After encountering in the Twitter feed of the newly chosen pastor of our local Baptist church praise for (unconventional US Lutheran pastor) Nadia Bolz-Weber and for material from her new book Shameless (about matters to do with sex) I pulled down from the shelves her previous (best-selling) book Cranky, Beautiful Faith. I’d read it back in 2013 shortly after it was first published, and had shared much of the ambivalence that Rod Dreher records in this post. He writes
I disagree with her fairly radically on many points of moral theology, but there’s something so winning and authentic about her.
She is a foul-mouthed hot mess, for sure, but there’s something so authentic and broken and great about her.
Reading this book, I found myself routinely pushed to the edge by the author’s raw voice and liberal theology, but just when I would think that I was done with her, she would come back with an observation — usually a self-critical observation — that pulled me back in, and made me reconsider my own thoughts and practices.
At that point it was an inspiring story of God’s grace at work in and through her. One could – and I did – strongly disagree with her on, in particular, approaches to homosexual practice, and find the foul-mouthed heavily-tattoed look pretty off-putting, and yet it was hard to look away from lives touched, redeemed, and renewed, notably through her church plant in Denver, the House for All Saints and Sinners. Among the lives touched, her own was not least among them. And God, as she taught him from Scripture was real, and not always comfortable.
It was easy to disapprove of aspects of the church and yet…not only had her work touched lives positively in a way I certainly haven’t, but God works at times through and in even the most flawed vessels. One could think of congregations that contained, and looked favourably on, slaveholders in the American South, or (I presume) amid Protestant congregations in Nazi Germany that might have consciously deferred to (or more) Hitler. And what behaviours do each of us, or our subcultures, rationalise?
But Bolz-Weber has moved on. There is a new book. But, as the recent New Yorker profile tells us, there is also a new role. She has moved on from pastoring the congregation, earning her living by speaking and writing. And moved on in life.
She had married a Lutheran pastor in 1996; in 2016, after two decades of trying at a marriage without much physical intimacy, she got up the courage to get a divorce. Six months later, she reconnected with an old boyfriend named Eric, and, from the start, the sex was amazing. “It was like an exfoliation,” she told me. Through better sex, her spirit softened, and she found herself closer to God, which led her to rethink the relationship between sex and religion. Bolz-Weber discusses these events in “Shameless,” which is both a theological text and a personal one.
To which one can only respond with a gulp. A Christian pastor who, quite probably, took a vow of lifelong faithfulness to her husband, now not only walks out on him in pursuit of “better sex” but humiliates him through the pages of one of the most prominent magazines in the world. And thus one rereads the earlier book a little differently, checking out all the (curiously muted) references to her then-husband, and conscious of what she hadn’t told us in what purported to be a pretty honest memoir. There was, for example, the abortion earlier in her life, which (at least according to the New Yorker account) she shows no sign of regretting or repenting.
She still apparently talks a great deal about grace. And how are we saved except by God’s grace. On our own merits, we are never “good enough for God”. But she talks not at all, it seems, of holiness, about attempting – by God’s grace, empowered by the Spirit, to live God’s way. She caricatures orthodox Christian teaching about sex (“this idea that salvation comes through sexual repression”). Christianity Today’s review quotes her approach to human sexuality as
I’m here to tell you: unless your sexual desires are for minors or animals, or your sexual choices are hurting you or those you love, those desires are not something you need to “struggle with.” They are something to listen to, make decisions about, explore, perhaps have caution about. But struggle with? Fight against? Make enemies of? No.
(It isn’t entirely clear why the exception for minors and animals, but perhaps the book explains).
If it feels good, do it. Never mind the Scriptures. It is almost as if they become an incidental resource, something perhaps referred to in kicking off a sermon, but certainly not a means through which God reveals himself (supremely of course through Jesus). And nothing – not the Ten Commandments, not injunctions against a man looking at a woman with lust in his heart, nothing from Paul (about homosexuality or anything else) seem to count. Instead of acting as a source of authority, the Bible is put under our feet, to twist or interpret as we will. If it feels good, do it. Marrying the spirit of the age, any self-restraint is cause for suspicion.
The caricatures go on.
Bolz-Weber loathes what she sees as the holier-than-thou attitude prevalent among Christians. “Self-righteousness feels good for a moment, but only in the way that peeing your pants feels warm for a moment,” she said.
Well, sure. Self-righteousness is a dangerous delusion. Salvation is by grace through faith, and those same Scriptures talk of any righteousness of our own as being as filthy rags. Whether it is more prevalent among Christians is perhaps more questionable, when the entire culture and attitudes she appears to espouse encourage the delusion that there is no such thing as sin, no actions or choices that transgress God’s law. Faithful Christian pastors lead their people to confess their sins – each week, or even anew every morning. If I recall rightly, it was Luther himself who noted that even as we progress in holiness, the greatest Christians only become more aware of the seriousness of their own sin – their need for God’s grace and reconciling mercy.
Rereading the New Yorker article alongside the earlier book it is tragically sad. And it is teaching that leads people very far astray. Her teaching should be resisted, and firmly set to one side, not celebrated as some better, more enlightened, revelation of the gospel of our unchanging Lord and Saviour.
In my previous post, I noted this quote from her new book
With an attitude like that it is probably good that she has stepped aside from pastoring a congregation. And anyone who commends it as true – diminishing the majesty of God’s word and the office of preaching – probably shouldn’t be in the job of a pastor either. We need to hear the call of Christ to a kingdom that is not of this world, to go to him outside the city gates. Not just to get along and go along, celebrating a dissipated culture. It is a witness of redemption and renewal, a call to the long slow obedience, the journey towards holiness. By grace alone.