Truth-telling

Nadia Bolz-Weber first came to my attention by way of Meg Jenista’s review of her book, Pastrix: the Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint (Christian Courier, October 28, 2013). Since then, her name has been popping up everywhere in the blogosphere. Jenista characterized Bolz-Weber’s writing as “‘spotten’ (irreverence) done right.” Her sassy, savvy theological outlook is not altogether a surprise, coming as it does from a former stand-up comic turned Lutheran minister. Bolz-Weber herself sees no dissonance between these two professions: “Comedy and preaching are about truth-telling.”

Celebrity pastors provoke suspicion in me, going back to the time when, appalled, I stumbled across Robert Tilton’s Success-N-Life television show with its shameless coupling of gospel and money-grab. Trendy hipster pastors revivify my inner skeptic. I expect the worst, internally echoing musician Michael Card’s advice about fame: “Never cease praying that you will not become a star or celebrity. Donald Davidson has said, ‘Our culture places an absolute premium upon various kinds of stardom. This degrades and impoverishes ordinary life, ordinary work, ordinary experience.’”

Martin Luther’s independent scrutiny of Scripture birthed that strongly Reformed trait of taking responsibility for one’s own spiritual judgments – not just the freedom, but the obligation, to do one’s own thinking. Despite my bias against celebrity pastors, lately reinforced by Mark Drisoll’s downfall, I wanted to learn more about Bolz-Weber. I’ll read her book, but in the meantime I watched a podcast in which she was interviewed by Kristen Tippet (onbeing.org).  

Interrupted by God
Bolz-Weber is indeed punked-up, tatted up, sardonic and funny. She relates how grace has repeatedly disrupted her life. As she tells it, she was pastoring a cozy church of “misfits and underside dwellers” when well-dressed bankers suddenly started showing up. She joked to her congregation, “We have to get out of this neighbourhood because it’s attracting the wrong element. Normal people are taking over your church!” Kidding aside, however, she was distressed enough about the notoriety to seek counsel from a colleague. He told her, “You’re really good at welcoming the young transgendered kid, but sometimes the stranger looks like your mom and dad.” And that’s the story she wants to share: “God is always coming to us; there’s nothing we do to come to God. God is continually interrupting our lives, wanting to be known.”

Bolz-Weber speaks candidly about her tattoos, some of which were acquired in her former troubled, addicted life. Others reveal her new life in Christ. The liturgical year forms a sleeve on one arm. She explains, “Tattoos are a way of carrying your story on the outside of your body. This generation has to personalize everything,” and then jests about a long-stemmed rose on her thigh which morphed into a Rorschach test during pregnancy.

Bolz-Weber defines her church as “anti-excellence/pro-participation – where anyone can do anything.” Services are held in the round to democratize the space. “If you walk into a regular church suspicious of authority and a third of the space is devoted to two leaders at the front, you are already turned off.”  Her goal is to lead a church that is “deeply rooted in tradition to innovate with integrity.”

All God’s country
I felt abashed by my initial cynicism, disarmed by Bolz-Weber’s humility: “I’m not idealistic about any kind of human project. I’m completely idealistic about God’s ability to redeem our stuff and our mistakes.” To tell the truth, I learned more myself than about Bolz-Weber – about my tendency to prejudge, to doubt the inclusive and transforming reach of the gospel’s power, to underestimate God’s capacity to use anyone he wants to accomplish his purposes. If the privilege of independent reading and thinking about the Bible is precious to me (flawed ordinary Christian), I’m obliged to extend the same privilege to others (flawed celebrity Christians). Charitably. To smart-mouthed Nadia Bolz-Weber. To Mark Driscoll. Even to Robert Tilton. Cyberspace Christianity is a vast frontier with unholstered duelling opinions at the ready, but it’s all still God’s country.

The apostle Paul was willing to go to any length to share Jesus’s love with his neighbours: “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (I Cor. 9:22). And it was Luther who said, “Now the church is not wood and stone, but the company of people who believe in Christ.” Those who proclaim Christ as Lord are my fellow disciples even if I disagree with them on everything but this: “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
 

  • Cathy Smith, former features editor and columnist for Christian Courier, is a retired Christian schoolteacher who lives in Wyoming, Ont.

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