Interview: True love
Nadia Bolz-Weber talks to Stephen Tomkins
Nadia Bolz-Weber – in her latest book, Shameless (Canterbury Press, 2019) – urges the Church to move on from traditional teachings on sexuality and stage ‘a second Reformation that turns sexual harm into sexual healing’. She illustrates this need with a frank telling of her own story and stories shared by members of her church. A pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, she founded the House for All Sinners and Saints, a church in Denver, Colorado, and was its minister for ten years. She is a popular speaker at Greenbelt festival, where in 2016 she took part in the United Reformed Church’s panel discussion ‘Scrap the Church?’ and where this interview was conducted this August.
You’re talking at Greenbelt about the Church’s attitude to sexuality. What messages about sex did you receive from the Church when you were growing up?
At youth group, there were a lot of teachings – especially for the girls – about how boys cannot control their sexual nature in the way that we can, that once they become aroused they can’t really control what happens, so it’s our job as girls to make sure that we are never doing anything that might be deemed arousing to a boy or a man. So you have to monitor how you act, how you speak, how close you are to them, what you wear.
I’ve been realising that there’s a way in which purity culture equals rape culture in my mind. What else is that purity culture, but saying: ‘You are the one that controls what men do sexually, and if anything happens that you don’t want to happen, it is probably your fault.’ That was a very clear message that we got: we had to monitor the sexuality of men.
Then there was lots of saving yourself for marriage and that kind of thing.
Your account of Christian Charm Class was hair-raising!
Oh my gosh, I know!
Is it a particularly American thing?
I would have no idea! Maybe. It was the world I grew up in, and I didn’t know any better. But yeah, we were taught how to sit and stand and how to be polite and how to be charming – the right amount of lip gloss, the colours of nail polish that were appropriate and not appropriate. There was a lot of ‘appropriate’ and ‘not appropriate’ language.
And being slim as well.
Oh yes, they actually weighed us at the beginning of class – these are 12-year-old girls – and took our measurements. In the book, there was a calorie chart, that was conveniently positioned next to the Bible reading chart. So these two things were clearly very deeply connected.
But I also have this odd sort of affection for the women who were teaching it. Because, if the only thing you have to broker in was your attractiveness and your femininity then to have older women help you try to make the most of it, there was something tender in that. Even though it was so harmful and ridiculous. There was also something like: Well, they were trying to help us out, you know. They didn’t create the system. They perpetuated it, but they were caught in it as much as we were.
When did you realise the rules you had been taught did not work for you?
Pretty quickly. I mean, when I started to realise that leaders in the church were having affairs with each other (so here’s this really strict view of sexuality, but they were doing that) I just went: ‘Oh wait, I get it, it’s all bullsh*t!’ I was like: ‘Awesome! Thanks!’ It’s the day I became a cynic. Seeing they were trying to control something very natural in other people’s lives that was out of control in their own lives.
And also, when I had my first gay friends in high school, these boys were the first of my peers in my life who thought I was awesome. It was the first time I felt seen and celebrated by peers. These gay guys thought I was fabulous and they tried to help me with my make up and stuff. I loved them so much and I thought: Hold on, my church taught me being gay’s a sin, homosexuality’s an abomination, all this heavy rhetoric around it. But in reality, when I experienced it, that’s not what I saw. I thought: What do I lean into? The teaching? Or the reality as I’m experiencing it? And I just kept choosing the reality as I experienced it, over and over, until there was no way I could stay in the church…
This is an extract from an article that was published in the November 2019 edition of Reform