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The goddess’s nephew of surprises

29 November 2013

Naomi Starkey considers an edgy but sincere book


Cranky, Beautiful Faith: For irregular (and regular) people
Nadia Bolz-Weber
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

'"SHIT," I thought to myself, "I'm going to be late to New Testament class."' And with that in-your-face opening line, we are off on a breathtaking - and occasionally eye-popping - ride with Nadia Bolz-Weber, the former stand-up comic, one-time alcoholic, Lutheran minister at the House of All Saints and Sinners, the church she founded in Denver, Colorado (Features, 1 November).

Fleeing a fundamentalist upbringing, she describes a journey through various kinds of substance abuse, Wicca, Unitarianism, Quakerism, therapy, and finally back to Christian faith, via marriage and mother-hood.

Through the suicide of a close friend and fellow stand-up, she discovers her vocation: "To be a pastor to my people" - those on the edge and sometimes far beyond the boundaries of conventional life. Such "edge" ministry is, appropriately, told in "edgy" language. Any readers of a delicate constitution will find the contents page helpful in determining whether or not they will cope.

The book employs a loosely chronological approach, while emphasising themes linked to Mary Magdalene, with whom the author identifies strongly enough to have her image tattooed on her forearm. Through an array of colourful characters and anecdotes, what emerges repeatedly are reminders of God's forgiveness, healing, liberation, transformation, and, above all, grace amid the ambiguities and messiness of life.

What makes it a particularly satisfying read is the flow of surprises, beginning with the moving story of her ultra-conservative parents' praying over her and blessing her as she shares with them her calling to ministry. This is an author who is open to revisiting her assumptions, and challenging her own thinking, even scrutinising a tendency to become self-congratulatory in her liberalism.

Fundamentalist upbringing? Deficient on attitudes to women, but strong on hospitality and community. Spiritual warfare? There is no denying the negative forces in the world, whether identified as actual demons or simply human darkness. Comfortable middle-class people? They must be as welcome in her congregation as the most outrageous drag-queen.

The book is also satisfying for its many memorable quotes and one-liners, among my favourites being: "Sometimes the best thing we can do for each other is talk honestly about being wrong"; "The truth does crush us, but the instant it crushes us, it somehow puts us back together into something honest"; "I had never stopped believing in God. Not really. But I did have to go hang out with his aunt for a while. She's called the goddess."

Despite the colourful vocabulary, the tattoos, and the occasional crankiness alluded to in the title, what sticks in the mind is the author's honesty. She does not set out to shock (well, perhaps just a little), but to share what Christianity means to her, which is everything: "I have only my confession - confession of my own real brokenness and confession of my own real faith . . . and it is the story of how I have experienced this Jesus thing to be true."

Naomi Starkey is a commissioning editor for BRF, and edits and writes for New Daylight Bible-reading notes. She has also written Good Enough Mother (BRF, 2009), and The Recovery of Love (BRF, 2013).

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