I recently had the opportunity to read Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber. I was excited to finally get the chance to dig into this text. Though I must admit I was a little hesitant. I was hesitant probably for two reasons. First, I was worried that I would be let down by my hope that Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber is as honest a “saint and sinner” and struggling to live in the paradox(es) Lutheran as I am. Second, I was worried that I might agree with a friend of mine who offered his perspective and review awhile back which I wouldn’t call overly flattering.
After having read the book, I must say my hesitation was for not. I loved it! I found it to be an honest memoir of one’s struggle and life of faith. I found it to be an engaging portrayal of one wrestling with what it means to be a beloved Child of God, saved by grace. The themes of “being made new” and the dialectic of “death and resurrection” appear throughout. Overall, I found it to be a deep reflection on what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and how difficult it is both to love yourself and your neighbor without limits.
Bolz-Weber remarks about her story in a way that I think would be helpful to provide before digging into this review. She remarks that:
“My story is not entirely chronological- time often folds in on itself throughout the book- but rather, it’s thematic. It is about the development of my faith, the expression of my faith, and the community of my faith. And it is the story of how I experienced this Jesus thing to be true. How the Christian faith, while wildly misrepresented in so much of American culture, is really about death and resurrection. It’s about how God continues to reach into the graves we dig for ourselves and pull us out, giving us new life, in ways both dramatic and small” (Pastrix, xvii-xviii).
I can affirm this is what I took away from this book. She doesn’t hide the purpose for this memoir, and that’s something we can all appreciate as well.
As I do with my reviews, I will not offer a thumbs up/thumbs down, or a ranking of stars, or things like that. Rather for my processing, and hopefully for your benefit, I will share what I found that I loved, what I liked, what I might have done differently, and what I felt raised questions for myself. What I value in a book is that it makes me think and not just shake my head in automatic agreement or in hasty disagreement. I want to be challenged when I read, sometimes affirmed, but most importantly I want to be able to think, learn, and grow. This work did that.
What I Loved: Overall, I loved the beautiful nature and presentation of deep theological ideas and insights. The way Bolz-Weber integrates the different pieces of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral inspire me, especially how she is able to tie experience with reason and tradition and then articulate it. As she writes early on in what I believe sets the tone for her understanding and articulation of grace and love, “I couldn’t help but begin to see the Gospel, the life-changing reality that God is not far off, but here among the brokenness of our lives” (9). For Bolz-Weber God is present and active. Later she even comments about her own experience about God’s presence and call, “It was as if God abruptly, even rudely, interrupted my life” (39).
These insights are echoed throughout the text. Perhaps it is most clear toward the end of the text when Bolz-Weber spends some more time unpacking what I think is her deep and core theology (200). God is present, God shows up. She writes, “This is a God who shows up: in the violence of the cross, in the darkness of a garden before dawn, in the gardener, in a movie theater, in the basement of a bar” (200). In this and scattered throughout the text I heard theological ideas of or at least correlations with Bonhoeffer’s Life Together.
Somewhat related are the theological reflections about reconciliation and redemption which appear in the text as well. Of note, is “Chapter 5: Thanks, ELCA!” Within that chapter Bolz-Weber shares a story about her time in the Bay Area while her husband was there for seminary. As part of this, she met a Pastor Ross. About him she writes, “Pastor Ross suggested to me that God is still at work redeeming us and making all things new even in the midst of broken people and broken systems and that despite any idealism otherwise, it had always been that way” (52). Pastor Ross and a few others were pastors that were taken off the roster of the church because of being gay. However, after the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in 2009 when the ELCA changed it’s stance, Pastor Bolz-Weber was asked to preach at a service of welcome and restoration to the roster. She reflected on this experience, and brought it back to one’s being in relationship with God. “In the end, their calling [fellow pastors], and their value in the kingdom of God comes not from the approval of a denomination or of the other workers, but in their having been come-and-gotten by God” (58). There are implications here about God’s presence, community, and the limitless nature of God’s love.
I have previously blogged a bit about what I thought were some of the neighbor love implications of this text, and in particular “Chapter 9: Eunuchs and Hermaphrodites.” Since I cover my thoughts there, I won’t expand much here in regards to that chapter. But in extension of that previous post, the way Bolz-Weber wrestles with the complexity of how important yet how hard it is to love your neighbor as yourself are wonderful and honest. She admits openly how she feels like she has betrayed herself (67). She wonders theologically that “Maybe the Good Friday story is about how God would rather die than be in our sin-accounting business anymore” (86). This means perhaps that God’s love far exceeds any sense of atonement or the need for us to always count everyone of our sins. It seems to echo the notion of the freedom Martin Luther found when he rediscovered the depth of the idea of being “saved by grace” grounded in Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans. This grace and forgiveness is both about being in relationship with God, but also with neighbor. Bolz-Weber notes, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Jesus always seems to be pairing God’s forgiveness of us with our forgiveness of others” (148).
In reflecting on this some more, Bolz-Weber a little later notes about this concept of forgiveness and freedom, that together they are threatening. She argues that Jesus “was going around telling people they were forgiven. He went about freeing people, cutting them loose. And that kind of freedom is always threatening” (150). This freedom is also what enables the community of God’s people to come together. But to be as welcoming and expansive a community is difficult and challenging to say the least, especially in light of our human expectations. For Bolz-Weber this fact seems to hit home as she remembers being told by a friend and colleague, “‘You guys are really good at ‘welcoming the stranger’ when it’s a young transgender person. But sometimes ‘the stranger’ looks like your mom and dad'” (184). And for someone who has a challenged relationship with their family, this could be understandably difficult.
A few other snippets and images which I really loved in this book include the notion that God cannot be put in a box. Bolz-Weber writes “I can’t imagine that the God of the universe is limited to our ideas of God. I can’t imagine that God doesn’t reveal God’s self in countless ways outside of the symbol system of Christianity. In a way, I need a God who is bigger and more nimble and mysterious than what I could understand and contrive” (15). Perhaps this was just one of those passages I found personally affirming, but I also found it beautiful in how it shows how even in our best intentions we often try and categorize and understand God, when the point is God is so much bigger than that and far beyond our comprehension.
There is also good stuff throughout the text on identity. Bolz-Weber talks about how we are given identity by God, but almost simultaneously whenever we have doubts, our identity is questioned. She provides this image, “It’s like a tailor-made radioactive isotope calling into question our identity as children of God” (140). To this, we are given the beautiful baptismal reminder that we are to “remember that God has named us and claimed us as God’s own” (142).
What I Liked: Bolz-Weber used the story of Mary Magdalene outside the empty tomb to provide grounding and structure to her memoir. I liked this technique, especially in the way that every few chapters there is a break and a chance to read the passage again, with different key words or phrases boldened. It was almost a Lectio-Divina type grounding thing which really helped situate the memoir and the different faith perspectives and theological insights Bolz-Weber values and has been shaped by in her experiences.
Mary Magdalene is very important to Bolz-Weber, and you should read the book to understand truly why. But one part of this is that for Bolz Weber, she believes that “The greatest spiritual practice is just showing up. And Mary Magdalene is the patron saint of just showing up. Showing up, to me, means being present to what is real, what is actually happening” (198). Being present and being real is what ministry is all about. This is the case, no matter the context. And for Bolz-Weber this is something she really seems to get. She concludes, “This is my spiritual community, where messy, beautiful people come as they are to gather around a story and a table” (203). I would hope that all pastors and faith leaders could say this about their communities.
Among other things I appreciated throughout the text include her comments about numbers. Rightly or wrongly, a lot of weight in congregations is given to numbers. How many members do we have? How many people showed up for worship? How many people came and helped set up for the Sunday School program? Dwelling on these numbers often leads to disappointment and is arguably the wrong thing to do, but it is human nature and a reality for many congregations and pastors. About this, Bolz-Weber comments “sometimes the best thing we can do for each other is talk honestly about being wrong” (107). Later in the text, she makes a connection about how the theological and biblical nature and message of the Lutheran faith don’t generally translate to numbers. She surmises, “When one of the main messages of the church is that Jesus bids you come and die (die to self, die to your old ideas, die to self-reliance), people don’t tend to line the block for that shit” (179). I will make a comment on language later in this review. But, the point here is that some times we get so focused on the numbers that we miss the depth and importance of the message and ministry.
I appreciated her chapter about her Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) experience. I think many a faith leader would find resonance with the idea of nonsense that then leads to bad theology, etc. that can be overheard in your average hospital, doctors clinic, and funeral home, etc. (83). I also greatly appreciated her chapter 11 about the “Pirate Christian.” That chapter helps illustrate what reconciliation can look like that we like to talk about and articulate. She recalled her conversation and where she said two things to someone whom she thought she shared nothing in common. She remarked, “One, you are a beautiful child of God. Two, I think that maybe you and I are desperate enough to hear the Gospel that we can even hear it from each other” (113). That is the sort of hope that we can cling to, in order to confront and ideally overcome the polarities and differences that divide us and keep us from coming together in community.
The reconciliation piece is something that also resonates in the way she offers insights into her family experience and relationships. It’s clear that Bolz-Weber’s relationship, like many daughters and sons, is tough at times with her parents. But there are plenty of examples of reconciliation, love, and blessing of a daughter-parents relationship which are important for Bolz-Weber’s story, and I also think can provide some inspiration for others (17-18).
What I Might Have Done Differently: I was troubled by one typo I found in this work. In the grand scheme of things, its just a typo I believe. But it doesn’t exactly reflect well on the fact-checking and editors. The earthquake that rocked Haiti was in January of 2010, not 2012 as written on page 123. It probably wouldn’t have been so alarming if the date wasn’t in the very first sentence of the chapter.
Now as this is a memoir, I am not sure that my suggesting of doing anything differently is all that helpful. But one point where I might have clarified was where Bolz-Weber wrote, “I’d get my life back, but eventually I’d have to work for God. I’d have to become God’s bitch” (41). If reading this at quick glance, that might sound a bit causal and almost works-righteousness like. At a glance it doesn’t quite mesh exactly with my theological understanding. It’s fairly “I focused” and almost sounds hierarchical where God would require her to do something, rather than accept and love her just for who she is, which is later on in the text more or less what Bolz-Weber writes. So, with a deeper reading perhaps this passage is more just a snapshot of how she felt about herself at one point in time but perhaps not anymore?
What Questions Do I Have: I mentioned previously about the use of language. I myself didn’t really have a problem reading the language which some might call “colorful” or others “inappropriate.” Perhaps it’s because I value context, and for particular context, certain language means different things and needs to be used differently. I understand that there are some who will never accept the use of certain four letter words as acceptable. But I also appreciate the fact that Bolz-Weber uses the language because that’s part of her authentic self. She doesn’t abandon her experience and identity just because she has a collar. I think that is largely why people find her so refreshing a speaker, writer, and preacher.
In terms of questions about language choice, I wrestled with actually quoting the text or paraphrasing certain words I wouldn’t normally use. But I have decided to let the words speak for themselves and to not censor or edit them. What does this say about me, I wonder? What do you think? Would you ever use this language in some setting? Would there be limits on the settings you would feel comfortable using such language?
For an example, Bolz-Weber writes, “This is exactly, when it comes down to it why most people do not believe in grace. It is fucking offensive. But the job of a preacher is to find some kind of good news for people” (56). I could have done without the f-word, but I am not Bolz-Weber. If I had the experiences which she speaks from, I probably would use that word and many others. When you put it in the context of the messiness of life though, isn’t that just the point? Later in the book she writes a line which I think might actually be the most profound. She writes:
“God was never about making me spiffy; God was about making me new. New doesn’t always look perfect. Like the Easter story itself, new is often messy” (174).
I wanted to indent that quote, because I think it juxtaposes well, but its a good reminder that the work, ministry and kingdom of God aren’t clean and perfect like we would imagine or wish that they were. If they were, humanity would have no part in them. But because humanity plays such a God made important role as co-creators, and as God’s children, there is inherently going to be messiness. What do you think in light of this? I am not sure exactly how I feel, but I think there might be something to this?
On a different note, there is mention of a cool worship and community practice which raises questions for me about how to integrate it into other contexts. Bolz-Weber recalled how within worship one day the community was invited to prepare the stations of the cross for the upcoming season of Lent with pictures and stories about present day news events (130). What kind of powerful current news stories would you choose to reflect on during Lent this year? What things need to be reflected on by communities of the faithful?
Among other questions raised by this text: 1) How can the church embrace and welcome all those who have been hurt in the past by the church? Or even, how can the church help those who have been hurt by people using the Bible as a weapon (39)?; 2) How do you gather in a pre-scheduled obligation in the immediate aftermath of tragedy (197)?”; and 3) What are the implications on believing that God is present even in the midst of tragedy and natural disaster (127-132)?
Related to the last question, Bolz-Weber wrote, “We choose to believe Jesus was there in Haiti. We know he was there. We hope he was there. We needed him to have been there. He was there. He was there. We will not keep silent. Pat Robertson was wrong” (132). I remember writing something similar four years ago myself. There are no easy answers to this question, and Bolz-Weber does not try to provide them. Rather, she sits in the tension, ambiguity, the hope of the resurrection, and the calling to help where possible aid in the efforts to comfort the grieving, supporting the living, improving the world and responding to its challenges and brokenness. I believe this is something all people of faith must do as well.
Bolz-Weber’s work Pastrix is a challenge. I loved it, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it was easy to read. If you really dig in, you have to wrestle with your own challenges in your faith relationships. So, if you are up for that challenge and willing to live into the tension and questions created by this text as well as the occasional four-letter word, give this a read.
Thank you Nadia Bolz-Weber for sharing your story, and for being able to share the stories of your friends, colleagues, and participants at House for All Sinners and Saints. And thank you to all of you who took the time to read my reflections and review of the book.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, (New York, NY: Jericho Books, 2013).