Serious people on both left and right have wailed about the reality-show celebrity occupying the office of president of the United States. Trump's crudity, impulsiveness, narcissism, shallowness, tawdry sexual opinions, and general abrasiveness have repelled even his supporters. Parents worry about his effect on children. Many of us still find it hard to believe that such a fellow is there at all.
But it should be even more difficult to believe that a celebrity with similar characteristics has become the premier theologian/superstar of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Like Trump, Nadia Bolz-Weber outshines everyone else in the church, eclipsing even the presiding bishop, let alone any bona fide theologian of the denomination.
Bolz-Weber was in the news again recently, after she claimed, in the LGBTQ magazine Out in Jersey, that “there is ethically sourced porn”:
There are issues of justice and exploitation within the porn industry, no question, but it doesn’t mean consumption of pornography should be shamed. There is ethically sourced porn. There are people who say it’s sexual immorality, but if you take Liberals and Conservatives who show outrage and made a Venn diagram of those who consume pornography, you’d see a huge overlap.
Bolstered by her celebrity status, Bolz-Weber, founding pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, has made a huge splash as a “public theologian.” In June she was featured speaker before 31,000 teenagers at the triennial Youth Gathering of the ELCA in Houston. Her speaking schedule is heavy. She is especially favored among Episcopalian churches and organizations, but gets plenty of play among progressive Lutherans, Catholics, and Evangelicals. She is a darling of NPR and has an international following.
Though a pastor in the ELCA, Bolz-Weber’s use of language seems calculated to make her sound as little like a clergyperson as possible. Like many celebrities, Bolz-Weber is vulgar. In the interview mentioned above, she stated that “The Bible’s not clear about s***!” “People are hungry for religion and spirituality that isn’t utter bulls***,” she continued, adding, “You can draw a straight f****** line from what people were told in church and the harm in their lives.”
In a promotional video for her new book, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, she throws off a quick history of Christian sexual ethics that she finds harmful. The church fathers draw special opprobrium. There was a time and place for these traditional teachings, she suggests, but now we have to do something new. We have to “burn it all down and start all over.” Her own teachings will lead to “freedom” without shame. In the same interview in which she defended “ethically sourced porn,” she added that she is “instigating an art project where women send to me their purity rings. They will be melted into a sculpture of a vagina.”
Bolz-Weber sports multiple tattoos, unconventional clothing, and a saucy, look-at-me gaze. She delivers her words with odd lip movements. She has an entertaining, witty style (she is a former stand-up comedian), she uses her language and presumptuous claims to draw people into her orbit, and she often has a keen sense for the needs of her audience.
And not even Trump is as adept as Bolz-Weber at throwing insults. Before those 31,000 teenagers at that ELCA Youth Gathering, she altered the set of renunciations that parents or godparents are expected to answer at a baptism: “Do you renounce the devil and all his empty promises?” She rewrote that question: “Do you renounce the lie that Queerness is anything other than beauty?” To which the crowd dutifully replied: “I renounce them!” According to Bolz-Weber then, those Christians who held classic views about homosexual orientation and conduct are purveyors of the devil’s lies.
Those concerned about the reality TV-star in the White House should be even more alarmed at the popularity of Bolz-Weber, the celebrity theologian. That Bolz-Weber was put forward as the definitive voice of the ELCA to thirty thousand teenagers should be positively appalling to members of that church. It indicates shockingly poor judgment by its leaders, including presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, who shared the program with Bolz-Weber and presumably did not disagree with her claims.
But even more worrisome than the episode with those teenagers is the distorted theology that is being spread widely through her public preaching and teaching. It rejects God’s law, it offers God’s grace without mention of Christ’s atoning work, it promises grace without repentance and amendment of life, and it exhibits contempt for the Great Tradition.
Robert Benne is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and research associate at Roanoke College.