Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber cuts through some of the ways in which we’ve made Christianity too comfortable.
If you have any number of religiously-aware folks in your social network, you may have seen the prominent Washington Post profile on Lutheran pastrix Nadia Bolz-Weber. A regular on the emerging church speaking circuit, she represents a fresher voice from the aging liberal Mainline Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). “Emergence Christianity” is an odd collection of post-evangelicals and Mainline Protestants who have a penchant for deconstructionism, “subversion,” and other characteristics of the amorphous phenomenon called postmodernism. Progressives in most matters, emergence Christians generally adopt a whole spate of unorthodox religious positions and liberal social stances, despite their post-Enlightenment dialectic.
Through my work, I’ve heard Bolz-Weber more than once, generally in a critical capacity. Her theological errors are apparent even in the profile. “She prefers a cranky, troublemaking and real God who at times of loss and pain doesn’t have the answers either,” we hear. And, “God is there in the messy mascara-streaked middle of it, feeling as [bad] as the rest of us.” So much for God’s omniscience, aseity, and impassability, much less the early patristic condemnations of patripassianism.* This overly-anthropomorphized view of God tends toward idolatry. I think WaPo does the pastrix justice in declaring, “In her body and her theology, Bolz-Weber represents a new, muscular form of liberal Christianity, one that merges the passion and life-changing fervor of evangelicalism with the commitment to inclusiveness and social justice of mainline Protestantism.” An orthodox catholic, she is not.
On the other hand, I respect her more than any of the other figureheads of the emergence crowd. I don’t think she or all of her ideas should be as derisively dismissed as they have been this past week by many American evangelicals. Speaking from firsthand observation, I think Nadia Bolz-Weber is the most pastoral, the most traditional, and thus the most grounded of the post-everything Christians. In short, she knows the human soul and how it is formed.
She realizes that Christianity is an alien thing in this world. God save us from the Mainline’s hippie slacktivist Christ and evangelicalism’s “personal relationship Jesus,” who wears Dockers and drives an Accord (“or worse, a graphic tee and a smartcar”). She knows Someone mysterious invaded our world, and our comforts (mental and material) are deceptive. In many ways, Bolz-Weber reconciles her liturgical side with her progressivism since her Christianity is “always putting me into something new.”
I noticed this especially in her discussions on liturgy at the 2013 Wild Goose Festival. She realized that a church service shouldn’t tell you how to feel, nor should it be formed to elicit certain uniform passions. We feel very differently on every Sunday; we are the variable, and the liturgy is the constant. It forms us; we don’t form it. The constant contact with prayer to God transforms the soul. “It’s like water working down the rough edges of a stone,” she observed. The minister, an unfit instrument, works as but the choirmaster in prayer and the waiter in the Eucharist, the grace of which is provided by Christ. Whether or not these liturgies or sacraments are valid is another question for another post.
Contrast this with the spontaneity of contemporary worship services. Typical American evangelicals strive to give meaning and memory to bread and juice, all the while denying a supernatural presence with regard to the elements themselves—a comfortable rationalism. We sing “I want to worship You” when we really might not actually want to, but it’s a therapeutic melody and worship’s become what we feel about God and life, not Who God is, what He has done, or simply ascribing worth to Him. Of course, the power of true love in the fallen world isn’t necessarily wanting to do something, but doing it anyway whether you feel like it or not. Whether in marriage, family, or friendship; we show up and be there, and our preferences don’t matter. It all centers around the beloved. This is very counter-individualism and thus, in a sense, counter-American. However, it’s desperately needed at this moment, and that’s why I give Bolz-Weber more appreciation, despite her anthropological and theological heresies.
She speaks against the domestication of the divine, and this is to be commended. But her conception of the Divinity is all too comfortable—a weeping willow of a deity who shrugs “Who knows?” to life’s hardest questions, as if He were not the Creator and Sustainer of all. What’s going on here? We are faced with a high view of liturgy and a revisionist doctrine. Is Bolz-Weber a traditionalist or not?
I think this is an example of the two kinds of “conservative” Christians clashing against one another. As Tom Holgrave observed, many doctrinal liberals practice liturgy while doctrinally orthodox Christians give outward forms the short shrift. Both parties fail to realize that true faith and beauty mutually reinforce one another. Holgrave asserts, “The order and coherence of traditional Christian liturgy and art depends for its strength on the conviction that what it centers on is true; that God exists, that the Bible is his word, and the church is the true manifestation of his kingdom in the world.” He furthers, “To practice a received liturgy and at the same time deny received Christian truth is eventually a self-defeating occupation.”
Perhaps this points to the greatest irony of Bolz-Weber. Despite all her efforts to reach the fringes and underbelly of society, she finds most of her current supporters in the liberal suburbanite crowd. Sensible-shoed soccer moms and NPR bag-toting grandparents come to see her perform like a bohemian artist. A monologue about a “cranky,” crying god is appealing to them; not so the proclamations of a wrathful or ineffable One.
More importantly, Bolz-Weber raises issues to church leaders about drawing both the fringes and the mainstream to the truth in the beauty of holiness. Increasingly, outcasts and socially-acceptable seekers alike find themselves drawn to integrity, honesty, and liturgical stability. The world feels increasingly less secure and durable since 9/11. The showmanship and projected images of normalcy and enthusiasm we see in many American churches today are at best disingenuous. Gimmicks may attract spectators, but they are not going to create disciples for the coming years.
*UPDATE: On her official Facebook page, Bolz-Weber offered very important clarifications to her Washington Post interview. Most importantly, she revealed, “I have never said ‘God doesn’t have any answers,’ I said that we go to God for answers, but sometimes what we get is God’s presence.” This is much more theologically astute and does not qualify as a theological error at all! As such, the charge of heresy may need to be turned down. Disagreements with Bolz-Weber may pivot more so on anthropology, less so on theology proper.
Barton Gingerich is a Master of Divinity student at Reformed Episcopal Seminary and a fellow at the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He holds a B. A. in History from Patrick Henry College.