Nadia Bolz-Weber’s autobiography begins with a four-letter word, and that’s only the start of the vulgarities sprinkled throughout the book by this reluctant convert turned clergywoman. Clearly, she’s not your typical Sunday morning preacher.
Her rocky past fits the genre of Christian conversion books. Raised in a Church of Christ congregation in Colorado, Bolz-Weber rebelled as a teenager against the church’s strict teachings, which for her meant “not drinking, obviously, not being snarky and sarcastic, not having sex outside marriage, not smoking, not dancing, not swearing, not dating people outside the church.” Bolz-Weber was into all of that.
As an adult, she shared an apartment with four others of a similar mind and was living “free from the constraints of convention and being parented.” Working as a standup comic, she sank deeper into a life of boozing, drug highs and one-night stands. But her live-in companions who she thought were her support didn’t fill an emptiness in her life. “We had started out caring about each other, but in the end none of us knew how to care for each other.”
In search of a sense of community, she sampled a mix of beliefs and lifestyles – Wiccans, Quakers and Unitarians – but always felt like a spectator. Bolz-Weber finally decided to face her addictions. In a smoke-filled parish hall, she met with other addicts seeking sobriety. They talked about “God and anger, resentment and forgiveness – all punctuated with profanity.”
A date with a guy named Matthew whom she met at a pickup game of volleyball led to a surprising revelation. He was a Lutheran seminary student yet had the same passion for community and caring for those in need as she did. Reluctantly she went with him to a Lutheran church. What grabbed her spiritual attention was the liturgy of worship – “choreographed sacredness,” she called it. “It felt like a gift that had been caretaken by generations of the faithful and handed to us to live out and caretake and hand off.”
The key for her conversion – and the focus of her faith – was grace. A class taught by a pastor introduced the term in a way that resonated with her. “I hadn’t learned about grace from the church,” she said of her past. “But I did learn about it from sober drunks who managed to stop drinking by giving their will over to the care of God and who then tried like hell to live a life according to spiritual principles.” The Lutheran church, which stressed the centrality of grace rather than a set of rules to follow, became her spiritual home.
In time, when she was presented with the idea that she could find her sense of purpose as a member of the clergy, she hesitated. “I’m a lousy candidate. I swear like a truck driver, I’m covered with tattoos, and I’m kind of selfish. Nothing about me says ‘Lutheran pastor.’” But her love of Lutheran theology and desire to share it with others pushed her toward ministry. She decided it was her calling.
Bolz-Weber’s journey of sobriety – marriage to Matthew, the birth of two children, college and then seminary – landed her in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a liberal-leaning denomination. (Full disclosure: I belong to a local Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation.) In 2008, Bolz-Weber organized an urban congregation in Denver and called it House for All Sinners and Saints (HFASS). Her straight-talking, profanity-laden style of speaking connected with a subset of society that middle-class congregations rarely relate to. Gays, lesbians, transsexuals and bisexuals were welcomed at her church.
Even the title she gave herself, pastrix, had a thumb-your-nose aspect to it. She defines it as a term used to describe female pastors by “unimaginative sections of the church.” She also likes an additional definition that connects with those whom she serves: “Cranky, beautiful faith of Sinner & Saint.” In many respects, the title reflects the ongoing struggle she has with her uninhibited self and the commitment to love the unlovable – yes, even those in the burbs.
Her story doesn’t end with church-growth success – standing-room-only crowds at HFASS – or an easy life of faith for herself. Bolz-Weber recounts the struggles of her small congregation, the media attention she attracted because of her unconventional manner and speech, and the ongoing personal battles with anger, impatience and downright crankiness. But as she tells it, she remains faithful to what she understands the grace of God to be in her life and in those who struggle, too.
Her book will unsettle the more enculturated Christian but will resonate with many turned off by institutional religion or by a narrow understanding of the Christian faith. As Bolz-Weber might put it: Read it at your own risk, (fill in the expletive blank).