Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner by Nadia Bolz-Weber
The word “Pastrix” is used, most often, by Christians who do not wish to recognize female pastors. In her book, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner, & Saint, Nadia Bolz-Weber reclaims this word. She embraces the word with her own definition: “a female ecclesiastical superhero,” and expresses this new definition in a memoir about her own life as a female minister. Particularly, the book focuses on her unconventional journey of deep faith and heavy flaws. In sharing her own messed up story, she gives hope to others like her that God’s grace is stronger than anything we could ever imagine.
The book jumps around Nadia’s story, not necessarily in chronological order, but rather about the “development and expression” of her faith. Instead of being confusing, the shifting storyline is captivating as it illuminates truth about Nadia’s own viewpoint on her story. As such, she starts her story kind of in the middle, but at a very pivotal time. In her early thirties, Nadia was doing standup comedy in Denver, Colorado. After a long time apart, she had rediscovered her relationship with God—rocky as it may be. She met regularly with other comics and sober alcoholics to rant about alcohol, God, and all things life. One of these fellow sober comic friends, PJ, struggled deeply with his mental health and seemed to be falling deeper and deeper into depression. He had started to pull away from their unconventional group of friends. A short while later, Nadia got the news. After PJ hanged himself, the group came to Nadia and asked her to do the funeral at the comedy club. She knew that they only asked her because she was the only one, out of her crazy and eclectic friend group, who was religious in any way. As she stood in front of the group giving the eulogy, she was overcome with the feeling that she was meant to be the pastor to these people. They were cynics, comics, alcoholics, queers, and addicts—and they were her people. Nadia highlights these small moments of her life with incredible ease, expressing to the reader why they are such life changing events. It was in this moment, that Nadia felt her call to be a cranky, beautiful, sinner, female minister.
Nadia grew up in a Church of Christ, with a fundamentalist congregation and conservative parents. She was baptized around the same time women were no longer allowed to teach her Sunday school class—at the age of accountability. At this age of 12, her church started to express to her and her peers that they now knew the difference between right and wrong. This meant that their sin could wind them up in hell, and so obviously they started to get baptized by the bunch. Also around this time, Nadia found out that she had Graves’ disease. She was sick and thin and pale, with big bug eyes. School was a miserable place where she was bullied constantly for her appearance. For a while, church was the only place where she could go and feel safe. However, as she got older, church seemed less and less safe. She was taught that women were meant to be silent and was disciplined for answering Sunday school questions too quickly and too much. She needed to give the boys time to answer. The more she was bullied at school and shut down at church, the angrier she got. She fell deeper into her sarcasm and drinking. When she went to college, it did not go well. She drank too much and went to class too little—dropping out after about 4 months. In the time following, she moved into a tiny apartment with six other drifters. They drank and smoked their way through life until she got fed up. She moved out just a few weeks before the place got busted by the cops. The descent from happy child in church to depressed adult alcoholic is tragically sad and honest—shared with her readers without reserve. Nadia shows, openly and at times painfully, how small injustices add up to create deep hurt. With what started at such a bright childhood, her life became very different than she imagined it would be.
It was in her AA meetings that Nadia opened her heart to God again. Although her anger at God and the church were strongly present, the presence of God in AA was something she had to deal with. The people in her meetings talked about God constantly. However, they did not speak of God in the way she had come to think about God. They did not question all of the world’s problems, or the inconsistencies in scripture, or deep theological questions. When Nadia raised these points, a woman told her, “Don’t think about it so much. Just ask God for help in the morning and thank him at night.” Very slowly, Nadia started opening up to the idea of leaning on God…without expecting all of her questions to be answered. Faith is an extremely difficult thing to articulate and Nadia does it well. She captures what is means to “take a leap” when she expresses moving back into faith with reservations. Most Christian authors are not so honest, but Nadia writes with beautiful flaws and vulnerability. She may not have taken a large leap back to faith but a very soft and small step.
Several years later, Nadia met her eventual husband playing a pick up volleyball game. He was a Lutheran seminary student named Matthew. He was loving and caring and social justice oriented in a way that Nadia had never known Christians to be before. As they fell in love, Nadia hesitantly agreed to attend church with him. She was completely taken with the liturgy present in the service. She asked, “Will they say all that again next week?” And Matthew responded, “Well they have been saying it for a couple millennia, so probably.” The world of liturgy astounded Nadia. She loved the idea that she was a part of this long stream of Christians, basking in the grace of God, for many years before her and for many years after her. Thirteen years after her experience at this Lutheran church, she would have married to Matthew, had two children, gone to college, gone to seminary, gotten ordained, and started a church. And again, her life was very different, but better, than she ever thought it could be.
Nadia’s church was called “House For All Sinners and Saints.” It was a small and eclectic congregation in downtown Denver. At most she would have 40 people present on a Sunday. Eventually the ELCA, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, took interest in the congregation because, although it was small, it attracted just the type of people that none of the other churches could—young single people. When Nadia was asked to give a presentation about her church, she told them how it began, who the congregants were, about their prayer events, and their special communion services. And at the end, she told them, “And last night I cried myself to sleep.” This moment of Nadia’s memoir expresses everything that is great about her story. She admits her deep flaws and the admits just how hard life and ministry can be. Nadia had an event at her church the day before she gave this presentation. She was hoping to get more than 30 or so people there, or at the very least have all of her 40 people all there at once. Instead, she organized and worked and lifted and detailed an entire event only to have 26 people show up. It was not what she wanted and it was not what she expected her church to be. And in focusing on her “failure,” she realized she missed everything good that had happened that day. After her presentation, when all the pastors ate lunch together, they did not ask her about her church or congregants or prayer events. Instead, they all talked about their own failure stories and in this, she found peace. She says, “I realized that sometimes the best thing we can do for each other is talk honestly about being wrong.”
Nadia’s honesty rings refreshingly clear again when she says, “Pretending to feel a way other than how I actually feel is not a gift God gave me. I can pull it off for short periods of time when needed, but the effort is exhausting.” This statement in her memoir comes when she is talking about “weird church things.” It is hard for her to get on board with people doing liturgical dances, or churches overdoing the show on Easter, or the awful things church people sometimes say. It is easy to get all wrapped up in the uncomfortable or messy things about Christianity. People can try hard to feel like their Christianity is perfect or like we always feel connected to God but this is exhausting and untrue. Nadia points out, though, that it doesn’t really matter if we feel close to God, because God is there and is loving us always just the same. The entry into the world and exit out of the world of Christ did not look how the world expected it to, and our own Christian faiths and experiences most likely won’t either.
Eventually Nadia’s church, HFASS, started to gain some traction. She was on the cover of a Denver newspaper and she preached at the Red Rocks Amphitheater. As a result, the congregation, almost immediately, more than doubled. However, the people that came were not what she expected. So far, her church was made up of young, weird, single, eccentric people. After all the publicity, the people that came to HFASS were normal. They were the type of people who could walk into any church and feel excepted. She didn’t know how to feel about this. She was worried that the “weirdness of her church was going to be diluted.” But then one of her young congregants said something that opened up her heart. He said, “As a young transgender kid who was welcomed into this community, I just want to go on the record and say I am really glad there are people at this church now who look like my mom and dad because I have a relationship with them that I just can’t with my own mom and dad.” In this moment, she saw the beauty that is the Christian community. She noticed her own biases and tried to look at these people from God’s eyes, where they were really all the same.
Nadia’s book is rather blunt and crass—in a good way. I would not recommend it to everyone. Some might be too young or easily offended for such a read. Still, there are many people who I would love to go buy copies for immediately. For those out there who are struggling with their faith or choices or churches, it would be a life-giving book. For those who need help accepting the grace of God, it would be a beautiful read. For those who want a little more truth and vulnerability in their faith, this is the book.
Nadia is covered in tattoos, which she realizes is not the most common pastor move. The books ends with Nadia explaining the significant of one of her tattoos—one of Mary Magdalene. It holds deep meaning for her because it reminds her that anyone, even a woman like her, can proclaim the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just as Mary Magdalene did when she found the tomb empty, Nadia can go out in the world and tell people of the good news she has seen. It reminds her that she can do it. It reminds her that she is a Pastrix.