Breakfast Book Review: Accidental Saints

Alright everyone I’ve been this really solid combo of busy and sick and tired lately so I haven’t gotten around to blogging until TODAY and I’m feeling SUPER refreshed and ready to pump out like 5 posts about things that have been going on (there’s been a lot going on!) so hopefully you enjoy it. They’ll all be pretty quick and hopefully engaging, don’t worry, ’cause it’s boring to sit around and write 5 long blogs and it’s beautiful outside today (even if I don’t end up going out there ever).

I checked out this book from the library before I went to the Festival of Faith & Writing this past April because Nadia Bolz-Weber was one of the headlining speakers at the festival, but the book had so many holds on it that I didn’t get to read it until this June. I read another book by her, Pastrix, a couple years ago and really enjoyed it so I was looking forward to seeing how this one put a different spin on her shtick. Nadia’s shtick is this: “I’m a cranky, tattooed, swearing, progressive Lutheran pastor.” She’s made a splash in the Christian communities over the last several years by doing what I think is actually really Christian work: calling out bullshit and opening her arms and heart to people regardless of their place in life. I like Nadia because she isn’t hung up on the narrowmindedness and inanity of 21st century American religion and all whiny about it; even though she’s frustrated by it, she’s over it and on to something else: namely, running her own little weird church, full of all kinds of characters and stories.

Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People is full of other people Nadia knows by name and soul. This didn’t exactly surprise me, but I think it was noticeably different than what I might have been expecting out of a pastor’s follow-up book. I’d heard chunks of Nadia’s personal story in Pastrix and in her talk at FFW, and it was refreshing to see Accidental Saints be not just another rehashing of her personal memoir. It’s about her of course because she is the lens through which we’re viewing these experiences, but it’s really about her learning to see other people as people and strive (sometimes succeed, sometimes fail) to take herself out of the focus. The book is ultimately about allowing the self be a window to others and the world, which I think is what we’re supposed to do, both as people and as pastors and as authors.

At FFW, Nadia had talked a little bit about how it was really important to her to keep her church from being “The Nadia Show” even though clearly she’s got a few books and a whole internet following based on it; how she’s aware she has “founder’s syndrome” and how she intentionally only speaks there 1-2x/month because a) she doesn’t want to be the one in charge and knows others can teach & share well, too and b) she knows how exhausting it is to put your whole self into a work done well, and needs recovery time between sermons (as opposed to just pumped them out factory-megachurch style. So the book’s content and delivery is definitely consistent with all that, and it’s refreshing — both to anyone who’s gone to church or worked in a place where someone is struggling to stay in power, or to anyone who’s been annoyed at memoirs that dip into self-interest and self-indulgence even in the author’s quest for “liberation” and “understanding.” We tell our stories best by admitting how many other people they involve and reach besides just us.

A few other random takeaways that stood out to me while reading this book:

Starting to Sort out Sin

At one point she quips that “you are not punished for your sins, you are punished by your sins.” Sin is something that, in my sort of spiraling away from an organizing church community and into this path of finding out what I think God and faith mean in the world as a whole, I just do not know what to do with. Is it something religious people made up for their own power/benefits/control issues? Is it something that actually has consequences & ramifications even when we “get away with it”? Is it something God wants us to stay away from so we have fuller, better lives? Is it something we do sometimes anyways because we’re people and it actually is part of some God-ordained reality? Can we have a world without it? You’ll note I have a lot of questions on this front.

Anyways, Nadia’s idea there stuck out to me because, if you read it right, it takes this kind of guilt-pressure off of the social construct of sin that we have. I’ve heard ideas like this in guilt contexts before, like, for an easy example, the idea that people get STDs because they were being promiscuous. The trouble with evil cutesy guilt warnings like that is that they aren’t always true: you can be promiscuous without getting STDs and you can get STDs without being promiscuous. Being punished FOR your sins has a 1:1 ratio to it: X leads to Y, which is tricky because it leaves out space for a lot of possible factors between said X and said Y. Being punished BY your sins involves what I feel like is a larger context, i.e. fairly importantly, room for science. I don’t believe that you get sick because you did something bad, but I do believe you get sick when you put your body under stress and sometimes that happens when your motives are mixed and you’re confused and conflicted. With that understanding, you can look at what your motives are and decide whether it’s your action that’s actually the problem, or the source of your motive (is it, for example, some people-enforced twist on a religious idea or actually a real truth that holds up when you question it?).

Usually when I’m feeling sick and tired, like I was for a lot of this week, it’s because I took on too much crap, which isn’t a bad thing, but living under whatever obsessive motivations tell me to take on those things isn’t living in a fuller truth. Would we call that sin? I might, lightly. I think I’m equating sin with acting in a manner based on beliefs that aren’t true in the greatest possible context. Like in few contexts (I want to say “no contexts” but I’m not sure that’s always true) do you actually need to murder someone. You know?

Making Room for Human Motivation

At another point she notes that part of the reason her church is so weird is because the people who are coming are people who are free on Tuesday nights. “Because compelling, dynamic people who are natural leaders are busy,” she explains. It’s nice to see a leading pastor pay attention to the finite reality of time and energy, vs. a lot of Christian/American places I grew up in that were like “DO MORE ALL THE TIME BE A BETTER CHRISTIAN WIN AT LIFE AT GOD!” On the flipside, I’ve been in churches where all that they attract are those compelling dynamic people (think Bay Area, Orange County) and us weirdos don’t end up at those kinds of places unless our guilt trumps our insecurity, which happens sometimes.

This bit made me think of how when I moved to Sacramento I made all my friends on and was always wondering why our Saturday hiking groups were full of such eccentric people — it’s because everyone who’s already part of a community doesn’t have their whole Saturday free. It’s a good skill to be able to look at people and think, objectively, why they are or aren’t present somewhere. It’s not just “so and so doesn’t go to church because they’re bad” or “so and so goes to church because they’re good” — I like the way Nadia opened up the door to the idea of many other reasons why people may or may not do something or show up somewhere.

Nobody really likes to talk about the fact that people end up in religious communities, often, because they’re lonely and needy. That makes religion seem like a joke, like something you do or make up or believe in because you’re weak. But weakness and loneliness and neediness is part of who we are as people, so if we can start to talk about it — even while admitting that making up religion might be an option — I think we can learn more and do more to support our communities, both in and out of church walls.

One thought on “Breakfast Book Review: Accidental Saints

  1. I really like the point you make here, especially in that last paragraph, about the reasons we may or may not turn to religion as a salve for loneliness or weakness. I don’t think there’s any shame in admitting that at all, and I agree that, for whatever reason, it’s something never really discussed xx

    Liked by 1 person

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