Saturday, September 19, 2015

Why Nadia?

We're not accustomed to dealing with famous Lutherans. Try to name one. Garrison Keillor doesn't count, he's Episcopalian.

Got any living ones, yet?

Systems experts will tell you the health of any system is relative to the flexibility with which it deals with change. Especially change of roles.

So, the church whose last quasi-famous person was Paul Simon (the senator, with the bowtie), now has a famous person. Famous enough to be on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Famous enough to have her new book, Accidental Saints, ascend to #8 on the New York Times Bestseller list. So of course everyone is in shock, the system is stressed, and not everyone deals with stress well.

When we're stressed, we're more likely to break. Because we're rigid, and rigid things don't bend.

Reactions to famous folks are mixed, it seems in particular if they are women. Just witness the recent conversations around Carly Fiorina.

So now Lutherans have a famous woman who is a pastor. Of course that becomes one part of the issue. Some Lutherans, especially white men of the conservative variety, seem to only be able to focus on this part of Nadia. Oh my God, a swearing woman with tattoos is teaching the Word of God. Heresy. Destruction. Abomination.

White men are particularly incapable of noticing when they're being misogynist. I'm aware of this from personal experience. And we tend to deflect by acting as if we're actually talking about the theology, rather than talking out of our misogyny. Articles like this one in First Things fall into this category, I fear.

Nadia's well aware of this. It's always been a part of her ministry. She's had to learn how to roll with it, it seems, so she names it frequently in her books and interviews.

Another reaction, as far as I can tell the most common reaction, is relief. People read her books (many of my own parishioners read her books), and they say, "Thank God, this is a voice that makes sense to me. This preaches to me. I'm inspired."

I'd venture to guess this is the reason any Christian author becomes famous. People read Christian authors for inspiration, and Nadia's story and preaching are inspirational.

Another reaction, as far as I can tell the most common reaction among clergy, is to look to her either as a guide for how to do ministry, or as a great example of doing in ministry in place they find difficult to replicate. This one is more complicated. What it means in practice is: a burgeoning and growing number of Nadia Bolz-Weber epigones. Clergy doing urban ministry in particular who try to be like Nadia.

This isn't all bad. Who doesn't do this, in a sense? We all have our influences. We all imitate others.

So more clergy have tattoos. More clergy go to seminary to do urban mission starts. People go to conferences to explore the Christian faith ala the emergent movement (like the one Nadia organized this weekend with Rachel Held Evans, Why Christian? and which they thankfully distanced a bit from an entanglement I still wish Nadia would have handled differently).

These are good things. The aspect of Nadia's ministry with which many struggle is in particular her public persona and fame. Not everyone can or even should have that. So to what degree is it problematic that a significant role model for Christian ministry in our denomination also has as one part of her ministry a dramatic pop culture component?

I was thinking of this recently when I was walking through an exhibit of art at Crystal Bridges. It paired two close friends, Jamie Wyeth and Andy Warhol. Warhol sought out fame, cultivated fame, made pop an aspect of his art. Jamie Wyeth, also famous, also a magnificent artist, didn't allow fame to permeate the content of his art. He just did his thing.

As far as I can tell, this is what Nadia is attempting, to the best of her ability. Of course she's also good at promotion. She has to be. But honestly, who of us doesn't do this on some scale or another. Many of us preachers are called to do the work of the evangelist, to get the message out to more and more people. Your personality, your "platform," by necessity must be a part of that messaging.

But Lutherans are famously uncomfortable with fame. In fact, we like to smack anyone down who becomes too famous. It's like a Whac-a-Mole game.

But what if we turn Nadia's subtitle around on her? "Finding God in all the wrong people." How do we find God in the rise of humble Lutheran clericalism to NPR stardom?

If we do that, perhaps we start by taking Nadia at her word, and attend to her actual content and theology. Notice, for example, that Nadia, as much as she loves the church, is in another sense relentlessly individual in her focus. She builds community in order to offer healing for individual sinners. She cares a lot about the message she proclaims, but allows considerable individual space for what folks believe in the context of what she preaches.

Even her focus on not monitoring moral behaviors is itself a kind of pietism. It's pietism in the way Quakers are Christian. Sometimes in order to get to the gospel in real life, some kinds of moralisms posing as gospel need to be inverted.

Personally, I've often been puzzled by how dampened the social gospel is in Nadia's thought. Perhaps I've overlooked something (she does, as we're all aware, speak out frequently on behalf of the marginalized), but I think this is accurate: Nadia is a traditional law/gospel preacher, so her focuses is on the proclamation of the gospel to individual hearers. I think she's less confident about system building, movement organizing, etc.

Except here she is, organizing a significant movement. Because that's the funny thing about fame. It comes alongside us, joins us in our journey. You read Nadia, and for better or worse, you feel a part of her life, and she yours. Because that's what memoirs do.

In other words, for better or worse, to organize as Christians according to the gospel of Nadia is to join the community of folks making sense of very messy faith in the real world, which includes messy stars like Nadia.

And of course, all our own individual messes are made up of our fragile and complicated reactions to what presents itself. In the modern media world, this includes the Bright Shiny Objects. All of them play their own part in the economy of our imaginations. They get different grades. Jimmy Fallon. Solid. Stephen Colbert. Truthiness. Donald Trump. Bleh. Joel Osteen. Meh.

Nadia Bolz-Weber. The wrong person in whom God keeps showing up. And that'll preach.

For a review of Nadia's previous book, Pastrix


  1. Hooray for both Nadia B-W and Paul Simon. Best Paul Simon event was his appearance on SNL with the other Paul Simon. I have a letter from the senator praising some work I did, so that makes him special to me. And Nadia B-W was here in Lindsborg for a lecture, and that makes her special to me. But you're right, Lutherans don't do well with famous.

  2. I will be reading this for sure! What a "bold" stand to take in today's world! My husband has been reading Where Christ is Present by John Montgomery as he is trying to get back to his faith in the Lutheran community, it's been a great motivator for him, Nadia's book is the one I pick, it sometimes takes a woman like her to start!