Shameless about…? On hearing Nadia Bolz-Weber at Southwark Cathedral

Picture of the book "Shameless: A sexual reformation" by Nadia Bolz-Weber, with a card sticking out saying "I'm ready to be SHAMELESS about ...." Text over the top: On hearing Nadia Bolz-Weber at Southwark Cathedral workthegreymatter.com

“Breathe in the good s***, breathe out the bulls***.”

As I told a friend I was going to hear Nadia Bolz-Weber speak, he said she was the only person he’d ever heard swear in St Paul’s Cathedral. She’s probably also the only person people have heard swear in Southwark Cathedral too – which is where I heard her speak about her recent book “Shameless.” Trust me, when I use asterisks in this post, you can be sure that she didn’t.

For those who don’t know, Nadia is a rather unconventional Lutheran pastor. She was the founding pastor of a congregation called “House for All Sinners and Saints” and she’s gone on record saying that ethically-sourced porn is OK. Her Twitter handle is @sarcasticluther and she puts “SHAMELESS af” after her name.

Well that’s one way to make a statement.

She’s also authentic in what she says and a lot of people appreciate her honesty. I personally think she preached sensationally at Rachel Held Evans’ funeral. If you haven’t seen it, you can watch it here.

What Nadia said

So, she’s a pastor with in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

When she signed up (literally) she promised to be faithful in marriage or celibate in singleness, not really knowing that that particular pledge had been introduced by the more conservative part of her denomination.

She married quickly so that she and her husband could live together whilst he was in seminary – except they didn’t know each other well emotionally or sexually and they later divorced (amicably). Later on, she became sexually active with her current boyfriend and although this was in violation of her denomination’s policy, it was an ‘exfoliation’ of her spirit. Then the time came when she started asking questions.

“How is it better for my congregation if I’m not getting laid?”

And the question that you’ll currently find plastered on the front page of her internet site:

Her: “Why do you think the church has tried for so long to control human sexuality?”
Him: “Maybe the church has always seen sex as its competition.”

Off the back of that she spent a year and a half interviewing people about the messages they had received from the church about sex. Her book “Shameless” is the product of that work. She read an extract from the introductory chapter:

If you were to draw a circle that represents all the people on the planet, and then inside it draw another small circle to represent the people who live according to “God’s plan,” then, well, very few people on the planet fit in that circle. Meghan [a transwoman at House for All Sinners and Saints] doesn’t fit in that circles. I don’t fit in that circle. Also not included in the circle are divorced people, people in unhappy marriages, people who have sex before marriage, people who masturbate, asexuals, gay people, bisexuals, people who are not Christian, people who are gender non-binary…
If that’s “God’s plan,” then God planned poorly. [p3]

Crops in the US are watered in circles, she said, yet it seems God planted so many of us in the corners. And then we whittle ourselves down into that shape, bi-furcating our psyche. But we should not be more loyal to an idea or teaching or interpretation than we are to people. If the teachings of the church are harming people we should do better and rethink those teachings.

Amen to that.

The questions and opinions session

Nadia was wary about saying she has any answers, but very happy to give her opinion! So we had a Q&O session.

I actually really appreciated how she framed this because she emphasised that she’s not a historian or a sex-therapist, but a pastor. She emphasised that she would not have the skill, in that time and place, to handle people’s stories of sexual trauma with the care and attention they deserved. It seemed to me to be a careful, but affirming way to say to people that their stories mattered, whilst also guarding from oversharing.

Here are the questions she was asked (paraphrased) and how she replied (also paraphrased, but from her point of view).

Is there is a link between gendered teachings and domestic violence? Abso-f***ing-lutely. I never heard a woman preach until I was 27. Women couldn’t teach boys over 12. And this has a pernicious effect on the psyche of girls.

What about vows and faithfulness? A lot of us take vows “until death do us part”. My story with my ex-husband is not an unusual one but — doesn’t marriage for that reason cheapen the institution of marriage? It doesn’t feel like a high view.

How do we respond to the culture of online dating and changing sexual norms and non-monogamy and other things that are in fashion right now? I struggle with the question of “What does a Christian sexual ethic look like that isn’t legalistic and shaming?” I’d recommend the World Health Organisation’s definition of on sexual health, which essentially comes down to two things: consent, and mutuality. This is a baseline sexual ethic. But we probably need something more if we’re going to say we have Christian ethic. Martin Luther said that following the ten commandments is about more than not doing the bad things. “Don’t commit murder” — isn’t that supposed to be the freebie? But actually you should love and live in a way that protects your neighbour. That is the presence of good. I think concern needs to be operative in the Christian sexual ethic.

OK, pause, I find it so weird that she refers to “Do not murder” as the fifth commandment, though I’ve read that that’s what Luther did. To me, it’s the sixth.

I was interested in this question and her response because she alluded to two points I’d made (albeit in different words) in a post about consent.

They both came in a section about when you shouldn’t accept someone’s consent, even if that consent was active, informed and enthusiastic. The two scenarios were (1) When you’re violating someone else’s consent (as in, cheating), and (2) When the person is ‘redlining’ in the wake of trauma (that is, highly sexually active as a way of processing a sexually traumatic experience).

So, it was helpful to hear Nadia say that there are times when mutual and consensual sex isn’t the right way forward. Expanding on this point, she talked about how in previous days she’d had a lot of sex but wasn’t honest about what she really wanted – which was for someone to choose her and stay with her. That was vulnerable.

Compassion

There were then questions about how we have conversations with people who disagree with us on this topic and she responded about how she has a new interest in compassion, confessing that it’s not her “go-to virtue”!

She spoke about the effect compassion had had on her, especially when she took her first “moral inventory” of herself. She was required to speak about what she’d done to one living person and she found that she had so much shame, she could only speak about it to a woman who was dying from AIDS. Nadia didn’t know how this woman would receive it but said she was the embodiment of compassion. Only upon receipt of that compassion was Nadia able to consider more deeply the harm she had caused.

Nadia also spoke about when she interviewed Lance Armstrong (who won the Tour de France for seven years but who took performance enhancing drugs and was then stripped of his title). When people told her not to let him off easy, she thought, “Hey, I’m a pastor, not an investigative journalist.”

She said when we have this “get him” attitude, then we aren’t admitting that we have done the same – we exonerate ourselves. When we scapegoat, there is a need fulfilled in us by the Other. So, we never have to look at our own white supremacy because there are other Trump supporters we can point at…

When she interviewed Lance, she said, “You took drugs you weren’t supposed to, and then you lied about it. Oh s***, I’ve done that.”

Nadia spoke about a technique someone else had taught her where she imagined the heart of God behind her heart; that way when she hears people say things she can receive and feel it, but it doesn’t stay with her. And similarly, when she gives back, what she gives isn’t depleting herself.

She said we need to separate who people are as a person from the harm that their behaviour is causing; empathy is not exoneration. But we shouldn’t sacrifice our humanity by discounting their humanity.

My personal reflections after the event
(which are not really about Nadia or sex, but about me as a blogger, but there are some handy links and cute cat pics at the end though, so scroll down if you get bored)

There were a few more questions and an unplanned guest appearance from Doorkins Magnificat, the Cathedral’s cat, before Nadia got to the SHAMELESS cards.

We’d been given these as we came in and they said “I’m ready to be SHAMELESS about…”. Then, as we sang Amazing Grace, we had been invited to complete the sentence. The singing was wonderful, but I left my card blank and didn’t hand it in.

After she had read a few of them out loud (all anonymous), she closed by reading a cluster of soul-filling benedictions to us. And then invited everyone on stage to come up to the front and dance to Prince. As you do.

Being the borderline Aspie that I am, I snuck over to the book stall where I’d already nabbed a copy of her book and had been told she’d sign them later.

Then I really began to think.

As I stood there looking around the cathedral, I remembered her saying that she was a pastor. Then it clicked: I’m not a pastor, I’m a theologian (or at least a wannabe one). I began to wonder whether this orientation of my thought, combined with my Aspie tendencies, might be part of why I often feel like I fail to connect with people.

(Bear in mind, I have a perpetual feeling of failure when it comes to my blogging, though I’m told I’m not alone.)

The phrase that came to mind was this: I’ve got the muscles to lift people, but I don’t know how to bend.

The image of God bending, meeting us where we’re at, is something a friend of mine recently blogged about:

God becoming human wasn’t simply a thing that happened, it is proof of his nature to bend low, to speak in ways that we can understand, and to wrap himself in coverings that make sense to us.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to compare myself to God here or say that I’m ‘higher’ in some sense than others. What I mean is that I can affirm people, I can speak truth to the lies, shame and anxiety that people might be carrying, but I don’t know how to meet them where they’re at.

This has been a long-standing concern of mine as I’ve tried to refine my blogging techniques, adopt more accessible language, and launch discussions from more everyday scenarios. I’ve been told by some of my nearest and dearest that my content can be a real effort to engage with, and I’m willing to believe it – but I don’t know what to do differently.

I know that I can bend, I can reach to people in a way they find very relevant and relatable – I know because they’ve told me that I have. It’s just that I tend to do it by accident, rather than design. Which is incredibly frustrating for me and makes for an uneven experience for my readers.

So anyway, this was one realisation I had as I stood there waiting; it was helpful – at least I now have something to pray into.

The second realisation wasn’t until later when I was walking back to the tube station.

You see, although the event was clearly liberating and encouraging for many people, and I certainly appreciated it, it didn’t meet me where I am currently at. (I appreciate the irony of me saying this!) That’s why I didn’t feel in my card.

So far as that circle goes with people of different genders and sexualities, I’m pretty close to the centre; I’m not yearning to be accepted or to overcome sexual shame the way many other people are.

But I am aching. I clicked then that what I desire is to be accepted and understood in my theological outlook. Sexually, I fit very nicely within the “God’s design” package that many conservatives hold. But theologically? I’m queer af.

That’s what I’m ready to be shameless about.

After about 15 minutes standing by the bookstall, Nadia came over and signed my copy, in the very efficient manner in which (I’m told) she does all her signings. As she moved onto the next one and I put my book away, I shared one of the most treasured insights from my blogging journey: “I believe that sex is prophecy.”

Slowly, her head turned in my direction and she looked at me wide-eyed.

“I like that,” she said.

 


Nadia’s book launch page on her website is here.

Here are some pictures on Twitter of Doorkins:

If you liked this, other posts that may interest you include:

One thought on “Shameless about…? On hearing Nadia Bolz-Weber at Southwark Cathedral

  1. “But I am aching. I clicked then that what I desire is to be accepted and understood in my theological outlook. Sexually, I fit very nicely within the “God’s design” package that many conservatives hold. But theologically? I’m queer af.”

    I read this article last week, and this section has stuck with me. The idea of being theologically Queer is one that I really resonate with. Thank you for giving me language to help describe not only your experience, but mine also.

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