Review by Eric Gregory
Rather like the cults that spring up around a deceased Christian saint, the reception of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s first memoir, Pastrix, was so fervent and fawning that it created a following for the loud, angry, tattooed Lutheran pastor based in Denver. She has since been hailed as a mainstream Christian counterpart to evangelical Protestantism’s Rob Bell, and has had increasingly wide exposure in secular culture, including a recent appearance on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross to promote Accidental Saints.
I shied away from Pastor Nadia’s story when Pastrix was making the rounds in my circle of friends. My initial aversion had little to do with any knowledge of her theology or writing, and more to do with an assumption about 40-something tattooed pastors being passé or irrelevant. That, and a dose of skepticism about Christian celebrities: they always find a way to disappoint.
For these reasons it was refreshing to read how brutally honest Nadia Bolz-Weber is in Accidental Saints, in ways that are both infuriating and endearing. The first two chapters of the book, relating stories about unsaintly saints, were difficult to get through. I was sequentially miffed by her perspective on the role of the Litany of Saints in worship, frustrated with her treatment of one parishioner (she relates her penance and reconciliation), and initially turned off from what seemed to be more “What if God were one of us?” narratives about finding Jesus in broken people (which often seem to affirm upper middle-class religious views, rather than express life alongside the downtrodden). Yet by the end of the third chapter, I found myself hooked by the author’s ability to repent, both in the confessional sense and in a literary sense: the stories became less about Bolz-Weber and more about her encounters with the living God in her relationships with her congregation.
The stories in Accidental Saints are at their core about one leader’s constant need for Jesus: for refreshment, solace, challenge, and above all grace. Grace, as one might expect from a book by a Lutheran pastor, is challengingly central to the message of Accidental Saints. Pastor Nadia is clearly in need of it, and her vulnerability in sharing her sometimes vexing limitations helps a reader see more places that could use an infusion of God’s gracious love and acceptance. I found my eyes moist on several occasions as I read encounters that were infused with the real and messy sanctification sown by the Incarnation of Christ.
One could possibly see the book as faux-vulnerable: a vehicle for a narcissistic pastor to tout her particular brand. But the book carefully avoids this folly, and instead shows a glimpse of what it looks like to live in community with other people — in its heartache and sin, and in its beauty and grace.