In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Nadia Bolz-Weber about what it means to be a Christian in our modern world as they explore the following questions:
- How do Lutheran’s view the Bible?
- What is the magnificat?
- Why should we all try less hard?
- What is the “good news” of the Gospel?
- Is there a “final authority” in interpreting Scripture?
- What does it mean for the Bible to be a living Word?
- What is Nadia’s understanding of biblical authority?
- What is the value of the lectionary?
- Why is Christianity still worth perusing for Nadia?
- How does the “good news” infuse dark times?
- What is wrong with trying harder to improve ourselves?
- What actually causes transformation in our lives?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Nadia Bolz-Weber you can share.
- “For whatever reason, Scripture holds up.” @Sarcasticluther
- “I feel like it’s so much easier for me to preach good news in dark times than it is during, you know, a carnival for whatever reason.” @Sarcasticluther
- “It is amazing to me how many times I can go to the same text that I’ve preached on year after year after year and I swear to God, they add shit when I’m not looking.” @Sarcasticluther
- “I love the human folly in scripture. It has, it’s just absolutely one of my favorite things. It is just a chronicle of like, dumbass after dumbass after dumbass and I just, I find that wildly comforting.” @Sarcasticluther
- “The good news cannot be heard as good if you’re not honest about the shittiness of life.” @Sarcasticluther
- “I’m an example and I am only ever an example of what it looks like to be desperately in need of grace. That’s all I have.” @Sarcasticluther
- The project of self-improvement is just hopeless to me and people don’t like that message because self-improvement sells, you know, in every way possible.” @Sarcasticluther
- “Everybody relax. Everybody try less hard.” @Sarcasticluther
- “Death and disease and despair and disintegration and disconnection are real. But they’re not the most real thing.” @Sarcasticluther
Mentioned in This Episode
- Book: Making Sense of Scripture
- Podcast: The Confessional
- Book: Seculosity
- Website: Mockingbird
- Patreon: The Bible for Normal People
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People – the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty intro music]
Pete: Welcome, everyone, to this episode of The Bible for Normal People and our topic today is “Being A Christian in the Messiness” and our guest is Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran theologian.
Pete: What else does she do? New York Times best-selling author…
Jared: Just a kind of a general badass, I guess? I have to say…
Pete: Yeah, sort of really, in the best sense of the word, just real and in your face.
Jared: Yeah, yeah.
Pete: And that’s what so many people admire about her and what I admire about her and it’s just great to have her on talking about all sorts of stuff with the Bible and deconstructing and being a Lutheran and how do you read the Bible and all this kind of stuff, just great stuff to talk about.
Jared: Yeah. I mean, I think that most, the thing that I appreciate most is this emphasis on grace, which I think we could use a lot of these days, so –
Jared: I think it’s a timely message and I was really grateful to be able to talk with her.
Pete: Yeah. Well, let’s get to it.
Nadia: What passes for good news in most preaching, both liberal and conservative, is some form of “here’s the problem and here’s what you could or should be doing about it.” I’ve never heard that as good news in my life. Not once. Yeah, I mean, the things that have transformed me have never been as a result of me trying harder.
Nadia: Well, I was raised in the Church of Christ, which I always describe as “Baptist Plus.” So, the Bible was considered the sort of inerrant word of God that it was basically, you know, “basic instructions before leaving earth” type of thing. It was what you believed in. You believed in the Bible more than you believed in like, God or Jesus. It was more important that you believe in the Bible. And so, it was, it was wielded with precision and what I remember mainly is that the preaching in the Church of Christ was where somebody would, there were two things they would do. They would either take a passage and preach verse by verse on it, like, they’d read a verse and then they’d have their commentary on it, read another verse, do their commentary; or it was the, I call it the “clothesline preaching,” where they would choose one verse from this section to support the point they wanted to make in the sermon. And then they’d take another verse somewhere else to support that, and then they’d string them on a clothesline and then go, “Well, see? Look! God agrees with me.”
So, those were the two forms of preaching.
Nadia: And always men, of course. Women weren’t permitted to preach. But I remember when I became Lutheran, it was so extraordinary to me that in Lutheran liturgy, they spend a lot of time reading large pericopes of scripture out loud in the worship service, and I had never experienced that.
Nadia: It was one verse, one verse, one verse. So, I’d never experienced the, like, there’s always chanting a Psalm and there’s always a first reading and an Epistle, and then a Gospel reading. There’s so much scripture in Lutheran worship, which the people who were in the church I was raised in would say was not a Bible believing church.
Nadia: Even though not only are most of the words of the liturgy lifted straight out of scripture, and you’re singing them and saying them together, but these huge chunks of the Bible are being read out loud and it’s just a very different relationship to scripture.
Pete: Well Nadia, just help fill that out a little bit because just backing up to your upbringing, your history with the Bible, and the clothesline approach to preaching or the verse at a time approach – why, I mean, what does your gut tell you is, why is that favored among certain groups, let’s say, very conservative Christians. Why is that the way instead of reading these large chunks and not explaining every line and just letting it sort of hit you?
Pete: Like what’s the psychology there, I guess?
Nadia: Well, I think everything is explainable that there is an answer for everything, everything is explainable, that they often would say, you know, the Bible is very clear about Acts. And you know, after I really read the Bible, I was like, the Bible is not clear about shit!
Nadia: Like, I don’t know where you’re getting that from. But their approach was that the Bible is very clear. It is the highest authority. The Bible is the highest authority, and so you have to live your life according to what the Bible says, and the preacher’s job is to tell you what that is.
Pete: Okay, so, it’s almost a legal document in a sense.
Nadia: Yeah, correct.
Pete: I mean, Brian McLaren talks about that too, it’s like, that’s what you, like a lawyer, you exegete each line because God is saying something to you there.
Nadia: Right. That’s right, yeah.
Pete: That’s disappointing.
Jared: You mentioned the fact that it’s not really clear. So, as a pastor, how do you handle the messy parts of the Bible? Because I’ve just heard, you know, you speak about a lot of things and within the Lutheran tradition it’s apparent that the Bible is still very relevant and important.
Jared: But how do you handle the messy parts, you know, how women are treated, divine violence, those kind of things?
Nadia: Right. Well, there’s a few questions in that. One is how do Lutheran’s view the Bible? Right? So, and then there’s, I have two answers to that question. Lutherans view the Bible as the, Luther called the Bible the cradle that holds Christ. The cradle is not Christ, the point of the Bible, to Lutheran’s, is that parts of it have more authority than other parts. So, to us, because it is the cradle that holds Christ to Lutheran Christians, the central point of authority, the point of gravity in the Bible in scripture is the Gospel and anything about Jesus. That is the central point of gravity. So, it’s more like a dart board, right?
Pete: Mm hmm.
Nadia: So, that’s in the center and so then the things that are in the next circle out are any passages of scripture that also speak to the same thing that Jesus came to speak of, right? So, there’s stuff in Hebrew scriptures and in the Psalms and stuff that is the same message but given at a different time. So that, that has authority. Then, you know, the early church stuff and then, you know, stuff in the Epistles that supports the main heart of scripture. So, on the very periphery that outside ring of the target are things that are like, Levitical codes and you know, some of the stuff, it doesn’t have the same authority. It doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be in the Bible, but it doesn’t have the same weight to it. So, when people go, when people say to me, “well then what do you do about this verse?” I’m like, “oh my god, I’m so sorry. I do not have a dog in that fight. I’m so sorry.”
Pete: Yeah, right.
Nadia: You know, like, I reject the premise of your question basically.
Nadia: So, I don’t feel like I have to answer it. I can reject it, the premise. So, that’s one way that Lutherans view scripture. Now, when we use the term “the Word of God” because that’s what the Bible is called, that’s the Word, right? The Word is the Bible. When Lutheran’s talk about the Word of God, we mean three things in order. Number one – the Word of God to Lutheran’s is the Word made flesh. So, Jesus is God’s most complete proclamation and message to humanity about who God is. Secondly – the Word of God is the Word proclaimed, so any pronouncement of that main message, be it in preaching or hymnody or a word of forgiveness that a friend gives to another, that’s the Word. And then thirdly – it is the way that message is revealed in the written text of the Bible.
Pete: Yeah. That’s not very Evangelical, is it?
Pete: But I mean, we’re not making light of it because it’s hard, because, actually I was making light of it. But not really making light of it because I know people struggle with this and so much of this seems to come down to, not to make it too simplistic, but you know, it’s where you start out with some of these questions. Like, you’ve just given a really good explanation for a way of understanding what is the Bible, right? And if it’s not a legal text that you have to sort of pay attention to, like, you know, every time I download something from iTunes I have 40 pages I have to go through. Of course, I don’t. But you’re supposed to –
Pete: And if the Bible’s looked on like that, it’s, it becomes rather stressful and, but that’s driven home because it’s God’s Word, but that Bible part is first, there. It’s not the third thing, it’s the first thing.
Nadia: Yeah. And there’s another word for that, which is idolatry.
Nadia: Because whenever I pass by a church and it’s such and such Bible church, I’m like, ehhhhhh. It’s idolatry, that’s what they worship. It’s a church of the Bible.
Pete: Right, right.
Jared: Well, it actually reminds me some of, we’ve had a number of Jewish scholars on and I always appreciate how they organize their Bible in the Tanach because it seems like when you mention the dartboard, it seems very similar where you have the Torah, sort of the central part of the Hebrew Bible, and then you have the Nevi’im or the prophets, and then the Ketuvim which is sort of the writings –
Nadia: That’s right.
Jared: They’re not as authoritative.
Nadia: That’s right.
Jared: It just seems like a big hurdle for Christians is to recognize we all pick and choose, we all emphasize parts of our Bible more than the others, and I appreciate, maybe, the Lutheran tradition of saying, well, if we’re going to have to pick and choose, let’s pick Jesus.
Jared: Because that seems to be the central tenant of our faith here.
Nadia: Exactly. But a couple things – one, I don’t want to fail to mention that the dartboard target thing is actually from David Lose who’s from Luther Seminary. He wrote an amazing book I recommend it to everyone, called Making Sense of Scripture. So, really, really helpful for these conversations. I mean, my congregation that I founded and served for ten years, House for All Sinners and Saints, while technically a Lutheran church, had precious few Lutherans. It was all ex-evangelicals basically. So, that book was so important to so many in our community, and we did book studies on it a few times. So, I want to shout out to David Lose.
Nadia: But yeah, I mean, I think the structuring of saying there’s some things that are more important than other things, it also helps with just the application of human reason when you’re approaching the text because you have to come up with some pretty puzzling twists to make it work, you know, about there’s no errors when there’s so many things that contradict and there’s different, you know, two different versions of creation story, all of that. But I would say the thing that was the center point in the church I grew up in would be Paul’s letters.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Nadia: So, when Paul came along and said I’m going to set down some guidelines for what you should and shouldn’t do, the church I was raised in was much more compelled by that than really Jesus’s teachings. So, most of the preaching came out of Paul’s letters. And things like, the Magnificat the beginning of Luke, I hadn’t, I’d never heard of it! I never heard of it! It wasn’t until I was in my late 20’s and visiting, you know, going to a Vesper’s service for the first time at a Lutheran church and they always sang the Magnificat of you know, that “God has cast the mighty down from their thrones and uplifted the humble of heart that he’s fed the hungry with wonderous things and left the wealthy no part.” I’m like, is this from like, a leftist songbook? What the hell is this?
Nadia: They’re like, no man. That’s literally in Luke! I’m like, what???
Pete: That’s in the Bible!
Nadia: Yeah, that was not favored in my – oh! But here’s a great story. I’ve told this before, but I love the, of course, I grew to just love Mary and the Magnificat just so much, and I went to my parents Church of Christ. My parents are amazing. I mean, they still go to this Church of Christ, but it’s considered a liberal one, and they, and then you know, before COVID they also attended House for All Sinners and Saints and they’re great, amazing people. But I went one Sunday with them to their Church of Christ and it’s in a very wealthy suburb, so it’s a predominantly white, pretty upper-middle class Church of Christ, and I saw that in the little, you know, the worship pamphlet or whatever, when you kinda don’t want to be in church, and you’re like, okay, three things down, six to go. You know? That’s how you use the worship booklet, you know?
Nadia: I was doing a little bit of that. But I saw that, oh, the last song was the Magnificat, and I was like, no way! They misspelled it. They put an “n” in it, and I forgave that.
Nadia: But we get to, I just couldn’t wait. I was like, counting down every single thing – sermons done, prayer is done – I was like, I can’t wait to sing this. And when it came time, they sang a praise and worship version of, wait for it, the first half of the Magnificat –
Pete: Right, not the second half, yeah.
Nadia: They did not sing the second half! So, it was like, “God looks with favor on me,” you know, I, “everyone is going to call me blessed, the Lord has done great things for me,” and then they stopped! And I was, I was irate, and I actually confronted the preacher on the way out, which was probably not the best form –
Pete: I’m sure you did, yes. Well, how’d that go?
Nadia: So, I said, it is theologically irresponsible for you to allow this privileged, white congregation in the suburbs to sing the first half of the Magnificat and not include the second half. And he literally didn’t know what I was taking about.
Pete: Yeah, right. Now, I wonder, Nadia, even though, you know, the me part, the me in the first part of the Magnificat, they were probably internalizing that –
Pete: That they’re the “me” that have been blessed, not even Mary, right?
Nadia: Oh, correct. No, I don’t think they even knew it was Mary.
Nadia: To be honest, it’s just because it’s so perfectly suited for that praise song, because so many of those praise and worship songs are about “I just love how much you love me and I love you” and I just, you know, it’s like, “I love how much you love me.”
Pete: Yeah, right.
Nadia: You know, it’s just, it’s so self-referential about, you know, how much you love God.
Pete: Right, yeah, yeah.
Nadia: And so, and that’s fine. There’s a place for that, but yeah, I don’t think they understood it was Mary.
Pete: Yeah. So, your life was centered in Paul’s letters, you mentioned before too –
Pete: Which, I think every Protestant, at least every conservative Protestant ever since Luther and Calvin. And you know, it struck me, at least ever since seminary when one of my conservative professors said probably without knowing really the impact it would have he said, “you have to remember when you’re reading Paul’s letters you’re reading somebody else’s mail. They weren’t written to you.”
Pete: And it was like, oh, you know, that’s a really good point.
Pete: And that’s actually charged a lot of my thinking over the years, but I just think the irony of Paul as the center of an unyielding systematic theology –
Pete: When they are letters written to people we don’t know, about situations that we actually don’t really know very much about –
Nadia: Right! It’s like hearing one end of a phone call; you know one end of it.
Nadia: They’re like, “well, that’s the word of the Lord!” Well, okay, so I have a theory about Paul, actually –
Nadia: Because I think, what I’m hoping is a lot of what I say will help illustrate the fact that I love scripture, scripture is actually really deeply important to me. I love it! And I think it has an authority to it, but I have some differentiating thoughts about that.
Nadia: So, here’s one. Here’s my theory. So, I communicate in basically from two different places. Sometimes I’m a preacher, and in that case, I go through a very different process in terms of what I’m saying. There’s a different tone to it, there’s a different purpose to it. It’s very different than my lectures, my talks. So, sometimes I’m a speaker and sometimes I’m a preacher. Now, in terms of preaching, what I hope is that if somebody got a hold of a manuscript of a sermon of mine hundreds of years from now, my hope is that if they took away the like, pop culture references and inside jokes and those aren’t going to make any sense, but when they got to that part that moves me and moves people who are hearing it, that point of like, you can feel it, right? I hoped that they can go, “oh man, that’s the Word.”
Pete: Mm hmm.
Nadia: She was preaching the Word. Now, when I’m a speaker, now I have some authority to be a speaker, but it’s rooted in the fact that I’m a church planter, I’m pretty good at reading culture, I, you know, I’m fluent in certain things socially, I’m a good, you know, all of that. But a lot of it, to be honest, are my snotty opinions about what churches should and shouldn’t be doing. Now, if somebody got ahold of a talk of mine in hundreds of years, I hope to God they wouldn’t have, like, feel a part of it and go, “that’s the Word of the Lord.” Right?
Nadia: No, no, no! It’s my snotty opinions. I have some authority right now to say those, but it is going to mean jack shit to you hundreds of years from now.
Pete: Yeah, right.
Nadia: So, sometimes Paul was being a preacher and sometimes Paul was being a speaker because there are passages in Paul’s letters that I read and I feel it in my body. I’m like, oh my god. When he’s good, he’s unbeatable.
Nadia: There are moments where you’re like, oh, he was accessing something here. Like, there’s some deep truth to what is being said here. And then there’s other times that, while he had the authority as a church planter and a communicator or whatnot to say what he was saying, it was snotty opinions about what churches should and shouldn’t be doing. So, to say either “every single thing Paul says is the Word of the Lord” or “nothing Paul said was the Word of the Lord” I think is lacking in discernment.
Jared: I love that, I mean, I think it’s just a perfect analogy and I think it’s gonna land well with our listeners. But I can’t help but bring up my conservative, charismatic, evangelical upbringing, which is to say, kind of going back to what we said earlier, well, what makes you know, if the Bible isn’t the final end all, if we’re emphasizing certain parts, or we’re discerning what Paul is or isn’t doing, then we’re making ourselves the final authority. And so, what would you say to people who, maybe, aren’t there, but they still have that kind of twinge of maybe guilt or the kind of message in their head that says, “Eh, I get it. I totally agree with you, but I also… there’s something that’s not sitting right about that.”
Nadia: Well, it’s interesting to use the term “the final authority,” because I find that a lot of the evangelical approach to scripture is saying “oh, no, there is one interpretation of this, the Bible is very clear, this is the final authority on everything” and they’re unable to have the humility to go “this is our best guess.” Right?
Nadia: We’re using some lenses that were handed to us. We trust them, but you know, who knows? So, that’s where I see people saying, human beings saying, “Oh, it’s the final authority.” But of course, they defer and go, “Oh, no, it’s not us. It’s the Bible.” You know? And I’m like, oh, my god, that’s like constitutional scholars who are constitutional originalists saying, “Oh, it just so happens this interpretation of the constitution favors the class of person I happen to be in, but it’s not me. It’s the framers.”
Pete: Yeah, “I can’t help it! I can’t help it! I’m just going with what it says!”
Nadia: “Not me! It just happens to benefit me, but it’s the framers.” Right?
Pete: Mm hmm.
Nadia: Same with, you know, really conservative interpretations of scripture. Just so happens to benefit the lens that they’re viewing. Just so happens to be beneficial to the men who are using it, you know.
Nadia: Don’t look over here. You know? So, there’s that, but also there are times when, like when I was posting sermons, when I was in my parish, I was posting sermons online. Some people would be like, you know, “I don’t think this, that is, it is not okay for you to take that liberty with that text, and I disagree. It’s actually about this.” And I’m like, look, when I preach a sermon it’s like my best shot having done a lot of study and a lot of prayer and meditation and a lot of dwelling and a lot of knowing the people I’m proclaiming for and it’s my best shot at what good news we can get from that text for these people at that moment. So, if people are like, I don’t agree with this! I’m like, fine! Tomorrow, I might see something completely different. It’s a living Word! It’s a living Word. And so, people who say there’s one interpretation, this is what it actually means, it’s the final authority, blah blah blah. I’m like, you’re not honoring it as a living Word.
Jared: It reminds me of Paul’s idea of it’s a dead letter, right? That’s what it reminds me of is like, this one interpretation for all time, it’s a dead letter rather than that like, speaking to people in the moment at where they are.
Nadia: It is amazing to me how many times I can go to the same text that I’ve preached on year after year after year and I swear to God, they add shit when I’m not looking.
Nadia: I mean, all the time!
Pete: [Continued laughter]
Yeah. We’ve had James Kugel on a couple of times, and he was on recently and he said something, I think, that really echoes exactly what you’re saying Nadia, that you know, the preoccupation with like, what it means is really what it meant. This means one thing and it’s sort of dictated by, like, a historical context or by like a static ecclesiastical sort of interpretation. But he says the only reason we have the Bible around anyway is because it’s been interpreted very flexibly by different people at different times at different situations.
Pete: And if all we do is talk about what it means, that one meaning, it’s almost immediately irrelevant to us because we live in times that the biblical writers never remotely imagined.
Nadia: Right. Totally.
Pete: They cannot possibly connect with what we’re thinking.
Nadia: No way.
Pete: It’s our job to sort of engage the text in a way that makes sense to people.
Pete: And that brings up, I mean, something that, you know, Jared is getting at too that, I mean, if somebody were to ask can you just give a brief – I hate this question – can you give a brief definition of just what you mean by biblical authority?
Nadia: Yeah, right.
Pete: Because it takes me about two hours to answer that.
Pete: I don’t know if you can do better than that but go ahead.
Nadia: Biblical authority, I guess, is the fact that there are these stories and these texts that are ancient that have a capacity that other stories and texts don’t in a sense that they have this ability to tell us who we are and to tell us about the divine in a way that doesn’t explain everything for us, but helps us figure it out through the struggling.
So, Oprah’s book club list? There’s not a single book on there that will be able to do that for us. I mean, they have other value, but for whatever reason, scripture holds up and I have to respect, I have to respect it for that.
Pete: Mm hmm. Boy, you really do like the Bible, don’t you?
Nadia: I do.
I do. I love it.
Pete: That sort of comes across here, Nadia.
Nadia: I love it so much.
What parts of it, again, another question I hate, which is why I like asking other people this question and see what they do with it, but like, do you have parts of the Bible that you tend to gravitate towards or your favorite, or if it’s Paul, like, any particular places in Paul or does that shift and change just with the seasons of life?
Nadia: I mean, to be honest, I have to confess that I don’t wander outside the Lectionary very much.
Nadia: So, most of my study is, it has to do with preaching, and I choose to preach according to the Lectionary, which is deeply flawed, but yeah.
Nadia: So, and mostly the Gospels. I mean, that’s where I hang out almost always, yeah.
Jared: Mm hmm. But there’s something to that, I just want to name, again, an affirmation for the Lectionary, growing up in a tradition that would have maligned the idea of a Lectionary, right, because “we just go where we’re inspired.” But it just so happens that we’re always inspired according to our own ideology or what, you know, kind of political stance or whatever it is, and I appreciate that sort of submission that’s required –
Nadia: Yeah, totally.
Jared: As sort of an 8 on the enneagram, I’m always looking for ways to submit because that doesn’t come naturally to me. But I’ve always appreciated that about the Lectionary where you just sit under it, it comes with seasons –
Nadia: That’s right.
Jared: And you sit under what comes from this outside source and there’s something, just, I just think there’s, it sounds so simplistic, but I think there’s something really profound and beautiful about sitting under a text that comes to you rather than every week as a pastor I get to pick and choose, which happens to be kind of according to my own ideological stance. So has that been –
Nadia: Yeah, I give it, I give it like a month before it turned into a heart of darkness situation for me.
Nadia: Like, I’m not to be trusted, so I do need the discipline of it, but I also love the Catholicity of it. I love the fact that Christians all over the place who might differ in their approach to scripture, might differ in their ideology, their political stances, their culture, are hearing the same chunks of scripture read out loud on a Sunday as everyone else. And if nothing else unites us that does, and I find that comforting.
Jared: It, for whatever reason, it resonates with me to ask this question around, you know, a lot of our listeners are still, like, teetering on like, we have this whole tradition that we just reject now. We just, it just doesn’t sit well. But there’s still something there, so maybe I can ask you this question – what continues to draw you to the Christian faith? What continues to compel you to go on this same faith journey?
Nadia: I guess it’s the only thing that’s kicked me in the ass so consistently my whole life in the way I need it to. So, I love the, I love the fact that my worst impulses are subverted through my encounter with the mercy that I see in the text. It doesn’t, it refuses to be on my side. But ultimately, it is but not in the way I want it to, you know? I mean, I love that. I mean, there’s so much I love about, I love the human folly in scripture. It has, it’s just absolutely one of my favorite things. It is just a chronicle of like, dumbass after dumbass after dumbass and I just, I find that wildly comforting.
Yeah, we can relate to that. Yeah, the Lectionary, back to the Lectionary. You mentioned that, you know, there are, I wouldn’t want to preach through the Lectionary because there’s all sort of weird stuff they leave in and I don’t know what to do with that. So, like, how do you approach that though if you have to preach on something that you wish wasn’t in front of you –
Nadia: Mm hmm.
Pete: I’m not asking for technique, but what’s your posture? What’s your attitude towards that and how do you make it work?
Nadia: I preach the gospel text 90/95% of the time –
Pete: You avoid the prophets or whatever, so –
Nadia: Yeah. I mean, just because that’s, I mean, I preach about Jesus. I’m just, I don’t know, it’s just my, I’m a Lutheran. But then if I’m, like for instance, I wrote a sermon for first Sunday in Lent, which is this Sunday, but I had to record it a couple days ago and I tried so hard to preach the Noah text.
Nadia: I mean, for four days, for forty days!!
Nadia: No. For four days I read that –
Pete: Or was 150? Whatever it is in that story…
Over and over and over because I have a thing with preaching where I take a text and I read it and then I read about it and then I talk to my friends about it and then I think about it before I go to sleep and then I think about it on my walk, and then I, I mean, it’s like, I think about it in the shower. I mean, I just, its days, it’s like having a not very interesting mental illness, it’s just, it’s not interesting but it feels a little off. But I did that with, because I thought, on first glance, like, the world goes through this horrible thing and then like, the rainbow comes out. Like I just thought, oh yeah, this’ll be great for a pandemic! Oh my god, there’s no good news in that text! There’s nothing.
Nadia: There’s no good news in that text. I cannot preach good news about, well, God came to us with a box of chocolates and a bouquet of roses saying, oh baby, I love you so much, I’ll never hurt you like that again.
Nadia: That takes me back.
Pete: It’s like an abusive relationship.
Nadia: Do not do that.
Pete: Yeah, right.
Nadia: Then you can’t even say, no, I was the better for the experience because it just went sideways so fast.
Nadia: So, I could not find good news in it and so then I preached the Gospel. The reason I didn’t want to preach the Gospel is because the compilers of the Lectionary give us approximately sixteen John the Baptist texts over like, a two-month period. Somehow in only eight weeks, sixteen of those Sundays in that eight-week period are John the Baptist over and over. So, I had just preached the exact same text a few weeks ago. So, but nine times out of ten I preach the Gospel. If for whatever reason, because it’s John the Baptist again, I don’t want to preach the Gospel the great thing is I have three other texts to choose from. So, that’s my approach.
Pete: Right, okay.
Jared: So, I want to talk, I want to dig into that a little bit because, you know, there’s this phrase of spiritual bypassing, right? Which is where we use these platitudes and we use these like, in psychology we use these, like, positive messages to bypass the negative realities of life and I just, I feel like a lot of people are attracted to your Gospel, to be honest, because you allow for the negative, but also I keep hearing, like, I preach the Good News, I preach the Gospel.
Jared: So how do you balance this –
Nadia: How the hell, how’s the good news gonna sound good if you don’t say how bad the other shit is first?
Jared: So, yeah, how do you, just with everyday people, because I think we wrestle with that a lot of like, how do I accept all the shittiness of life and yet I’m always preaching the good news. How do you, how do you balance that?
Nadia: They have to go together. The good news cannot be heard as good if you’re not honest about the shittiness of life. I mean, I guess that ultimately is how I preach. I mean, if, yeah.
Jared: So, do you ever, I guess maybe, maybe if you could nuance a little bit the, I guess, it’s probably my own baggage from my tradition where when I hear the Gospel, I almost hear that bypassing language of “everything’s gonna turn out great! It’s all gonna be good. Just trust! Just have faith!” It’s all… you know, “just keep on the path and it’ll be,” ya know… “Why are you sad? You shouldn’t be sad when someone close to you dies. Don’t mourn, just celebrate!”
Jared: So, how does the good news infuse dark times?
Nadia: It’s a really good question. I feel like it’s so much easier for me to preach good news in dark times than it is during, you know, a carnival for whatever reason. So, I guess there, there, it has to be like a light shines in the darkness but the darkness is still dark. The darkness is still all around us. It feels a certain way. It’s cold, like, you can kind of describe it and I guess my, ultimately, I say like, I did a little message on an Instagram Live for Ash Wednesday last night with Kate Bowler, and I’m like, the thing is, is like, death and disease and despair and disintegration and disconnection are real. But they’re not the most real thing. So, I guess that’s the rhetoric I always sort of go to. And it’s always, look, I guess the difference is like, if you’re going to talk about also like, the authority of the preacher other than just the authority of the text is that, you know, sometimes people get a little pearl clutchy about the fact that I use swear words, and they’re like, “You’re supposed to be an example.”
Nadia: Like, an example of what?
Nadia: Competitive piety or –
Nadia: I don’t, pretending to be someone I’m not? I’m an example and I am only ever an example of what it looks like to be desperately in need of grace. That’s all I have. That is my authority is that I am as in need of grace as anybody that I am preaching to. So, when I’m accessing what is the good news, it always comes from what is my need for it. What does that look like? What’s the shape of my need for this news? And so, you know, some people think that the good news is that if you live a super-duper squeaky-clean discipleship centered life, you know, if you do all these things right, the good news is that you don’t really need God.
Nadia: Like, you’re just nailing it! Right? And I’m like, no man. And then there are people who are like, who understand that like, the good news is understanding exactly how in need of grace you are and yet, it’s there. That’s a very different approach than trying really hard and, like, to know how much you need God allows you to talk to people about why it’s so fucking beautiful that God never leaves our side, you know?
Pete: You know, I think, Nadia, what I’ve picked up from you over the years, and I’ve heard you preach too, and what you’re articulating here. I would put it this way, that I think you’re, you want to be real about the human predicament, but you don’t want to leave them there or say, “If you don’t accept Jesus, you’re going to burn.” I think you want to give people hope. Is that what you’re after? Is that the point of this, is like, it is bad, but it doesn’t, that’s not the final word. There’s another word that’s final.
Nadia: It’s not the final word. I mean, that’s what I end up preaching a lot. And so, in order for something to be good news, it has to ultimately be about God and not about me. Like, what passes for good news in most preaching, both liberal and conservative is some form of “here’s the problem and here’s what you could or should be doing about it.” I’ve never heard that as good news in my life. Not once. So, as a Lutheran theologian, to me, it has to be about grace. It has to always go back to grace because if it doesn’t go back to grace, there’s only one other place for it to go which is works! And I will never hear that as good news. And the ways that people can try and dress that up and make it seem like Gospel are endless.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Jared: But, you know, the paradox, and I use that word intentionally here, it reminds me of Carl Rogers, right, famous psychologist who says, you know, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I change.” And so, there’s also this sense of like, grace is this like, frustrating thing. I just imagine people, I mean, you’re probably, you’ve had stories like this like Pete and I do, where it’s like, well, why would you, like you just mentioned the cursing pastor. It’s like, you should be an example. It’s like, well, the example is that we should accept ourselves as we are, but it’s not so we can stay there, it’s this paradox of when I accept, then I can change and that’s kind of this kind of hope paradox. And so, you know, maybe you can speak to that as far as like, I feel like you do a good job as a pastor of entering where people are, but it’s not sort of this excuse to kind of wallow in self-pity or, but it’s this like, hope. It’s almost this motivation when we accept ourselves then we’re motivated to strive for something that is good news for other people and not just ourselves.
Nadia: Yeah, I mean, the things that have transformed me have never been as a result of me trying harder. Ever. It’s never, “oh, with the correct application of the will…” I don’t believe in that. That’s not how I’ve experienced transformation. I’ve experienced transformation by something slapping me upside the head that I didn’t see coming. And then me going, oh, my gosh. What was I thinking? Thank you. Right? Or by having somebody who I really, really enjoy disliking –
Pete: Mm hmm.
Nadia: Do something really loving towards me and then, again, it’s like God, I describe it as God, you know, ripping out my heart of stone and replacing it with something, a heart of flesh again over and over and over.
Nadia: That shit never happens because I’m striving to improve myself. The project of self-improvement is just hopeless to me and people don’t like that message because self-improvement sells, you know, in every way possible.
Jared: But isn’t it, I mean, isn’t that, I just feel like there’s this turn in kind of pop culture where that is the move to self-improvement. Like, the move to self-improvement is just, you like accept yourself. Like –
Jared: We just have to sort of –
Nadia: Has that ever worked? I’m like, look, one of my talks I give, I think I wrote it in a book too. I’m like, oh my god, we’re always convicted by that distance between our ideal self and our actual self.
Jared: Mm hmm.
Nadia: But like, and we’ll do so many things because we just feel this conviction about that distance between those two, but I’m like, if you just wait a minute and look at it, you realize no one has ever become their ideal self. It’s a moving target –
Pete: And it’s a false self too, while we’re at it, right? It’s not who we are…
Nadia: The what?
Pete: It’s not really who we are, it’s our false self. Anyway, yeah.
Nadia: It is, but this idea that we have that if we just strive, we can get, you know, it’s Sisyphus man! It doesn’t, it doesn’t happen –
Nadia: And yet it’s extremely profitable if you can come along and say, “No, no, no. I have the key for you, follow this plan.” You know? I mean, I think my next book is going to be called “You’re Not Enough.” It’s going to be an anti-self-help book. I’m not kidding. Like, there is enough, like, calm down, there’s enough. Oh my god, it doesn’t have to be you.
Nadia: Everybody relax. Everybody try less hard.
Jared: But I just want to name, like, it’s not just profitable, I’m going to get on my high horse for a minute. It’s not just profitable on like, you build your platform on it, it’s, that’s what capitalism is about, is sort of this, it’s this engine of discontent fuels ambition and that’s sort of, and other people profit from that.
Jared: And that’s, for me, kind of more the broader communal social injustice of it all.
Nadia: You know, I, on my podcast, I just interviewed this woman Sarah Edmondson, and she was part of a NXIVM cult and “The Vow” on HBO was told the story, and she was like, I just, they said like, here’s a program for overcoming your limitations. Like, if there are things that are blocking you in your personal life, in your career, like, if you do this program, those will go away, you know? You’ll become your ideal self, that’s what it was, that’s what they were selling people. And I’m like, it is so dangerous. I just find it, I think of it all the time. And look, I’m not saying this because I’m above it, I’m saying it because I’m completely in bondage to it. You know? All the time, I’m like, I think I’m going to stop eating bread. You know, just like a million, there’s always something.
Jared: Yeah, my favorite thing is like, you know, I have these friends who are, you know, they never had the career and they never like, progressed up the ladder, and I just find this paradox of like, I’m both jealous of them and also piteous of them. I’m like, what’s going on inside of me?
Jared: It’s like there’s this sense of which, like, they don’t care! But maybe they should care. I don’t know!
Nadia: Or do I envy them for not caring?
Nadia: Look, I mean, I have this conversation with a friend yesterday from, in my own life that I’m like, I’m struggling because I don’t feel like the season of the podcast, this third season of The Confessional that I’m working on right now, it’s not as good as season two, and it makes me want to not keep working on it. And I’m like, here’s the deal – when my first memoir spent one week on the New York Times best-seller list out of fucking nowhere, and then I had to write another one, I was panic stricken.
Well, of course.
Nadia: I’m like, oh my god! All it’s gonna be is the sophomore album, nobody is gonna like it, like, it’s gonna be an occasion for public humiliation. So, there’s this weight that even our successes are catastrophes because my latest success is always an accusation against my current efforts.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Nadia: All the time! I was so fit, physically fit four or five years ago. I was doing all this Cross Fit. I wish I had never done that because now that is the standard that I judge my current body by.
I should’ve never gotten that fit! It completely screwed me up for the rest of my life because I can’t maintain it.
Pete: Like, I eat a bag of Oreo’s in a week, and then that’s my standard. I have to keep eating a bag of Oreo’s every week and if I don’t, I feel like a failure. You see?
Nadia: You gotta, you gotta be easier on yourself, man.
Pete: I, you know…
Jared: That’s such a good analogy though, because I –
Pete: I think it works. It sort of defines my life.
Jared: I mean, exercise is kind of the thing that I always go to –
Jared: Where it’s like, it’s such an obvious example of if we start, where does it end?
Nadia: I know.
Jared: It’s like, I just don’t know. Like, it just keeps going and then if I ever stop for like, a month, I’m just always gonna judge myself. So, I love that phrase, that it’s always an indictment against where I am.
Nadia: Totally. You know, have you guys had Dave Zahl on here? David Zahl from Mockingbird?
Nadia: Mockingbird, mbird.com, is a, it’s like a literary and culture journal, but it’s also a website. They have a podcast, but the Mockingbird guys, they’re my like, my theological kin. So, if people like the stuff I’m throwing down, they’re going to love Mockingbird.
Nadia: It’s all about grace and culture and stuff like that, but Dave Zahl is just, continues just to be one of the smartest people I’ve ever met and he wrote a book called Seculosity that came out, I think it was last year, and his whole thing is like, you know, we think that by becoming secular, you know, you stepped away from these, these things that were really problematic about being religious, but if we’re honest about it, we just replaced them with other stuff. So, rather than going on and on about how we only think clean thoughts, we talk about how we only eat clean food. And instead of saying, here’s how much time I spend at church, it’s here’s how much time I spend at the gym. So, the great, you know, worthy, worthiness, human worthiness competition is going very strong outside church. We just, we just, his book is brilliant – Seculosity.
Jared: What would you say, then, that grace, you just talk a lot about grace. Is that sort of the way, in some ways, subvert this whole structure?
Nadia: It’s the only thing I found that does it. Yeah. It does. I mean, and that’s why that’s the focus for me all the time, because –
Pete: Because it takes us out of control, yeah.
Nadia: Yeah. Everything else, everything else is trying to earn or prove our worthiness or figure out the sorting system, where we are in the sorting system, all of that. But grace, I actually talked to Dave Zahl today because I’m trying to write my opening essay about cults, you know, for the episode with Sarah Edmonson with the NXIVM cult, and all of them, I’m just confessing now – I watched four docuseries last year on cults. This is approximately 23 hours and 17 minutes of my life watching documentary series about different cults, and I’m obsessed with it because I think it’s an interesting peek into human nature and human folly, but the thing that is, the thing that is hooked inside of humans when they enter a cult is their virtues. It’s not their vices, it’s their virtues that are exploited. And so, it is a striving mentality saying, “I do want to be my best self,” or “I want to transcend this society through meditation,” or “I want,” you know, “I want aliens to take me away on their UFO,” you know, with the Heaven’s Gate cult. So, there’s this, it’s the striving impulse within the human being that is exploited when it comes to cults, and Dave’s like, man, that’s why House for All Sinners and Saints never took off as a cult.
Jared: Oh, unfortunately…
Pete: You could’ve been rich, Nadia.
Nadia: When grace is at the center, you are screwed if you think you’re going to, you know, make this into a cult somehow.
Pete: Right, right. Well, Nadia, listen, you’ve been very kind to spend some time with us here, we really appreciate it. Maybe just in closing, a thought that maybe you could riff on for a second, it has been rough going out there. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a stupid pandemic which we’re not getting rid of any time soon, and you know, political issues and racial issues and I think people are looking for something they can call good news. So, just sum up all of reality over the past year and a half and talk about what does good news look like for you and something that you might want to communicate to others.
Nadia: Yeah, I guess one of the reasons I love scripture is that it gets, it allows us to be, to live part of our lives in the thoughts and lives of humans from thousands of years ago. And so, we can become so myopic, so easily, but like, we are not the first human beings to experience catastrophe.
That the human spirit somehow always, always manages to keep going, to prevail in some way. And when I talk about the human spirit in that prevailing thing, I think it is a strength that we can tap into that is both from our origin, which I call God, but also from those who have come before us, which we call the great cloud of witnesses or ancestors, whatever language people have. So, to me, I think that the thing I cling to is that I can always tap into my source from which I came and to which I will go which has so much more resilience, has so much more compassion and mercy and forgiveness than I can muster up by myself. So, that whole project of self-improvement and trying to become the best version of yourself, one of the reasons that it is always doomed to fail is that you cannot access, you can’t access power just within yourself, but you can always tap into this stuff I just mentioned. So, that’s what’s kind of gotten me through, I think, this year.
Pete: Wise words, Nadia. Thank you so much. It was great having you, it was a long time in coming too.
Pete: We’re glad you were able to hang out with us here for the past hour, it’s been wonderful.
Nadia: Yeah, thanks! I’m just relieved it’s not a podcast about sex because I feel like that’s all people want to talk to me about because of my last book, I’m like, oh god.
Jared: Nice. No, we’re The Bible for Normal People, so, we’re a bunch of nerds over here. Not a lot of sex, you know?
Pete: Oh gosh.
Jared: That’s awesome.
Nadia: Well, thanks so much guys, thanks for having me.
Pete: Thank you, Nadia.
Nadia: All right.
Pete: See ya.
Jared: Thanks everyone, for tuning in. We just want to mention that every episode that we have a guest, Pete and I, we don’t get to everything that we want to talk about. So, we want to dig a little further. So just go to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople where you’ll find “The Afterword” where we talk about this episode with Nadia and other episodes. And I think there’s gonna be a lot to talk about with this episode with Nadia, because I think there was a lot we didn’t cover.
Pete: Absolutely, yeah, it’s a lot of fun. We get a kick out of doing these Afterwords and digging in deep to some of these things, and just riffing our own responses and questions we have, things like that. So, check that out. It’s a lot of fun.
Jared: Absolutely. All right, thanks everyone. We’ll see ya next time.
Megan: We also want to give a huge shout out to our producer’s group, who support us over on Patreon. They are the reason we are able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you would like to help support the podcast, head over to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople where for as little as $3 a month you can receive bonus material, be a part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.
Dave: Thanks to our team: Executive Producer, Megan Cammack; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Marketing Wizard, Reed Lively; transcriber and Community Champion, Stephanie Speight; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. From Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team – thanks for listening.
Jared: And now, uh, so the –
Pete: When is this gonna come out?
Jared: Damn it, Pete! We were supposed to promo something!!!
Pete: We’re what?
Jared: We’re supposed to promo something in the intro!
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