In progressive Protestant Christianity, there are few voices more recognizable or popular than Nadia Bolz-Weber’s. She is the founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, a Lutheran congregation in Denver, and author of Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, a New York Times-bestselling memoir. Her most recent book is Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. She recently spoke with Commonweal editorial assistant Maria Bowler about unsaintly saints, Lutheran theology, and purity codes.
Maria Bowler: What do you mean when you say “saint”?
Nadia Bolz-Weber: I don’t think what we celebrate in the saints is a particular human being’s particular capacity to be saintly. I think we celebrate God’s ability to do beautiful redeeming things through very flawed people, because that’s all God ever has to work with. It’s incredible when God gets something beautiful done through a person. Wow. That’s a miracle every time, because we’re naturally very selfish. What is being celebrated should always be God and God’s work, and not someone’s capacity to be a better person than me. So, for instance, I don’t have any heroes; I don’t believe in them. That doesn’t feel like a safe thing to me because everybody has a capacity for deception, or a capacity to not be a good person, or to hurt other people. It’s a trap. There are traits I see in others that I think are really admirable, but that’s a little different than saying, “That whole package of a person has a purity to it.”
MB: Is that purity related to the “spirituality” you mention when you write that you’re “religious but not so spiritual”?
NBW: I get into trouble if people think I’m critiquing spirituality. All I can say is, I’ve experienced mercy, grace, and redemption through a religious life, meaning: being in relationship with Scripture, with practices, and with a group of equally annoying and inconsistent people doing this thing together. Something has happened in my life as a result of that, something that is not going to happen if what I have instead is a set of beliefs and practices that I’ve curated that give me a sense of well-being. I think a lot of times that’s what “spirituality” is. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, but that is not death and resurrection.
MB: And the death and resurrection piece is what specifies Christianity, as opposed to any religious life?
NBW: Yeah, I’m just going to go on record: I think ours is great. Having said that, I could not be Buddhist to save my life. I’m hopelessly Western in my thinking, and it’s a very recent idea in human history that you can choose your symbol system or that you can choose to not have a symbol system. I was raised within the Christian symbol system, and that has always defined how I see myself in the world to varying degrees, so I think that’s where I’m going to find healing, meaning, transformation, and challenge. If I’m picking spiritual practices to give me a sense of well-being I guarantee giving away 10 percent of my income is not going to be one of them. And do I need to give away 10 percent of my income? I think that’s the very best thing I can do, but am I going to hand-select that as a practice? Hell no!
MB: You write that your fundamentalist background trained you for reading the world in black and white, but do you think both religious and non-religious have a hard time with ambivalence and ambiguity?
NBW: I think anyone who is raised in a system where you’re striving for some kind of purity—whatever that is—is going to eventually realize how much of a failed project that is. Maybe you’re raised in a super New Age-y yoga family where you believe in some sort of purity around breathing, and intention, and being super calm about things and blissed out. Any system where the message is: through your own striving you can become pure in some way, morally, ethically or politically—that’s impossible. That’s what we call being “under the law.” And when you’re under the law there are only two options: pride or despair. You’re either prideful about the way that you’re nailing it, especially if other people aren’t, or you despair that you can’t live up to it. Either way it’s not good news. But we all think the law will save us. Our political correctness, our feminist values, our Paleo diet, our whatever is going to save us.
MB: What’s the relationship between the law and any good news someone can hear?
NBW: You need the law to understand why the good news is good news, so it really is a dialectic in a sense. For instance, what passes for preaching in some contexts, conservative or liberal, is some version of, “Here is the problem and here’s what you should be doing about it.” And I’ve never heard that as good news in my life. If I leave church with another to-do list, that’s literally the last thing I need. But what I do need is some good news from a source that’s external to me. It can’t be that I should be trying hard—that’s more bad news. So the good news has to be something about God. It has to be. It has to be about God’s intercession in our lives that God has done through Jesus Christ. It has to be external to us in order to interrupt us enough to actually transform us. But if it’s another version of, “We can be doing better,” oh my God, we’re exhausted! We’re exhausted.
MB: Do you think people have a harder time conceiving of themselves as saints or as sinners? Or is it that we can’t hold the two ideas at the same time?
NBW: The thing about Lutheran theology is that it’s based in paradox. We’re simultaneously sinner and saint, 100 percent of both all the time. But that means that if you really just think you’re a saint, maybe the gospel is to say you’re a sinner. If you think you’re just a sinner, maybe the gospel for you is to say you’re a saint. We’re always living in the tension of these things. Nobody is 80-20. What happens if we think we can obtain that purity and we don’t, then we either despair or we pretend that those other aspects that don’t fit a saintly, godly disciple life aren’t there. For instance, that’s where you get religious leaders, oh, smoking crack with a male prostitute. That shit is gonna come out sideways. If we’re setting up a system where people have to pretend that they are adhering to the purity code, that is a recipe for deceit and denial and disaster.
MB: Do you find people resisting that notion?
NBW: Not anyone in my parish. When John the Baptist was preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, the text says that all of Jerusalem came out. I don’t think that’s true. Because I think that the religious authorities, those for whom life wasn’t that hard, the people who felt that they were nailing it, would never hear that as good news. The people who thought, “Oh my gosh, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin? Sign me up!” they were the ones running to the Jordan. There are always going to be people who are fine, who don’t really need this. I don’t particularly want to have coffee with them; I find that to be extremely uninteresting. But maybe they’re out there: totally functional, don’t need anything, mercy, grace, none of that is appealing to them.
MB: I can imagine there are other people who have a hard time embracing the saintly end of things, and you allude to that in Accidental Saints. People who are most comfortable describing themselves as mainly broken.
NBW: I think that’s right too. That’s why we need to hear the gospel and receive the Eucharist at least once a week. At least. Because we have so many competing messages entering our eyes and our ears on a regular basis that we have to be reminded that the stuff in our lives is really happening, and it’s not the ultimate truth, and it’s connected to the ultimate truth. So it’s about size and scale theologically, in terms of reminding us that God is God and we are not and that is good news.
MB: In Accidental Saints, you talk about discomfort with those who take “the wrong side” in political issues that have had and continue to be of great consequence in this country. You wrote about the trouble with Alma White, a pioneering feminist who was also a proponent of racist policies. In your role as a pastor, how do you make room for opposing sides in your community when the stakes are high?
NBW: In my parish, the challenge is more to say that if you are committed to multiculturalism, peace and social justice, to mercy, and you really believe in the grace of God as a power in the world, the hard part is that it has to be true for everyone. It has to be true for people who don’t want to afford you the dignity of being a child of God. It has to be true for us and true for them. That’s the challenge in my context. The classic line is: just my luck, I’ll be seated at the heavenly banquet next to Ann Coulter and some racist cop.
MB: People often mention your tattoos and your progressive politics, but your message is quite theologically orthodox. What theological sources do you find yourself returning to?
NBW: I don’t really read theology, because after seminary, I was pretty much done. The point of seminary is to make you a theologian, in a sense, to teach you how to think theologically, not to go back and keep looking at what other people have said. Because you have to interpret your own context as a theologian. I’m only interested in practical theology now, because I’ve got boots on the ground.
MB: Which leads to my next question: how do your “accidental” theological or pastoral sources inform your thinking?
NBW: When you’re an on-the-ground theologian in a community, you’re taking in information and viewing situations and conversations in a very particular way. It’s almost like having a sensory disorder. I would stop writing these stories if this shit would stop happening to me. For instance, on my last book tour some guy said, clutching my book to him, “I hope this book is as big as The Shack” [the best-selling Christian novel by William P. Young]. And I looked at him like he insulted me because I think that’s a bunch of schlock. I’ve said some pretty snarky things about that book. Later in the week, when I’d been to five or six cities, I was completely trashed. There was all this media, and it was a whirlwind. All of a sudden the brand Nadia Bolz-Weber got bigger than the person, and I didn’t know what to do. I was freaked out. And I was at this event with my publisher and some other writers, and this other guy had been so sweet to me, very pastoral towards me with everything going on. I didn’t know who he was, so later I asked, “What have you written?” and he said, “Well, it’s this little book called The Shack.” And when we said goodbye the next day in the airport he said this really sweet blessing over me, and I was like, “Typical. Typical!” That shit happens to me all the time. Whatever I’m feeling derisive or snarky, the person I’m trying to avoid ends up being the conduit of some sort of message from God for me.
MB: It’s funny you mention the one-dimensional “brand” Nadia vs. the person Nadia, because that confusion goes directly against what you’re trying to convey about ourselves in relationship to God.
NBW: Yeah! But then they put me on a pedestal for being so transparent and authentic. It’s so ironic.