Nadia Bolz-Weber’s memoir Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint (published 2013) has been getting a lot of buzz over the last few years. It was a New York Times bestseller. On Amazon.com, the book has almost one thousand reviews averaging five stars. These days Bolz-Weber has become one of the leaders of wild-goosey progressive Christianity. The progressives are reading Pastrix for inspiration and the conservatives are reading it for ammunition. Bottom line: everybody who is somebody has read or is reading Pastrix.
And since I like to think that I too am a somebody, I decided I better jump on this bandwagon.
The book was an easy read. We learn about Bolz-Weber’s struggle with the Protestant fundamentalism in which she was raised, her spiral into and journey out of substance abuse, the challenges of seminary and her own Lutheran denomination (the ELCA), and the highs and lows of launching a new church of ragamuffins (House for all Sinners and Saints).
I particularly enjoyed the chapter in which Bolz-Weber came to expand her concept of inclusive community beyond the transgender drug addicts to the suburban businessmen and soccer moms (an influx of which inundated the service after her church attracted some media attention). In short, Bolz-Weber started off as a pastor to the ragamuffins. Then she came to see how we’re all ragamuffins.
While Pastrix is worth reading, I admit that I remained underwhelmed. Perhaps you can chalk up my reaction to the tyranny of high expectations. But it seemed to me that the book’s primary distinguishing feature was not penetrating wisdom and insight, but rather the novelty of a bold, irreverent female progressive pastor who curses … a lot. Here’s an example:
“when I’ve experienced loss and felt so much pain that it feels like nothing else ever existed, the last thing I need is a well-meaning but vapid person saying that when God closes a door he opens a window. It makes me want to ask where exactly that window is so I can push him the fuck out of it.” (83)
Perhaps many readers also want to “push God the fuck out of a window” or maybe they are just intrigued to read a pastor saying it… and not getting hit by lightning. But I guess I’m just more traditional in that I prefer my swears in a Martin Scorsese film.
Okay, that’s not entirely fair. It is probably more correct to say that the real draw of Pastrix is that Bolz-Weber defies categories in general. For example, a blurb from The Washington Post on the back cover describes her as representing “a new, muscular form of liberal Christianity.” That would be noteworthy, but the fact is that Bolz-Weber is not really a liberal. Consider, for example, her smackdown of Unitarianism (45). Granted, Bolz-Weber minimizes the importance of doctrine like many liberals (15), but it seems to me that is owing not to “liberalism” but rather to Lutheranism. In short, like Luther, Bolz-Weber offers a theology of crisis focused not on scholastic details but rather on the sinner justified before God. And that rightly gets people’s attention.
While I can’t say I connected with Pastrix at a deep level, I was sufficiently intrigued that I decided to check out some of Bolz-Weber’s sermons. I particularly appreciated in the book how she described her bond with her loving husband Matthew (married in 1996) and their two beautiful children.
So I decided to give a few of Bolz-Weber’s recent sermons a listen. A few minutes into the first sermon, Bolz-Weber casually recalled a conversation she’d recently had with her non-Christian boyfriend. Non-Christian boyfriend? I paused the recording and went online. Sure enough, Bolz-Weber and her husband Matthew had divorced two years ago. And she was now apparently dating a non-Christian.
I never finished the sermon.