I read a lot of theology. This is not unusual for most of you reading this review. However, I have made an observation, in these years of reading, that books on theology usually make one of two impacts. Either a book is readily accessible and impacts a wider audience, or a book makes a powerful statement of truth and impacts a narrower audience. Occasionally, a book on theology does neither; rarely does a book do both. Nadia Bolz-Weber’s latest book, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, is one of those rare books. Its accessibility and wider appeal are evidenced by its appearance on the New York Times bestseller list, the plethora of interviews and magazine articles, as well as the popularity of her recently concluded “book tour and meat raffle.” Its power as a statement of truth is evidenced by its consistent, radical (in the original sense of “at its roots”), unapologetic apology for a Lutheran witness of the grace of God in Christ for the world (not just for the church), period – end of story. This memoir is a powerful and real portrayal of the movement of God’s grace in the author’s life and in the lives of others in her life and ministry, combined with solid and mind-stretching theological insight.
When I bought this book, I expected to be impressed. I read her previous book, Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television. It has become one of my favorite books. It is funny, snarky, theologically astute, and surprisingly magnanimous towards the kind of American Evangelicalism I love to hate. I thought to myself, “If she ever writes another book, this will be hard to beat.” After I finished reading Pastrix, I knew that it equaled (perhaps exceeded) the honesty and snarkiness of her first book. I also knew that it would have a much bigger impact in the church and beyond, hands down. It is easily, in my opinion, the best book on the nature of God and what this means for Christians and other religiously-minded folks in the world, since Robert F. Capon’s Hunting the Divine Fox: Images and Mystery in Christian Faith. This is no small feat. I still think that one of the best chapters of theology ever written is Capon’s chapter on “Superman” (on the humanity of Jesus) in this classic text.
This book is more than a memoir; it’s a theological call to arms. Nadia Bolz-Weber calls us to search our own motives for “being the church,” take note of them, then discard them, because it is all about God’s love and grace—not about us. Weaving story, theology and personal insight, Bolz-Weber creates a powerful portrait of a faith community, and the individual lives within, which takes a theology of the cross seriously. Our task as humans, she argues, is to include everyone in the community of faith, as they are, because that is what God has already done for us. Ministry should be nothing more, nothing less. In my opinion, this theological gem (from the book) alone is worth the price of the book: “There’s a popular misconception that religion, Christianity specifically, is about knowing the difference between good and evil so that we can choose the good. But being good has never set me free the way truth has….The truth does crush us, but the instant it crushes us, it somehow puts us back together into something honest. It’s death and resurrection every time it happens.” (p. 73)
Many who have reviewed this book before me seem compelled to add a warning label on the cover of the book. Reviewers have insisted that the book is quite worthy of our attention, but they caution that it is not for everyone. We are warned that the graphic nature of many of the stories, the vulgar language, and the challenge to our normal sensibilities for a polite way of being church could be upsetting or off-putting for the majority of church-goers. This is true, perhaps. But, I think most of us are aware of the “way the world works” and the “new reality” the church finds itself in these days. Polite sensibilities are not attracting anyone to the church anymore. It is simply not honest.
There is a more serious warning label that belongs on the cover of this book, in my opinion. Rostered leaders need to be warned not to try this at home. I have noticed a growing throng of young church leaders, particularly newly ordained pastors, who literally say, “I want to be a pastor just like Nadia!” Don’t get me wrong. Emulating her love for the church in spite of itself, her serious engagement with Scripture and the theology of our church, and her acceptance of all, in spite of her own inclination to kick their sorry behinds out the door, is something I applaud. Yet, there is a “hipster” crowd of clergy that want to emulate her edginess, match her razor wit, and flash their own underbellies, because Nadia is so cool when she does it. I caution you, if that is indeed your inclination. The fact is that this works for Nadia, because that is who she is. She is the product of her life experiences and insight garnered from those experiences. She is being honest. If anyone else does it because they “want to be like Nadia,” they are not being honest. They are caricatures. Unless you have emptied dozens of bottles of vodka, have woken up in places you have never seen before, or have felt the volcanic heat of shame foisted upon you by “the faithful,” you aren’t like Nadia. You never will be. Get over it and be yourself. But, by all means, read Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint. Perhaps you will find encouragement, through her life’s story, to be honest. In the end, that’s all that keeps us moving forward.