I don’t like Nadia Boltz-Weber.
Oh, it’s nothing personal. Well, maybe. My publisher asked her to read a galley copy of my book to blurb — it would have been nice to have — and, according to my editor, she never responded. Which doesn’t really surprise me. We had a hard time getting blurbs past Rod Dreher (the reason I had a book deal to begin with), and Nadia probably gets lots and lots and lots of requests. Who was I to merit her attention?
I’m not bothered by her style. Anyone who reads this blog know that I am no tea-totoalling pietist. We’ve met once, briefly, Nadia and I, when she spoke at the Lutheran School of theology while I was student there. I like her style, the way she speaks, the stories she tells, and she’s very personable even from behind the pulpit. I know people who know her, including a seminary colleague of mine who interned at her church, and he’s now involved in a church start-up in Texas. Nothing about her offends or rubs me the wrong way.
No, I don’t like Nadia Boltz-Weber because she is constant reminder to me that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — the same church that tossed me out on my ass — is run by a bunch of hypocrites.
Nadia is hip and edgy and out there. And, alas, something of a token for the ELCA, an exception, rather than an example of how that church is changing. (And I also think she knows that.) ELCA Lutherans can point to her and say, “see, we get it!” whenever they are told they don’t. This will have some negative consequences in the future, as a number of people who have come up through churches and camps and colleges and into seminaries admiring the example of Nadia discover to their disappointment and frustration that, no, the ELCA hasn’t really changed, and no, you can’t be like Nadia. Because we don’t want or need any more people like her.
There’s a flip side to knowing people who know her — I also know a little bit more about her story. She married well, and it is my understanding that her husband has deep connections throughout the ELCA that likely bought her some space and time for people within the institution to take who she is, and the pastoral gifts she brought, a little more seriously. Because of that, she also had the support of a bishop — something I never had — who was willing to spend some time and figure out how to put her gifts, and her calling, to use.
And even with all that, she was forced (or given the freedom, depending on how you look at it) to start her own congregation. Which, of course, succeeded wildly. But had she been reliant on the ordinary church candidacy process without any attentive institutional support, she likely would have failed as spectacularly as I did, and probably for many of the same reasons.
So, it’s nothing personal, and I know that. She’s just a reminder of who I am not. I don’t know whether I will read her latest book or not. (She probably hasn’t read mine.)
But reviews of Nadia’a latest book like this one from Tim Challies just piss me off. They also show me what I’m up again as I seek to live out my call as a pastor and preacher of the gospel:
Let me say it candidly: Bolz-Weber has no business being a pastor and, therefore, no business writing as a pastor. She proves this on nearly every page of her book. Time and again she shows that she is woefully lacking in godly character. Her stories, her word choice, her interactions with her parishioners, her temper, her endlessly foul mouth, her novel interpretations of Scripture—they lead to the alarming and disturbing picture of a person who does not take the office seriously enough to ask if she is qualified to it.
And yet she boldly tells others how to live as Christians even while she is so obviously and braggingly deficient in godly character. See, somehow she equates transparency with suitability, as if her abundance of flaws, foibles, and outright sin serve as a résumé, as if they are evidence of godliness. But, biblically, nothing could be farther from the truth. This kind of transparency may masquerade as humility but is actually the very height of pride. She revels in the things God forbids and makes little of an office God holds sacred.
“[W]oefully lacking in godly character.” Bishop Wayne Miller of the ELCA’s Metro Chicago Synod said roughly the same thing about me, and no doubt Bishop Richard Graham of Metro Washington DC thought something very similar when that synod sent me packing as well. (So, maybe it’s true.)
In this review, Challies shows something deep at work in the American church, a piety and culture which demands near absolute sinlessness of its leaders, a sinlessness not grounded in the story of scripture. The Bible is full of sinners — David is my personal favorite, a man who rarely thought before he acted and, so far as I know, only repented twice — who are beloved of God in their sin. (I wonder what Challies would do if a Samson or Jephthah or even a Jeremiah were raised up to save the church? Clutch his Bible in doily-covered terror, I suspect, that folks so sinful were doing God’s work.)
Challies tosses around the qualifications laid out in 1 Timothy, Titus, and 1 Peter — qualifications I’ve seen in a lot a job adverts for churches looking for leaders — and yet it is never remembered who wrote those. Paul, who breathed murder and death at the church, who was present when Stephen was killed (and helped in his own way), who was on his way to Damascus with warrants in hand to arrest, torture and kill the followers of Jesus when the Lord intervened in his life. Peter, who betrayed Jesus, who could never do anything right except love his Lord, and who — like Paul — experienced that overwhelming call from Jesus to follow.
What would Challies and pietists like him make of rough-edged church leaders with pasts (and tongues) like Paul, or Peter, or Augustine, or even Martin Luther, if they came looking for institutional approval today? (Lutheran seminarians frequently joke that Martin Luther himself would not make it thought the ELCA’s candidacy process. And that’s probably true.)
I know the pastors, the overseers, the deacons, Challies wants. The people of “sparkling” character. They cannot look the suffering and sin of the world in the face without condemning it. They cannot walk with those who suffer without finding fault with them. Or, they flinch, their faith too dainty, to gentle, too demanding that the world conform, to speak with any love, compassion, or empathy to those wounded in and wounded by sin. That genteel and priggish pietism is, to me, not taking the office of pastor seriously.
“This is yet another in a long line of books meant to appeal to those who want to bear the name of Christ but without becoming like Christ,” Challies writes. But what does he mean by that? What does it mean to be “Christ-like,” but to meet the world where it is, love it, and offer it resurrection hope? It’s been my experience that such pastors as Challies wants and admires — whether Baptist or Lutheran — do not know how to love. And because of that, they don’t really know what hope is — true, sincere hope in the face of utter and complete hopelessness. They do not know what kind of a miserable place the world can be, how tough life really is, how much suffering some souls must bear, what awful things we are really capable of doing. They are the kinds of pastors who can quote Bible verses but have no idea what kind of story the Bible really is — that it is God’s unrelenting and unrequited love for a sinful people who God alone has redeemed.
Because we are utterly incapable of redeeming ourselves.
This is not merely a point of doctrine, a detail treated mainly as a theory that explains. It is our lives, our condition, and Nadia gets that in a way Challies does not and never will. Because she has lived in the midst of people told — by the likes Challies — that we are unloved and unlovable and must first get right with God in order to earn that love. Because she has been one of them. And understands, as a Lutheran ought to (though too many don’t), that she is still one of those people.
And we know, Nadia and me, and all the accidental saints in the world, that God does not work that way. God does not give us a list of demands that we must first satisfy in order to be worthy of being one of God’s people, or doing God’s work of speaking truth and love. God calls — the wayward, the wicked, the sinful — and makes us right with him in the call.