Nadia Bolz-Weber is the founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, an ECLA mission church in Denver, Colorado. She is the author of three books, including the New York Times best seller, Pastrix, and has been dubbed a leading voice in the emerging church movement. Her next book, as of yet untitled, will be released in September of this year.
The cool thing to say today is that one is not religious, but spiritual. As someone who has been labeled as speaking for a post-modern generation, what’s your take on this?
The way I hear this is that they’ve self-selected certain practices or philosophies that give them a sense of well-being. I think that’s what people mean by spirituality. When people delve into what we call spirituality, there’s often this idea of self-improvement, which I’ve always rejected, whether it’s Christians thinking they can accomplish progressive sanctification, or it’s some yoga aficionado thinking he or she can transcend the irritations and inconsistencies of being human. On either end, I’ve never seen that actually be pulled off by anyone—it would require from us a great deal of pretending that we’re not irritated by something, or pretending we’re not inconsistent, rather than actually transcending those things. I’m the first to give a full-throated opinion about what’s wrong with religion and I agree that horrible things are done in the name of religion—obviously we’re in the middle of that right now with Charlie Hebdo—but my experience is that my stuff—whether it’s my self centeredness, or my insistence that I only want to be around a certain kind of person—those things are often subverted through being around God’s people who can be endlessly wonderful and endlessly irritating at the same time, as well as through Biblical text and through the practices that we have as the church: The liturgies and the church year and receiving Eucharist.
Right… where does the power of liturgy come from?
One thing that liturgy has going for it is that I didn’t make it up. Liturgy itself has its own integrity and doesn’t demand my integrity in order to be efficacious. It has its own integrity in that it’s something that’s so deeply rooted that it’s been worn smooth over generations of the faithful. It works upon us like water on rocks, slowly forming us, and slowly forming our prayer into not just the prayer of ourselves, but the prayer of the church. When you’re in a situation and all the sudden you encounter some sort of horrific thing or really tragic event and your response is to say Kyrie, eleison—Lord have mercy—you are expressing the prayers of the faithful that have risen to the heavens for 2000 years rather than your own opinion or own desire for something.
If there’s both a right way and a wrong way to preach politics from the pulpit, what’s the right way?
Here’s where I’m a really lousy social justice Christian. Probably the worst one out there. I am not a social justice preacher. I’ve been criticized for that, but I don’t feel like that’s my calling. My calling is to be the preacher for a lot of activists. We have a lot of activists—a lot of people who are staffing all the non-profits in Denver—in my church. My calling is to be their pastor and their preacher. Now if I were in a suburban church where the most broken realities of the world weren’t being brought into the realities of our space every week, I would need to be preaching social justice, but these people are doing it. What they need is a place to be broken themselves. They’re holding the world’s most broken realities all week long, and when they come to church they don’t need to hear about how they should be fixing the world. They need to have a place where they can confess how they are unable to live up to even their own values, even though they work in this social justice world. So confession and absolution are a huge part of our worship life together. What they need from their preacher is some good news. They need the gospel. They need some good news so they can go out and do it again. They don’t need somebody pridefully up there preaching to the choir about what’s wrong with the world. Everybody in that room gets it. They need freedom in order to endure living in that world, and that requires a very different kind of preaching. I did bring up Ferguson, and Treyvon Martin, but only in a very confessional way. If I’m going to bring something up, I’m going to do it in a way where I say, “here’s how I’ve failed to be a person who has successfully had all kinds of integrity around this issue.” Like maybe bring up my own internalized racism as a way of opening a space for other people to deal with the truth within themselves. People end up considering themselves to be prophetic by preaching about things that are wrong in the world, and I’m not prophetic. My congregants love that they have a pastor who is so clearly preaching to herself and letting them overhear it. I also get that there are people in my congregation who don’t see eye to eye. We have a kid who just got back from his second tour at Guantanamo Bay. He’s an Iraq combat vet, and he’s really into his guns. And this kid is really struggling with true, legitimate PTSD from being a combat vet. What’s he going to do? Have me as his pastor stand up there and completely discount his views of the world and say God agrees with me? That doesn’t feel like being a good pastor to that kid.
You’re the founding pastor of a church, but you’re also an author and a speaker, which allows you to reach a much wider audience than does preaching on Sunday. How do you balance the life of leading a church proper with spreading God’s message on a greater scale?
It’s pretty clear if you read one of my sermons online—which might be shared 10, 000 times by the end of the week—that I wrote it for the 200 people in my congregation. There are inside jokes and I’m referencing things going on in our lives, so in no way am I ever in the process of writing a sermon speaking for a wider audience. If those sermons end up having an impact on people outside my congregation, that’s just a bonus. It’s really rare that I ever miss a Sunday at my church. If people want me as a speaker they know I’ve got to get home by Sunday night. And some people have asked if I think I’ll ever be just a speaker and a writer, and I say, “what am I going to write about? Working out?” Because that’s literally the only other thing I do. Being grounded in a congregation is the only thing that gives me any authority to say anything. I’m half time in my church and half time what my bishop calls a “called and sent public theologian, ” so I have lots of support to do both things and they’re very related.
In a dichotomous church world of traditional/conservative, weird/liberal, how do those in the latter camp resist the urge of a sort of reverse snobbery?
I don’t know that I’ve ever really resisted it. It’s still there, but it’s in bad from to assume I’m right about it. I feel it and think it, and I’d be lying to say I didn’t. The problem comes when I think God agrees with me or is co-signing on it, or it’s somehow the prophetic thing to assert that my snotty opinions are God’s truths. What is lacking on both sides of the equation—fundamentalism of the left or fundamentalism of the right—are two things that I won’t do without in my life anymore since I was raised in a fundamentalist setting, and those two things are joy and humility. I don’t see a lot of joy and humility being allowed when your main thing is holding some sort of line. I saw an advance screening of the Selma movie and it was incredible. I put up on Twitter the next day that I couldn’t wait for the rabid liberals to tell me why me thinking the Selma movie is amazing actually makes me a horrible racist. There is incredible pridefulness in social media. You aren’t really allowed to say if you like anything, because immediately someone will have some article about “What Selma got wrong.” It’s unbelievably prideful. You know, I enjoyed the movie and thought it had a lot to recommend it. But there is a lot of joy stealing out there in terms of no one being allowed to say they think anything is good, because someone will immediately come place themselves above you, saying “here’s why you got that wrong.” It’s not helping anyone. With Charlie Hebdo we’re talking about freedom of expression, but how much is that limited at this point because you’re afraid you might use the wrong word or say the wrong thing? It’s crippling.