For All the Sinners and Saints: An Interview with Nadia Bolz-Weber

By Jesse James DeConto | July 28, 2015

(Getty/Craig F. Walker)

(Getty/Craig F. Walker)

The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber is one of the leading voices in progressive Christianity. In 2008, as a Lutheran seminarian at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, she planted a new church called House for All Sinners and Saints. Since then, she has preached to nearly 10,000 people at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, and lectured to tens of thousands more around the United States and overseas. But her congregation has committed to remaining no larger than 200, going so far as to issue a statement asking tourists to stay away as they try to maintain their close-knit community with a celebrity pastor.

A recovering alcoholic and former stand-up comic, covered in tattoos with a cussing cadence, Bolz-Weber has become a sought-after speaker in mainline Christian circles for her crass honesty. She is author of The New York Times-bestselling memoir Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. Her latest book is Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, due out September 8.

I met up with her at the January Adventure in Emerging Christianity, held this winter at Epworth-by-the-Sea, a United Methodist conference center in St. Simons Island, Georgia. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

R&P: In Pastrix, you write that Christianity has been wildly misrepresented in American society. What do you mean?

NB: When you have images on right-wing postcards of Jesus holding an AK-47, for instance. It’s just not borne out in the text, as I read it. I don’t understand how in mainstream, middle-class America, Christianity became about pretending you had your shit together, and putting on nice clothes for an hour every week, and keeping a smile on your face. It started with rank fishermen, and prostitutes, and tax collectors, and people who were eating with their unwashed hands, and somehow it became that. What the hell happened?

Think about the Christmas story. How did it go from what it was originally—a story of political tyranny, alienation and working-class people, with Herod, an insecure troglodyte who puts a hit out on a toddler, and the Magi, these weird pagans, to what it is today? This snow-covered, sugar-cookie, Norman-Rockwell delusion? I don’t know how we got from A to B. I really don’t know.

At the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, John the Baptist prepared the way for the Lord, and he appeared in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and all of Jerusalem and Judea came to be baptized, confessing their sins, right? Um, probably not all, because the people who didn’t think they had any, who thought they were just nailing it, the people who can just dress up and keep the smiles on their faces, and show everyone they have their shit together, they’re not running to the rivers of Jordan. They’re not the ones going, “Oh, repentance for the forgiveness of sins? Sign me up.” The unclean—those are the people who’ve always run to the shores, man. And somehow everything flipped, and it became about pretending to be the people who stayed in the city because they’re fine.

R&P: Do you think the Church still has any credibility?

NB: I think a post-Constantinian Christianity is maybe the best thing that ever happened to Christianity. Now that we’re not aligned with empire and not maintaining our status in society and our power and our influence anymore, now we can get back to being people who love mercy and seek justice and walk humbly.

[Franciscan priest and spiritual writer] Richard Rohr said this: The people who’ve really, really received true grace, which means you don’t deserve it, which means some kind of gift came your way, like Mary Magdalene, you have some sort of deliverance, or some sort of joy or good news that came to you from somewhere else. Only the people who have received true grace, they are the people who are never any longer in a position to decide who the deserving poor are. You can have a compassion towards others because of the way in which you understand yourself and what you’ve received in the world. I think that’s something that can change our towns or our families—more people like that. That I’m on board for.

But extending influence and power in the corridors of government? I’m just too suspicious of human beings to think that our projects are going to be anything but self-serving. I’m not idealistic about human projects or our ideas, but I really am idealistic about God’s redemptive work in the world. I mean, I’ve just seen it over and over, and I’ve seen it despite myself and my own heart and my own life. That I believe in. We do the best we can as humans with our projects, but if that’s the thing we’re banking on or we have idealism about, we’re always going to be disappointed. Something ugly will always rear its head. The great news is that sometimes God does redemptive things through our projects and our institutions and ourselves despite us. I just kind of always look for that.

R&P: Your friend, the religion writer and editor Phyllis Tickle, talks of “The Great Emergence,” saying the Church is in a period of grand upheaval that seems to happen every 500 years—the early medieval monks rejecting imperial power, the Great Schism between Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy, the Protestant Reformation and now this postmodern turn. How do you see yourself and your church fitting into this emergence?

NB: That’s why Phyllis and I do so much speaking together. She does these big, huge swaths of history and cultural theory, and then I get up and read a personal essay that demonstrates what she’s saying, in a way, without it meaning to. What Phyllis consistently says is, “What is the locus of authority? That is the issue of postmodernity. That is the thing we are struggling with.”

When the Leelah Alcorn suicide happened, with so many trans people in our community, I went to them and said, “What do we do?” And so, they organized and got one of our members, Asher, to write a prayer, they put up a shrine, and we read it. And so it was the trans people who read the prayers of the people that day, and I said to them, “Do you want me as the clergyperson to read the prayer that Asher wrote, or do you think it’s more important to have another trans person read it?” And they talked to each other, and they said, “We want our clergyperson to read the prayer.” There’s a lot of permission-giving in our community.

Boy, that’s a different model of leadership and authority than we’ve seen in the church in a long time, maybe ever. They trust me, and these are people who are pretty suspicious of institutions and definitely suspicious of presumed authority, and I somehow have authority to them, and I think it’s because I’m consistently letting go of it, asking for other voices, and unafraid to share leadership. I don’t always get that right. Sometimes I hold on too tightly when I should be letting go. And sometimes I let go when I should be holding on more tightly. So I don’t get it right all the time, but they know that there’s no curtain that they have to peek behind. Consistently, when we’ve looked behind the curtain, we’ve always found scared little men and women, and we’ve never found the Wizard of Oz like we thought we would.     

House for All Sinners and Saints is filled with people who have issues with authority and who are cynical, and yet I’m their pastor. They allow me to be their pastor. But they confer that title. They allow me to hold that office for them. On behalf of the whole community, I’m sort of set apart to have a particular office within the community, and they continually allow me to have that authority. It has nothing to do with my collar or my education or my ordination. It’s that I’m consistently the same person in every situation they encounter me in. They never feel like they have to look behind the curtain. And when I’m full of shit or I’ve made a mistake, I just say it. I spend zero energy defending or protecting my own authority. You know what that allows for? People to actually trust me. They know that I’m fallible, but that I’m transparent enough about it that they don’t have to worry about it. It’s not going to sneak up on them.

R&P: What about the so-called “Nones,” the non-affiliated, the spiritual-but-not-religious? Aren’t they part of this trend away from authority? How can you commend organized religion to people who say they find God on their own, maybe in nature or somewhere else?

NB: A lot of them end up at my church. I think a sacramental life—it’s Christianity. It’s not spiritual, it’s physical. You can’t even get started without a loaf of bread and a jug of wine and a river. There is this incredible physicality to what we believe. This is spirituality in the dirt. We have a God who slipped into the vulnerability of human skin, and walked among us, and was born amongst straw and animals, and walked the earth, and ate with his friends, and spat in the dirt, and used mud and his own spit to heal people. This is not an ethereal, transcendent, otherworldly, escape-this-earth kind of god. Even after his resurrection, he was disturbingly physical about all of it. He was grilling fish on the beach and having people touch his actual wounds.

This is why I am not a fan of the liberalism in Christianity. I actually believe in the physical, actual resurrection of Jesus. You can’t have a Gospel that’s that disturbingly physical the entire time, and then at the end, it’s just an idea. It’s just a memory. I think the actual wounded body of the resurrected Christ is of great importance to humanity, given the fact that we walk around with bodies that are also wounded in the same way. I think that that says something important to us.

Take St. Peter. He couldn’t have been filled with anything but shame, not being the man that he wanted to be, having denied Jesus three times around a charcoal fire. And then after the resurrection, he’s fishing, and he sees Jesus on the beach, and what is he doing? He’s grilling fish on a charcoal fire, you know, this sort of olfactory-triggered memory of shame. It’s not like Jesus mentions it. He just gives him three opportunities to say he loves him, one for each denial. And the physicality of that is important. That’s not an idea or a memory or a feeling. So I think that if people sense God in nature, then a sacramental life is definitely for them.

R&P: You’ve written about the Virgin Mary’s physicality. Why is that important?

NB: I don’t really like those doctrines that are written as though the reason she found favor with God is that she wasn’t normal. Because we know, “Women are really fleshy temptresses, and she was so not like that, that’s why God favored her.” I think there’s a kind of misogyny within that kind of stuff.

I think that she is worthy of devotion. I always have her on me in some way [Bolz-Weber indicates her big Western belt buckle with a Marian icon framed by a Holy Dove]. Mary’s very important to me. Her fierceness came from ignoring every other message about her identity and actually believing that God favored her. That’s a powerful thing for a sort of marginalized Jew in an occupied land, who was young and pregnant out of wedlock, to believe of all things that God favored her. She’s got some chops.

There was one human being in history who bore God in her body, who is the theotokos as the Orthodox say, the godbearer. That’s an extraordinary thing, and it’s a sort of mystery to meditate on. What does that mean that God would choose to make God’s home in a woman’s body? That’s so beautiful, especially given the horrific messages we constantly get about women’s bodies.

I think that if God deemed to sanctify something, to make holy something through God’s presence, that that says something about all human bodies, all of them. There’s a history in religion of saying, “Well, when the deity shows up somewhere, if there’s an appearance, or there’s a theophany of some sort, that that place is holy, that there’s something sacred about that place that has to be honored.” Well then, why is that not constantly being spoken of in terms of the human body, then, in Christianity? How did we become a disembodied faith? “Hate the body!” “Discipline the body!” “This is where all the sin is coming from!” So one of the reasons that I have images of her everywhere is that reminder.

R&P: What would be an embodied faith?

NB: Well, for example, at House for All Sinners and Saints, we sit in the round, so we’re seeing each other—not just the backs of each other’s heads, but there’s this physical sort of accountability of presence with each other in the way we do the liturgy. You’re singing, you’re sitting, you’re standing, you’re walking, you’re putting your hands out, you’re receiving bread and wine, you’re eating it, you’re taking it into your body, and then your body is leaving into the world. When that type of worship is done well, it has a profound physicality to it.

R&P: You’re imbuing everyday things with a sense of the sacred.

NB: Our bodies are fearfully and wonderfully made. When God created the heavens and the earth, God said it was good, not perfect, but good. And yet we judge everything as to whether it’s perfect or not in a way that God never really has. So you know I think that there’s something to be said about how we relate to our own bodies. Are we judging them according to some value of perfection that we never had any business buying into to begin with?

R&P: You sing without instruments? It’s all a cappella?

NB: And it’s glorious. It’s like sitting in the middle of a 200-person choir. They all sing in four-part harmony. It’s this huge sound that fills the entire space. It’s transcendent. We only sing old, early American hymns, so nothing contemporary. These older hymns were meant to be sung and not performed. And so the way the harmonies are and the way the rhythms are make them very singable for people. Whereas a lot of modern praise music, if you don’t know how it goes, there’s not this sort of logical pattern. Same with really contemporary hymns—they change meter, they change key, and it’s like they’re overly fond of themselves as pieces of music. If you have musicians and they’re playing it, that’s nice and I can kind of sing along with it. But you don’t have any chance of singing along as just a group of people. It doesn’t have that kind of same cadence to it, that simplicity to it.

R&P: What else are people looking for when they come to your church?

NB: A place where they don’t have to culturally commute in order to show up. Culture has to do with aesthetics, it has to do with humor, it has to do with pop culture references, it has to do with so many things, and there’s a commute that postmodern people have to make if they’re going to show up to a mainline church because culturally it’s so different, it’s just so different, and you just feel uncomfortable when you’re in a context that so culturally different from what you’re native to. And I don’t know that the church realizes that there’s that crevasse culturally between who they are and who young folks are. It’s massive. So there’s no sort of outreach strategy that’s going to bridge that.

R&P: How do you talk to your congregation about sin when you know some of them have been beaten up by that language?

NB: When I talk about sin, and I do, I do preach about it, I try to be particular. I try to pull it into the dirt of our own lives. I’ll talk about how prideful we are about our social convictions, or I’ll talk about how much self-loathing we actually do have and don’t want to talk about. It’s always in the particulars of my parishioners’ lives and in the particulars of my own heart.

So, for instance, when the guy was acquitted for murdering Trayvon Martin, I wrote a very confessional piece that talked about my own internalized racism and how I live in a black neighborhood but yet admitting that when a group of young black men pass me on the street, I brace myself in a different way than if they were white, and I hate that. Forty-five years of every message in society saying that I’m superior by accident of birth doesn’t go away with my university education and my “Eracism” bumper sticker.

So the purpose of me saying these things that are always confessional, is to open the space where other people can step into the truth for themselves. So if I say something confessional, and their response is to consider how that might be true about themselves, I’ve done my job. If their response is to have a reaction about me, “Oh, my god, my pastor’s a racist. I can’t come here anymore,” I’ve failed. So there’s a way in which, it’s like, “Okay, screw it, I’ll go first.” I’ll be the one to say how this is a problem for me or how I’m challenged by doing this well, or whatever, as an invitation.

The first time I lectured at the national Festival of Homiletics, I emailed my congregation as asked, “What do you guys want me to say about preaching?” So it’s important to me that their voices are in the room when I’m speaking about them. And consistently they said, “Well, we love having a preacher who’s clearly preaching to herself and allowing us to overhear it.”

R&P: A doctrine of something like “sin” might be obvious when you look at the state of the world. But how about another Christian belief like the Resurrection? You think it’s true, historically, like you and me sitting here?

NB: I think it’s true as a metaphor, and I think it’s true as an actual event. I don’t think that that’s the litmus test for if you are Christian. I really don’t care what my parishioners believe. I care what they hear, and they hear a very deeply rooted, very orthodox perspective from the pulpit and in the liturgy. What they believe just has to do with a lot of things I have nothing to do with. I think that sort of separates me from a lot of other clergy who feel like it’s their responsibility to convince other people. I’m not an apologist. I’m not a Christian apologist. All I ever do is confess my faith.

Take Thomas. I think it’s very unfair that we call him Doubting Thomas. I think he was just a tactile learner. When Thomas said, “I won’t believe until I stick my fingers in the wounds,” that wasn’t a lack of faith. That was just somebody saying, “The things around me have to bear witness to the truth that I believe.” When he stuck his fingers in the wounds of the Resurrected Christ, and said, “My Lord, and My God,” that’s a confession of faith. He wasn’t trying to prove something. He wasn’t making a case for something. It was just confession. So I feel like I just end up confessing my faith a lot and letting it sit there. What it does, it does. I’m not responsible for that. That’s the weird thing about me. I’m this really orthodox Lutheran theologian. I’m not this liberal that’s just quoting Thich Nhat Hanh in her sermons and saying every religion’s the same, and yet I’m very socially progressive.

R&P: Would you consider yourself a universalist? Does everyone get saved in the end?

NB: I confess that I am a Christo-centric universalist. What that means to me is that, whatever God was accomplishing, especially on the cross, that Christological event, was for the restoration and redemption and reconciliation of all things and all people and all Creation – everyone. Whatever God was getting done there, that is for everyone. How God manages to play that out through other religions, other symbol systems, I will never understand. I have to allow for the idea that God is actually nimble enough and powerful enough and creative enough to do that.

Now, that will never be my truth. I couldn’t be Buddhist to save my life, man. God didn’t come and get me through any other symbol system but this one. This is my truth, and this is where I sort of stake my claim and my life, and whatever God was up to at the cross, it has to be accomplished through means I’ll never understand. How could it be limited to what I understand? That’s so arrogant. 

R&P: In Pastrix, you wrote about worshiping with Wiccans in your twenties and how it opened your eyes to the Divine Feminine. Where do you see that in Christianity?

NB: It’s definitely in Scripture. I mean, there you see God being described as Lady Wisdom, the sort-of Mothering Hen, you know, there are all these different female images for God. And, certainly, the “Spirit” being a feminine word in Hebrew. I really love that it says in Genesis that God created humanity—and actually, when it says God created man, the Hebrew could be interpreted, as saying “earthling”—but then it says God created them in his image, male and female. And to me that doesn’t mean some were created men and some were created women as much as it means the image of God is both male and female. It doesn’t say “or.” I think that’s really beautiful.

And I think also what we’re seeing with these younger generations of queer folks, they’re really sort of playing—there’s a lot of this fluidity of identity, and I find that there’s a spirituality to that. We really want to be dualistic about the way that we see things and ourselves, and I don’t think that God is as oriented to that as we are. So I think when things are queer, meaning when something doesn’t fit, I think it’s something to really pay attention to in the way it might reveal God to us.

This is what we see at the end of Job. Throughout Job there’s basically what we call theodicy: If God’s all good, why are we suffering? And Job’s friends end up going, “Well, either you did something wrong, you know, you’re bad and God’s good, and that’s why you’re being punished, or you’re good and God’s bad, and that’s why.” You know, there are just really simple categories. It’s either black, or it’s white. And then at the end, God speaks up and is a little snarky, and is like, “Where were you when I created the foundations of the earth?” So God finally speaks up, and God goes through and lists these animals that are glorious to God: Every single one of them defies category, like ostrich, a bird that can’t fly. So it’s almost like saying, “My wisdom is not your wisdom.” We like black and white, dualistic categories, and we love nothing more than to project those onto God. But yet, I think that we see a queerness at the end of Job, God saying, “I love these things, and they’re glorious, and they don’t fit your categories.”

We’ve been struggling with this sort of dualistic thinking since the very beginning. You know what’s really weird? To be human and God. It kind of has to be either-or, right? No, it’s queer. It’s like being sinner and saint. Like Martin Luther said, imul justus et peccator. We’re 100 percent of both all the time.

R&P: Do you think the future of the Church involves synthesis with other faiths?

NB: Syncretism has always been part of Christianity. There’s a reason why the Virgin of Guadalupe is huge in Mexico, and it has to do with the goddess religion that existed before that. I don’t think it’s something to fear. I think it’s the way that Christianity has survived. It lends itself in a sense towards it. And that’s why it can exist in so many different places in so many different forms.

R&P: Did Wicca teach you anything else that you brought back to your Christian faith?

NB: It was what I wanted out of a spiritual community. There really was an intimacy. It was a very small group of women, and we met every six weeks or so, and we did share our lives. We would be honest with each other about what was going on, and then do that in the context of trying to hold a sort of sacred space for each other. I wasn’t going to go back after that. I wasn’t going to go back to some sort of formal worship service where nothing really feels like it’s at stake or any sort of truth about people’s lives is being spoken out loud. I think that had an impact. We could be really creative. We didn’t have some set thing that we had to follow, so we could be really creative with how we addressed these things with our lives in the world, and I think that transferred over to my parish.

R&P: Paying more attention to the Divine Feminine, how do you deal with biblical and traditional sources of misogyny?

NB: This is where it’s very convenient to be a Lutheran, because Lutherans very admittedly have a canon within the canon. So not all Scripture is the same to us. The Gospel of Jesus, the good news of who Jesus is, whether those texts are found in the Old Testament or the New, is at the very center of our understanding of why the Bible even exists. The Bible is the cradle that holds Christ. The cradle’s not Christ. If you understand that that is the importance of the Bible, then suddenly Scripture is read in concentric circles around what it is at it’s center.

Sometimes you read Paul, and it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever read. I actually can feel it in my body. I’ll read something gorgeous from Paul, and just be like, “That’s breathtaking. That is the word of God. That is the word of God. There’s something eternal about what he’s saying.” And then other times you read Paul and you’re like, “Good lord, what is that?”

Women have to find scraps where they can find them. That’s what we’re doing. The texts were not written by us. We have to discern the echoes of the women who were there and the female divine that was there that didn’t ever get to have a pen in their hand. Anyone looking for that, of course it’s scraps, but they’re ones we’re going to claim as our own, because we weren’t the writers and editors.

R&P: How can you be a feminist and a Christian, if all you get is scraps?

NB: It won’t let me go. It’s not like, you know, out of all the options available, to me I am going to choose one where I’ve historically been oppressed and not represented in the sacred text. That’s not the process. It’s not a choice.

I’ve gotten some criticism from feminists because I don’t use a lot of feminist language or analysis, or I don’t call stuff out enough, or use my platform to do XYZ. I have my platform because I’m a preacher and a public theologian, not somebody who calls people out. What do you want from me? I feel like being a powerful woman and figure in a historically male-dominated field: Is that not enough? To me, me being me should be enough. But I can either be that person, or I can spend all my energy thinking of a feminist analysis of things and calling people out. I don’t feel like I can do both, and I feel like one is more important for me to take on than the other. I feel like just being me in the world, that is a feminist act, even if I am not referring back to feminist language and scholars all the time.

R&P: As a hospital chaplain, you once tried to pray with a grieving woman who turned out to be an atheist, and you told her, “Man, I wish I could pull that off.” What did you mean?

NB: Flannery O’Connor said, “Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.” Man, if I could be something cooler than a Christian, I would so do that in a heartbeat. Sign me up. I can’t. I can’t. I cannot do it. There is this thing that I am so compelled by, it won’t leave me alone. It doesn’t really feel like a choice. It’s just formed how I am and how I see the world and myself. I can’t shake it. Especially the Jesus thing. It’s unnerving how much I can’t shake that. It’s not like a comfortable thing.

R&P: People love to implicate Mary Magdalene in one sex scandal or another. You’ve got her tattooed on your right forearm. What do you think is important about her?

NB: She was a powerful woman who had a lot of money. She helped pay for Jesus’ ministry. The text tells us that. This was not an inconsequential sort of figure. She helped fund it. She’s bankrolling it. Nobody ever talks about that.

On a personal level, it’s the fact that she was delivered from so much by Jesus. She wasn’t a prostitute. That’s a bad reading of the text. She wasn’t a prostitute. But according to Luke, she was a demoniac. She had, you know, seven demons cast from her. So she was delivered from this self-abuse, some torment that she was delivered from. She spent her life as an act of gratitude for that. “I can’t not follow this Jesus.”

She was so incredibly faithful. All the guys who have books named after them and who are these big figures and who all the stories are about, they f**king abandon him, and Mary didn’t. She was there. She was there when the media left. How distraught she was at the empty tomb and not knowing where they laid him. She mistakes him for the gardener. (If her friends are anything like mine, they did not let her live that down). I love that she didn’t recognize him until he spoke her name – you know, it’s so personal and beautiful. Especially in a text where we don’t get the names of a lot of women.

She was the one chosen to go and tell. She was the apostle to the apostles. She was the one who was chosen to be the witness to the resurrection and to tell everyone else. If she had done her job, we wouldn’t have a religion – if she had not been faithful. But I think that she didn’t have a choice. She didn’t say, “Out of all the teachers that I have available right now, I like this one. Every morning I’ll wake up and decide.” No, man. She was compelled. I don’t think it was a matter of choice to her. I think she had that sort of deliverance, and she went, “How can I keep from singing?”

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