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Not for the posh or po-faced

by
27 November 2015

Jennie Hogan hugely enjoys an unusual take on spirituality

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Accidental Saints: Finding God in all the wrong people
Nadia Bolz-Weber
Canterbury Press £12.99
(978-1-84825-823-5)
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (use code WISEMEN)

 

I AM flattered that the Church Times invited me to review Accidental Saints — not least because they judged that its profane dialect, such as the first chapter’s title, “Absolution for Assholes”, would not make me blush. While the Lutheran clergywoman Nadia Bolz-Weber may write with brutal force, her latest book exudes eloquent and fervent theological insight.

Why Bolz-Weber describes herself as “religious, but not spiritual” is entirely understandable. Here, readers experience the “unbounded mercy” of God as though participating in the liturgy of the people of House for all Sinners and Saints, in Denver, where she is pastor. Indeed, the book is prefaced by the opening verses of the ancient Easter Exultet. Still unconvinced? Her arms are tattooed with images of the liturgical year.

Glorious light banishing darkness is the leitmotif here. Given that much is autobiographical, this is unsurprising. Bolz-Weber was brought up as a fundamentalist Christian, rebelled, and became a drug- and alcohol-addict, and stand-up comedian. Only after being asked to lead a funeral for a friend did she realise that she could serve those who were grieving — and others — in a particular way.

Although her world is undoubtedly sacramental, she presides within a congregation of misfits with radical hospitality and humility, admitting: “I’m a leader, but only by saying, ‘Oh screw it, I’ll go first.’”

Admissions of failure, resentment, and self-obsession appear in many short chapters that have the verve to stand alone, and sufficient nuance to enlarge gradually our understanding of her community. Some biblical texts are explored here, without neat reflections, only with the author’s coruscating and sometimes confessional honesty.

In the chapter “Judas will now take your confession”, the traitor is seen as a victim who, unlike the betrayer Peter, “chose death before seeing that death was done for”. Her community of undesirables becomes a place where grace is “told” through compassion and forgiveness.

A former fundamentalist’s reflections on the ubiquitous imagery of Mary again celebrate her experience of the strange and incessant love of God. She writes: “Mary is what it looks like to believe that we are already who God says we are.” Throughout, ersatz originality combines with candour and, certainly, muscular teaching.

By no means a gift for the faint-hearted, this is certainly a book to give to the multitude who presume that Christianity is the preserve of the posh, polite, and po-faced. Accidental Saints makes for both engaging post-Christmas reading and spirited motivation for Lent preparation in the dark days of winter.

 

The Revd Jennie Hogan is Chaplain to Goodenough College, and Associate Priest at St Giles’s, Cripplegate, in London.

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