Preaching Grace: Nadia Bolz Weber’s visit to Madison

Nadia Bolz-Weber led worship, lectured, and answered audience questions today at First Baptist Church in Madison. I signed up the moment I learned of the event. I’ve read her book Pastrixas well as other things she’s written and I’ve followed her career over the last several years. I was interested to experience her version of the liturgy and to watch her engage with folks from Madison and the wider region.

It couldn’t have been more fun. She’s funny, honest, self-deprecating, and she packs a powerful punch as a preacher and as a theologian. She spoke truth concerning the context in which she works, the congregation she founded and served, and the difficulty of translating that experience to other contexts.

During the first question-answer session, she talked a lot about the larger cultural context, the loss of faith in traditional forms of authority and institutions, and about experience, which she argues is the primary source of authority in our context. Several times she reiterated that if something went against her (or others) experience, whether that thing came from tradition or scripture, she (and presumably most people in contemporary culture) would reject it.

Curiously, though I didn’t point it out, her discussion of scripture, tradition, and experience sounds very much like the “three-legged stool” of Anglicanism. I wondered both as I listened to her, and as I participated in the liturgy about the degree to which she privileges experience over scripture and tradition. In conversation after worship, she pointed out that the skeleton of the liturgy she used is ancient while the content is a product of the local context.

But for all this insistence on the importance of paying attention to contemporary experience, when it comes down to it, she’s quite orthodox theologically. In fact, her description of Luther’s theology of grace was the most cogent and compelling explanation of Luther I’ve heard in some thirty years. It took me back to my own encounter with Luther, the amazing power of God’s grace that I experienced as I read him for the first time, and made me wonder, just for a moment, how it is I’m an Episcopal priest (but that’s another story for another time).

As I listened to her and to the crowd in audience, I was surprised again by the persistence of the spiritual pain caused by the theory of substitutionary atonement. Bolz-Weber made the case that in the cross, we see God gathering up in Godself all of the suffering and evil in the world, including the evil and pain in our own hearts, even Godforsakenness, and bearing witness to the fact that God is present in the midst of the deepest pain and suffering in the world; that God will be present, forever, in human suffering.

And there was a moment of powerful pastoral presence, when in response to an audience member talking about personal sins for which she struggled to find forgiveness, Bolz-Weber simply leaned over the podium and pronounced the words of absolution, reminding us as she did that among the power Jesus gave his disciples was the power to forgive sins, something many Christians don’t do often enough.

A crowd of hundreds was in attendance. The overwhelming majority were Lutheran, with representation from all of the other mainline denominations, as well as a smattering of evangelicals. Like most gatherings of the sort in Madison, it was overwhelmingly white, although rather younger than most other religious gatherings I’ve attending. And by a substantial majority (especially in the morning), it was female.

All in all, it was an inspiring day. If Bolz-Weber and others like her are able to articulate the power of grace and the Good News of Jesus Christ in our context, whatever happens to the institutional churches, the love of Jesus will continue to transform lives and create transformative communities. Thanks be to God!

Loving Jesus, hating religion

There’s a video making the rounds in which someone I’ve never heard of recites poetry about the contrast between (true) Jesus and (false) religion. It’s received publicity from Sojourners, among others.

Nadia Bolz-Weber’s response is here.

So…I believe in Religion AND Jesus.  I believe in the Gospel.  I believe in the transformative, knock you on your ass truth of what God has done in Christ.  I believe that I can only know what this following Jesus thing is about when I learn it from people I would never choose out of a catalog when we all gather together as the broken and blessed Body of Christ around the Eucharistic meal.  I believe that I am the problem at least as often as I am the solution. I believe in participating in sacred traditions that have a whole lot more integrity than anything I could come up with myself.  I believe I need someone else to proclaim the forgiveness of sins to me because I cannot create that for myself.  I believe that Jesus is truly present in the breaking of the bread and that where 2 or more are gathered he is there.   That’s religion AND Jesus.  May God make us worthy of it all.

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is scathing in his response:

See the problem is, Bethke doesn’t mean religion either, but he’s rehearsing a popular evangelical trope, that the freedom that Christians find through Jesus is freedom from structure, organization, and authority. Of course, Bethke, like all Christians, is a member of a religion, he holds “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs,” as defines it. What Bethke is actually railing against is people whose expression of religion doesn’t look like he believes it should. Thus, rather than discounting religion, he is just discounting other religions, or even just other manifestations of his own religion.

Read it all: “Lame Poetry, False Dichotomies, Bad Theology.

My question, as someone with an academic background in theology–Haven’t we heard all this before? Remember Karl Barth? Of course, Barth’s critique of religion focused on its human origins, to which he contrasted the divine origin of the Word of God. On a lighter note, as Fitzgerald points out, this critique of religion is something of a trope in Evangelicalism. I would only add that the rise of nondenominational churches is in itself a product of the Evangelical critique of religion.

Rearranging (redesigning) the church furniture

I love the creative incongruity of the internet, which often is reflected either in my Google Reader or facebook feeds. To wit: Today two facebook friends linked to things they had written about seating in churches. Nadia Bolz-Weber has a post on Patheos about the restrictions placed on worship and community by traditional church pews. Scott Gunn highlights news that the Church of England is seeking new designs for church chairs. Gunn is having some fun at the CoE’s expense, but Bolz-Weber is completely serious as she points out the clear message sent to contemporary culture by traditional interior church architecture and design:

There is a critical “why” to the reason we do things this way that extends far beyond taste.  It’s missional.  In a postmodern context people are increasingly leery of organized religion and it’s attendant obsession with hierarchy.  We have peeked behind the curtain and seen only scared little men. So a shared, communitarian experience of liturgy in which we live as the Priesthood of all Believers is inviting in a way that the formality of the traditional church is not.  (To be clear, this is not the same as saying that we no longer need clergy – I still hold the office of Word and Sacrament but I hold it on behalf of the whole community and with their permission).  This population of urban, postmodern young-ish people have a deep critique of consumer culture and as such are far more interested in being producers than consumers.  This goes for church as well. And being able to worship in the round creates an accountability of presence to each other and a shared experience which allows for the community to create the thing they are experiencing rather than consuming what others have produced for them.

It’s an interesting perspective on the debate that’s going on over at the Cafe about “what’s up for grabs.”

There’s more to say about the historical development of the pew. Bolz-Weber aligns it to the Protestant Reformation and the importance of preaching. In fact, preaching was important before the rise of Protestants–the Dominicans, for example, are officially known as the Order of Preachers. Medieval preachers, and many Catholics and Protestants in the 16th century complained, often in their sermons, about the lack of attention paid to their words by the assembled congregation. Pews were in part an attempt not to make the sermon more central but to force disciplined behavior on churchgoers and to establish a clear hierarchical relationship between clergy and people, which undergirds Bolz-Weber’s larger point.

On the other hand, one of the odder moments in the debate between radical reformer Conrad Grebel and Huldreich Zwingli had to to with Grebel’s insistence that communion should be received while seated, just as the disciples were seated at the Last Supper.

Authenticity and post-modern Christianity–but don’t expect me to get tattoos

Last week, I posted a link to an article that quoted Bishop Greg Rickel of the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, in which he likened the church in the twenty-first century to a base camp–not an end point on a journey, but a staging area. It’s an image I like because it captures what I’ve been encountering in Madison. People come to church for all sorts of reasons; we may see them for only a single service, perhaps a year or two if we’re lucky, then they are off on the next stage of their journey. Often their temporary stay is dictated by other realities–school or job change–but often it is because of life changes. And the latter is particularly new. Wade Clark Roof and other sociologists of religion saw such trends in American religion in the 90s–people participating in organized religion for a few years and then withdrawing.

Rickel has a great deal to say in another interview about what it’s like to be bishop in post-Christian America (i.e., the Pacific Northwest) after serving parishes in the South and Southwest. He also has interesting things to say about the importance of authenticity, good holy discourse and conversation, and good music. The interview is here.

Among the things he has to say about young adults:

I sense the younger generations looking for a fun place, yes, energy, good conversation, deep reflection about serious issues, but also a place where diversity of thought is honored and where they learn the life skills to keep that greater conversation going in their lives. In the midst of all of that they know the power of mystery, and don’t necessarily want a place of answers, but more a place of reflection, meditation, silence. True engagement, instead of the veneer of much of our religion, would be the more subtle but short way of saying it.

Bishop Rickel blogs here.

If authenticity is what matters, check out this profile of Nadia Bolz-Weber.

Bolz-Weber said her church is “anti-excellence and pro-participation.”

They sing the hymns a cappella rather than rely on a choir, organist or band. They divvy up the readings. They create their own artwork.

“We don’t do anything really well,” she said, “but we do it together.”

Bolz-Weber blogs here.