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The Lutheran Pastor Calling for a Sexual Reformation
February 8, 2019
In her new book, “Shameless,” Nadia Bolz-Weber sets out to build a sexual ethic around human flourishing rather than around rules encoded by men centuries ago.Photographs by Dolly Faibyshev for The New Yorker
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Nadia Bolz-Weber, a forty-nine-year-old Lutheran pastor, visited the New Museum, in Manhattan, with her eighteen-year-old son, Judah, and her twenty-year-old daughter, Harper. They were there to see “Au Naturel
,” an exhibition by the English artist Sarah Lucas
, and they wandered among Lucas’s plaster casts of penises standing at all manner of attention, and her sculptures of what looked like either potatoes or people, fashioned out of panty hose. “ ‘Bush is just another word for cunt,’ ” Bolz-Weber read from the wall text. On a film in the next room, the artist massaged her partner’s naked body with raw eggs. In the stairwell that led up to the next floor, Bolz-Weber passed a sculpture of a disembodied arm in the middle of masturbating, set inside a mirrored box. The viewer, by observing, was implicated in the act. “I’m so glad we took the stairs,” she said. “We would’ve missed this.”
It was almost a too-perfect backdrop for Bolz-Weber, whose forearms are covered in tattoos of Mary Magdalene, Lazarus, and an image of the women who stayed with Jesus during the crucifixion—unlike the disciples, who were conspicuously absent. (“They’re the only ones who fucking showed up,” she said, of the women.) She could have leaned against the wall beneath Lucas’s “Christ You Know It Ain’t Easy”—a sculpture of Jesus on the cross made out of Marlboro Lights—and become part of the show. “I wonder how much those cigarettes cost,” Judah, wearing a baseball hat that read “Pride,” mused.
Bolz-Weber had flown in from her home in Denver to promote her book “Shameless,” which was published last week. In it, she calls for a sexual reformation within Christianity, modelled on the arguments of Martin Luther, the theologian who launched the Protestant Reformation by nailing ninety-five theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, in the sixteenth century. (One of the slogans of the church that Bolz-Weber founded in Denver, House for All Sinners and Saints, is “Nailing shit to the church door since 1517.”) Luther rebelled against the legalism that pervaded the Church during the Middle Ages, arguing that the focus on sinful conduct was unnecessary, because people were already redeemed through Christ’s sacrifice. “Luther saw the harm that the teachings of the Church were doing in the lives of those in his care,” Bolz-Weber told me. “He decided to be less loyal to the teachings than to their well-being.” For all of his faults—among them, rabid anti-Semitism—Luther’s theology centered on real life. “He talked about farting and drinking and he was kind of like Nadia,” the bishop Jim Gonia, who heads the Rocky Mountain Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, told me. Gonia summed up Luther’s idea like this: “Now that we don’t need to worry that we’re good enough for God, how do we direct our attention to our neighbor?”
Bolz-Weber argues that this idea should be extended to sex. For millennia, the Church has taught Christians to deny their physical selves, and to consider carnal urges sinful. “We keep looking for a set of laws that will save us,” Bolz-Weber told me. “Relying on grace can feel shaky. If it’s free it must be worthless.” As a result, both men and women lead fractured lives, believing that their sexuality is at odds with their spirituality. “This idea that salvation comes through sexual repression,” Bolz-Weber said, “that shit comes out sideways.” In “Shameless,” she sets out to build a sexual ethic around human flourishing rather than around rules encoded by men centuries ago. This begins by recognizing that with sex, as with everything else, “it’s not about being good—it’s about grace.” This, she argues, is actually just the natural extension of classical Lutheranism. “She’s the most classical Lutheran preacher you’ll ever meet,” Gonia said, adding that the reformation she’s calling for is long overdue. “We have so intellectualized our faith—there’s a need to bring head, heart, and body into the forefront of our lives, for the future of the Christian tradition.”
In 2007, Bolz-Weber started her church with eight people in her living room, and it has since grown to include six hundred members. Last July, Bolz-Weber left the organization. She wanted to avoid “founder’s syndrome,” she told me, so that the church could flourish without her. “It’s awful,” she said. She misses her church, especially on Sundays, when she feels rootless. Yet she also wanted to pursue life as a public theologian. Last May, she put out a video of a mini-sermon about forgiveness that has been viewed nearly forty million times, and she often shares stages with figures like Lance Armstrong, whom she interviewed at a conference on Nantucket, in 2018. “I see from my notes you took drugs you weren’t supposed to and then you lied about it,” she recalled starting her interview with Armstrong. “Oh, my God, I did that shit so many times.”
Bolz-Weber loathes what she sees as the holier-than-thou attitude prevalent among Christians. “Self-righteousness feels good for a moment, but only in the way that peeing your pants feels warm for a moment,” she said. In all of her work, she attempts to skewer sanctimoniousness on both the right and the left. In “Shameless,” she takes aim at everything from Augustine of Hippo, the fourth-century theologian, who taught that Christians should deny the urges of the flesh—“he basically took a dump and the Church encased it in amber,” she writes—to the evangelical purity culture of the past several decades, which holds that women, in particular, must remain virgins before marriage. The hypocrisy of purity culture, she argues, has recently been exposed through the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements, as survivors of sexual violence within the Church speak out about abuse. “Purity culture equals rape culture,” she told me, by placing the onus on women. “It says to young women that your bodies aren’t your own and you can’t be a sexual being until you are the property of your future husband.” Disconnecting women from their sexuality leads to a fundamental fracturing of the self. “You can’t just flick that switch on your wedding night,” she went on.
For Bolz-Weber, the harm caused by purity culture is personal. She was raised in Colorado Springs, in a conservative evangelical sect called the Church of Christ. When she was twelve and thirteen, she underwent instruction in a weekly Christian charm class—of which, as a loud and “mannish” girl, she was in particular need. Femininity, she was taught, consisted primarily of keeping your mouth shut, a skill she has consistently failed to develop. In her teens, she rebelled against the Church, and began drinking heavily. When she was twenty, she joined Vox Femina, a feminist performance-art group whose acts, she told me, weren’t so different from Lucas’s egg massage. Her comfort with being raw onstage led her into a brief career as a standup comic. In 1991, at twenty-two, she stopped drinking, and the misery that had driven her humor began to drain out of her system. Three years later, while newly sober and attempting an unsuccessful career as a call-center psychic, she got pregnant. She decided that she had no choice but to have an abortion. “I was making two hundred dollars a week and hadn’t seen a dentist in six years,” she told me. “There was no way I could afford a child.” Although Bolz-Weber had been raised in a church that saw abortion as evil, she no longer holds to such teachings. “I was devastated, but not because I felt I’d done something evil or even wrong,” she went on. “I was destroyed by the sadness of my life situation.” She had to borrow three hundred dollars from a friend to pay for the procedure.
Four years later, she began attending community college. By 2003, she had transferred to the University of Colorado, Boulder, and in 2005 she graduated and enrolled in a seminary. She had married a Lutheran pastor in 1996; in 2016, after two decades of trying at a marriage without much physical intimacy, she got up the courage to get a divorce. Six months later, she reconnected with an old boyfriend named Eric, and, from the start, the sex was amazing. “It was like an exfoliation,” she told me. Through better sex, her spirit softened, and she found herself closer to God, which led her to rethink the relationship between sex and religion. Bolz-Weber discusses these events in “Shameless,” which is both a theological text and a personal one. Until now, she’s never spoken about her abortion, but she believes that it’s time to begin a new conversation about abortion and religion. The story embodies her mode of preaching as taboo-breaking, which she calls “screw it, I’ll go first.”
Bolz-Weber’s children, Judah and Harper.
One evening this month, over steaks on the Lower East Side, Harper and Judah discussed what it was like to be the children of the famously foulmouthed pastor. Harper is in her second year at Mills College, in Oakland, California, and Judah is working as a coder while finishing high school. They are cut directly from their mother’s cloth, favoring clunky boots, tattoos, and metal belt buckles, and possessing a frank and fresh-faced clarity. Being any pastor’s kid can involve unwanted scrutiny, and their mother’s fame, which has steadily increased, startles them. Strangers often stop their mother to tell her that she has changed their lives; sometimes they break down in tears. Still, both Harper and Judah retain a sense of humor about faith, which grounds them. “Pastors’ kids fall on either end of the spectrum, and we don’t,” Harper said. Growing up in their mother’s church, they found Lutheranism roomy enough for them. Judah is gay, and, as a child, he often wanted to experiment with his presentation of gender and sexuality, which the church welcomed. (Bolz-Weber says that she often has a harder time welcoming straitlaced older members to her flock than younger, more open-minded ones.) Two years ago, when he was sixteen, he told his mother for the first time that he was in a relationship, and that it happened to be with a boy. The next day, she left a tin of condoms on his bed.
Recently, when he turned eighteen, Judah got a tattoo on his bicep that from one direction reads “
saint” and from the other reads “sinner.” Around her neck, Bolz-Weber wears a similarly double-sided “sinner saint” silver pendant, a gift from Eric. To the uninitiated, this might sound like a catchy gimmick, but to the family it’s important. “It’s, like, a Lutheran thing,” Judah said. “It’s a major part of Lutheran theological identity.” The phrase derives from simul justus et peccator
, which means “At the same time saint and sinner,” a concept that Martin Luther used to describe everyday Christians. Bolz-Weber has the Latin words tattooed on her wrist.
Unlike many liberal Christians, who view the stories and acts in the Bible as metaphor, Bolz-Weber holds to their truths. “I believe all the crazy shit,” she told me. She believes that Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana, and that, after he died on the cross, he physically returned to Earth. “I actually believe in his bodily resurrection from the dead,” she said. This is one reason that Bolz-Weber’s popularity is so threatening to conservatives: her fervor appeals to a younger generation of Bible-believing Christians looking for a model of authentic faith outside of conservative American culture.
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Tweeting under the handle @Sarcasticluther, she often launches into the fraught landscape of the Christian Twitterverse to take on those who she believes are perverting faith in the name of politics. Recently, Vice-President Mike Pence defended his wife’s choice to teach at a conservative Christian school, tweeting, “We’ll let the critics roll off our back. But the criticism of Christian education in America must stop.” @Sarcasticluther, referring to religious schools that explicitly forbid homosexuality, replied
, “We will stop criticizing it when you stop using Christ’s name for education that promotes bigotry.”
Of all of the endeavors that have earned Bolz-Weber the ire of conservatives, the most controversial to date is her forthcoming “vagina project
.” Bolz-Weber loathes purity rings: to her thinking, they combine the worst of capitalism with the worst of conservative secular culture, marketing virginity as a fusion between religion and patriarchy. Last February, from the stage at a conference in Los Angeles, Bolz-Weber announced an open invitation to Christian women to mail in their rings. She and the artist Nancy Anderson planned to melt them down and make them into a metal sculpture of a vagina. She looked down at Gloria Steinem, who was sitting in the front row, and offered to send it to her as a gift.
The anger she received in response was overwhelming—owing, in part, to an error on her Web site, which said that the vagina was going to be “golden.” This brought to mind a passage in the Book of Exodus, in which Moses comes down from Mount Sinai lugging the Ten Commandments to discover that the Israelites have fashioned a golden calf and taken to worshipping it as an idol. “No word yet if Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber and her ELCA brethren will be dancing around the golden object at its unveiling. (Exodus 32:19),” one conservative blogger wrote, referring to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She has also been criticized for using the announcement of the metal vagina as a stunt. “People are going to criticize me for self-promotion,” Bolz-Weber told me. “And, yeah, it’s connected to the book, because I believe in the message of the book and I want people to read it.”
She and Anderson have received a hundred and seventy rings, and, the week before I spoke with her, when Bolz-Weber opened a cardboard box of letters and rings at Anderson’s studio, in Nederland, Colorado, she began to cry, which is unusual for her. “It was some crazy energy in that box,” she told me. “Behind every one of those objects is a woman’s pain and the Church’s attempt to shut down her sexuality.” To be certain that the senders are making informed decisions, Bolz-Weber requires that each sign a release. Often, women include handwritten notes on the forms. “To my ring, good riddance. To this project, God bless,” one reads. “Melt it!” another reads. “It only brought me pain.”
One evening, before returning home to Colorado, Bolz-Weber invited fifteen friends to join her at a Thai restaurant in Williamsburg. On one side of the table were several new friends, including Judaline Cassidy, the first woman to be accepted into the Plumbers Local Union 371, in Staten Island, and Jason Flom, the founder of Lava Media and a founding board member of the Innocence Project. Flom, who met Bolz-Weber last summer at a conference, has become one of her many devotees. “After she spoke, I followed her around like a hungry puppy for the next seven hours,” he told me. “It’s kind of an odd thing for an atheist Jew like myself to have, for a spirit animal, a sarcastic Lutheran pastor.” Bolz-Weber had recently given the opening homily at an event for his new venture, the Church of Rock and Roll, in Las Vegas.
On the other side of the table was Melissa Febos, the author of “Whip Smart
,” a memoir of her work as a dominatrix. In the nineties, Bolz-Weber had been Febos’s counsellor at a punk-rock Unitarian summer camp in Western Massachusetts, and the two reconnected several years ago. “Nadia was like this feminist soldier,” Febos told me. “I think I probably shaved my head later because of her.” The camp was unusual. “There were no activities like archery or canoeing,” Febos said. “Instead there was ‘Existential Conversation on the Back Porch.’ ” During swimming, many campers went to the nude section of a beach at the local reservoir. Sometimes “skeevy” locals would come in boats to leer at the teen-age girls on the shore. “They were probably beating off,” Febos said—though, at age thirteen, she didn’t fully understand that. One afternoon, she recalled, Bolz-Weber marched down the beach to yell at the oglers, saying, “Get the fuck out of here. Beat it!” Febos went on, “To stand up to a man naked and have him listen to you—seeing that changed my life.”
After dinner, Bolz-Weber led her entourage down the street to the night club Union Pool, to hear Reverend Vince Anderson and his Love Choir play “dirty gospel,” a bluesy strain of Christian folk. Anderson has been drawing crowds to Brooklyn for the past twenty-five years. His music is a world away from contemporary Christian rock, for which Bolz-Weber has little tolerance. “I find the music to be cheesy in its desire to elicit sentiment,” she told me, wincing at the notion of a praise band. “I don’t like sentimentality mixed with religion. I prefer irony.”
In the back of the dark hall, before the show started, Bolz-Weber ran into Doug Pagitt, a progressive evangelical pastor, who was wearing a porkpie hat. Last June, Pagitt started Vote Common Good, a nationwide bus tour that travelled through fifteen states and thirty-one congressional districts, in advance of the midterm elections. “We wanted to move evangelicals away from an impulse to vote Republican,” he told me. It isn’t that Pagitt is “anti-Republican,” he went on, but that, at this point in history, the Democrats are more aligned with his moral values. If conservatives could make their case for how Christians should vote, Pagitt argued, then liberals could do the same. Bolz-Weber joined two stops of Pagitt’s tour to preach, and loved it.
Although she thrives when addressing tens of thousands of people from a stage, she’s privately nervous about the backlash that “Shameless” will receive, particularly around the issue of abortion. For support, she turns to twelve friends who call themselves the “Hedge of Protection”: eleven women and one man, “with varying degrees of queer,” Jes Kast, a United Church of Christ pastor and a member of the Hedge, told me. The Hedge shares a text thread, and, one afternoon, over lunch, Bolz-Weber received a video message from Kast. Word of the abortion in the book was getting out, and Bolz-Weber was scared. “We will hedge you,” Kast said in the video. “Take a deep breath and know that you are blessing many, many people.”
“Thanks for the love,” Bolz-Weber texted back. “Also, why are you so pretty?”
“B/C of good sex,” Kast replied.
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