Sanitized Christianity


Nadia Bolz-Weber spoke in downtown Nashville last night and I wasn’t about to pass up the chance to hear her speak during her book tour. For those of you who don’t know about her, she’s a tatted, crass, progressive, lutheran pastor in Denver who’s known for her books Pastrix and Accidental Saints, and for the fact that she swears like a sailor. There is a lot I appreciate about her. Her authenticity, her freedom to not have all the answers, and her embrace of all people in the church make her very admirable, or at least entertaining.

She read a couple chapter from her book and took questions from the audience; there wasn’t necessarily a central theme to evening. I did leave with central takeaway from the night though–quit sanitizing Christianity.

Nadia read selections from her new book, including a chapter titled “The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents of Sandy Hook Elementary.” Part of me wants to believe that when you do an international book tour you have an agenda planned out for each event, but most of me knows that she read this chapter as a response to the mass shooting in Oregon yesterday.

The chapter talks about her church’s response to the Sandy Hook shooting, which if you’d recall happened right before Christmas in 2012. The slaughter of children isn’t something that fits in a sentimental season of hallmark movies and songs about flying reindeer, though a massacre shouldn’t have a place in the world at all.

Unfortunately, there are massacres and shootings in the world we live in today. What is often forgotten is that that is also the world that Jesus was born into.

We clean up the birth of Jesus and turn it into this nice story of a peaceful, silent night in a barn and forget what actually happened. Jesus was belonged to a poor family and was born next to cattle. The birth of our Lord was discovered by three magi–more like tarot-card-reading, fortune-telling, soothsayers than your kids magician. And He was born into a world where an insecure king put out a hit for a toddler. Herod enacted infanticide, and Mary, Joseph, and Jesus became political refugees. Nadia describes it as a story of “alienation, political tyranny, homelessness, working-class people, pagans, and angels.”


When we sanitize all the stories in the Bible we start to believe that Jesus came to save the romanticized version of ourselves, where we can only offer our ideal or best selves. And when that is the religion we belong to, there is not room for authenticity, vulnerability, or to wrestle with doubt and suffering. According to Nadia:

“Religion can be a way to hide, numb, or even entrain ourselves like a spiritual Candy Crush, either through the comforting blandness and predictability of mainline Protestantism or through the temporary lifting of our spirits and hands in Evangelical worship. Of course, there are many ways of pretending shit ain’t broke in ourselves and in the world, but escapist religion is a classic option, and churches have seem to turn into places where we have endless opportunities to pretend everything is fine.”

The alternative, wrestling with reality as it actually exists doesn’t often seem a better alternative, or at least not an easier one. It’s more difficult, yes, but also a healthier version of religion because it suits the God we worship–a God who entered the world as it actually exists, rather than romanticized version we mentally place Him in. Escapist religion ignores the fact that God choose intentionally not to escape the world as it actually exists, but entered and intervened in it. Jesus was born into and died in a world of suffering, and that deserves to be acknowledged for the brutal and messy fact it is.

That said, I don’t have a  cookie-cutter, romanticized, theological response to the tragedy in Oregon. I’m not going to pawn off easy answers to hard questions of violence and sin and suffering or turn to eschatological responses of vindication and victory. I don’t know that religion as it is meant to be practiced calls for such a thing.

What I will say is that Jesus Christ entered a world of suffering as it actually existed. He calls us to himself, as we actually exist, including our doubts, pain, and suffering, not in spite of them. And I believe Jesus mourns alongside us in the world that actually exists, where 14 college students can be shot on a Thursday afternoon.


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