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 Pastrix, as 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!