Who is Nadia Bolz-Weber? Is she a sexual prophet with a crucial message for our time? Should we listen?
For anyone who has not heard of her, NBW (as it is quicker to call her) is an American priest in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Her recent book 'Shameless' calls for nothing less than a 'sexual reformation' and she has just spoken in Southwark Cathedral and also at Greenbelt, the arts festival.
Part of her appeal is that she looks appealingly different and refreshing. There's something in our collective subconscious which instinctively assumes that a genuine prophet – even if not wearing camel hair and eating locusts – will look a bit 'alternative'. Those of us who are middle-aged men with glasses (for example) have a harder time tapping into that subtle expectation. But, as Scripture constantly tells us, appearances can be deceptive – however any of us look.
Another part of her appeal is that her message seems to fill a slot in the zeitgeist. The 1960s sexual revolution is in trouble. The #MeToo movement and various scandals have called its central promises into question. But at the same time, the Christian 'purity culture' is seen as discredited, not least following the news that one of its leading US advocates, Joshua Harris, has lost his faith. Combine both those things, and the time is ripe for a strong woman with a backstory of personal pain to articulate something new and appealing. But, again, Scripture tells us to be discerning.
NBW's main argument, in the words of her book, is this: "We should not be more loyal to an idea, a doctrine, or an interpretation of a Bible verse than we are to people. If the teachings of the church are harming the bodies and spirits of people, we should rethink those teachings."
She freely admits: "I am not a sex therapist, or a historian, or a Bible scholar, or a cultural critic."
Starkly, she writes: "I'm not suggesting we make a few simple amendments...."
Rather, she says, in relation to the existing Christian theology of sex, she wants to "burn it the f*** down" (sic, but my asterisks).
Her central guiding principle is that of "concern".
She says: "Concern moves us closer to the heart of Jesus' own ethic: love God and our neighbour as ourselves... It reframes the choice entirely outside of our own self-interest in a way that consent and mutuality does not."
She concludes: "Sexual flourishing is for every type of body, every type of gender, every type of sex drive, every type of human... All are invited to the open table, to the fullness of grace, the fullness of their erotic selves, their sensual selves, their loving selves."
Reading her book, there is much that superficially appeals because it is couched with such apparent humility and appeals to grace. She writes of having "knelt to Jesus, the one who knows me, and cried tears of relief, regret, and the balm of just being seen. The Jesus whom God sent to claim and save us is what keeps me in Christianity."
What's not to like?
There are some real and serious problems. However seductive and beguiling it is (and it is), we need to be discerning.
(1) The question of authority:
NBW's thesis has a problem at its centre. If our number one loyalty is to people, over and above anything or anyone else, then we are far away from the Christian idea of the authority of God expressed in the Bible. We simply cannot base our ethics on ourselves and our own wishes – let alone our own ideas of what is good or harmful.
"The heart is deceitful above all things," we know.
David Pickersgall has written: "If Bolz-Weber wants to start a reformation around sexuality, she will have to... appeal to a higher authority than individual experience."
(2) The question of self-denial:
Challenging though it is, sexual flourishing is not some kind of entitlement for everyone – any more than financial flourishing is. Indeed, at the heart of Christian theology is the idea of 'denying self', taking up our cross. It is self-denial.
NBW seems to be creating what might be called a 'sexual prosperity gospel' – except the promise this time is not monetary wealth but sexual fulfilment. However, the New Testament never promises 'the fullness of our erotic selves' for all who want it. And to offer it is to set people up for as much disappointment and disillusion as the financial prosperity gospel – or any other culturally-corrupted form of Christianity.
(3) The question of language:
Some people might think that NBW's use of expletives and bad language makes her 'kinda cool'. The Bible would beg to differ.
"We all fail in many ways," the apostle James writes, in the context of taming our tongues.
But, he says, those who aim to be Christian teachers should make a particular effort to keep their language in check. Few of us are blameless in this. But, equally, few people in pastoral ministry would want to make a virtue out of profanity in print, or in Cathedral teaching sessions. According to Scripture, it matters – a lot.
(4) The question of God and Wicca:
In her book Pastrix, NBW has described her time in Wicca as "hanging out with God's aunt for a while. She's called the goddess."
Elsewhere, she has stated: "The goddess we spoke of never felt to me like a substitute for God but simply another aspect of the divine... When I tell other Christians of my time with the goddess I think they expect me to characterize it as a period in my life when I was misguided and that now thankfully I have come back to both Jesus and my senses. But it's not like that."
By this time, the alarm bells should be ringing at a deafening volume for anyone with discernment. It beggars belief that Southwark Cathedral could be so undiscerning as to invite someone with such foundationally misplaced views to speak.
Last week, a group of Church of England bishops issued an open letter warning against the perils of a 'no deal Brexit'. Is it too much to expect them to speak out on this issue in their own house too – especially given that NBW has spoken in an Anglican Cathedral in the capital, thus lending her views an apparent air of official credibility?
They are, after all, "shepherds of Christ's flock, guardians of the faith of the apostles" and are there to uphold "sound doctrine".
Of course, if we are serious about our faith we will always want to be reviewing whether what we believe is just cultural baggage or misguided prejudice. We've probably all got lots of both. And we've all got a desperate need for bucketloads of grace. Christians have made mistakes in this area. For example, Tim Challies has observed of American Christianity: "The dating and courtship movements represented a weird phase in evangelicalism and, as they finally fade, I think we are in a position to speak in much healthier and much more biblical ways about sexuality, about purity, about marriage, and about relationships. This time, let's try to do so with wisdom, balance, and discernment instead of those radical extremes that simply lead to more error."
There are genuine conversations to be had. There are always many things to learn. But we do need to be authentically rooted in Scripture, guided by wise Christians from the past, and use our minds with God-given reason to apply those things – rather than setting fire to everything that has gone before us and seeking to create some kind of scorched-earth sexual 'year zero' after which an erotic nirvana kicks in.
Rachel Gilson shows us a better way than NBW when she writes : "Sex is a gift, but it's not the point. As Christians, we can mourn its loss or celebrate its presence. But when it moves to the centre of our vision, either through indulgence or repression, we end up pursuing 'Christian' goals through unChristian tactics. Jesus must be our vision, our great yes that balms the smaller no's. Until he is enough, no other yes or no will be sufficient."
David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. Find him on Twitter @Baker_David_A