Nadia Bolz-Weber is someone I would have held in deep suspicion when I was 21 and guarded admiration at 31. The difference is that at 21 I was a very conservative evangelical, and at 31 I was a a progressive-leaning evangelical. Now I’m a Humanist, and I just think she’s cool. In ‘Accidental Saints’ she tells the story of the congregation she founded, ’House for All Sinners and Saints,’ in Denver, Colorado. Personal vignettes mixed with liturgical insights and biblical commentary make for an interesting book, all the more so because she swears like a sailor.
Yes, the pastor swears. That alone would have convinced 21-year-old me that she was up to no good.
Rev. Bolz-Weber (not sure she ever uses that title) was raised in the a cappella Church of Christ, finding her way into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America only later in her adult life. In between there was life as a stand-up comedian and a bout with alcoholism and recovery. While I can’t relate to either comedy or addiction, I totally get where she’s coming from with both the Church of Christ and her attraction to liturgy.
While I was raised Roman Catholic, as I child attended Vacation Bible School at nearby United Methodist and Southern Baptist churches. Though I loved VBS, I inwardly mocked the lack of robes, incense and high liturgy in those churches (yes, I know UMC ministers often wear robes) seeing it as a clear sign of the superiority of the Roman Catholic Church. And yet, in retrospect, I’ve always been grateful that the Baptists taught me how to find chapter and verse in the Bible.
By the time I was 17 my perspective was quite different, and I saw all that high liturgy as historic baggage that distracted from the core message of the Bible. Leaving the Roman Catholic Church, I found my way from one denomination to another (including a one-month stint at a Missouri Synod Lutheran congregation that I briefly thought could have been a fantastic fit) and eventually landed in the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, part of the same ‘Restoration Movement’ as the a cappella Churches of Christ. I even got my Bachelor of Ministry from one of the latter’s schools, Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas.
All that to say that while Nadia went from low church to high, from conservative to liberal, my journey was from high church to low, from essentially liberal to very conservative…and then on to progressively theistic and now Humanist.
There is so much to respect about what Bolz-Weber and her church are doing. They provide welcoming, affirming community to everyone, along with accountability and encouragement. There is confession of sin, there are hugs, there are tears and there is laughter. This is a vibrant, healthy, diverse community of glorious misfits. What they seem to have is what religious and secular communities desperately need to be authentic and healthy. They are honest about their screw-ups and open about their weakness. In fact, as she relates in the book, parishioners are regularly reminded that at some point House for All will disappoint them in some way. It’s those cracks that makes room for grace. Where there is perfection, grace is not needed.
Although biblical references come up regularly in this book, I don’t believe the reader needs to have much prior familiarity with the Bible in order to follow along. This is truly written at a layperson’s level, assuming not much at all other than a firm grasp of the English language. Secular readers may be put off by the theological reflection, but this is absolutely essential for understanding the narrative that folks at House for All are living, as well as to appreciate what draws people to this worldview.
One word of critique, coming from my skeptical, Humanist heart:
Religion adapts to fit the cultural norms. This is because people are naturally religious (yes, I know some folks grow up with no particular religious inclination). Churches are often slow about changing, as innovation is usually equated with heresy, but they do change. 100 years ago it would have been unthinkable for a woman to be a Lutheran minister (for the most part) and absolutely bizarre for her to be tattooed, swearing and serving as pastor for a congregation what welcomes LGBTQ people with open arms. It would have been unimaginable.
Evangelicals of our day like pointing to abolitionists of the 19th century as examples of their faith, fighting for social justice. Most conveniently ignore that these were considered the radical fringe of their day, and that the majority view supported slavery as ‘biblical.’ In the coming century it would not be surprising at all if most evangelicals pointed to the ‘radicals’ of our day who supported marriage equality, claiming them as models of their faith and ignoring the majority view of our times.
It all smacks of having one’s cake and eating it too. Of course human society changes. Norms are re-evaluated, life moves on. Yet, if religious truth claims are to be accepted as coming from a god who stands outside time and came to us in human form to embody a life-giving message of death and new life, it is reasonable to expect that such a message, either at its core or in peripheral matters, would not be subject to review. In other words, such a being should be able to speak definitive, intelligible words of justice and peace that are indisputable. Such, however, is not the case.
Having said that, I want to say I deeply appreciate the ministry of Nadia Bolz-Weber, her congregation and the denomination with which both identify. They are doing good work in building community, excluding no one (not even atheists who remain as such) and seeking the greater good of all humanity. While I disagree with their beliefs, I affirm their actions.
Accidental Saints is an easy yet profound read. Recommended for anyone looking for insight into the mindset of very progressive Christianity and/or a view of what authentic community can look like.
The criminal justice system in the United States is in serious need of reform. Still, there are far worse prison systems in the world. Among the horrendously terrible is what we find in Brazil. There, people are arrested and held for weeks and even months before their first court appearance. Enough time to contract a disease or two, be gang raped, join a gang and learn more of the ins and outs of crime. It is a system that violets the national laws of the country, international standards and simple human decency. For more, watch this video.
Brazil was the last nation in the Americas to abolish slavery, and while it was still legal Brazil imported far more African slaves than any other nation. This leaves it with both a deeply African cultural heritage as well as a legacy of profound injustice. The video below illustrates some of this history and how it still plays out today.
|The pantry was in the rather narrow, dimly-lit basement.|
|Our task was to unbox the food items and sort them into crates, like with like. Having crates of potatoes and other crates with canned salmon, for example, made it faster and easier for the people who sorted the bags the next day.|
|Our official start time was 7pm, and we had people coming in through the evening.|
|When they were closing down the kitchen for the evening, they asked if anyone wanted to eat. I can’t say ‘no’ to tilapia and rice!|
|There are our crates of food, about a fourth of the way into our evening of sorting and carrying.|
|So much peanut butter.|
|That’s Patrick on the right. He’s the site coordinator, and perhaps a little camera shy. He put up with our bunch of first-timers with really good humor.|
|Ray managed to make it…around 8:30pm. 🙂|
|This was tiring. We hauled up our sorted crates to the main level and stacked them for the people to bag the next day.|
|We had a great time, and look forward to returning to Masbia next month and hopefully regularly in the future.|
Be sure to check out events coming up with Sunday Assembly NYC. There is very likely something that will interest you, from visits to churches, to dialogues among atheists/skeptics to volunteering to just plain fun.
Perhaps you’ve heard of The Clergy Project (TCP). It’s a group that provides support, primarily online, for ministers (both active and former) who no longer believe. Membership is anonymous by default, though I’ll freely admit I’ve been in TCP since earlier this year. While it’s been a decade since I quit full-time ministry, I was in lay leadership roles and remained ordained since that time. My ‘unbelief’ came well after I resigned from the pulpit. Such is not the case for many, though, who continue in active ministry due to economic need and social pressure. Think about it: If your education is theological and your work experience is exclusively with churches, and if all or most of your friends and family are ‘believers,’ what good options do you have?
Some remain in ministry, doing their duty and mouthing the words against their consciences. Others, in more liberal traditions, are more or less able to own their doubt, so long as they don’t make too much noise over it. Still others find a way out, selling cars or insurance, working in group homes or finding an entirely different career path.
What about those who would like to remain in ministry, without lying or hiding their true outlook? There are options, and they’re good. Here are the three with which I’m familiar, best suited to those living in the United States. If someone would like to write up something applicable to other countries or globally, I’d be happy to link to it from here.
First, becoming a Humanist Celebrant is a possibility for those not looking for full-time service, but who like doing weddings, funerals, baby namings and other ceremonies. Though one won’t likely make enough from this to live on, it’s a great way to serve others and still feel in touch with that ministerial skill set. The Humanist Society, an adjunct of the American Humanist Association (AHA), credentials celebrants who are then authorized to officiate legally-recognized weddings throughout the United States and some other country. An application process is involved, and membership in the AHA is a requirement. With the application a few references will be needed, though this is dispensed for members of TCP, as it’s understood that they’ve already been screened to join that group. For more information on becoming a Humanist Celebrant, click here.
Second, for nearly 140 years a Humanist fellowship has been in existence, functioning like a denomination without supernatural beliefs. Ethical Culture, known in its local manifestations as ‘Ethical Society’ or ‘Ethical Humanist Society,’ is grounded in reason and promotes Humanistic values and communities. There are not many Ethical Societies around, and most of them are quite small. It is quite uncommon for Leaders, as Ethical Culture clergy are called, to be employed full-time. Instead, they are typically bivocational, working a primary job other than ministry. New Societies are needed and there’s plenty of room for growth in existing Societies, so entrepreneurial clergy might find this a welcome challenge. To view a pdf file explaining Ethical Culture Leadership in greater detail, click here.
Third, and with structures more familiar to those in Christian ministry, is the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA). This denomination resulted from the merger of the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association in 1961. It’s a ‘creedless church’ in the sense that anyone of good will is welcome to join, regardless of belief. Historically there has been a strong Humanist streak in this fellowship, and most members seem to find themselves somewhere between that and theistic naturalism. The UUA is structured congregationally, and the hierarchy and language used is essentially the same as any mainline Christian denomination. To become a minister in the UUA there are phases that need to be initiated locally in the congregation, include obtaining an accredited MDiv and doing an internship. In the event someone seeking to become a UU minister already has an MDiv, this will be accepted while additional coursework in UU polity, history and theology will be required. While this can seem like a lengthy process, it can be an excellent alternative for those desiring to continue in formal, full-time ministry. Click here for an article about one man who made the transition from Church of the Nazarene to the UUA, here for general information on becoming a UU minister, and here for guidance on transferring in as a ministry from another background.
Hopefully this information will prove useful to someone. There’s so much good to be had and done via the church model, something that groups like Sunday Assembly, Oasis and others have picked up on and are trying to emulate. If you love working with people to help them be their best, and have a heart for those in pain, need or grief, why let a little thing like being an atheist stop you from serving with honesty and integrity?