Bolz-Weber’s liberal, foulmouthed articulation of Christianity speaks to fed-up believers
Looking out at the hundreds of people crowded into the pews to hear her present the gospel of Jesus Christ, she sees: Dockers and blazers. Sensible shoes. Grandmothers and soccer moms. Nary a facial piercing.
These are the people who put her memoir near the top of the New York Times bestseller list the week it came out in September. They are the ones who follow her every tweet and Facebook post by the thousands, and who have made the Lutheran minister a budding star for the liberal Christian set.
And who, as Bolz-Weber has described it in her frequently profane dialect, “are [mess]ing up my weird.”
A quick tour through her 44 years doesn’t seem likely to wind up here. It includes teen rebellion against her family’s fundamentalist Christianity, a nose dive into drug and alcohol addiction, a lifestyle of sleeping around and a stint doing stand-up in a grungy Denver comedy club. She is part of society’s outsiders, she writes in her memoir, its “underside dwellers . . . cynics, alcoholics and queers.”
Which is where — strangely enough — the match with her fans makes sense. The type of social liberals who typically fill the pews of mainline churches sometimes feel like outsiders among fellow liberals in their lives if they are truly believing Christians; if they are people who really experience Jesus and his resurrection, even if they can’t explain it scientifically; if they are people who want to hear words from the Apostles in church, not Thich Nhat Hanh or Barack Obama.
In her body and her theology, 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 and social justice of mainline Protestantism. She’s a tatted-up, foul-mouthed champion to people sick of being belittled as not Christian enough for the right or too Jesus-y for the left.
“You show us all your dirty laundry! It’s all out there!” the Rev. John Elford of the University United Methodist Church booms, as if he is introducing a rock star, leading the cheering crowd into an impassioned round of hymn-singing.
Bolz-Weber springs onstage to do a reading from her book, but first she addresses the language that’s about to be unleashed on the pulpit: “I don’t think church leaders should pretend to be something they’re not.”
The crowd erupts into applause.
Bolz-Weber pulls out a few kitschy items that she raffles off to raise money for a local charity. She waves a gift certificate for a free tattoo. Then she speaks to her new reality:
“You ladies over 70 dig deep, because you know you want it!”
God without answers
Bolz-Weber’s appeal is unquestionably part packaging: dramatic back story, cool appearance, super-entertaining delivery. She launched a successful church for disaffected young people and has headlined youth gatherings tens of thousands strong. For a part of American religion that’s been in a long, slow institutional decline, this gives her major credibility.