The founder of the House for All Sinners & Saints is a different kind of pastor
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor, author, and founder of The House for All Sinners and Saints. She does ministry differently. In Denver, Colorado, Nadia felt called to serving in the ministry after eulogizing at a friend’s funeral. And in 2008, she started a church. With much of the congregation a part of the LGBT community, the church also has a “Minister of Fabulousness,” a drag queen.
What’s the story with religion and spirituality?
Nadia Bolz-Weber: People are hungry for religion and spirituality that’s not utter bullshit. People tell me their religious backgrounds all the time. They meet me, they tell me how they were raised, and I’ve been privy to that story a lot. People tell me why they aren’t Christian, which I always understand, but never have I heard somebody go, “Ya know, I was raised Christian but I left the church because I feel like that Jesus guy just doesn’t have a lot to offer.” Half the time that people leave the church isn’t because they don’t believe the message anymore, they believe in the core message of Christianity so much that they can’t stomach being part of an institution that says it’s about it, when it’s about the opposite. Church culture can be toxic and alienating, and I’m like, “the only chance you have of hearing the Gospel is if you show up to a church?” It’s like your only chance of hearing Mozart is if you’re in a dentist chair. It’ll hurt, you might be shamed for your behavior while sitting there, and then you hear Mozart. That’s not right!
That’s a wild comparison
NBW: Totally. There’s a longing in many humans to return to the simple system they were raised in, yet seldom a path where they can without self harming emotionally or socially. Even if we’re raised Christian and we leave, even if there’s a longing to find a path back to those stories or music or teachings, how do you do that if the only way is to “culturally commute” from who you are to who the church is? Most grownups aren’t going to do that.
Rob Bell said, “I don’t know if non-Christians are going to hell
Christians should welcome people into the fold without agenda.
NBW: Yeah, I know. Rob Bell came out with a book Love Wins in 2011. People were furious. They voted him off the Christian island. Why? Because he said, “I don’t know if non-Christians are going to hell. I don’t really think hell exists, or that a loving God desires for people to go.” And everyone’s like, ‘Come on, if Christianity isn’t about anyone who differs from us burning in eternal torment then what’s the point?” How sad. When religion taps into the worst instincts in humanity and acts as thou God is cosigning on those instincts, toxic things happen. They go to the Bible to justify their bullshit. ‘Oh look, uh, the fact that men should be dominating women, that’s not my opinion, that’s “God’s” opinion.’ Bullshit! The person saying that happens to be the person benefiting from that system. You can’t benefit from a system of dominance, then point to the Creator of the Universe as the ‘reason.’”
It’s that whole, “well the Bible’s very clear about ‘blank.”
NBW: The Bible’s not clear about shit! The Bible is a library. Let’s say you have this huge library in your house and ask, “What’s the clear message my library has to say about ‘gender” The poetry is going to say one thing, history says another, prose says something, science fiction says something else. It’s like saying, “Oh no, the library is clear.”
You talk about drag queens, gays, weirdoes in your congregation next to suburbanites. What the fuck is up with that?
NBW: “I don’t know. I thought it was going to be all marginalized weirdo’s. Instead, ‘normal’ people started showing up saying, ‘we want to be a part of this.’ I freaked out. I had a hard time welcoming them. I thought, ‘you’re going to mess up our “weird.” Ultimately, it allowed me to have compassion for ‘main stream’ people having a hard time welcoming those on the margins. That was the irony; I had the same instinct in a reverse way. It was so much weirder with everyone together. You look around and go, “I’m really unclear with what all these people have in common.” My instinct towards the purity of weirdness and wanting to maintain that is very related to main stream people maintaining the purity of their culture. Though, there is historically harm done by people in the “center” alienating people in the margins, so I don’t want to say it’s exactly the same.
You released a video about forgiving assholes saying, “Free people are dangerous people.” LGBT communities are continuously marginalized, judged, hurt by others, etc. Tell us about forgiveness.
Forgiveness is difficult to move towards when you’re still wounded
NBW: I was at a concert recently and someone recognized me and said, “You’re that forgiveness lady.” I’m like, “No, sorry to not be clear. I’m the lady who’s shitty at forgiveness.” One of the reasons that forgiveness is difficult is it’s hard to move towards it when you’re still wounded. If pain from harm is still in you, it feels like we’re betraying ourselves. Yet, I think the opposite is true. We’re connected to that harm as long as we haven’t allowed ourselves to be free from it. It can metastasize. I don’t want the “shittyness” of another person to metastasize in my heart. I have to move towards forgiving that person, not because they deserve it, but because I don’t want to absorb their toxins. I want to be free.
Do gays and lesbians have a place at the table with God?
NBW: God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and gives away shit for free in a way that doesn’t make any sense to any of us. The designations “Gay” “Lesbian” “Muslim” “Republican” “Black” or “White,” doesn’t matter when it comes to our connection to our Divine Source. Period. That’s a bunch of shit we make up to feel superior to others. I don’t think theologically it has weight. It has weight in our culture. People have experienced marginalization, harm and domination, those are important things to tease through when it comes to ‘culture,’ but when it comes to religion, all of those things I find meaningless. When we want to arrange this seating chart at God’s table, that shit is about us, and never about God.
Let’s talk about sex! A big part of our “coming out” as a community has been a label of sexual deviancy given to us by Evangelicals. Tell us about pleasure.
NBW: Pleasure is a complicated thing for human beings because it’s easy to fall off one or the other side of the spectrum. Either we’re over indulging to obesity, or we’re eating elimination diets where four foods are pure enough to consume. We restrict or indulge in ways that are equally harmful.
A chapter I rewrote many times in my new book was about pleasure and pornography. I refused to pick the low-hanging “Moral Outrage Fruit” of Liberals and Conservatives about porn. Now, there are issues of justice and exploitation within the porn industry, no question, but it doesn’t mean consumption of pornography should be shamed. There is ethically sourced porn. There are people who say it’s sexual immorality, but if you take Liberals and Conservatives who show outrage and made a Venn diagram of those who consume pornography, you’d see a huge overlap.
“I’m not going to shame people when they already feel ashamed.”
There are people who consume pornography in a shame based way, it would be horrible if people know because they are those who are morally outraged as Liberals or Conservatives. That’s a lonely place to exist, let’s take that part out of it. I’m not going to shame people when they already feel ashamed. People have viewed erotic imagery since we could scratch it on the inside of caves. To see erotic images or hear someone in the cave next to you, your body reacts as an empathic response. We respond empathetically when we hear a baby crying! Our bodies are wired to have empathic responses to others, and it includes erotic ones. To say you should have shame for that is problematic. If we took shame out of the fact that people like to view erotic imagery, the compulsive behavior around consuming pornography would decrease. We have a perverted relationship to pleasure. Just like somebody who is eating so much that their senses are dulled. We have greater access to erotic imagery and high fructose corn syrup that we’ve ever had in history. It’s hard to appreciate the pleasure of an apple when you’ve just drank 32oz. of Mountain Dew. Pleasure is not the problem. A rhythm of experiencing pleasure and having time where it’s absent so you appreciate it again is key.
If the teachings of the church are harming people, then we need to rethink those teachings. The messages of the culture can be harming as well. Continually, culture shows us the “ideal body” that’s worthy of desire, what the legs look like, the face, the hair, and we judge how far or close we are to that ideal, how worthy are we of desire based in this ridiculous notion of “perfection.” Culture has this lie of “not enough-ness”. We’re not having enough sex, our partner isn’t sexy enough, and we’re not sexy enough. Messages from the culture cause harm; however, that’s a false equivalency. Church and culture cause harm, but the difference is that the “culture” is not implying that the Creator of the Universe is disgusted by my cellulite. The church is saying that the Creator of the Universe, God in the heavens above, knows if you’re masturbating, and God is super disappointed. How ridiculous. That causes harm because these teachings are done in God’s name.
In the Gay community, it runs deep.
NBW: I know it does. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen eating disorders among gay men, and nobody talks about it. I’ve seen it in my pastoral work, in my personal life. That constant feeling of being convicted about how far you are from that ideal, “Am I worthy of desire because of how my body looks?” It’s toxic. I’ve also seen the way in which the Gay community has such of variety of things that can be seen sexy as well. The “bear” thing, the “otter” thing, you know what I mean? There is a way in which “difference” can be eroticized in the Gay community that it’s not in the straight community.
You say, “I feel less alone when someone shares the parts of themselves that are more jagged than smooth.” Gays and Lesbians are amazing people, overflowing with gifts, but some of us can have jagged edges. What can a more authentic connection to one another do for our community?
NBW: An honest conversation, especially in the Gay male community, about the tyranny of the “perfect body” is important. In baptismal liturgy we ask, “Do you renounce the devil and all of its empty promises?” The idea of renouncing things that are empty promises is very powerful. Something we can do in community is to tell the truth about it. It has less power if you say, “that’s an empty promise and I’m renouncing it. I’m renouncing all the money I spent to obtain this “thing”; I renounce all of the fateful messages in my head that tell me I’m not worthy.” To do this in community has a real power to it.
What’s next for Nadia Bolz-Weber?
NBW: My book comes out in January, Shameless: the Sexual Reformation, calling out harm that’s been done to people as a result of what the church has taught them about sex, body, and gender. You can draw a straight fucking line from what people were told in church and the harm in their lives. The book explores that. I’m also instigating an art project where women mail me their purity rings. They’ll be melted into a sculpture of a vagina.
How can people stay connected with you?