Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Last week I finished reading Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints. Many of you will have already read reviews of Pastrix by Rachel Held Evans and Tony Jones.

So this isn't a review exactly, but rather some idiosyncratic thoughts and reactions to Pastrix and Nadia Bolz-Weber.

To start, I've never met Nadia but I do need to thank her for something important. One of the things Nadia is known for is her tattoos. What grabbed my attention a few years ago was how Nadia has the liturgical calender tattooed on her arms. And that was the seed of inspiration for my own tattoo of Rublev's icon that I got last year. So thank you, Nadia, for that.

Also, before commenting about the contents of Pastrix, I probably should say something about language. Nadia isn't your typical Lutheran pastor. There are a lot of f-bombs in the book. So if you are offended by such things be warned. Though, to be honest, I get sort of annoyed in needing to give such warnings. Why are so many Christians such pious fragile little daisies? Do we really think Jesus was so easily offended? Goodness sakes, look who Jesus hung out with.

I really struggle with how uptight so many Christians are. I'm very impatient with all the fretful, neurotic hand-wringing. Anyway, if you are that sort of Christian Pastrix isn't for you.

So what is Pastrix about? It's a spiritual memoir that, roughly, moves through three parts of of Nadia's life. The first part covers Nadia's early years growing up in fundamentalist Christianity, her descent into drugs and sex, to her eventual return to Christianity. The second part is Nadia's calling to the pastorate and the founding of House for All Sinners and Saints. And the final part is stories about the growth of the church and Nadia's pastorate. All the way through are raw, powerful and confessional stories of both success and failure, each salted with the crazy juxtapositions created by Nadia's personal history and personality in light of her life as the spiritual leader of a faith community.

It's a mind-blowing journey to say the least, from growing up in the fundamentalist Churches of Christ to being the female pastor of a Lutheran church that is welcoming of gay and trans* persons. The family at House for All Sinners and Saints is an eclectic bunch, from soccer moms to drag queens, a community bearing witness to the radical hospitality of the Kingdom.

Pastrix also gives you a window into some the liturgical innovations at House for All Sinners and Saints, from the Blessing of the Bicycles to Beer & Hymns.

Before reading Pastrix I hadn't known that Nadia grew up in the Churches of Christ. This is my faith tradition. It both thrilled and saddened me to discover this connection. The thrill is just the simple excitement you have when you find a point of contact with someone you admire. The sadness was due to the fact that the Churches of Christ come off pretty badly in Nadia's story. This is understandable. Historically, the Churches of Christ have been very sectarian, conservative, fundamentalist and judgmental. Consequently, a lot of people have been severely damaged by the tradition. Nadia is one of them, though she does seem to have reconciled with her parents who (it seems) are still affiliated with the Churches of Christ.

I don't want defend the Churches of Christ in this regard. Damage is damage and shouldn't be ignored. But for some reason, I wasn't similarly damaged by the tradition and still find myself a part of the Churches of Christ. To be sure, I'm a bit of an outlier in the Churches of Christ. But our tradition is changing. Yes, there continues to be a very sectarian strain of the Churches of Christ. So you need to clarify when you run into someone who identifies as "Church of Christ." Because there is a growing ecumenical strain within of the Churches of Christ, many of whom would embrace Nadia with open arms.

And having mentioned of the Churches of Christ, and given our penchant for bible-thumping, let me end with what really jumped out to me about Pastrix, something that hasn't been mentioned in any of the reviews I've read.

What I loved about Pastrix is how much the bible features in the story. Almost very chapter starts off with a Scripture quotation. More, many chapters--most of my favorite chapters--revolve around how Nadia struggles to preach a given week's lectionary text. So much of the story in Pastrix is watching Nadia wrestle with the bible. How to preach a particular text on the anniversary of 9/11 or after the tsunami in Haiti? How to preach about loving enemies or about how the Kingdom of God is like yeast?

That's what I most loved about Pastrix, how the bible kept crashing into the messiness of Nadia's life and the life of her crazy and amazing church. Being interrupted by the bible, in hard but often life-giving ways, is something that I can deeply identify with.

I don't know if being raised in the Churches of Christ had anything to do with how much the bible drives the stories in Pastrix. I suspect it has more to do with the Revised Common Lectionary than any latent Church of Christ DNA. And yet, I also found it interesting that House for All Sinners and Saints sings a cappella, the way Churches of Christ worship.

Are these the long shadows of the past in Nadia's story? Probably not. Nadia's story is uniquely her own, a journey that has taken her a long, long way from her childhood experiences with the Churches of Christ. And for many of us, that is exactly what has to happen for us to encounter God's amazing and surprising grace.

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32 thoughts on “Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber”

  1. I had been debating if I wanted to entail the book, and between Rachel Held Evans review and yours, I am in. The problem is it will be added to and ever growing reading list.

  2. Every time I've come across our friend Nadia in the media, she's showcasing her tattoos as if its the cornerstone of her "personal brand". I get that tattooing oneself (currently enshrined as a hallmark of hipster Christianity) is a reaction to the incredible superficiality and pettiness of socially conservative 1950s Christianity, which very explicitly had named things like facial hair, body piercings and tattoos as taboo.

    But I can't help thinking that this reactive, petty transgressive personal accessorizing is easily *more* entangled in superficiality and nonsense than the antiquated mom and pop sensibilities that such gestures are designed to offend.

    In many circles it seems that transgressive posturing functions almost as a kind of social norm or directive.

  3. I was part of the International Church of Christ from 1998 to 2011. Are you familiar with this church/movement, Richard? It broke off from the Chuches of Christ in the late 1970s.

  4. I get that. Here's my take.

    Any time you end up with a sort of "brand"--be that brand self-selected or put upon you--and that brand gets a halo of celebrity then a suite of temptations are going to follow.

    For the individual it will be a private, spiritual battle. For onlookers it will be dealing with judgments of all sorts, from adoring cult following to reactively trashing the "celebrities."

    The key, for me at least, is to pay attention to the principalities and powers of celebrity culture and branding so that you can walk humanely in the fallnessess of it all, extending kindness to the celebrities, their fans and their detractors.

  5. Thanks. Interesting take.

    Quick comment on Christian reactions to bad language, which I agree are deeply problematic. I wonder if we could view more charitably the "pious fragile little daisies" by remembering the power of cultural taboos in almost every human culture--stepping over someone's legs in Congo, using a thumb to clean one's teeth in Italy, etc. Only in America we have this weird, weird set-up where whatever is taboo to one group/ generation, becomes a pervasive part of the rhetoric of another group/ generation. You're right, Jesus would certainly call us to care more about people than taboo. But I have some sympathy for those who are bothered by it!

  6. I long for the day that I can cast aside judgments on liberal Christianity. I want to. I truly do, but I have been steeped in this Southern brand of Christianity that hinders it. I have been taught all my life that this was coming and that I had better beware. Now here it is. Lord Help Me!

  7. I understand. A part of my issue here is how "propriety" is so often welded as a weapon of unwelcome by many Christians. I can't ever recall a time when I saw "propriety" being used as a means of welcome, hospitality and inclusion, but I have stories upon stories of the exact opposite. So my attention is located where I see most of the damage occurring. Hurt feelings over bad words isn't really very urgent for me given what's going on in the world.

  8. I appreciate your struggle. But you don't have to go to a liberal church. Just partner with each other in the works of mercy. Work alongside each other at the homeless shelter. Teach a prison bible class together. That's what my life looks like. Help make the Kingdom come. Most of this other stuff is nonsense.

  9. That would be messy Richard! We can't get too close to those people we might start acting like them!

  10. True, it would be messy.

    Let me also clarify why I think a lot of this liberal/conservative stuff in nonsense.

    Say Bob, a liberal Christian, and Larry, a conservative Christian, show up at the homeless shelter to do some work. Bob says to Larry, "Before we start, I just want you to know that I think you are going to hell." Larry adds, "And just so you know, I think you are going to hell." Fine! Let's let everyone take ten minutes at the start to sort out who is or is not going to hell. And once we get those metaphysical opinions out of the way let's get on with the works of mercy.

  11. I can understand wanting to focus on tattoos. If I tattoo myself, then the first thing people notice about my appearance is something that I chose, something that I use to tell my story, project my identity, narrate to the world and to myself that what I believe to be permanent is now permanent in a literal sense. It's something inescapable that will keep telling itself to me as I age and my body changes-- the reverse of a facelift.

  12. So, is it possible that the belief/idea of "going to hell" could be THE reason behind inhospitality?

  13. I think there is a connection. Which is why I try to find ways to desacralize that conversation. If we desacralize it we'll be less prone to scapegoating.

  14. I hope you know I was being facetious. I need to be more messy. And I agree that its all nonsense. Its the nonsense that I want to get past.

  15. Nadia is a friend and fellow pastor in the Denver area. I've come to know her heart, her story, and her passion for the kingdom. Her parents attend the church I preach at, the Littleton Church of Christ. I have been blessed by her personally and I look forward to reading her new book.

    Thanks for the post, Richard.

  16. Richard, I agree wholeheartedly with your take. The "halo of celebrity" followed by a "suite of temptations" is something that anyone who puts themselves out there—i.e., by sharing a testimony, writing songs, books, etc.—will have to deal with. The minute someone takes a liking to it, the artist/celebrity will have an inner struggle to either live up to others' expectations, or risk disappointment. Both of which can cause major inner conflict.

    I actually hate the word "brand" as applied to a person. People are always evolving and changing beliefs and opinions, which is reflected in their art or words or performance. Brand feels too stifling for the beauty of the way we shape-shift (for lack of a better term) as humans and as a culture.

  17. Thanks Collin, nice to make a connection with you. Blessings to you and the Littleton church!

  18. I would recommend listening to the uncut NPR interview On Being where she talks about the book. She addresses the choice for HFASS to be a capella and significance of tattoos (specific tattoos and the process one might go through to choose to physically alter their body). Hearing her voice humanizes her in a way that written words sometimes cannot. Listen for when she leads the audience in Amazing Grace.

  19. Let me add that her wrestling with the text is a beautiful embodiment of the Lutheran doctrine of simultaneously being sinner and saint.

  20. Just wanted to chime in to say that it's not just in the States - that's how swear words WORK. Sometimes they center around bodily functions, or sometimes around parts of the church (you can see a lot of this in some primarily Catholic nations), but the entire function of swear words is to take either that which is offensive to the previous generation and explicitly bring it to the forefront, or take what is "holy" to them and speak of it in a desecrating way.

  21. I think she has the obligation to answer questions about it, and also, to talk about it, given that it raises so many opinions, such as the one you express.

    If no-one had an opinion about her Tattoos, and no interviewers ever asked her about them, I'm pretty sure their airtime would go down proportionately.

  22. thank you for posting the interview: one amazing, grace-filled thought after another. What a blessing to hear her.

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  24. Thanks for your post Richard. I liked Nadia's book. For me, the most intriguing point was when she discussed "inclusion" - I've been thinking about it for the last few weeks. She says inclusion is not the right word because it sounds like in our niceness and virtue we are allowing "them" to join "us" - like we are judging another group of people to be worthy of inclusion in a tent that we don't own. I tend to use ideas of inclusion quite a bit in my teaching and writing, and while I think I get what she's saying, I am not sure I would know how to teach about inclusion without using the word itself. It's a sign of a good book when it still has you thinking weeks later.

  25. Hi Sara,
    I don't know if I have any great ideas about this, but I have seen some conversation (I'm thinking of Nate Kerr's work) between seeing the Kingdom as church-as-polis versus church-as-mission. If church is a polis it has boundaries and, thus, we'd speak of inclusion and exclusion across that boundary. But if church is mission then there is no boundary, just embeddedness in the world as "salt and light." A related notion here is the church embracing, in Yoder's language, our "cosmopolitan homelessness" in the world. Or in James Davison Hunter's language "faithful presence."

  26. I wish that my mother in law would have lived to read this book. She was reared in the church of Christ tradition and thought that her dad was burning in Hell at his funeral because he went to the church across the street... He was Baptist. In time after she married she became a Baptist... But she still had "them church of Christ bones". When this Lutheran entered the picture she was really thrown for a loop. It was hard that first Sunday hearing her chew her daughter out for not going to a real church. In time she mellowed and accepted the idea that maybe even her damn Lutheran son in law might be in heaven. I think she would have deeply identified with Nadia's background and would have finally understood where I was coming from.

    I am very encouraged by the Reformation occurring within the non denomination denomination known as the churches of Christ. You have some very beautiful voices with the a Capella singing. It sends shivers down my back.

    Grace and Peace!

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