How does the church affect people’s sex lives? It’s a big question with no easy answers, but one that former Evangelical Lutheran Church pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber is willing to confront.
And yet when you picture an important Christian theologian, best-selling author and former Lutheran pastor, you probably don’t picture Bolz-Weber. She is the now-famous foul-mouthed, tattoo-festooned recovering alcoholic and former stand-up comic who founded the House for All Sinners and Saints, a progressive Lutheran congregation that has become known as a haven for ex-evangelicals and other religious or not-so-religious misfits. Her 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 f**cking showed up,” she said, of the women.
Based in Denver, Colorado, her arguments around sexual reformation comes from firsthand experience — from stories shared by parishioners at her former congregation, and from the text of the Bible itself.
In her new book, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, she takes a bold look at how conservative Christian norms around sexuality affect worshippers in every aspect of their lives.
She says the decision to write the book was deeply personal because it was connected to;
“…negotiating that part of my life as an adult sexual being who’s divorced and also a pastor. I had to really reflect on, what are the teachings of the church? Were the things I learned in youth group still rules that apply to me now?”
In the words of the book jacket, “She urges us to take antiquated, sexist ideas about sex, gender, and our bodies and burn them the f— down and start over.”
Below is an excerpt of an interview Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW) did with Lisa Gray (LG) from Houston Chronicle.
LG: How did you come to write this book?
NBW: There were two main reasons. One was personal. One was pastoral. The pastoral reason was that after a decade of pastoring people who had experienced a lot of harm to their lives because of messages that the church had given them, I got to a point where I thought, I just have to tell these stories.
The other was just that, I’m ordained in one of the most liberal denominations in the country, and yet there’s a document I had to sign that said I’d be faithful in marriage or celibate in singleness. As a divorced, middle-aged woman who started seeing someone, I thought, why in the world would the church tell me it’s not OK for me to have a sexual partner? They would trust me with the care of souls, but they would not trust me to make good decisions about my own sexual health and behaviour.
I found that astonishing because the relationship I was in caused so many things within me to soften. It was so good for my body and my heart and my countenance. Why would the church say, “No, you shouldn’t do this?” It made no sense to me.
I was on a book tour in Europe. My boyfriend is not of the Christian faith. I Skyped with him with maybe unwarranted urgency, and I said, “Why do you think the church has tried to do this for so long? Why has the church tried to control sex?”
Without skipping a beat, he said, “I just assume that the church saw sex as its competition.”
I was like, “Ooooh. I’m writing a book.”
I couldn’t tell you exactly what it meant, but I knew it was true. I thought, I have to explore this.
LG: Could you talk about your faith? You’re not the squishy everybody’s OK, Jesus-was-a-nice-guy-but-no-miracles kind of believer. But you’re also not fundamentalist.
NBW: I believe all the crazy things. I really do believe that Jesus was God incarnate, the third member of the Trinity, that the miracles really happened. I believe that all of it’s true. Whether every single bit of it is a fact or not doesn’t interest me.
Postmodern people end up stuck between the Enlightenment and fundamentalism. The Enlightenment stole a bit of the enchantment from us. As it handed us human reason with one hand, it stole enchantment with the other.
Fundamentalism really was a response to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment said human reason and the scientific method were the only reliable way of understanding truth. So the opposite response was, the Bible must be literally true.
Yeah, I believe Jesus literally resurrected from the dead. I love that there was an actual wounded body at that part in the story. The Gospels are disturbingly physical throughout, so it doesn’t make sense to me that the Resurrection was just a feeling people had.
I’m down with the crazy parts of it. It’s the truest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.
Also, I talk about sin a lot. But not as a list of naughty behaviours, of immoral things to avoid so you know you’re good. Francis Spufford wrote a book called “Unapologetic,” which I read once a year. He knows that the word “sin” is really problematic, really loaded. So he uses “the human propensity to f— things up” every time he wants to use the word “sin.” And it’s like, “Oh, my God, I get what he’s saying now.”
I take the human propensity to f— things up very seriously, in my own life and in the world. I have the evidence for it around me. That thing of saying that people are simultaneously sinner and saint, 100 % of both: I can’t get on board with this idea that we’re all one or the other.
LG: You call for reformation, and you talk about Martin Luther and breaking free from doctrine. With religion, without doctrine, how do you know what’s real?
NBW: (Laughs.) That’s not a question I get from reporters a lot. Like, wow, that’s not an easy one across the plate there.
LG: Yeah, but c’mon. It’s important. How do you know?
NBW: I think the starting point for any theology — preaching, doctrine, teaching, whatever — should be a little thing I call “actual reality.” Whereas a lot of the church, their starting point is a doctrine that they’re attached to, or their starting point is a Bible verse they think God wrote, and then that’s the centre of gravity, the foundational truth. That’s the lens they use to view everything, and if something doesn’t fit, they have to dismiss it.
I’m pragmatic in that way. I saw the actual reality of people’s actual realities, and bodies and spirits, in my care in 10 years of parish ministry. And I went, “Oh, my gosh.” First of all, where’s the origin of the harm? The origins of the harm was the teachings of the church and the shame they created about people’s bodies and minds and spirits.
And then, I said, “What is it in Christian thought and teaching and practice that could maybe heal the harm the church has done?” Sometimes the origin of the harm is the most potent source of the healing.
I’m just stealing a page from Luther. These medieval people, who weren’t literate, just went along with what the church said, and the selling of indulgences was impoverishing people’s spirits and bank accounts.
I mean, it was a hell of a fundraising strategy! It built St. Peter’s! So genius on that level. Super-destructive to the lives of humans, though.
Luther was more loyal to the people in his care than he was to the teachings of the church.
LG: If there’s one thing people take away from your books, what do you want it to be?
NBW: That shame does not originate from God’s voice. Shame originates from people who claim to be speaking for God. That’s different. People need to know that.
LG: Is there anything else I should ask?
NBW: Were you involved in breaking that story about the Southern Baptists? (Editor’s note: Earlier this month the Chronicle series “Abuse of Faith,” examined two decades of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches.)
Man, I think it would be fascinating if somebody could study oppressive teachings in churches — the role of women in different Christian traditions, how oppressive their teachings are regarding sexuality — and the correlation with sexual misconduct, assault, and sexual crimes against children and women.
I don’t see a lot of it happening in the Unitarian Church; you know what I mean? Or the United Church of Christ. That’s not to say that they don’t have their scandals — individually, anecdotally. Of course, anecdotally, there are tons of Catholic parishes and Baptist churches that are not rife with sexual scandals.
But holy s—, is there ever a correlation between these things. And yet Roman Catholics and conservative evangelicals double down on, “This is God’s plan! This is God’s plan that women not be allowed in the higher echelons of leadership of churches. It’s God’s plan that everyone have these very shame-based sexually repressed teaching.”
And it’s like, I don’t think it’s God’s plan for the results to be what they are, what’s clearly happening, what’s breaking in prime time every day.
There’s a section in my book where I write: “If you look at your life and your church, and you see that these teachings have done no harm to anybody in your life or your church and has even provided the plan for flourishing, then this book’s not for you. Good news, though: The Christian publishing world is your oyster. You will find no lack of books to help you double down on what you believe. This book is for everyone else.”
LG: You must not get invited to a lot of Christian bookstores.
NBW: My books are literally not sold in Christian bookstores. Never have been. This is my third New York Times best-selling book. Never has one of my books been sold in a Christian bookstore. The general public enjoys them. Just not Christians. Well, not conservative Christians.
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