Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. (New York: Jericho Books, 2013).
I was fortunate enough to win a giveaway from Englewood Review of Books, and so I received a copy (2 actually, one I gave to a colleague) of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Pastrix. Bolz-Weber (hereafter simply NBW) is the founding (and current) pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints (HFASS) a Lutheran (ELCA) church in Denver. She is also a former alcoholic stand-up comedian. Pastrix is her memoir of coming from a train wreck of self-destruction into the train wreck of Pastoral ministry. I had placed this one on the “to read” list (an already long and getting longer list!). But because this one was given to me, and I had a brief exchange with Nadia and a few other folks about the book, and all wanted to read my thoughts, I figured I would let Pastrix jump the cuing line (hope you’re happy NBW 😉 . . . )
What it’s about
Well, as I just said, it’s a memoir. This makes for a tough review. How do you critique a book of stories from real life? But here goes… NBW writes a collection of stories from her own experience of feeling constrained and frustrated in an ultra-conservative church in her childhood, and how that drove her away from the church. She experimented with Wicca, and living in various inclusive, unruly, alternative groups. She drank, she did drugs, she slept around, became a self-loathing stand-up comedian with a lot of anger and came out the other end and became a church planter and pastor of a church which reaches out to make room for people “on the margins”- gay, transgender, alcoholics, addicts. She reflects on the “heart transplant” she regularly needs to be truly present in the midst of struggle and pain and mess. She reflects on the motif of dying and being raised as the heart of the Christian message; dying to selfish, self-destructive tendencies, and being raised up as beloved children of God.
One struggle I had, which I’ve heard from a few others (and I’ll get to in more detail further down) is who is the target audience? Is this for those folks on the margins to draw them in? Is this for suburban white folks to help them invest in and see the beauty in the lives of the people on the margins? Is it for the ultra-conservatives to force them to see the beauty of liberal, inclusive Lutheranism? Is it for feminists? For those who hate all things mainstream? Is it simply an exercise to help the author get her mind around what’s going on which happens to now be available to all? Is it just an avenue to share her story? Is it simply part of the trend toward “my narrative”? It becomes unclear at times.
There is no “thesis” really- except maybe that Lutheranism is where it’s at? I did notice one or two critics that got the impression that this book functions more as an apologetic for NBW and HFASS and their ministry. NBW and HFASS are certainly not without their critics. Some folks are uncomfortable with a tattooed, cussing woman pastoring a church of homosexuals, transgendered folks, and other folks with “alternative lifestyles”. And NBW meets the criticism with defiance and what I gather is an intentionally provocative (confrontational?) tone. She swears, she brags about her tattoos, she boasts about having drag queens in her congregation, she speaks of her love of punk rock. It’s like she wears the controversy as a badge of honour (or as an obscene gesture to her detractors?).
There is no way to deny that NBW is a great story teller. Her writing drips with wit, sarcasm, passion, and an artistry which only comes from someone who has experienced gritty, painful, destructive reality. But it also is full of hope, and a keen awareness of beauty in strange places. She depicts the various characters in her life and her own heart in captivating ways. She is able to make the reader love her people as she does. NBW writes in a way that makes it hard not to hear her (and I don’t just mean because much of her writing I imagine would be spoken in a loud, shouting voice, fist in the air). She truly “gets it” when it comes to grace. She knows of the “heart transplant” (an image she uses on a few different occasions, taken from Ezekiel).
Truthfully, I’m fairly certain NBW and I would get along great if we met in person. Even though there’s a lot in Pastrix I wasn’t thrilled about (see below) what comes through loud and clear is that NBW cares about people. She gets the whole “love your neighbour” command (probably better than a lot of the folks on the other side of the divide). She gets joy. She gets authenticity. She gets the power of grace, and the calling of Jesus to stop being so self-centred and let forgiveness and love increase. She gets the calling to die to self, and be raised anew (although, we’d probably have some fun debates about some of the implications of that).
The profanity which may bother some readers didn’t bother me. Occasionally it seemed to be little more than shock value to stuffy, conservative folks (not necessarily a bad thing). I appreciated the style which might aggravate a vast quantity of people. Perhaps this says a lot more about the potential audiences than about the book itself. There are all sorts of opinions on books like this. Many are offended, others excited by the “edginess”. But for me, I read it and just think, yeah… and? That’s it. Maybe my own experience has desensitized me to certain things, rendering me difficult to shock, but NBWs world doesn’t seem so crazy to me. Maybe it’s because I’m not from the Bible-belt (the closest thing I have to an experience of it is a two hour lay-over at the Atlanta airport) and didn’t have much in the way of exposure to church. Maybe it’s because the first church I got into was a great community which cared for messy people. The experience of ultra-conservative evangelicalism and fundamentalism is foreign to me. What others see in Pastrix as outrageous and edgy is “normal” for me. My current ministry is closer to the dockers and mini-van experience of suburban white American life that I’ve had for most of my life (not that it’s actually all that close to that either). Maybe it’s because of my own outrageous story that NBW doesn’t seem outrageous at all. Tattoos, swearing, hymns & beer, having gay friends, etc. is for many something not at all congruent with the life of a clergy person, but for me it’s just normal. Which is weird and encouraging at the same time. A book that is supposed to be outrageous and over the top is par for the course for me. Am I abnormal then? Probably. But that’s encouraging to me to know that raggedy clergy, with shady pasts and weird stories can be effective conduits for the grace of the gospel. Which is why, in my opinion the absolute best chapter of the book (chapt. 17), by far, is her reflection on the sudden arrival of suburban, white professionals at HFASS, and her outrage that she had created a beautiful alternative community and these soccer moms were going to mess it all up. She then has another “heart transplant” moment in which she realizes that HFASS was founded on the assumption that all people are welcomed by Christ, and to push out the soccer moms and white collar corporate folks would mean being an exclusive community- the very thing HFASS is supposed to hate. This powerful moment of coming to terms with truly inclusive nature of Christ’s call to the church is a potent message- that drag-queens, former alcoholic stand ups, con artists and soccer moms and docker wearing management folks can die to self and be made new, and become a community of the graced children of God is ultimately the high point of Pastrix and ought to be central to all church ministry.
As I noted above, one of the hardest struggles is “what am I supposed to get here?” What is the “agenda” (hate that word because of all the negative baggage attached to it, but not sure what else to use)? I generally read books that make an argument. They lay out a proposal and then bring out evidence to support their proposal. I don’t get a sense that NBW is clear about what she wants her reader to hear, except maybe a cool, funny story. There are conflicting moments when it seems like she’s going in a specific direction, but then the chapter ends, and the next chapter is doing something very different. Chapter 17 is great, but that current doesn’t always run strongly. This makes for difficult reading and reviewing. Can I say she was successful here? I don’t know if I can make that assessment, because I’m not sure what the goal is. If the goal was to present her stories in an entertaining way, then yes, she was successful. But if she wants us to be convinced of viewpoint or methodology, or to change our thinking about a theological issue or ministry approach, then no, not really. I don’t come away feeling like my theological horizon is broader or stronger. I come away feeling like NBW is pretty cool, and I’d love to hang out with her and debate some stuff.
In terms of theological content, NBW stays at a fairly basic level, not venturing to deep into exegesis (perhaps because her target audience is people without theological training?). She only occasionally gets into some scripture, as she reflects on writing hard sermons. Some of her conclusions work. Some, I think, don’t. But I would hardly fall into the theological categories she does.
I like to mark up my books. I have my own system for margin notes and underlining and what not. My copy’s margins contain a lot of “?” and “not really” “not always” or “generalizing” (FYI, “X” and “!” or “Awesome” is what I put when something good and stand out appears- and I got a handful of those in Pastrix). Although there isn’t room to get into all the specific examples of this, I should back up this statement with at least some examples of what I mean.
Example 1: NBW refers to Luther’s well known tortured soul experiences, in which he apparently shouted at demons that “I am baptized”. NBW takes things a step beyond what Luther (and I believe also Scripture) can’t go. She writes:
…the thing I love about baptism is that it is about God’s action upon us and not our decision to “choose” God, I believe that the promises spoken over us in baptism are promises that are for all humanity. Every person, regardless of religion, is named and claimed- baptized- by the God who created her. (p. 141)
Now, I can’t rightfully criticize a Lutheran for not sharing my baptist convictions about baptism. But what we have here is clearing beyond the pale of what we can glean from Scripture. Even most paedobaptist arguments don’t go where NBW has gone. To suggest that in baptism (infant or otherwise) that the words of the clergy spoken over a person magically mean the baptized is God’s is problematic, perhaps even bordering on superstition. Baptism (so goes the baptist argument) symbolizes that the person baptized has become joined to Christ’s death and resurrection, and has repented, and proclaimed a desire to follow. In other words, faith of the one being baptized is an essential component here. This sort of universalism being proposed, is not supported (in my opinion) by Scripture. I get what she’s trying to say, I think, but I just can’t get there.
Example 2: Repentance; our favourite topic in evangelical circles. NBW speaks of her friend Rick, a con artist who began attending HFASS. She describes the repentance people like Rick (and herself) need is not the fiery turn or burn of the fundy preacher (I agree there), but is “thinking differently afterward” (not how I would put it, but I guess that would fall under the scope of the Greek metanoia. But she says that repentance in this sense would include a prostitute saying “OK, I’m a sex worker and I don’t know how to change that, but I can come here and receive bread and wine and I can hold onto the love of God without being deemed worthy of it by anyone but God” and that if Rick comes to the table and sees that he is beloved, “that’s his repentance”.(193). Not really. While I would certainly agree that the love of God is offered without behavioural conditions, and yes, the sex worker absolutely has a place at the table. But what I have trouble with here is the lack of a call to die to self (odd given that she emphasizes it so often) and follow. Jesus says “neither do I condemn you” and “your sins are forgiven”, but he also calls us to follow, to live out his example. Dying to self is the hardest thing imaginable, but Jesus’ love and grace calls us into that daily.
Example 3: Jesus was big on discipleship. He said that his disciples are to make disciples. What does it mean to be a disciple? Well, NBW says this: “Singing in the midst of evil is what it means to be disciples.” Not really. In this instance, NBW is reflecting her patroness, Mary Magdalene. She says that for a particular sermon (and for others too) she “borrowed her voice”. I’m not 100% sure what that means. But she goes on to speak of crying out when violence and evil happen and sing to God. Ok, yes. I’m with you. But to then equate that act of hope in defiance of grief with the meaning of discipleship does a disservice. Yes, we ought to sing to God in the midst of pain and grief. But being a disciple is not summed up in that act defiance. Being a disciple (from the Greek for student or apprentice or learner) is summed up not in singing but in hearing and receiving.
Ok, that’s enough nitpicking on theological terms.
The other problem is what I noted earlier: who is this for? I have this nagging question as I read: is this whole book meant to basically convince herself of her own calling and validate her story and ministry? I can’t quite get past this sense that she’s trying to define and legitimate herself. The number of times the phrase “I’m a Lutheran pastor” shows up is a tad frustrating. What is the significance of constantly leaning on that term? And why so regularly specify that it’s of the Lutheran persuasion? It stood out to me and I can’t even properly explain why I even noticed it. But something about it stuck in my brain. Every time those two words showed up I was like there was a big neon sign pointing them out.
Pastrix: Look at me, I’m a pastor. Yeah, I’ve got tattoos and I swear, and I’m a woman and I’m a Lutheran Pastor.
Me: yeah… and?
Pastrix: Isn’t that outrageous and shocking?
Me: uh… no. It’s cool. But not shocking.
Maybe it was totally unintentional on her part, and maybe it’s my own absurd reading that notices it. Maybe it means something to her that I can’t get my head around. I don’t know. But who does she need to recognize her as such? Herself? Her denomination? The North American Church? Maybe it’s meant to be provocative- I’m a cussing, tattooed, woman pastor, deal with it!… but again, I’m not shocked. Maybe it’s just my own context again. My own views make her position and identity completely fine, and in no way offensive or even unusual.
It’s not as revolutionary as some might like to see it. It’s good story telling. It’s entertaining. It would (and has) appealed to many, but clearly not to all. If you want some witty, funny, huggy, roller-coastery stories, sure, this a good book for you. Conservative folks might get upset. Liberal folks will rally behind her and shower her with praise. I’m kind of in the middle (like a good Canadian!). I don’t see anything that offends or shocks me. I like her writing style. I love her heart for offering grace and love to folks other churches won’t touch. I applaud her good work. But I’m left feeling like I didn’t get much to push me. I’m sure her intent is not to push intellectually (like most books I read), but to push emotionally and to encourage a greater level of compassion, grace, and seeing the gospel which brings death and resurrection and newness. But I don’t know if it got me where she may have wanted me to go- and that’s ok. Books don’t impact all people the same way (duh?). I’m glad this one is getting traction. I’m glad NBW is reaching people. I’m glad HFASS exists.
But did this book rock my world? Not really.
**Update: it’s been pointed out to me by Ben Howard (@BenHoward97) that for many this book resonates with a lot more clarity. Ben comes from the same tradition as NBW, and so identifies with her in a very real way. His theory is that this book is intended for the disenfranchised folks, who are at odds with the church of their upbringing- the I like Jesus but not the church crowd- and so NBW speaks of a better way. A church which succeeds where their tradition let them down by marginalizing or outright condemning where HFASS will welcome. What say you?