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Wed, October 23 2013

Tattooed Hipster Lutheran Pastor

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I’ll confess. I have my preconceived ideas about what constitutes your typical Lutheran pastor.

My stereotype is not simply drawn from years of listening of Garrison Keillor talking about “God’s Frozen People” on the News from Lake Wobegon. No, I have actually attended national conventions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—multiple times.

That’s why the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, an ordained Lutheran minister, got my attention at a recent gathering of the Religion Newswriters Association in Austin, Texas. She didn’t stand out merely because her arms and chest are covered with tattoos and she says “f---” more than your average mainline Protestant pastor.

What got my attention is that this Lutheran is funny. Really funny.

She’s the pastor of the House of All Sinners and Saints, a Lutheran church in Denver that has attracted a colorful congregation of hipsters, seekers, and other young outcasts. It has also attracted the attention of national church leaders desperate to find some way to get young adults back into the fold.

Annual events at this offbeat sanctuary include the Blessing of the Bicycles and a huge Easter vigil that ends in a dance party featuring a chocolate fountain in the baptismal font.

“Nothing,” she told us in Austin, “says ‘He is Risen’ like a chocolate fountain in the baptismal font.”

“We don’t have this weird line between reverence and irreverence. We are all about Jesus. But to have humor and lightness and irreverence is our version of piety.”

Pastor Nadia is funny enough that her calling before going to seminary and getting ordained was doing stand-up in Denver comedy clubs. She gathered her material through her interest in hanging out with the punk rock crowd and devoting her early adult life to excessive drinking, drugging, and promiscuous sex.

In retrospect, after she sobered up, all of this was part of her theological training.

“God chose to reveal who God is by slipping into skin and walking among us as Jesus,” she says. “And the love and grace and mercy of Jesus was so offensive to us that we killed him. And the night before this happened Jesus gathered with some real fuck-ups, held up bread and said take and eat; this is my body for you.”

Like many of the non-journalists who come to the Religion Newswriters Association’s annual conventions, Pastor Nadia was selling something. Her product is a spiritual memoir titled Pastrix: The Cranky Faith of a Sinner and Saint , which was published this year by Jericho Books. 

I hadn’t heard the term “pastrix” (pas-triks) before, but it is apparently an insult employed by fundamentalists who think the Bible demands that women be submissive to men and never preside over Christian congregations.

My favorite story Pastor Nadia told the assembled religion reporters is about what happened to her struggling congregation after the Denver Post published a front-page feature story about them.

All of sudden, “normal” suburban Lutherans, “the new folks in the Dockers,” started attending and joining her church. The pastor’s immediate reaction was a desire “to preserve and protect my community from the threat of people who read the local paper and ate at Applebee’s.”

She repented after another Lutheran pastor told Nadia, “You guys are really good at ‘welcoming the stranger’ when it’s a young transgender person. But sometimes ‘the stranger’ looks like your mom and dad.”

In a chapter in her book titled “The Wrong Kind of Different,” Nadia describes her change of heart about the newcomers, who tripled the average Sunday attendance.

“Out of one corner of your eye there’s a homeless guy serving communion to a corporate lawyer and out of the other corner is a teenage girl with pink hair holding the baby of a suburban soccer mom,” she writes. “And there I was a year ago fearing that the weirdness of our church was going to be diluted.


Don Lattin is selling his own spiritual memoir titled Distilled Spirits , which was named the “Religion Book of the Year” by the Religion Newswriters Association.  To learn more, go to www.donlattin.com

Don Lattin's picture

Don Lattin is a veteran journalist and the author of five books on religion and spirituality in America. His national bestseller, The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America, won the 2010 California Book Award for nonfiction. His most recent work, Distilled Spirits: Getting High, Then Sober, With a Famous Writer, Forgotten Philosopher and a Hopeless Drunk, is a memoir and group biography of writer Aldous Huxley, philosopher Gerald Heard, and Bill Wilson, cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Lattin’s stories have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle, where he covered the religion beat for two decades. He lives on an island in the San Francisco Bay with his wife, Laura, and his dog, Bella. Visit him at donlattin.com.

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