Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber Gets 'Shameless' About Sex

Jan 13, 2019
Originally published on January 14, 2019 10:28 am

How does the church affect people's sex lives? It's a big question with no easy answers, but one that Nadia Bolz-Weber is willing to confront.

Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor based in Denver, and her arguments come from firsthand experience — from stories shared by parishioners at her former congregation, and from the text of the Bible itself. In her new book, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, she takes a bold look at how conservative Christian norms around sexuality affect worshippers in every aspect of their lives.

She says the decision to write the book was deeply personal, because it was connected to "negotiating that part of my life as an adult sexual being who's divorced and also a pastor. I had to really reflect on, what are the teachings of the church? Were the things I learned in youth group still rules that apply to me now?"


Interview Highlights

On how the church relates to sexuality

What kind of flourishing people are experiencing in their life as sexual people is something that the church doesn't seem to care about — the church just cares that they're not doing the naughty things. - Nadia Bolz-Weber

What kind of flourishing people are experiencing in their life as sexual people is something that the church doesn't seem to care about — the church just cares that they're not doing the naughty things. Nobody seems to really care, hey, are people flourishing in that part of their lives? And so I just started interviewing my parishioners with three questions, just saying, what messages did you receive from the church about sex and the body and gender? And how did that message affect you? And then how have you navigated your adult life? And I took what I learned in those interviews, and what I was sort of exploring in my own life and my own spirit, and ended up offering this book.

On her use of crop circle imagery

As a very urban girl, I have always been puzzled by why farmers would plant crops in circles in lots that are square. Because when you fly above them, you're like, that makes no sense! But then I realized, it's not that they're planted in circles, it's that they're watered in circles. The center pivot irrigation system that was developed in the '40s revolutionized farming in America, and so the water just never gets to the crops in the corners. And I realized that's the way it feels about the church's teaching around sex, is that if you happen to be planted in the center, if you happen to be a cisgender, heterosexual person who didn't have sex before marriage, who's only had sex with your one true love and you're totally flourishing within that, then the teachings of the church are really OK for you. But so many of us were planted in the corners.

On her own experiences, including having an abortion

I wasn't hearing the conversation I was wanting to have. And I wanted to tell my own story as a way of going, "You know what? This experience I had almost destroyed me. Like, it was a really difficult thing, and it really laid me out, and I never once thought it was the wrong decision." So I think sometimes people on one side of that conversation don't want you to say one thing, and people on the other side don't want to hear the other. And so to be able to have a conversation about it that's sort of "both/and" rather than "either/or," I felt like was really critical. And also just a theological aspect of it that's woven throughout that story is that for a very long time, the Judeo-Christian thought held that life began with breath. In Genesis, it says that God breathed into dust to create humanity, that that was the moment that we had a living soul. So this idea of life and breath being connected is something that people can sort of hold on to, if they still have an attachment to Judeo-Christian thought, and still allow for, hey, women need to be able to have the decision around family planning and whether they're going to go through with a pregnancy or not.

On what kinds of conversations she would like people to be having in their churches

Well, I think it would be amazing if people were able to speak honestly about their experience. I think a lot of times in churches, people feel like they have to say the right thing, that they have to believe the right thing, and yet, what if we just come in and talk about our lives in an honest way? I mean, as someone who's also in recovery for the last 27 years, I just am very aware, as somebody who's in a 12-step program, that people seem to be, much more frequently, speaking honestly about their lives and connecting to God and to one another in the basements of our churches, than they are in the sanctuaries of our churches. And that is a shame to me.

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

As the name of our show suggests, we do like to consider all things on this program, which is why we want to warn listeners that the conversation we're about to have might not be appropriate for all listeners because we'll be spending a few minutes talking with Nadia Bolz-Weber about her new book. It's called "Shameless: A Sexual Reformation." In it, Bolz-Weber takes on a big question with no easy answers - how does religion affect people's sex lives? A Lutheran pastor based in Denver, her arguments come from firsthand experience, from stories shared by parishioners at her former congregation and from the text of the Bible itself. She takes a bold look at how conservative Christian norms around sexuality affect worshippers in every aspect of their lives. Nadia Bolz-Weber joins me from Colorado Public Radio. Thanks for joining us.

NADIA BOLZ-WEBER: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thanks.

MCCAMMON: OK. So, first of all, a Lutheran pastor and a sex book are maybe not ideas that typically would go together. How did you decide to write this?

BOLZ-WEBER: It was deeply personal in the sense that - connecting to my own sort of story as a sexual person and as somebody connecting to themselves as somebody who was divorced and sort of negotiating that part of my life as an adult sexual being who's divorced and, also, a pastor - I had to really reflect on what are the teachings of the church, you know? Were the things I learned in youth groups still rules that apply to me now, you know? Like, trying to navigate that and connecting with the person I'm with now, my boyfriend, and realizing that this is - you know, what kind of flourishing people are experiencing in their life as sexual people is something that the church doesn't seem to care about. The church just cares that they're not doing the naughty things.

Nobody seems to really care, hey, are people flourishing in that part of their lives. And so I just started interviewing my parishioners with three questions, just saying like, what message did you receive from the church about sex and the body and gender? And how did that message affect you? And then, how have you navigated your adult life? And I took what I learned in those interviews and what I was sort of exploring in my own life and in my own spirit and ended up offering this book.

MCCAMMON: You write about some of those answers, and you also tell a story early in the book about looking down out of your airplane window while flying over farmland and seeing crop circles. And that's an image you use throughout the book to talk about human sexuality. Tell me more about that.

BOLZ-WEBER: Well, OK. As, like, a very urban girl, I just have always been puzzled by why farmers would plant crops in circles in lots that are square because when you fly above them, you're like, that makes no sense. But then, I realized it's not that they're planted in circles. It's that they're watered in circles. The water just never gets to the crops in the corners. And I realized that's the way it feels about - the church's teaching around sex is that if you happen to be planted in the center, if you happen to be a cisgender heterosexual person who didn't have sex before marriage and has only had sex with their one true love and you're totally flourishing within that, then the teachings of the church are really OK for you. But so many of us were planted in the corners, and the teachings of the church around sex and sexuality and gender never get to us.

MCCAMMON: What kinds of stories did you hear from people in your church about how they had been formed?

BOLZ-WEBER: Oh, my goodness. I mean, I heard stories of women who experienced marital rape, and the church told them that it wasn't actually rape because of a verse in the Bible that says that women have to be subject to their husbands. I heard stories of gay men who experienced sexual assault within the church and would never report it because they were told being gay was a sin.

The most common type of story was just people who were told from the time they were teenagers that God wants them to not connect to themselves as sexual beings right at the point where our bodies are literally designed to start connecting in a very particular way to our sort of erotic desires and our sexual natures. The church says, yeah, you might have been created by a god in order for your body to be experiencing that. But, if you love God, you will not think sexual thoughts. You will not, you know, do anything but hold hands with your girlfriend. It's like the creator of the universe designed a passive-aggressive test of our willpower into creation.

MCCAMMON: What do you want people who don't come from your background to learn from this book?

BOLZ-WEBER: Even if you weren't raised as, like, a church girl like I was, conservative Christianity has permeated so many aspects of our culture that it's just in the ether in terms of the way people think and the way we talk about morality and ethics. There's a whole conversation that we could be having around this that people aren't having. And I think more than anything I'm just inviting people to be brave enough to start talking about this stuff. It's all I've ever done, really, in my career. I'll talk about difficult things or vulnerable things, really, just to try and create a space around me other people could step into to start talking about what those things are for them. It's a form of leadership I call, screw it, I'll go first.

MCCAMMON: And you do get personal in this book. You write about an experience you had of having an abortion as a younger woman. Why did you decide to open up about that?

BOLZ-WEBER: Well, because I wasn't hearing the conversation I was wanting to have. And I wanted to tell my own story as a way of going - you know what? - this experience I had almost destroyed me. Like, it was a really difficult thing, and it really laid me out. And I never once thought it was the wrong decision. So I think, sometimes, people on one side of that conversation don't want you to say one thing, and people on the other side don't want to hear the other. And so to be able to have a conversation about it that's sort of both and rather than either/or I felt like was really critical.

And, also, just a theological aspect of it that's woven throughout that story is that, for a very long time, the Judeo-Christian thought held that life began with breath. In Genesis, it says that God breathed into dust to create humanity, that that was the moment that we had a living soul. So this idea of life and breath being connected is something that people can sort of hold onto if they're - still have an attachment to Judeo-Christian thought and still allow for, hey, women need to be able to have the decision around family planning and whether they're going to go through with a pregnancy or not.

MCCAMMON: How do people respond when you talk about the fact that you are both a minister and someone who has had an abortion yourself, as you write about in this book?

BOLZ-WEBER: Honest to God, this is - the first time I've talked about it in public is this interview (laughter). So it's not something that we've sort of told people was in the book, and there's part of me that is a little terrified because people have extremely vigorous views about this issue. But, again, it was just one more example of, like, taking a deep breath and going, I think my job is to go first. Not that I'm the only one to have ever talked, publicly, about this but to be a clergy person and talk publicly, I had to trust - and I have to trust - that it's going to be important for other women out there who have a similar story.

The fact that I was willing to tell mine, that - if, in some way, that's healing for them or makes them feel less alone, then I've done my job. If people criticize me for it, that's actually none of my business. Who is it going to help for me to say this thing? That's the only focus I can really have.

MCCAMMON: Nadia Bolz-Weber. Her book "Shameless: A Sexual Reformation" comes out at the end of the month. Nadia Bolz-Weber, thank you so much.

BOLZ-WEBER: My pleasure. Thanks, Sarah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.