Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint
by Nadia Bolz-Weber
Jericho Books (2013)
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Note: You won’t find Nadia Bolz-Weber’s new book at your local LifeWay Store. If anyone at LifeWay received a copy, I’m sure the reviewer didn’t make it past the cover shot of Nadia, with her impressive (intimidating?) tats, before tossing the book in the trash. If, by chance, someone there actually opened the book, the first word in the first sentence (“Shit…”) would have sealed the verdict:
This is not a safe book.
It is a book about resurrection, however, and a book that realistically portrays those raised from the dead as folks with dirt still under their fingernails. Nadia Bolz-Weber says that her book 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 have 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. This faith helped me get sober, and it helped me (is helping me) forgive the fundamentalism of my Church of Christ upbringing, and it helps me not always have to be right.
One look at Nadia, and you might not imagine she grew up in the Church of Christ, a child from a conservative Christian family. She suffered from Graves’ disease, which gave her a “bug-eyed” appearance and caused her enormous relational pain as a child and young teen. Though the church continued to welcome her, she considered the rest of their fundamentalisms unbearable. She began to drink and do drugs in her late teens and college years, and hanging out with others who were doing the same. She found out, through hard experience, that “a community based on the idea that everyone hates rules is, in the end, just as disappointing and oppressive as a community based on the ability to follow rules.” Still, she began to fantasize about herself as one of those people who would die a “rock-and-roll early death.” Then a friend had enough courage to speak the truth to her and she sought sobriety.
Getting sober never felt like I had pulled myself up by my own spiritual bootstraps. It felt instead like I was on one path toward destruction and God pulled me off of it by the scruff of my collar, me hopelessly kicking and flailing and saying, “Screw you. I’ll take the destruction please.” God looked at tiny, little red-faced me and said, “that’s adorable,” and then plunked me down on an entirely different path.
She became part of a “rowing team” of people in AA trying to kick booze and drugs and deal with mental illness and all manner of dysfunction. One of them, a comedian friend, ended up hanging himself and the others asked Nadia, who had by that time returned to religious practice, to officiate the funeral. And that, she says, is how she was called into ministry. Giving her friend’s eulogy, she realized maybe she was supposed to be a pastor for folks like these.
It’s not that I felt pious and nurturing. It’s that there, in that underground room filled with the smell of stale beer and bad jokes, I looked around and saw more pain and questions and loss than anyone, including myself, knew what to do with. And I saw God. …God, among the cynics and alcoholics and queers.
A lot of this book is about her experiences as a pastor, and some of it is intimately familiar to me and will be recognizable to most of us who have embraced the vocation of ordained ministry. She talks honestly about her struggles to understand and speak the word God would have the congregation hear each week. She tells about such mundane disappointments as planning a “Rally Day” outreach only to have nobody show up. She records experiences of being used by needy, manipulative, and deceptive people. There’s a hilarious chapter that chronicles her kvetching over the fact that the church is starting to attract too many “normal” types. She describes her CPE training — Clinical Pastoral Education — when she became introduced to ministry in the hospital and felt totally inadequate, like most of us do.
But Nadia is not your grandmother’s pastor. Hell, I’m not sure my kids or grandkids are ready for her!
For one thing, she swears like a sailor (with her pervasive tattoos completing the look). Many preachers will speak about how Jesus and his Spirit convict us of sin. Nadia prefers to quote what her friend says about how “the Boyfriend is all up in your shit right now.” What other Christian book do you know with a chapter about how a church learned to put up with a notorious, incorrigible con man called, “He’s a Fuck-up, but He’s Our Fuck-up”? What other pastor do you know who “every morning thinks about her quirkly little church and prays, Oh God, it’s so beautiful. Help me not fuck it up”?
For another, Nadia believes in God’s grace strongly enough that she thinks it applies to everyone, no matter who they are, no matter what they’ve done, what they look like, or what they continue to do. Most people struggle with knowing how to accept people who are different, those who are on the fringes of societal acceptability. She, on the other hand, struggles with accepting people who wear Dockers and eat at Applebee’s. Nadia prefers to hang with the drag queens and the hermaphrodites. (And who, therefore, has ever given a more honest and realistic perspective on the story of Phillip and the eunuch?)
How many churches do you know who hold “Beer & Hymns” nights?
Pastor David L. Hansen wrote one of the better reviews of Pastrix that I have read. Here’s what he said:
At the end of the day, Pastrix is not a book about Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. Pastrix is a memoir of grace — and not grace that is polished and cleaned up so that it can be put on a shelf and admired.
Pastrix is not about grace “in theory.” Pastor Nadia’s story, her friends’ stories, and stories of members at House for All Sinners and Saints reveal gritty, real grace. A story of grace that shows up at rock bottom, in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, in the broken places of life. A story of grace that does not wait for us to become good or perfect or nice, that does not wait for us come to church, but instead comes and finds us where we are.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is Capon-esque in her radical embrace of grace. At a key point in the book, she reflects on what is perhaps Jesus’ strongest parable on the subject — the story of the landowner who hired workers in the marketplace (Matt. 20:1-16). Bolz-Weber observes, correctly, that the parable is not primarily about the workers, but about the landowner who keeps going back into the marketplace and choosing people.
We never know when God might tap us on the shoulder, when he might interrupt our lives and call us to his field. We can’t feel superior because we’ve worked a lot of hours there. Nor can we feel superior because we received a good wage even though we worked little. No matter who we are, no matter what we’ve done or haven’t done, we only have a job in the field and a good salary because the gracious landowner called us and took care of us. And, as Nadia says,
This is exactly, when it comes down to it, why most people do not believe in grace. It is fucking offensive.