By Deborah Arca
Pastrix, the much-anticipated spiritual memoir of one of progressive Christianity’s most talked-about and unconventional pastors, Nadia Bolz-Weber, hits the market this week from Jericho Books. The cover, featuring a gorgeous, backlit photo of a pensive Bolz-Weber baring her stunning shoulder-to-wrist spiritual tattoos, is worth the price of the book alone. But once you open the cover and read the first sentence (which, not surprisingly, begins with the word “shit”), you’ll be doubly rewarded by perhaps one of the most honest, riveting and convicting stories of faith and redemption you’ve ever read.
Before Nadia headed out for her book tour, I got a chance to visit with her at her home in Denver, not far from the Lutheran church she founded five years ago called House for all Sinners and Saints (HFASS). I was greeted at the door by her pony-sized Great Dane, Zacchaeus (a bit of biblical irony, she notes), on a rainy Friday afternoon. Inside, Nadia had just received her box of hardback copies of the book, and was, I dare say, slightly giddy. After a bit of small talk, we sat down to chat about her book, which is subtitled “The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint.”
Let’s start with the title: Pastrix. Where did that come from? Were there other titles in the running?
Oh, that’s the term that some rather unimaginative and hateful Christians who don’t think women should be ordained have given me and other female pastors. Pretty much any time you can take an insult and claim it as your own, you win. What I really wanted to call the book, was God’s Bitch, and they wouldn’t go for it. Weird, huh?
I just finished your book last night and when I put it down, I was suddenly very aware of my heart beating. I felt so … alive.
Oh, wow. Yeah, I had a friend tell me today she cried when she finished it. She said it reminded her of why she’s a Christian.
Yeah! The stories you tell, page after page, about reaching out, screwing up, getting healed and finding God’s grace in even the most broken of situations were so moving, so honest, and felt so “real Christian” to me. Why did you decide to share your messy and beautiful story with the world at this time?
I just suspected that there’s so many more people than myself who have a longing for this kind of faith; who have a longing for it to be more real and beautiful and paradoxical than it’s sold as being in popular media. The popular conception of Christianity is so different that the Christianity you encounter in this book. And I just suspected that there were more people who had a longing for that and for whom that might actually be transformational, and literally that’s why I wrote the book. In some ways, I’m evangelical in my faith; but I’m evangelical for this expression of Christian faith.
Also, we’re in this cultural moment now where people are willing to let go of things they’ve been clinging to for a long time. We’re shifting the way we’re thinking about things. And I think that’s happening by necessity in the economic sense — we have a DIY (Do It Yourself) movement, we have a locovore movement. And we see it in the societal sense in terms of gay rights and civil unions. And I think we’re also seeing it in a religious sense. In a way, House for All Sinners and Saints is DIY church. There’s an ethos of wanting to create things for yourselves; wanting to have things be meaningful in a really personal way and not in an institutional way. We’re in this moment of re-thinking a lot of things.
Your particular journey to ordained ministry has been less than traditional, and in some sense, rather incredible. At one time you were a college drop-out alcoholic, living in a dirty commune and doing stand-up comedy for a living.
Well, not usually all those things at once… [laughter]
Ok, right, not all at once… but still, it’s remarkable that you are “here” when you were once “there.” In fact, you wonder about that in your book … how you managed to pull your life together, when many other people from your past didn’t.
Yeah, I have survivor guilt in a way. There were different people in my life at one time where we were almost the same person. We were in the same place, doing the same things, having the same story at one point in our lives. And something happened where I went on this path, and they went on another path. And … I end up burying them, or their mom calls and says they’re dead. Or they have this really horrible, horrible, desperate life. And I have everything.
And I can’t say it’s because I just made better choices, or worked the 12 Steps better than they did, or that the fiber of my character is so much stronger than theirs. You can’t do the math; it doesn’t make sense. So all I’m left with is there’s something about it that has to do with grace, and all I can do is faithfully live in response to the fact that I’ve been given a huge gift. That’s all I can do. It doesn’t make any sense to me sometimes, and then at other times I think, it doesn’t have to make sense, I just have to live in response to it and be faithful.
Yeah, I don’t imagine in your wildest dreams you imagined you’d be where you are today.
Oh my God, no way! If you had come to me 20 years ago and told me that I was going to become a Lutheran pastor and be married to a nice man from Texas and have two kids, I’d have said “Oh that’s hilarious, you have the wrong girl. There’s no way, there’s no way.”
When you eventually began making your way back to God after a decade of deliberately avoiding the church, you were drawn to a particular tradition — Lutheranism — because of this thing called “grace.” What is grace for you?
At that point in my life, I had been sober for a few years, but was really trying to live the same life I had before. I didn’t actually start getting “better” until I was clean and sober for four years. It ends up that trying to live that same life without the benefit of being intoxicated is extremely painful.
Ultimately I think I was drawn into this Lutheran way of understanding grace because I had experienced it already in my life. I had experienced the fact that it felt like God had plucked me off the path of destroying myself and put me on another path. And I had no way of making sense of it. And then when the Lutheran Church said that God’s grace is a gift that’s freely given and all we do is just live in response to it … that there’s no way to earn it, all you do is recognize it and live in response … that made sense to me because that’s what I’d experienced to be true.
Grace is this incredible power in the world that I feel like a lot of time goes unrecognized. We call it luck, or coincidence, or medical science. Or we call it our own gumption and work ethic, whatever. I think that there is this powerful force that Jesus talks about that is actually more powerful than fear and violence and authority. Grace can subvert all of those things. I really believe that grace and the power of forgiveness, and giving things and getting things that aren’t earned, and the way in which all of our fuck-ups are never the final word and somehow can be redeemed … that is such a powerful force in the world and I see it all around me all the time.
You share some rather sordid details from your past in your book, laced with a generous helping of profanity, which some people may find shocking. Given your growing audience and reputation, are you worried about that?
Oh, I don’t know, I’m pretty out there with stuff normally. I don’t have anything to hide. I mean, if somebody is going to read about the truth of my life and no longer want to keep reading, that’s really their problem. Then I’m not the voice for them. I’m not the writer for them. I’m not preacher for them! There are a lot of preachers and writers and voices that they can go to — the Christian world is their oyster. Lots of things are available for them. Not quite as many things are available out there for people who will read about me, and go, oh my gosh, this is the kind of pastor I want to actually be able to listen to. There’s not a lot out there for those people. And that’s who I wrote this book for.
It strikes me that this book really speaks to the power of telling our stories as a way of confessing our faith, instead of doing it by quoting and interpreting Bible verses or claiming to know what God thinks about any number of issues.
Yeah, this book is like theology done in the first person. It’s just me saying, this is what I’ve experienced to be true.
Human experience has an authority it’s never had in history right now, in the post-modern age. Part of that is due to the cynicism after Watergate, after the clergy sex scandals, after the economic meltdown. All of these things we were supposed to trust – the government, religion, the education system, Wall Street. The more and more we find out we can’t trust these institutions because they’re more interested in protecting themselves than in serving people, the more we look to our own experience. Why would I trust you to tell me the sky is green if I can see that it’s blue? Some people might see that as problematic for Christianity, because “well, some religious authority should tell you what to believe, and the Bible is very clear about what you should believe.” But if there’s something in the Bible that says Nadia is 5’4 and nothing in my lived experience would say that’s true, am I going to then remove the part of my brain that’s tied to experience? In a way, we have to resort to trusting our own experience — but not exclusively. It’s important to look at our human experience and interpret it in community, in conversation, and in the biblical text, and being in scripture. It’s not like we disregard these like they don’t have anything to say to us. But we have to look at what we’re actually experiencing too, because we can’t trust the institutions to do that for us anymore.
I think there’s something so important in helping people find language for their stories. The Bible was people telling their stories and their experience of God. And somehow we’ve gotten afraid of talking that way anymore.
Well I think that’s because a lot of progressive Christians are mortified of sounding like evangelical Christians, so we sort of let them have the Bible, and we let them have Jesus, and we let them have any kind of personal expression of faith because we don’t want to be confused with them. And I think that’s really misguided. It’s really powerful to talk about our own experience of God. And we can create own language that feels really authentic to us.
I had flashes of other spiritual writers like Sara Miles and Anne Lamott while reading your book. Who’s influenced you as a writer?
Sara Miles and I are in conversation a lot. More than my writing being influenced by her, I think my idea of what it means to be Christian has been affected by my relationship with her, and maybe vice versa, I don’t know. But more than certain writers being an influence, I have people in my actual life who are an influence. I have amazing conversation partners and I really cultivate that. Anything I do is never done in a vacuum. My sermons that I write that become meaningful to other people are not written in a vacuum. I have a friend Justin that I talk to almost every week. My conversations with him are the way in which I figure out what I want to say in my sermon.
One of my favorite chapters in the book is called “Demons and Snow Angels,” and it’s about one of your parishioners, a transgender man named Asher. It’s about identity, and how we often let the voices of the culture tell us who we are, instead of God. It reminded me how much I listen to those other voices as well…
We all do. That’s the culture we’re stuck. In. And that’s why the church can be a really significant place. It’s like a de-programming center. It’s this one place where you get to touch this deeper truth than what we’re being sold all week. And we get to remember the big, big story that we’re actually a part of. We get to understand what’s happening in the world and our life through how it’s interpreted by this bigger story. This bigger story of God, and Gods’ people, and redemption and Jesus –that always interprets us. We think we’re interpreting it, but ultimately we submit to being interpreted by it. And that’s powerful and freeing.
You are an incredibly gifted preacher and I know you take it very seriously. What’s your process around preaching?
It’s such an honor to be a preacher. A lot of my identity is in being a preacher — more than a writer, more than a speaker. I’m a preacher. But it’s an extremely harrowing experience for me because it’s like my blood is in those sermons. I describe it as a wrestling match between me and the text, and I take my community into that wrestling match with me and I don’t walk away before demanding a blessing for them from that text. And when I walk away, I walk away limping. It’s like that story in the scriptures.
So to be a preacher is costly, because I have to find something in that text that breaks my own heart. I have to confront the thing in that text that I don’t want to look at in myself. It’s really easy to just gloss over and say the obvious thing, but I try to dig deeper and say, “What makes me uncomfortable?” I submit to that process on behalf of my community. And one of them once said, “I really appreciate how you preach to yourself and let us overhear it.” And it doesn’t mean that I’m this beacon of personal faith, like I just believe every single thing so strongly. I often do, but sometimes… Here’s the thing — I can’t preach something I don’t believe, but sometimes what that looks like, rather than me preaching from this rock solid faith of my own, sometimes it looks like preaching something I am daring to not be true. Sometimes that what faith looks like to me as a preacher.
It is a difficult thing for me. It’s never easy. And I always lack confidence. Every week when I look at the text, I think, well, I’ve had a good run and it’s over now. I’m not kidding! I’m convinced that every sermon is crap and that people are going to feel bad for me when they hear this. And then inevitably something happens in the hearing of it…
I want to go back to theology for a minute. You don’t have any problem with the concept of sin. You call yourself a sinner and your church claims that identity as part of their name. But a lot of us progressive Christians still squirm a bit around this word. What’s your take on sin?
I think it’s because in a lot of more conservative expressions of Christianity, they think sin is immorality. So sin means you’re doing something bad, and that you’re bad. And what goes along with that is that, if you can manage to not be immoral, and not commit any sins, then you’re not a sinner. So what a lot of people hear when conservative Christians say “You’re a sinner,” is that they’re immoral. And if I don’t cheat on my wife or I don’t cheat on my taxes, I certainly don’t want to spend Sunday morning having someone imply that I’m a bad person, when I’m not doing these big, huge bad things.
But what that does not address is the sort of brokenness inside every single human being. The thing that will seek for itself rather than for the other. The parts of us that have no thought for God or neighbor. The ways in which, as Martin Luther said, we’re curved in on ourselves. And we have many clever ways of masking being curved in on ourselves. You can be curved in on yourself and spend a lot of time doing charity work while on some level, and maybe only you know about it, and maybe it buried really deep underneath all the smiley faces when you write checks to charity, it’s in there. Sometimes just speaking the truth about it – about how crappy our motivations are, how much we resent people, how selfish we can be –just speaking the truth of that is ten times more liberating than having to maintain the lie of the fact that it’s not there. So to me, it’s just about the reality of human beings, it’s not a judgment. It’s saying, yeah, we’re simultaneously sinner and saint all the time. We live in that paradox, we live in the tension of that. And that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just who we are.
What was the hardest thing about writing Pastrix?
There were several things that were difficult. Writing is a blood sport. I’m not the most confident writer in the world. I took writing workshops and I got help … I wanted to be a better writer and I don’t come by it as naturally as others. So overcoming the vast insecurity of my own writing…. I don’t lack confidence in most of my life, but this one thing, it’s difficult. I don’t think it’s uncommon for writers to feel that way, but mine just feels acute. [laughter]
Also, writing about being sick as a kid was difficult. I didn’t want to do that. That was probably the most vulnerable thing. The other things were not — like admitting the inelegant things about my personality — I could give a shit about that, I do it all the time. That’s not hard for me. But admitting I was a sick kid whose face was fucked up and people were really cruel to me … that’s not something I really felt like sharing publicly.
You started a church that is actually growing, and attracts young people – two rare-ities in a tradition that is losing members in record numbers. What do you think is so attractive about HFASS?
In a way, it would be better to ask that question of the people who go there. That question gets asked of them a lot, especially the people who don’t have a church background and for whom this community is now a central part of their lives. I think what people are attracted to is that there’s not a lot of clericalism there. There’s a democratization of the space and of the way we do liturgy. And the pastor is always speaking to herself first and letting other people overhear it. And I’m just as in need of God’s grace as anyone else and just as heartbroken by the beauty of the Gospel.
And they don’t ever have to get too cynical about me. They’ve heard me apologize when I’m wrong. My authority isn’t threatened or lessened by me admitting I made a mistake. I tell the truth about myself as much as I can. I think they want a place where the truth about themselves and the world and God ultimately can be spoken and held in a really holy space. There’s not a lot of pretending, there’s no bullshit. There’s this enormous capacity to hold suffering and pain, and yet this enormous capacity to experience joy at the same time. People resonate with that for whatever reason. They don’t have to check their story at the door.
What have you discovered over the years about listening for God?
I’ve discovered that I need to be skeptical about whether the answer is really from God or some hidden desire of mine that I want to be the voice of God. I think listening for God often means listening for the thing that you don’t want to hear. The thing you’re trying to avoid. Sometimes I think listening for God means allowing yourself to be loved in a way that’s really uncomfortable, because you don’t feel lovable.
Pastrix is your story, but ultimately, it’s not a story about you. It’s a story about God. What do you hope people take away from this book about God?
I think the story of God and God’s people and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is so much more beautiful, and de-stabilizing, and life-changing, and devastating, and lush than you might have imagined, or been told before.
There are so many things in the world that make me not want to be Christian. And yet, sometimes when you hear these stories of what’s underneath all of the B.S. culturally around “the church,” and you see it and experience it in its actual power and beauty, what else would you want to be part of?
What other work would I even want to do? I can’t believe I get to do this as my job. It’s amazing. You ask me, what’s next? What’s next is hopefully I keep getting to do what I’m doing: pastoring a small church, spending a lot of time with my family, and getting to go out on the road sometimes and share some of my story.
For more from Nadia Bolz-Weber, check out her Patheos blog, Sarcastic Lutheran, here.