Jason Byassee is pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, N.C., and a fellow in theology and leadership at Duke Divinity School. He holds the Butler chair in homiletics and biblical hermeneutics at the Vancouver School of Theology in British Columbia.
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MOST MEDIA ACCOUNTS of Nadia Bolz-Weber focus on her tattoos. She has the liturgical year tattooed on one arm, from creation to Pentecost; another features Lazarus still wrapped, but very much alive. She got that one while struggling to write a sermon on Jesus’ raised friend.
The tattoos on a 6’1” woman with a taste for punk, a bad-girl past, and a gay-inclusive church—House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver—make for easy picking for secular media. You may have caught Bolz-Weber’s book Pastrix on the New York Times bestseller list. Wise, self-aware, hipster Christian celebrities have a market for books, and she’s tapped it.
In contrast to much of the superficial media coverage, what’s most interesting about Bolz-Weber is her deep traditionalism. “Secular media doesn’t understand the difference between orthodox and conservative,” she tells me through a toothy smile, blue-green eyes blazing over thick-rimmed ’50s-era glasses.
“House,” as the community calls itself, is almost medieval in its liturgy. There are no instruments, just a cappella chant and pillows for kneelers at a prayer station. The Eucharist is served weekly. Eastern Orthodox iconography drapes the church’s interior, stoles, website, and literature. Latin hymns fill the communion liturgy on the Sunday evening I attend. Bolz-Weber is proud to be using Franz Schubert’s setting for the Mass.
This is not high church fussiness; it is liturgical and churchly orthodoxy for scruffy hipsters. Bolz-Weber explains that many of her fellow social progressives want to jettison the Bible and Jesus in order to be more inclusive. “But why should we jettison the only things we have going for us?” she asks.
With Piercing Wit and Deep Affection
THERE IS STILL a political definition of “Christian” out there that is depressingly familiar: the right-wing voting, Fox News-sourced agitprop spewer who uses Jesus to shoehorn others into something the actual Lord of the universe could care less about. Lillian Daniel is not going to take this definition anymore, but she’s not mad as hell. She’s winsome as heaven. Her humor clears the way for her preaching to hit home, and her love for the church, both her congregation and universal, anchors this work. Give it out to your friends and to strangers on the street.
First, Daniel’s humor: It is hard to give examples of her humor without them falling flat. She’s at her droll best when the reader’s defenses aren’t up. This isn’t the humor of the warm-up act before the preacher gets on to something serious—she often drives her meatiest points home with her funniest stuff. For example, a running motif in the book is the airplane companion who thinks he’s being edgy when he says to the pastor beside him that he sees God in rainbows and sunsets. This “spiritual but not religious” mindset is now the bland norm in America, not some spectacular new revelation: “They are far too busy being original to discover that they are not.”
Some of Daniel’s most withering observations are reserved for the mainline church she loves: the sneering religious critic is told “all those questions actually make him a very good mainline Protestant.” The self-congratulatory short-term missionary who comes home convinced how “lucky” she is to live in America receives this barb: “When generosity begets stupidity it wasn’t really generosity to begin with.”
The Logic of Online Community
When trying to make sense of the changes that new media have brought to us, we can use either supplementary or substitutionary logic. With supplementary logic, Facebook et al. extend the range of our embodied relationships; with substitutionary logic, social media replace them. Those who want to use social media to enhance their churches' outreach implicitly use supplementary logic. Those who want to worship online and don't want to change out of their pajamas or meet other people in their messy particularity ... well, you get the idea.
A recent trip to New York City for a first meeting of the New Media Project Research Fellows reminded me of the superiority of supplementary to substitutionary logic. This happened because the neighborhood around Union Theological Seminary is so deliciously, specifically, embodiedly particular. Union itself is a marvel: its gothic architecture makes it unmistakable that this is a place with history. Niebuhr taught here; Bonhoeffer smoked and worried and decided to go home here; James Cone and Christopher Morse teach here; Serene Jones leads here. The neighborhood extends this particularity; the Jewish Theological Seminary, down Seminary Row, has a glorious crest above its door: "And the bush was not consumed." A tunnel under Union leads you to the grandeur of Riverside Church, where Fosdick and Forbes thundered. Go a few blocks south and east, and you're at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the largest interior church space in North America. The morning I visited, the light shone blue through the rose window, filling the clerestory with incandescent beauty. The chapel at Columbia University, with its stained glass above the altar depicting St. Paul preaching on Mars Hill, is a perfect image for situated Christian truth vis-à-vis the gods on campuses and in Manhattan.
It is hard to remember how controversial the ministry of Martin Luther King Jr. was during his life.
Liberal churches are dying. Conservative churches are growing.