One of my favorite clerical colleagues to date is the rabbi from the Northwest with a potty mouth to make Dick Nixon blush like a ball belle.
Bookish in looks and sneakily demur in public settings, one dark bar and three beers later and he’s Shecky Greene meets Henny Youngman meets every last word your parents dared you to utter come junior high.
Trouble is in between the f-bombs and the did-he-really-say-thats are smart, at times searing observations that sound more like the Book of Isaiah than snarky after-hours rabbinical riffs. So intertwined are my colleague’s prophecy and profanity that he lives in a constant state of self-monitoring.
He’s only half joking when he says that he fears getting wound up some Friday night and letting fly with a string of nasties in the service of a point.
Conversely, in-role self-monitoring is not a problem when the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber stands before her Denver congregation. Or anyplace else for that matter.
Bolz-Weber, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) pastor is garnering national attention with a message and style more conducive to a beer pong tournament than your average house of prayer.
Over six feet tall, heavily inked and sporting a semi-spiked do à la Joan Jett circa 1978, Bolz-Weber’s journey from conservative Christianity to standup comedian to parish minister is described in detail in her best-seller memoir, “Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint”.
An evocative read, Bolz-Weber’s theology is heavy on both sin and grace – a familiar touchstone for a denomination whose namesake so trusted divine forgiveness that he counseled others to “sin boldly”.
She is no literalist when it comes to sin, instead invoking biblical figures such as Mary Magdalene as evidence that life is the richer for one’s struggles, even chronic failures.
But what Bolz-Weber most contributes to American religious discourse in these pious, haughty times is her call for an abiding personal humility shaped by hardship; and couched in unseemly but historically faithful coarseness.
To hear and read her is to be reminded of the dusty, often savage context from which Judaism, Christianity and Islam arose – a People’s History of the three largest faith traditions in which the earthy God of the proletariat seekers speaks in their language, their acts, their stories and their symbols.
But even with reflection and history on her side, Bolz-Weber has struck a liturgical nerve by using straight up bar talk in church sanctuaries. And she knows it.
In a follow-up discussion to a recent presentation, she observed, “People often say one of two things to me after they hear me speak: Thanks for your honesty and thank you for your refreshing authenticity. Here’s how high the bar is. People will wait in line to say thanks for not lying to me or pretending to be someone else. Uh, you’re welcome?”
Call it authenticity or call it blasphemy, Nadia Bolz-Weber’s iconoclastic rise in popularity signals that at least a segment of American religion will respond to religious leaders who call for a grittier, less dainty faith – what she calls communion with the God who prefers to hang out on the underside.
Speaking for my rabbi homey and me, we’re hoping to hell some of them are Jews and Unitarian Universalists.
Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Tarpon Springs, Fla. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2013
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