Out of the Box… In the Box

Bolz-Weber, Nadia. Pastrix: the Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint. New York: Jericho Books, 2013.

Nadia Bolz-Weber’s remarkable career as a pastor, caring for the very ones who were closest to the heart of Jesus, is well known. I don’t need to recite it here. I can’t imagine anyone ever making the argument that she has talked the talk but not walked the walk. She is a role model for all of us.

What I would like to explore briefly here is not her walk but her talk in her book, Pastrix. What fascinates me about this hippie/pastor is not her complete lack of interest in being conventional in lifestyle and pastoral care, but her very conventional theology. It did catch me off-guard that one who was so far “out-of-the-box” in so many ways is so much “in-the-box” theologically. This is not a criticism, but simply an observation of surprise.

Let me address three points. Bolz-Weber seems to buy into atonement theology. This is something that has been long abandoned by most progressives. It is a theology that seems to have developed out of the Jewish practice of sacrificing animals for the forgiveness of sins. To some, it was a way of explaining the death of Jesus, but to many today it seems like a way of minimizing the cruel execution carried out by the Roman government at a time when Christians were trying to appeal to citizens of Rome to join them in their faith. To many progressives today, the only “explanation” for the death of Jesus is that he proved to be a threat to a brutal dictator who had no qualms about squashing him. But for Bolz-Weber, the cross almost seems like a good thing. “God was not sitting in heaven looking down at Jesus’ life and death and cruelly allowing his son to suffer. God was not looking down on the cross. God was hanging from the cross.” Note that here we get the very conventional equation, Jesus = God, something that scholars generally do not believe was either the thought of Jesus or of his first followers. She goes on to write, “God had entered our pain and loss and death so deeply and took all of it into God’s own self so that we might know who God really is.” Later she writes of Jesus, “… who is so for us and with us that he would go to the grave on our behalf….” This may not be atonement theology as typically preached (she is too creative for that), but it is atonement theology, nonetheless.

Bolz-Weber is a big fan of Martin Luther. She talks about the religious suffering he had endured at the hands of Roman Catholic theology until “… one day in 1517, when Luther was reading Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Luther read that we are saved by grace and not through our “works,” and when he read that he realized that he had been lied to.” Thus began the Protestant Reformation. But Luther lied also, and I think Bolz-Weber fails to grasp this. Luther said we are saved by grace, but his whole theology screams out that we are saved by believing the correct things about Jesus and his work for us. And what many Lutherans fail to deal with is the fact that “believing” is a kind of work. It may be a mental work as opposed to physical work, but it is work nonetheless. In fact, for many tortured souls it makes being a Christian even more difficult. Mental work can be much more difficult than what was thought of in medieval times (and still today) as “good works.” You can make yourself go and work in a soup kitchen, but it is quite impossible to make yourself believe something. Luther did not set us free.

Finally, if Satan has lost, as Bolz-Weber claims, then isn’t he the one in need of God’s mercy wagon? Of course, it is quite conventional theology to say that Satan is outside the realm of God’s love, but why? Many outside-the-box thinking theologians believe that even Satan will someday be won over. I can’t imagine Bolz-Weber’s big heart not accommodating that even if her theology doesn’t.

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