The Common Good

An Interview With Nadia Bolz-Weber

Nadia Bolz-Weber likes to have both tradition and innovation happening at the same time in House for All Sinners and Saints, a mission church she founded in Denver, Colorado, that's part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Her church follows the ancient liturgy of the church, yet during Easter Vigil, for example, members are asked to tell the resurrection story in teams. People have made films, written original pieces of choral music and acted out scenes with Barbie dolls.

"We'll call that ancient/future church and different stuff like that, but I find that's what people are drawn to," said Bolz-Weber, who earned a master of divinity degree from Iliff School of Theology.

She has become a leading voice of the emerging church after a hard-drinking life as a stand-up comedian and restaurant worker, and has been described as a "6-foot-1 Christian billboard" for her tattoo-covered arms.

Bolz-Weber spoke with Jesse James DeConto for Faith & Leadership about communicating a historic doctrine in today's culture and holding on to something old in an identifiably Christian way. The following is an edited transcript.

For those clergy who want to be doing what you're doing, what do they need to know?

That they should figure out who their people are and try to be their pastor.

Older folks from the church will say, "What do young adults want? What do they want so that we can do it?" I'm like, "I've never had to ask myself that question."

I get to be in ministry in a context I'm native to, so I've never had to second-guess, "Will they like this?" or, "Will they get this joke?" or, "Would they enjoy doing X, Y or Z?"

There's something about doing ministry as the person you are that ends up making a big difference, and who you are is going to be different than who I am.

I know a lot of pastors, if you ask them, "Do you feel like you can really be here in your work?" they'd say no. I think that ends up being really key.

How do you see your ministry as part of a new Reformation -- the Great Emergence or the Fourth Great Awakening that Phyllis Tickle and Diana Butler Bass have talked about?

The Holy Spirit is subversive, and one of the things the Spirit does is blur lines that we're comfortable maintaining. My experience has been that we like to have these lines of liberal and conservative -- theologically and socially. I think that people, especially the younger generation, have experienced those lines becoming real blurry and are fine with that. I know that's true for myself.

I'm at the point in my life where I don't want to be a part of fundamentalism of the left or the right, mostly because it lacks two things that I can't do without in my life anymore -- which is joy and humility.

I don't see a lot of joy and humility in these extreme stances that people take on either side. So I feel like the Spirit moves in the blurring of those distinctions that we all like to have. Every time you meet somebody who's in a category of conservative or hateful or narrow-minded or fill-in-the-blank, there's some sort of connection that's made, and then you have to rethink the category. That's the work of the Spirit.

I think it's interesting people dismiss the being "spiritual but not religious" thing. My business card for the church says, "We're religious but not spiritual." That yearning that people have is for something that's more than 20 minutes old. I think people want to be connected to something that's more than a whim.

There's very little in our visual field, generally in our lives, that's more than 50 years old. And so to be connected to something that's ancient speaks something to us, because everything around us is new. Since the age of progress, new is better, right?

Now we go, "Wait a minute -- that's not always true." When new is always better, we're not tethered to anything. I think I see a longing in people to be tethered to something, and I like to say that you have to be really deeply rooted in tradition in order to innovate with integrity.

I really like to have those two things going on at the same time all the time -- tradition and innovation. We'll call that ancient/future church and different stuff like that, but I find that's what people are drawn to.

How do you hold on to something old in an identifiably Christian way?

I reject the premise I often hear in progressive Christianity that in order to be down with multiculturalism or with peace and social justice you have to jettison the Bible and Jesus. I think those are the only two things we have going for us.

Having said that, I feel there's something about the Bible and orthodox Christian teachings -- the creeds, the Bible, the liturgy and, most certainly and importantly, the gospel -- that even the church can't [mess] up. We've tried, and we've done a lot of damage, but there's a resiliency to it.

So I think some of the questions we ask end up not being necessary, because the thing that we've been given to caretake is so much more resilient than our errors are. The Bible will still be here long after every book on Oprah's list has faded into memory. It's not going to die; it will not return empty.

I find comfort in that. That's something that's rooted in reality. It's not about me coming up with the next clever thing or me trying to be as relevant as I can possibly be or any of those things, because it has its own integrity. You can't deconstruct the truth.

The reason the Bible is important is because it bears Christ into the world; it's the cradle that holds Christ. As a confessing Christian, the central message of the Bible for me is the revelation of how God chose to reveal God's self.

Therefore, since we know what the central message is, the gospel itself is at the center. It's not one thing; it's like concentric circles.

David J. Lose has this great book, "Making Sense of Scripture." He writes there is one view where everything in scripture is a link -- one of them can't be weak, so they all have to be together and they're all equal and they're all equally strong, and if you doubt that, everything will pull apart.

The view I'm talking about is where the gospel is in the middle, and the farther away something in the Bible gets from that, it has less and less authority.

[To continue reading this interview visit Faith & Leadership where it was first published.]

+ Click here to read more from Nadia Bolz-Weber on the God's Politics blog

Jesse James DeConto is a freelance writer living in Durham, N.C. He interviewed Nadia Bolz-Weber at the Wild Goose Festival. Cherry Crayton is assistant editor of Faith & Leadership.

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