rather than passive and accepting and maybe even a little sleepy.
Most churches are safe, but should God be safe? It’s not real faith if it doesn’t scare you, at least a little. You aren’t encountering God if He’s not scaring you, at least a little, if you’re not feeling mortal, vulnerable, small, frightened, needy, and inadequate.
Yet she never stopped believing in God. She dabbled for years with Wicca and experimented with every liberal faith group, from Unitarians to Quakers. She performed stand-up as a type of no-cost therapy.
It was going through anti-addiction recovery that finally soothed her anger. Her encounter with a tall, cute, Lutheran seminary student named Matthew Weber brought her back to church. They married in 1996 and have two children.
She first heard the call to pastor in a downtown Denver comedy club at which she and a bunch of her old runaround pals gathered in 2004 to eulogize a friend who had hanged himself. As the only religious member, she was asked to lead the service. Her vocation to her fellow outsiders was born.
I’ve recently, if tangentially, been involved in a conversation that resulted in a number of apostates being slammed against a metaphorical wall by those who see justice as their ultimate identity but who think of mercy as weakness and failure, but in reading this part of Bolz-Weber’s “testimony,” I can see just how far a person can run away from God and still come back. Sure, she’s come back with “baggage” but it was “baggage” that drove her out of the Church, too. If God weren’t a God of mercy, compassion, and second chances, none of us would survive. Heaven help us and save us from people who think they’re more righteous than God.
As far as content, theology, doctrine, and dogma goes, I doubt she and I would agree on many points, but it’s the process of her coming and going and coming back to God that she has in common with me and with a lot of believers, including many people in both the Hebrew Roots and Messianic Jewish movements. The only difference, at least on the surface, is that Bolz-Weber’s church attracts a far more diverse population:
These days, about 180 people show up each Sunday, an eclectic mix of homeless and corporate types, punk teens and suburban baby boomers sitting on stacking chairs in the rented hall.
Here’s where I think she’s spot on:
Bolz-Weber characterizes herself as having had “a heart transplant.” This is typical for someone who presents herself as the “anti-pastor”: cranky, intolerant, egotistical, but always open to Jesus making her better.
A heart transplant. Gee, where have I heard that before?
Moreover the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live.
–Deuteronomy 30:6 (NASB)
She also said:
“Christianity is supposed to give me a mild sense of discomfort. I don’t get to be in control,” she said. “It’s always putting me into something new.”
I think one of the reasons people leave church is that it’s too comfortable, too familiar, too safe. There’s no challenge, no pizzazz, no process by which one grows and gets better, gets closer to God.
Most of the time, personal, emotional, spiritual change isn’t planned. Most of the time, it takes a crisis to set such change in motion; dramatic, violent motion. People don’t draw closer to God because they’re safe. They authentically experience closeness with God when they are scared, desperate, terrified, lost, heartbroken, shattered.
I’m not saying religion should be a mile-a-minute thrill ride, like at an amusement park, but it should be something you live with every day that’s a little bit “in your face,” some iron that’s sharpening your iron, challenging, disagreeing, confronting…you know, like God is, like how He told His prophets to be when Israel wasn’t toeing the line.
People are looking for something different, not for the sake of it being different, or entertaining, or amusing, but for the sake of it offering a more authentic encounter with God. We enjoy a pleasant sunset, but a violent thunderstorm scares us into drawing closer to God, just like small children snuggle in bed with their parents when the lightning flashes and the thunder booms.
It doesn’t have to be a “fire and brimstone” revival meeting. An encounter with God just has to help us get to a point where we know God really is real and He really is present, and He really cares and hurts with us when we care and hurt. We have to know that our God is a God who can care and hurt, who can show compassion for the most injured and disfigured among us.
We want God to make us feel uncomfortable and to help us be better today than we were yesterday. That’s what we’re looking for, not an old, static system where God is on His mountain and we are in our pews, but a God who is with us, a powerful, existing, active, interactive God, King of the Universe. Eloheinu Melech HaOlam.
We’re alive. We need to know that God is alive, too…and that He still cares.