Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber is a pastor in punk rock clothing. She’s covered in tattoos, has the biceps of a bodybuilder, and swears like a sailor.
But by last summer, when this former comedian left the Denver church she founded a decade ago to be a full-time “public theologian,” she was packing them in on Sundays with standing room only. Her frank, feisty style made her books bestsellers and her videos go viral.
Fire and brimstone? She’s got plenty, but it’s all aimed at hypocrisy and intolerance. Bolz-Weber’s long and colorful history as a rebel started in her teens when she rejected her fundamentalist Christian faith. She dabbled in Wicca and struggled with alcoholism and addiction.
When a close friend committed suicide and Bolz-Weber gave his eulogy, she had an epiphany: Her people, mostly “underside dwellers, cynics, alcoholics, and queers,” needed their own church, in the true all-accepting tradition of Jesus. Four years later, she’d become an Evangelical Lutheran minister and founded just such a church: House for All Sinners and Saints.
Below, she keeps it real with Unity Magazine editor Katy Koontz.
Katy Koontz: You’re famous for likening forgiveness to a pair of bolt-cutters that sets us free from situations that, in your words, are so not okay that we refuse to be connected to them anymore. How did you come up with that image?
Nadia Bolz-Weber: It was the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and on that Sunday, the lectionary—the set of scripture readings assigned for a given day— happened to be all about forgiveness. So I was stuck having to preach about forgiveness, knowing the pain that people carried from the attacks and also the pain people in my congregation carried from abuse, neglect, and homophobia. I was wondering why Jesus would say that we should forgive seven times 70 when I realized it wasn’t about trying to make the perpetrator feel better. It’s about the fact that the longer we stay attached to that harm, the more we absorb it and then risk becoming like our enemy. Forgiveness is actually a very strong statement: “I will not allow this to infect my own heart.”
KK: I find the Forgive Assholes video where you share that teaching incredibly empowering.
NBW: The response to that little two minute video has been incredible. It was seen 30 million times in the first five weeks. It has nothing to do with me. It’s not because I’m so clever, you know?
KK: Well, partly it is.
NBW: No, no, no. People have a need to hear the very basic messages of Christianity, which are obfuscated by the bullsh*t in religion.
When I meet people who have left the Church, nine times out of 10 they aren’t walking away because they just don’t believe the Gospel anymore. It’s because they believe in the Gospel so much that they couldn’t stomach being part of an institution that was so clearly not about that.
The problem has never been Jesus. Nobody says, “Well, I would have an interest in Christianity, but that Jesus guy, there’s just nothing compelling about him.”
The reason is that what they see in the church seldom has anything to do with Jesus—and they know the difference. I think that’s why my videos have been shared so broadly, because that basic message is so lifegiving in a way that so many other things that pawn themselves off as selfhelp aren’t.
Rethinking Christian Teachings
KK: So where do we go from there?
NBW: I started a church that I’d be willing to show up to. Not everyone’s going to do that, of course, but one thing people can do, ironically, is not look to religious leaders to tell them what to do.
Hopefully, that point in our history has passed. We can certainly look to people who are good theologians or excellent preachers to inspire different kinds of thinking.
But when it comes to action in the world, that needs to come from the people, not from the leaders. We’ve deferred to authority in ways that have been detrimental in Christianity.
KK: You talk about that in your new book, Shameless. How did you get the idea for the book?
NBW: I went through the friendliest divorce in history, but then when I found myself in a relationship with the person who’s now my boyfriend, I thought, What does the Church have to say about sexual ethics and sexuality?
We seem to have nothing to say to adults other than sex outside marriage is wrong. We don’t pay attention to people’s actual lives, we just adhere to certain teachings.
I drew a direct line between what the Church tells us about the body, gender, and sexuality, and the harm that my parishioners were experiencing. My premise is that if the teachings of the Church are harming people, we should rethink those teachings. If Jesus said that the fulfillment of the law is “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself,” maybe we should start living like that, you know? We should never be more loyal to an idea, a doctrine, or an interpretation of a Bible verse than we are to people.
Interpretations: One Guy’s Crap
KK: Are you calling for an evolution of the teachings, or are you saying the teachings are okay, but not how people have interpreted them?
NBW: It’s the interpretation. Look at Saint Augustine: Great guy, great thinker, super-influential, but he had some issues, like we all do. He went to scripture and tried to figure out some kind of direction.
We all get to do that. The idea that some dude in the fourth century got to do it, and nobody else does, is absurd to me. He had some shame he was trying to work out that had to do with—honest to God— having an erection when he was an adolescent in a bathhouse and feeling shame because he couldn’t control that. So later in his career, he wrote volumes about the Garden of Eden and creation.
When people think of the Garden of Eden, they think about the devil, temptation, original sin, and a fall from grace. None of that is actually in the story. All of that is Augustine talking about the story. He wrote that before the fall (again, something he made up), one of the main conditions that defined paradise was—surprise, surprise—that Adam could control his erections.
All right, he gets to say that, but that’s his stuff. And then, because some guy takes a dump in the fourth century, the Church encases it in amber and says, “This is God’s word and will for all people for all time.”
I’m looking at it thinking, Really? I think it’s just this one guy’s crap.
Freedom from the Bullsh*t
KK: Many people must agree with you.
NBW: I don’t know. Do they? Hopefully. I only preach the stuff I need to hear. It’s not like I can say, “Okay, people, I’ve figured all of this out because I’m a spiritual leader who has sanctified herself to such a degree that now I get to tell you what to do.” That’s not my deal. My deal is that I’m just as desperate for some freedom from my own bullsh*t (and from other people’s bullsh*t) as everyone else is.
KK: What kind of pushback do you get from the Church?
NBW: Conservatives, like the Young Calvinists, can’t stand me because I’m a female clergyperson. So right there, they’re like, “You have no authority.” And I’m like, “Okay, young white Calvinist man with all the authority, good for you. But who’s listening?”
To tell you the truth, I don’t tune in too much to what people say about me—good or bad—because what I’ve realized is that both my fans and my detractors are equally distant from the truth. I don’t find what either group has to say about me to be reliable.
In fact, it’s not even about me. They don’t know me. They’re just reacting to words I happened to speak in a talk or video or maybe write in a book. That’s not really me.
In our celebrity culture, people can’t differentiate between those things. If you have a large profile and want to remain even remotely mentally healthy, you better realize all the stuff people say about you has nothing to do with you and is none of your business.
Now, when my friends or family have something to say about me, I listen because they know me. The other side of that is if I have a strong reaction to something somebody else said or did, that’s always an invitation for me to think, What cherished notion of myself is this person challenging? It’s hard work.
Conversations on Sex and Spirituality
KK: You started Shameless well before #MeToo, but the timing is perfect. What does the book have to say about this rebalancing of the feminine and the masculine?
NBW: So much of the damaging teachings of the Church around sex and gender come from certain interpretations of Genesis. So throughout the book, I have retellings of creation and the Garden of Eden, as a way of saying, “Look, each of us was created in the male and female image of God, not male or female.” I’m more into reclaiming and redefining than rejecting. It’s more potent.
KK: How did you get people to open up and share their stories?
NBW: I interviewed my parishioners for a year and a half and asked whoever would talk to me, “What message did you receive about sex and the body from the Church, and then how did that message affect you—how have you navigated your adult life?”
We had conversations at church for several months around sex and spirituality, which frankly terrified me. I thought, Is this going to go sideways really fast? Or is somebody going to be salacious in their sharing? It ended up being really beautiful. I hope, if nothing else, the book encourages more spiritual communities to have those conversations.
As clergy and theologians, our starting point should always be actual reality. Then we can dive in to scripture to help us frame the meaning within. Instead, people have said, “We’re going to take a 4,000-year-old levitical code written for a nomadic people in the near east as a starting point. And that is the word of God.” And with that, they wash their hands of any harm or violence done to people or by people to themselves as a result of their teachings. “Oh, no. That’s not me who is saying this,” they insist. “That’s God.”
KK: God who’s a man, no doubt. A white man at that.
NBW: Horrifying. I want to write a piece that compares and contrasts constitutional originalism and biblical fundamentalism because law and theology are related disciplines in that constitutional originalists say, “Our main concern as interpreters of the law is what did the property-owning white men who wrote it intend?” That’s the way you interpret the law, right, original intent?
Well, I don’t know many, let’s see, African-American women jurists who are constitutional originalists. They interpret the law that way because it protects the system of dominance in which they’re at the top. Then they can say, “Oh, no, that’s not really us. It’s the framers of the Constitution. We just happen to benefit from that kind of legal interpretation.”
KK: How do we get out of that?
NBW: We start calling it what it is, as often as we can. We must become sufficiently suspicious of what we’ve been taught. We have to look at what’s underneath, the thing under the thing, and recognize how often that really says, “Hey, we’re going to do this because it upholds a cherished idea we have of ourselves.”
I have what’s theologically called a low anthropology, which means I’m very suspicious of human beings and all of our endeavors—although I’m completely idealistic about God’s ability to redeem our sh*tty intentions. I will always be idealistic about that.
This is hard work. I’m so grateful to be somebody who’s been in recovery for 26 years because it teaches you how to look really deeply and honestly at your own sh*t. It’s your only chance of survival.
Reclaiming and Redefining: A Healing
KK: I love how you put that in the beginning of Pastrix, when you define spiritual physics as the idea that something has to die for something new to live. That must be a continual process.
NBW: Yeah, I figure one thing out, grow a little, and then something else shows up, you know? This is why I’m very suspicious of ideas like progressive sanctification or enlightenment. If somebody thinks they’re enlightened, they just stopped paying attention.
KK: Can you comment on your teaching that the source of the harm can sometimes be your most powerful source of healing?
NBW: That’s why I’m more into reclaiming and redefining than I am rejecting. Developmentally, there are certainly times when rejecting is appropriate. It’s not a horrible place to be. It’s just not an awesome place to stay.
For example, I left Christianity for a decade because of how ridiculous, hurtful, and narrow-minded it was, and that was the right thing to do. That was exactly what I needed, and I’m really grateful for what I learned when I was not in the Church.
And yet, the healing from those hurts, from my fundamentalist upbringing, accelerated when I came back to a church that was open to all people, where I could be my whole self—one centered on grace and that had a real focus on Jesus.
I don’t even know how much I heard about Jesus growing up. I heard a lot about Paul and these letters he wrote to some of his students, giving them guidelines. I think Paul would be horrified today. Can you imagine if you wrote an email to a friend who was struggling, and then 2,000 years later, people are saying what you wrote is “the word of the Lord”?
There are times in Paul’s letters when he’s being a preacher, and I can feel it in my body. It takes my breath away. And I think, That’s the Word of the Lord. That’s the Gospel. And then there are times when I think he’s just being a speaker, voicing his snotty opinions about what should or shouldn’t be happening in the Church. He had authority to say those things, but we have to do the work of discerning the difference.
Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber is the author of the New York Times best-sellers Shameless: A Sexual Reformation (Convergent, 2019), Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People (Convergent, 2015), and Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint (Jericho, 2013). Visit nadiabolzweber.com.
This article appeared in Unity Magazine® and was a 2019 Folio: Eddie Award finalist.