I mentioned a little bit before the contest that I was reading Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book, Pastrix. Since then I’ve been meaning to say a few more words on it, and this seems as good a chance as any.
I no longer like to sneer at liberal Christianity the way I used to, say, a couple of years ago. Sure, I still think the more liberal types are dreadfully wrong about key issues, and there’s no sense in trying to paper over differences. But, well, I increasingly appreciate the search for transcendence and healing in others, even if it might manifest in ways I don’t entirely agree with.
Bolz-Weber’s early life as an alcoholic burnout, getting pulled out of it by grudgingly finding God (again) and then trying to figure out how to serve God and others – that sort of personal transformation is something that I don’t scoff at. I mean, it’s hard to disagree with this:
I once heard someone say that my belief in Jesus makes them suspect that I intellectually suck my thumb at night. But I cannot pretend, as much as sometimes I would like to, that I have not throughout my life experienced the redeeming, destabilizing love of a surprising God. Even when my mind protests, I still can’t deny my experiences. This thing is real to me. Sometimes I experience God when someone speaks the truth to me, sometimes in the moments when I admit I am wrong, sometimes in the loving of someone unlovable, sometimes in reconciliation that feels like it comes from somewhere outside of myself, but almost always when I experience God it comes in the form of some kind of death and resurrection.
Death and resurrection. We’ve just begun Holy Week, which just so happens to be all about that. But every time I go to Mass it’s staring me right in the face, where the entire mystery of the crucifixion and resurrection plays out in front of me. Right before Communion, the priest lifts the broken Host so that it can be seen and says, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world”. It really underlines the point, as if he were saying, “why yes the creator of the world loves you so much and wants to be with you so badly that he has humiliated himself to the point of being this piece of food I’m holding in my hand.” While I recognize that to the unbeliever this often looks absurd and even kind of creepy, the experience rings true for me. It’s an insane and extreme act of love, and it would hurt to withdraw from it, now that I know it.
Bolz-Weber doesn’t fall into the liberal stereotype of allowing the horizontal, social-justice side of Christianity to completely absorb the religion – she’s painfully sensitive to the vertical, transcendent side of it. And, unlike so many modern spiritual memoirs that seek out a sort of antiseptic mysticism, she realizes that the transcendent often intersects with the messy, weird and uncomfortable aspects of our lives.
The whole thing is pretty anti-pelagian, which is refreshing. None of that self help spirituality. For instance:
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. Knowing all of this makes me love and hate Jesus at the same time. Because, when instead of contrasting good and evil, he contrasted truth and evil, I have to think about all the times I’ve substituted being good (or appearing to be good) for truth.
She even kvetches about bad liturgy! That’s like, one of my favourite pastimes these days:
My first experience of trying not to look horrified in front of a crowd happened just before I preached at the ELCA Eucharist in San Francisco when something mis-named “liturgical dance” was being performed. I find liturgical dance to be neither liturgical nor dance and is often performed by liberal, middle-aged women with lots of scarfy things going on.
I didn’t know that liturgical dance was a Lutheran problem too before reading this. I still don’t get it. Why? Why do people think that this is a good idea? What sort of sins have we committed to be punished with something like this?
The stories of some of the people who show up to her parish also act as a bit of an example of how well meaning, but ultimately boneheaded approaches to homosexuality can help drive people away from traditional Christianity. Someone, for instance, recounts being given a rubber wristband to snap whenever homosexual thoughts occur. I remember hearing about rubber wristbands when I was seeking help for dealing with my anxiety problems. They’re a way for people to try to short circuit obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. While I’m far from a full-fledged case of OCD, I know enough about obsessions/compulsions, and enough about homosexual desire to know that it’s silly and harmful to conflate the two.
Yet the tendency to view homosexuality as a form of compulsive behavior, or more specifically as a kind of addiction, seems to have a lot of traction in some Christian circles. As I’ve said before, the mistaken tendency to view the battle for the orthodox understanding of sexuality as occurring within the arena of psychiatry rather than metaphysics will cost you credibility in the long run.* Unless you are, indeed, suffering from some form of sexual addiction, trying to handle your lust in the same way that you try to avoid chain-smoking may make you explode.
Anyway, it’s one of the more worthwhile modern spiritual memoirs out there. Bolz-Weber has indeed won the heart of this traditionalist weirdo. She swears like a sailor, though, so if that bugs you, well, there’s that.
*The error here is generalizable to the sciences in general. Geocentrism and young earth Creationism, anyone?