I’ve been a fan of Nadia Bolz-Weber since I read and reviewed her first book, Salvation on the Small Screen?, in which this liberal Lutheran pastor watches and comments on twenty-four hours of evangelical Christian television on TBN. I sometimes read her sermons on her blog, Sarcastic Lutheran (the name alone would be enough to hook me). In many ways she’s the stereotypical hipster liberal Christian — she pastors a small church plant that welcomes gays and lesbians as well as anyone else who has trouble fitting into the traditional church mold; she peppers her writing and even her sermons with swear words; she’s famously covered in tattoos. And these are not pre-conversion tattoos that she wears as a reminder of her troubled worldly life, though she definitely did have such a life before becoming marrying a Lutheran minister and re-converting to a more welcoming brand of Christianity than the one she knew growing up in the Church of Christ. No, Bolz-Weber’s tattoos include an icon of Mary Magdalene, whom she calls her “patroness,” on one forearm, and Martin Luther’s quote “Simul Justus et Peccator” (“a saint and a sinner at the same time,” very loosely translated) around her wrist. The tattoos, like the swear words, are part of who she is as a Christian and as a pastor.
What I love about Nadia Bolz-Weber — apart from the fresh, funny, honest tone of her writing — is how willing she is to confront her own prejudices. She writes with great perceptiveness about the time she got conned while trying to help victims of Hurricane Katrina, and fearlessly explores how much her own self-righteousness, her desire to be seen as a hero, got her into that situation in the first place. She writes about her shock when her edgy, experimental church gets invaded by middle-class people from the suburbs who look like everybody’s parents. She writes about forging a friendship with a conservative Christian blogger who publicly attacked. In every situation she faces, she’s always quick to identify her own weaknesses and flaws, which allows her to at least attempt to extend a hand of fellowship even to those who might be quick to reject such a hand if it came attached to a heavily tattooed arm. In other words, she believes in loving not just the marginalized, but the marginalizers, which is a much tougher call.
While I said that in many ways she fits the stereotype of “liberal Christian pastor” — emerging church, LGBT-affirming, non-traditional — there are key ways in which Bolz-Weber does not fit the “liberal Christian” paradigm. She has no interest in Jesus as a good moral teacher or a good example: she’s the first to admit that she’s incapable of emulating a good example or applying any good moral teachings Jesus might have on offer. Instead, she’s very traditionally Christian — more specifically, traditionally Lutheran — in her insistence that God’s grace must be at the centre of the gospel — the radically accepting grace of God that offers a welcome to every sinner, every outcast, and every self-righteous conservative. Just as Nadia and her church, the House for All Saints and Sinners, are trying to do. This is the best and most engaging memoir I’ve read this year; I found it almost impossible to put down, and recommend it very highly.