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The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint
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— Jeff Chu, Author of Does Jesus Really Love Me?
Pastrix: a derogatory term used by Christians who refuse to recognize female pastors.
Heavily tattooed and foul-mouthed, Nadia Bolz-Weber, a former stand-up comic, sure as hell didn't consider herself to be religious-leader material—until the day she ended up leading a friend's funeral in a smoky downtown comedy club. Surrounded by fellow alcoholics, depressives, and cynics, she realized: These were her people. Maybe she was meant to be their pastor.
Using life stories—from living in a hopeful-but-haggard commune of slackers to surviving the wobbly chairs and war stories of a group for recovering alcoholics, from her unusual but undeniable spiritual calling to pastoring a notorious con artist—Nadia uses humorous narrative and poignant honesty to portray a woman who is both deeply faithful and deeply flawed, giving hope to the rest of us along the way.
This is the book for people who hunger for a bit of hope that doesn't come from vapid consumerism or navel-gazing; for women who talk too loudly and guys who love chick flicks; for the gay man who loves Jesus and won't allow himself to be shunned by the church. In short, this book is for every thinking misfit suspicious of institutionalized religion but still seeking transcendence and mystery.
Updated with a new afterword, Pastrix is wildly entertaining, sardonically irreverent, and deeply resonant—a messy, beautiful, prayer—and profanity-laden narrative about an unconventional life of faith.
Table of Contents
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pastrix (pas • triks) noun
1). A term of insult used by unimaginative sections of the church to define female pastors.
2). Female ecclesiastical superhero: Trinity from The Matrix in a clerical collar.
"What on earth was that noise?"
"A pastrix just drop-kicked a demon into the seventh circle of hell!"
3). Cranky, beautiful faith of a Sinner & Saint.
Shit," I thought to myself, "I'm going to be late to New Testament class." The traffic on I-25 in Denver had stopped. Not just slowed to an irritating pace, but fully stopped. For some reason (misanthropy, most likely), I always assume that any traffic stoppage or slowage is due not to construction or an accident, but to human stupidity, as if someone had suddenly forgotten how to drive or decided to stop and pick wildflowers on the interstate.
Attempting to redirect my general disdain for whatever human idiocy has us all stopped on the freeway, and in one of the countless attempts in my life to "be more spiritual," I tried to be present and find something beautiful to distract myself. The beauty of Colorado is something you have to try to actively ignore rather than something you have to try to find, yet so often I forget this. The sky on that day was the kind of clear blue that cannot be replicated or sufficiently described. Most human attempts to recreate this particular blue, while well meaning, are facile. It can only be experienced. And on that fall day, it filled every inch of sky, only occasionally punctuated by a fluffy, little Bob Ross cloud.
The sky was so gorgeous that I rolled down all my windows and leaned forward to try to see more of it out of my windshield. A trucker next to me winked and eyed my tattooed arms—unaware, I'm certain, that the big tattoo covering my forearm was of Saint Mary Magdalene and that I was a Lutheran seminary student, soon to become a Lutheran pastor. Truckers, bikers, and ex-convicts smile at me a lot more than, say, investment bankers do. I smiled back, and then returned my glance to the blue sky above, becoming lost in the thought of the outrageous out-there-ness of space. The beauty of our sky is really just a nice way for the earth to protect us from the terror of what's so vast and unknowable beyond. The boundlessness of the universe is disturbing when you think about it. It's too big and we're too small. Suddenly, in that moment, all I could think was: What the hell am I doing? Seminary? Seriously? With a universe this vast and unknowable, what are the odds that this story of Jesus is true? Come on, Nadia. It's a fucking fairy tale.
And in the very next moment I thought this: Except that throughout my life, I've experienced it to be true.
I once heard someone say that my belief in Jesus makes them suspect that I intellectually suck my thumb at night. But I cannot pretend, as much as sometimes I would like to, that I have not throughout my life experienced the redeeming, destabilizing love of a surprising God. Even when my mind protests, I still can't deny my experiences. This thing is real to me. Sometimes I experience God when someone speaks the truth to me, sometimes in the moments when I admit I am wrong, sometimes in the loving of someone unlovable, sometimes in reconciliation that feels like it comes from somewhere outside of myself, but almost always when I experience God it comes in the form of some kind of death and resurrection.
The mystery of the universe (the same universe that sometimes still makes me wonder what the hell I'm doing and that maybe this really is a fairy tale) was created by God. And God chose to reveal who God is by slipping into skin and walking among us as Jesus. And the love and grace and mercy of Jesus was so offensive to us that we killed him. The night before this happened Jesus gathered with some real fuck-ups, held up bread and said take and eat; this is my body for you. And then he went to the cross. But death could not contain God. God said "yes" to all of our polite "no thank yous" by rising from the dead. Death and resurrection. It is the Christian story as it has been told to me, starting with Mary Magdalene, the first one to tell it; and as it has been confirmed in my experience.
I have only my confession—confession of my own real brokenness and confession of my own real faith to offer in the chapters that follow. My story is not entirely chronological—time often folds in on itself throughout the book—but rather, it's thematic. It is about the development of my faith, the expression of my faith, and the community of my faith. And it is the story of how I have experienced this Jesus thing to be true. How the Christian faith, while wildly misrepresented in so much of American culture, is really about death and resurrection. It's about how God continues to reach into the graves we dig for ourselves and pull us out, giving us new life, in ways both dramatic and small. This faith helped me get sober, and it helped me (is helping me) forgive the fundamentalism of my Church of Christ upbringing, and it helps me to not always have to be right.
Smiley TV preachers might tell you that following Jesus is about being good so that God will bless you with cash and prizes, but really it's much more gruesome and meaningful. It's about spiritual physics. Something has to die for something new to live.
Death and resurrection—the recurring experience of seeing the emptiness, weeping over our inability to fill it or even understand it, and then listening to the sound of God speaking our names and telling God's story—is a messy business. But it's my business, and it's the most beautiful thing I could tell you about.
The Rowing Team
Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
During my early years of sobriety, I spent most Monday nights in a smoke-filled parish hall with some friends who were also sober alcoholics, drinking bad coffee. Pictures of the Virgin Mary looked down on us, as prayer and despair and cigarette smoke and hope rose to the ceiling. We were a cranky bunch whose lives were in various states of repair. There was Candace, a suburban housewife who was high on heroin for her debutante ball; Stan the depressive poet, self-deprecating and soulful; and Bob the retired lawyer who had been sober since before Jesus was born, but for some reason still looked a little bit homeless.
We talked about God and anger, resentment and forgiveness—all punctuated with profanity. We weren't a ship of fools so much as a rowboat of idiots. A little rowing team, paddling furiously, sometimes for each other, sometimes for ourselves; and when one of us jumped ship, we'd all have to paddle harder.
In 1992, when I started hanging out with the "rowing team," as I began to call them, I was working at a downtown club as a standup comic. I was broken and trying to become fixed and only a few months sober. I couldn't afford therapy, so being paid to be caustic and cynical on stage seemed the next best thing. Plus, I'm funny when I'm miserable.
This isn't exactly uncommon. If you were to gather all the world's comics and then remove all the alcoholics, cocaine addicts, and manic depressives you'd have left… well… Carrot Top, basically. There's something about courting the darkness that makes some people see the truth in raw, twisted ways, as though they were shining a black light on life to illuminate the absurdity of it all. Comics tell a truth you can see only from the underside of the psyche. At its best, comedy is prophesy and societal dream interpretation. At its worst it's just dick jokes.
When I was working as a comic, normal noncomic people would often say, "Wow, I don't know how you can get up in front of all those people with just a microphone." To which I would reply, "Wow, I don't know how you can balance your checkbook and get up for work each day." We all find different things challenging in life. Speaking in front of hundreds of people was far less challenging for me than scheduling dental appointments.
It was almost effortless for me to do comedy, because the underside was where I felt at home—there, everything is marinated in irony and sarcasm until ready to be grilled and handed to a naked emperor. I got regular comedy work, but never went far in the comedy world for several reasons. First, it was because I tended to make the other comics laugh more often than actual audiences, whom I held in contempt (and maybe that's why). Then there was the fact that I wasn't driven to succeed: As soon as it became an effort, I backed off. But the most important reason comedy didn't work for me was that I became healthier and just wasn't that funny anymore. Less miserable = less funny. In the process of becoming sober and trying to rely on God and be honest about my shortcomings, I became willing to show vulnerabilities. This made me easy prey in a comedy club greenroom, which is basically a hotbed of emotional Darwinism, so it wasn't a place I really wanted to spend a whole lot of my free time. In other ways, hanging out with comics could be kind of great. Next to most of them I was the picture of mental health. I befriended—and by befriended I mean occasionally slept with—a wiry-haired, gregarious comic named PJ who had a keen, albeit incredibly perverted, mind. PJ was one of those guys who wasn't exactly GQ material, foregoing well-cut jeans for a regrettable combination of baggy shorts, button-down shirts, and sport sandals. He had a distinctly feral quality about him that made him seem a bit canine. Despite his almost total lack of style, PJ managed to have a really full social life. He loved women and life and booze and girlie magazines and poker and comedy, not necessarily in that order.
He was also completing his PhD in communications while doing standup, which was made just a tad difficult by his aforementioned vices. One day, I invited him to the rowing team, and he remained a faithful member for the next eight years, often hosting the postmeeting poker games at his house.
If you didn't know PJ well, he didn't seem all that smart, but underneath his foul-mouthed rants was a stunning intellect. His was one of the more filthy acts in Denver, without a lot of highbrow content. He played stupid on stage and he was brilliant at it. I called PJ up once to see how his dissertation was coming along. "Great," he said, "but no one realizes I'm living in my office at the school."
PJ was like one of those cloth dolls with long skirts that you turn upside down and pull the skirt up—and it's no longer granny, but the big bad wolf. The right-side-up doll is a foul-mouthed simpleton, flipped over, a PhD in communications. The right-side-up doll is the fun-loving and charismatic host of a weekly poker game, flipped over, a non-functioning depressive.
PJ was a natural addition to the rowing team, and he infused the meetings with hilarious dark rants. "I wanted to kill myself this morning," PJ would say, "but I thought how much I'd hate providing all you fuckers with a reason to become even more self-absorbed than you already are, so…" He ended most of his sentences with "so…" as if we all knew how to fill in the next blank; if he were to do it for us it wouldn't be as funny. He was someone I wanted to be around, as if his juju would rub off, making me witty and smart and likable like him.
Comedy clubs are closed on Monday nights, but PJ's house was open for Texas Hold'em after our rowing team meetings. I'm pretty sure that when he got sober and removed booze from the equation, he just added extra women and poker and comedy. Mondays at PJ's became a dark carnival of comics, recovering alcoholics, and comics who were recovering alcoholics. Rounds of poker went late into the night, but competitive wit was where the real points were scored. Whenever I could, I would shove aside the inevitable pile of PJ's dirty magazines on the piano bench and sit myself down for a few hours of belly laughing, which was well worth the twenty-five dollars I always lost to them in the process.
Still, underneath the academic success, the adoring comedy club audiences, the many women, and loads of friends, was something corrosive. Eating away at our friend PJ, over the course of a decade, was a force or illness or demon that had staked a corner of PJ's mind, and like the Red Army, marched determinedly, claiming more and more territory each day.
PJ was loved by a lot of people who had no idea how to help him. The rowing team watched over his final years, as his mental illness was tugged and pulled by modern pharmacology but never cured. He'd show up less and less often on Monday nights, and each time he would be skinnier. It was as though his body began to follow his mind and spirit, which were slowly leaving. He stopped returning our calls.
Several days before he hanged himself, PJ called me. He wanted me to pray for him. It had been ten years since I'd met PJ, and I had since returned to Christianity. I think I was the only religious person he knew. He wondered about God: Was he beyond the pale of God's love? Throwing all my coolness and sarcasm aside, I prayed for him over the phone. I asked that he feel the very real and always available love of God. I prayed that he would know, without reservation, that he was a beloved child of God. I'm sure I said a bunch of other stuff, too. I wanted to be able to cast out this demon that had hold of our PJ, possessing him, telling him lies, and keeping out the light of God's love.
A week and a half later, I was sitting in a huge lecture hall at CU Boulder (where, as a thirty-five-year-old, married mother of two, I was finishing up my undergraduate degree), when my cell phone rang. I rushed outside, the cold air making my eyes water.
Sean, fellow comic and rower said, "Nadia. It's, um… PJ, honey."
"Shit," I said.
"I'm sorry," Sean said. We were all sorry. "Can you do his service?"
This is how I was called to ministry. My main qualification? I was the religious one.
The memorial service took place on a crisp fall day at the Comedy Works club in downtown Denver, with a full house. The alcoholic rowing team and the Denver comics, the comedy club staff and the academics: These were my people. Giving PJ's eulogy, I realized that perhaps I was supposed to be their pastor.
It's not that I felt pious and nurturing. It's that there, in that underground room filled with the smell of stale beer and bad jokes, I looked around and saw more pain and questions and loss than anyone, including myself, knew what to do with. And I saw God. God, right there with the comics standing along the wall with crossed arms, as if their snarky remarks to each other would keep those embarrassing emotions away. God, right there with the woman climbing down the stage stairs after sharing a little too much about PJ being a "hot date." God, among the cynics and alcoholics and queers.
I am not the only one who sees the underside and God at the same time. There are lots of us, and we are at home in the biblical stories of antiheroes and people who don't get it; beloved prostitutes and rough fishermen. How different from that cast of characters could a manic-depressive alcoholic comic be? It was here in the midst of my own community of underside dwellers that I couldn't help but begin to see the Gospel, the life-changing reality that God is not far off, but here among the brokenness of our lives. And having seen it, I couldn't help but point it out. For reasons I'll never quite understand, I realized that I had been called to proclaim the Gospel from the place where I am, and proclaim where I am from the Gospel.
What had started in early sobriety as a reluctant willingness to start praying again had led to my returning to Christianity, and now had led to something even more preposterous: I was called to be a pastor to my people.
Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.
—1 Timothy 2:11-12
Twenty-five years before I would preside at a comedy club funeral, I got baptized. It was a Sunday in the spring of 1981, and I was wearing white sandals. The preacher, in his denim-colored polyester suit, had wound down his sermon and had given an altar call. If you are ready to make your life right with the Lord or if you desire to be baptized, come forward now as we stand and sing.
The people stood and sang, and I walked down the aisle toward the pastor. Another man handed me a card and golf pencil as I sat on the padded pew. After I checked the box indicating that I desired to be baptized, another man approached the pulpit to make the announcement to the congregation. Then I told them which man I wanted to baptize me.
In the church of my childhood it was taught that the "age of accountability" was somewhere around twelve. To hit the age of accountability was to spiritually go off of your parents' insurance. At age twelve the clock starts ticking, spiritually speaking; you know right from wrong now and because of this you are accountable for every time you fuck up. If you sin knowing right from wrong and then die before you chose to be baptized, you burn in hell for eternity. This is when kids start choosing to be baptized. The lag time between entering the age of accountability and having your slate wiped clean through baptism can be terrifying. Many of us would pray not to die in a car crash before we were baptized, like other people pray to not get sick before their employee benefits kick in. Twelve-year-old Church of Christ kids experience a wave of devotion like a Great Awakening comprised only of sixth graders.
Because twelve was the age of accountability, it was also the age at which boys could no longer be taught in Sunday school by women. In accordance with Timothy 2:12, women were not permitted to teach men, therefore a twelve-year-old boy had more authority than a mature woman. Women were not allowed to serve as elders, preachers, or ushers. For some reason, we didn't have the authority to pass a man the collection plate, but we did have the authority to pass the same man a plate of fried chicken and potato salad an hour later at the church potluck.
Dale Douglass was the first man I ever had for a Sunday school teacher. He was soft spoken and funny and parted his full head of thick, sandy-blonde hair so far to the side that it looked like an unnecessary comb-over. Dale started where the woman who taught us the year before (when she still had authority to do so) had left off: testing us to see how many facts we knew about the Bible. I knew a lot of the answers, and it took just three weeks for him to have a special meeting with my parents, at which he informed them they would have to do something about me. I was answering the questions too quickly and it was keeping the boys in the class from having a chance to answer. To their credit, my parents quietly thought this was awesome. They did encourage me to allow space for others, but really they just loved that I knew my Bible and they weren't about to shame me for it.
Precociousness gave way to sarcasm as my ability to analyze the doctrine and social dynamics at church developed. The moment I was able to recognize the difference between what people said (all sex outside of heterosexual marriage is forbidden) and what they did (clandestine affairs with each other) and the difference between what they taught (women were inferior and subordinate to men) and the reality I experienced in the world (then why am I smarter than my Sunday school teacher?), I knew that I had to get out. I was a strong, smart and smart-mouthed girl, and the church I was raised in had no place for that kind of thing even though they loved me.
By the time I left the church, I questioned everything I had ever been told and knew, based on the criteria that I was for sure "not-Christian," but I still didn't manage to be an atheist, as one might expect. I had never stopped believing in God. Not really. But I did have to go hang out with his aunt for a while. She's called the goddess.
My first experience with Wicca was in the mountains west of Denver, on a brown grassy hill above a yurt—a round, nomadic-looking structure inside of which all the lamps were covered with red scarves, making the interior look like an outdoorsy bordello.
I was about twenty years old when my friend Renna (who is as straight as they come) asked if I wanted to go to a lesbian wedding. I replied, "More than anything in the world," so we drove the forty-five minutes listening to the Indigo Girls just to get in the right womany groove, and I held a huge bowl of strawberries on my lap; apparently lesbian weddings are often potluck.
"This is a Wiccan wedding," Renna informed me. I didn't entirely know what that meant, but it sounded "not-Christian," like me, and I suspected that my parents would not approve, and that there would likely be hummus involved, so I was fine with it.
I loved the service and had never seen so many strong women. Women with shoulders back and hair shorn tight and nothing to hide. We stood in a circle and sang some simple chants, and the brides were so happy, like any other brides, only these two wore Renaissance fair–style garb and were marrying each other. There was talk of perfect love and perfect trust, and we fed each other bread and wine saying, "May you never hunger and may you never thirst." It felt like communion.
"Funny, raw, and packed with truth, this book is offensive in all the right ways...This book reminded me of why I am a Christian, and I wept when I finished it."
—Rachel Held Evans, author of Searching for Sunday
"This is an astonishing book...contagious, honest, captivating...a rare gift...I realize that I'm gushing, but that's what you do when a book inspires and moves and touches you like this one does."
—Rob Bell, author of What We Talk About When We Talk About God and Love Wins
- Seven years on from its original publication, Pastrix remains bracing and beautiful. Nadia’s bold vulnerability and tender heart are timeless gifts. And the words she has added to this edition remind me: We need her call to tender grace and a loving, forgiving God now more than ever.—Jeff Chu, author of Does Jesus Really Love Me?
- "Engaging and accessible...Bolz-Weber is clear-eyed about the personal travails faced by the marginalized and those without faith."—Booklist
- "Bolz-Weber has such a distinctive voice and outlook, it's amazing she hasn't written more books. Perhaps it's because she's been too busy living the checkered and fascinating life that is the subject of her theological memoir...Here's hoping her authentic voice continues to preach in more books."—Publishers Weekly
- "Bolz-Weber represents a new, muscular form of liberal Christianity, one that merges the passion and life-changing fervor of evangelicalism with the commitment to inclusiveness."—The Washington Post
- "The amazing thing about Nadia Bolz-Weber is that she manages to take her Christianity into corners of life where the church can be pretty uncomfortable going."—The Daily Beast
"Bolz-Weber is a surprisingly vulnerable narrator who pairs personal confessions with beautifully articulated statements of faith."
- "For anyone who is Christian, interested in Christianity, anti-Christian (or anti-Religion), I recommend this book."—Gordon Gano, lead singer, Violent Femmes
- "Nadia Bolz-Weber is what you'd get if you mixed the DNA of Louis C.K., Joey Ramone and St. Paul. She is by far my favorite tatted-up, cranky pastor ever. Follow her. Not just on Twitter, but wherever her unique mind takes you. What I'm trying to say is: Buy this book."—A.J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically
- "Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber speaks the truth of our humanity that we too often want to deny. She declares the radical power of God's grace for Jesus' sake that we so often water down rather than daily be drowned in it. Yes, read at your own risk."—Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, ELCA
- "A wonderful, rule-breaking, stereotype-smashing book that succeeds as a memoir, as a sermon on love, and as a welcome home 'letter' to the rejected. With this book, Nadia will become America's pastor to those alienated from religion but who still crave transcendent purpose and meaning in their lives."—Frank Schaeffer, author of Crazy for God
- "Brilliant and hilarious...With this powerful book, Nadia claims the prophetic voice of the apostle to the apostles. And, like Mary Magdalene, she carries the good news of resurrection to the world."—Sara Miles, author of Take This Bread, Jesus Freak, and City of God
- "This book is Mere Christianity for an altogether new kind of Christianity that's also blessedly ancient. I couldn't turn pages fast enough and yet regretted the book's hastening end."—Jason Byassee, senior pastor of Boone United Methodist Church and Fellow in Theology & Leadership at Duke Divinity School
- On Sale
- May 18, 2021
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Worthy Books