Rediscovering the Banjo, Clawhammer Style

So, this is my 2nd post ever about banjos, even though they have been my primary hobby for the last 3 years. That’s restraint. If you like the banjo and want to learn a little history (very little), you might find this interesting.

Rediscovering the banjo for the first time

Even though I had owned a cheapo banjo about 30 years earlier, I knew so little about banjos when I started researching them about 3 years ago, I was shocked to find that the most popular style of banjo did not have the large resonator that the bluegrass guys played. And, I was also shocked to find that there was a common style of playing called clawhammer or frailing, that didn’t involve the use of picks. I was even more surprised to find that one of my all-time favorite banjo songs was in clawhammer style…

 

This, by the way, was the song that first got the banjo on Top-40 radio.

A little banjo history

Clawhammer style, where you strike the main strings with the back of the fingernail and pluck the 5th string with your thumb in a syncopated beat, has been around for hundreds of years. The 3-finger bluegrass style was more or less invented and popularized by Earl Scruggs. It was flashy and noisy (and new and exciting), so it caught on. The clawhammer style of playing actually dates back hundreds of years to Africa where 3- or 4-stringed instruments—always with a short drone string on top—were played in much the same fashion. This style of instrument and playing was brought over by African slaves, which explains the syncopation of the clawhammer playing style.

Sometime around 1830, the 5-stringed banjo was developed by a minstrel performer named Joel Walker Sweeney. By the civil war, 5-string banjos were getting to be popular; in fact, Stephen Foster’s famous song Oh, Susanna with it’s line “with a banjo on my knee” was published in 1848. An interesting historical sidenote is that in the early days of slavery, both African and Irish slaves were often housed together, where African rhythms were added to Irish folk tunes, giving us Appalachian or “old-time” fiddle and banjo music.

Banjo Mythbuster

buckbee copyMany people assume that when Sweeny added the 5th string to create the modern banjo, this means he added the short 5th string. However, that is not the case. As stated above, the banjo and its predecessors always had one short string. The 4-string Tenor banjo that became popular in the 20′s was a later invention—first appearing around 1910—that was developed to be strummed with a pick. The resonator was also developed to add volume so the banjo could be heard on early orchestral recordings, as guitars were, as this was pre-amplification, not loud enough.

By contrast (and for example), my oldest 5-string banjo is a Buckbee, dating back to around 1880-1890. (It is nearly identical to the banjo played by Taj Mahal in the movie Songcatcher.) The Buckbee Banjo Co. began manufacturing banjos during the Civil War and went out of business in 1896 or ’97.

One more tune…

Here’s another example of clawhammer playing: another old Stephen Foster song, Angeline The Baker, played on a banjo built by Doc Huff of Dallas, Oregon, who makes some of the most beautiful and unique banjos I’ve ever seen:

Okay, 2 more tunes. This is from the Honey Dewdrops, one of my favorite folk duos. Laura Wortman is a great example of a modern folk clawhammer banjoist.

Not All Banjo Music Is Created Equal

3banjosMy first banjo post

As my friends are all too aware, I’ve become something of a banjo addict since buying my first banjo not quite 3 years ago.  I play (old-time or clawhammer style), restore and collect banjos, and listen to a whole lot of banjo music of different genres. (Yes, there are distinct genres of banjo music.) So far, I have avoided posting anything about banjos on this blog, but have finally decided that it’s probably time to include the occasional post related to banjos and banjo music.

Surprise! I don’t like all kinds of banjo music

The more I listen to banjo music, the more opinionated I have become about the different banjo styles. While I have always thought I loved bluegrass music, I come to discover that I really don’t care for a lot of it, mainly due to the banjo playing. I recall something I once heard about the key to jazz music being knowing what notes not to play. With much of bluegrass, there is no such concept. To be honest, a lot of bluegrass banjo playing is just noise—too many notes unceremoniously crammed into too small of a space. When played with discretion, the banjo can add rhythm and drive, and even melody and counter-melody. The problem is, discretion seems to be in short supply with many bluegrass players.

Another complaint I have with bluegrass banjo is that many times the focus is on speed and dexterity. While I appreciate the abilities of folks like Béla Fleck or Jonny Mizzone (who’s like 10 years old), to me, I might as well be listening to a machine. There are a lot of fast, perfect notes, but it seems too clinical much of the time.

I do like some bluegrass banjo playing

I do really like some bluegrass players.  My favorite has to be Ron Block, who plays most often with Alison Krauss & Union Station. Block is a great player, and has a very good sense of melody and balance.  I appreciate his playing whether he’s playing on a pop song or a traditional bluegrass number. I liked Earl Scruggs, who invented the style. I’ve also liked a number of other players, like Doug Dillard, John Hartford, and of course John McEuen (of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band fame).  I’m also a big Steve Martin fan.

The infamous “G lick”

I’ve discovered one of the things that drives me nuts about a lot of bluegrass players, and that is the overuse of the infamous “G lick.”  It is probably the most recognizable lick in bluegrass banjo, as you’ll discover if you Google it. I’ve heard many bluegrass tunes where the G lick is used in nearly every phrase. It’s enough to drive you crazy, once you recognize it.  It’s one of the first things banjo players learn, and it seems like often it’s the only thing they’ve learned.  It belongs in “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” but not in much else.

I was curious, so the other day I listened to 3 or 4 Alison Krause & Union Station albums. I didn’t hear the standard G Lick once. Ron seems to avoid it like the plague. There are times he does something similar, but he always varies it so there’s no obnoxious repetition. Here’s a recent example of what 3-finger playing should sound like (again, my opinion):

Here’s one more favorite recording of mine, which goes back many, many years:


Notice how the banjo approaches the song almost classically, with an awareness of each note being played (as well as each note not being played).  This kind of playing is what first attracted me to the banjo, not that racket that appears on 90% of the bluegrass I hear.

Good banjo, bad banjo

So, there’s good banjo, and then there’s bad banjo.  I like good banjo.

10 Things About My Opinions

I have a plethora of opinions

I think opinions are good. Without them, we’d be like the 2 guys in the old Army commercial:

“What do you want to do?”

“I dunno, what do you want to do?”

“I dunno… what do you want to do?”

Seriously, don’t you hate people with no opinions?  But at the same time, when you have opinions, you kind of like others to just accept yours. That kind of dynamic works for the short term, but in the end, no one grows. To grow, our opinions must be challenged and tested, and at least some of the time, they should change, because let’s face it, no one is right all of the time. In fact, most of us are not right most of the time—at least 100% right. We all have room to grow, and that’s what opinions are all about.

But, not everyone views opinions in the same way, and those who are not use to others having strong opinions can be offended by them. (And, it seems like it’s become America’s national pastime to be offended.)  Having an opinion has the necessary effect of suggesting (or stating outright) that someone else is wrong.

Considering that I tend to be fairly vocal about my opinion (although in a politish sort of way), I thought I would outline a few things about how I feel about opinions—and mine in particular—so I could refer people back here from time to time rather than explaining myself over and over.  So, here goes.

10 things to know about my opinions

  1. I have no shortage of opinions, and I don’t apologize for that.  I have opinions on all kinds of things, including politics, religion, philosophy, music, social issues, and banjos. If I don’t have an opinion about something, my presumed opinion is that it is not important.
  2. I expect you to have—or at least start to develop—opinions of your own.  If you don’t want to have opinions, feel free to borrow mine, but keep in mind that there are no express or implied warranties connected with my opinions.
  3. My opinions are usually resulting from a fair amount of thought, reading, analysis but at times are completely off the cuff. I won’t usually tell you which is which.  Caveat emptor.
  4. If I have an opinion, it’s because I think it’s right, and I will continue to think so until proven wrong.  Then, logically, I will consider my new opinion to be right, and my old one will be wrong.
  5. If my opinion differs from yours, my presumption is that you are wrong. Otherwise, you see, I would have your opinion…
  6. I believe I am wrong—at least partially—about everything I believe.  And I believe the same about you, perhaps even more so…
  7. I do change my opinions, sometimes quite drastically.  I have changed my opinion—often many times—about major theological issues, politics, etc.  I have even come to embrace the “Oxford comma.” However, my favorite color has always been blue.
  8. I do consider the opinions of others, even when I am arguing against them.  Opinions must be tested, and the best way to test them is through confrontation and challenge, in a friendly sort of way.
  9. Being proven wrong—i.e. changing opinions—is not failure, it’s growth.  And I will do my best to help you to grow.
  10. In the rare instance that I have no carefully crafted opinion on a topic, I reserve the right to make up an opinion on the spot and argue vehemently that you are wrong. Because that’s just who I am.

 

More about worship

Go here for part 1.

If the main purpose of Lutheran worship is to receive God’s gifts, then it follows that Lutheran worship is Christ-centered. Just take a look at the liturgical orders of service in either of our two hymnals. Everything said and done is filled with His Word. Why? Because our focus is on Christ and His work, that’s why. The focus of Lutheran worship is on Christ, not man. Therefore, Lutheran worship is always Christocentric-Christ-centered-and never anthropocentric-man-centered.  ~A.L. Barry, as quoted by Matt Richard in part 2 of his series on Lutheran worship

The heart of worship

In my opinion, the greatest statement on worship (as well as on faith) is Peter’s statement as recorded in John 6:68:

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66-69, ESV)

“Where would we go? Only you have the words of life.”

Our word “worship” means to give something or someone great value or worth. Peter’s statement is really the ultimate worship statement, as he is not just saying that Jesus’ words are better than the Rabbis down the road. Peter goes so far as to say, “only you.” There are simply no other options. There’s life here, and anywhere else is death. This attitude, I think, is the true heart of worship.

Note that Peter doesn’t say anything about himself.  He doesn’t talk about what he has to offer, and he doesn’t say anything about how being with Jesus makes him feel. In fact, given Jesus’ recent teaching topics, Peter may have even been somewhat perturbed with Jesus due to the loss of followers. This is, rather, a clear-cut statement that Peter acknowledged that only Jesus had what Peter needs to survive. As someone once put it, Peter’s statement was one of “enlightened self-interest.”

Christ-centered worship

Mr. Barry goes on to say

… Lutheran worship takes our eyes and sets them firmly on the cross of Jesus Christ, for there the Lord of the Universe suffered and died for the sins of the world. Lutheran worship points us to the Resurrected Lord who lives and reigns to all eternity, and promises us everlasting life. Christ-centered Lutheran worship lifts our hearts and minds to the things of God and helps us to understand our place in Christ’s kingdom better as His redeemed people. Yes, Lutheran worship must always be Christ-centered.

When we say Lutheran worship is Christ-centered, this is not to say that those who gather for worship are mere blocks of stone. Our worship focuses on Christ, who is present for us and with us in His Word and Sacraments. He is truly among us. We are not contemplating a far-off Christ, or meditating on abstract ideas. Lutheran worship is not like going to a self-help group or a therapy session. It is God who gathers us for worship around the gifts He gives to us through Word and Sacrament. We are worshipping the One who is very near, as close as the preaching of the Word. We are worshipping the One who is actually present under the bread and wine of Holy Communion. He promised, “I will be with you always.” In our worship service He fulfills that wonderful promise. He is living and active among us, right here, right now, where He has promised to be-in His Word and Sacraments. Therefore, it is important to say that while our focus is on Christ, His focus is always on us! Thanks be to God that this is true!

Now, I don’t mean to say that only Lutherans worship correctly, or that all Lutherans necessarily worship correctly.  I think the principles here transcend Lutheranism, although Lutheran incarnational theology is very intertwined with Lutheran thoughts on worship, and contemporary evangelicalism tends to downplay concepts such as Christ’s real presence.

One of these things is not like the other

My point, rather than to necessarily champion Lutheran worship, is to point out the differences between this philosophy of worship and other worship philosophies which are to varying degrees influenced by Calvinism and Arminianism, both of which can have a very man- and works-centered focus.

I am also not emphasizing one style over another (although I have thoughts there, too). It is entirely possibly to be involved in a very emotionally-oriented style of worship and still be aware that the whole point is to receive from Christ.

This, by the way, is what the Lutherans mean by “Christ-centered,” which is also a term used by everyone else; no one would say that their worship is not “Christ-centered.” The difference is whether or not we are looking solely to Christ as our source for righteousness and holiness as we worship.

 

 

 

About Worship

What is worship?

As my 11 faithful readers know, I was raised Lutheran. When I was in high school, I remember having friends from more, shall we say, emotional denominations and groups, and remember hearing teachings about “worship” and “praise,” things that we didn’t have to teach about in the Lutheran church. (Seriously. Keep reading…) I remember being quite confused, trying to figure out when I was praising as opposed to worshiping, etc.

Now, years later, most of us have gotten familiar with the 20-30 minutes of singing mostly vague, repetitious, elevator-rock music that has become known as “worship” where, in a manner of speaking, we try to reimburse God for what He’s given to us. Many churches also point out that collecting the offering also falls under worship, for the same reason.

At the very least, contemporary worship is a subjective exercise, where we are kind of on the honor system as to whether we actually “entered in” to worship, or just enjoyed the music.  Many people leave feeling some amount of guilt for either not feeling anything, or not being able to conjure up the same kind of emotional energy that the people around us seem to have, not realizing that many of them share the same feelings.  It’s true.  Chances are, you are one of those guilty worshipers.

Today in the church we attended, we were exhorted to focus on “entering in” to worship and giving to God.  I tended to critique the music, being a musician. I can’t help it. But, I don’t feel guilty, because I no longer believe that worship is about my emotions, or my ability to commit and focus and ignore the really terrible-sounding acoustic guitar and very awkward rhythm used on “Why I Survey the Wondrous Cross” in an attempt to make it sound more contemporary.

Worship, Lutheran-style

As providence would have it, this morning I read a great reminder about worship on the blog of a Lutheran pastor I’m Facebook friends with, entitled ““  The title aptly spells out the difference between the above-described contemporary concept of worship and Lutheran worship.  We are not talking about differences of style, such as singing choruses over hymns and liturgy, or the use of guitars and drums as opposed to organs and choirs.  I happen to think liturgy is quite important and useful, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

The difference between the 2 philosophies of worship are striking; in fact, they are direct opposites. In contemporary worship, as with much of contemporary evangelical theology, the key is what we do for God, or do to become more spiritual, or holy, or whatever. On the other hand, Lutheran worship simply where we make ourselves available to receive from God, through the truth in the liturgy, the hymns, the Scriptures (which are read for their own sake, not as preaching texts), the sermon, and Communion. It’s not about our giving—in fact, the thought is quite ludicrous—worship is about receiving.

If we’re emotional, it’s because we are the recipients of grace, forgiveness, healing, love, and acceptance. There’s nothing for us to feel guilty about, because our performance is of no consequence. We are free to enjoy the music (the Episcopal church I like to attend has an amazing music program), even if we forget to listen to the words.  We are reminded that we are God’s—not because we “have decided to follow Jesus”—but because He chose us.

Our part, as worshipers, is to be there to receive. As the author of the article states, “The purpose of worship, therefore, is to be gathered by God around His gifts.”  He goes on to quote from the Lutheran Worship book:

Our Lord speaks and we listen. His Word bestows what it says. Faith that is born from what is heard acknowledges  the gifts, received with eager thankfulness and praise.  Saying back to Him what he has said to us, we repeat what is most true and sure…  The rhythm of our worship is from him to us, and then from us back to him. He gives his gifts, and together we receive and extol them. We build one another up as we speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Lutheran Worship, p. 6).

Whether or not we worship “Lutheran-style,” I believe that worship has nothing to do with our emotions (they simply are what they are) or our efforts (which are of no benefit) or how “holy” we are. Worship is not our “job” or “where we give back to God.” Worship is simply to be gathered around God and to receive his gifts.

I am looking forward to parts 2-7 of the article on the Lutheran understanding of worship, and will possibly post more here on the series.

 

 

On Creeds

James McGrath has an interesting post today, “I Believe in I Believe in God,” in which he writes

Last Sunday in my Sunday school class, the topic that came up here on the blog recently also came up there: the difference between trusting in divine grace, and trusting in one’s understanding of divine grace.

One can apply the same point to the creeds. There is a difference between believing in God, and believing a creed, even if the creed begins with “I believe in God.”

Hence the title of the post. For some, it is not enough to believe in God. One must believe in “I believe in God…”

The lack of creedalism

Now, McGrath represents the more progressive side of Christian theology, and would perhaps have a different perspective of creeds than the typical “evangelical” (in the contemporary sense, not the Lutheran sense). For that matter, I would not be surprised if many of today’s evangelical Christians know that the creeds exist or what they say. Evangelicalism, in part due to a disregard for the historic creeds, has drifted in myriad directions, and has become quite subjective. From this standpoint, many “conservative” evangelicals are, in fact, “progressive,” when it comes to historic, confessional Christianity.  Far more often than not, what you hear on any given Sunday morning is not historic Christianity or theology, but the pastor’s perspective, salted with verses pulled out of context to support the topic du jour.

This is not to say that these evangelicals have drifted from the essence of the creedal statements, at least as far as their church statements of faith go. In fact, many have actually added requirements for being members of that church. However, it’s my experience that many evangelical Christians have never been taught basic theology, and are in fact heterodox with respect to the creeds.

There is a difference

There is, indeed, a difference between believing in God, and believing in a creed. But I think it is important to understand the origins and contexts of creeds.  Without going into great detail, creeds were mainly developed in response to various heresies that threatened to divide the church. They were developed to reflect what was felt as the absolute bottom-line with respect to what one had to believe in order to be a Christian.  Believing in God is one thing; believing in accordance with Scripture as reflected by the creeds is another.

The Nicene Creed, for example, was developed in the 4th Century as the standard for orthodox Christianity. You could believe otherwise, but you’d be a heretic – outside the faith.  The same would seem to be true today – the creeds haven’t changed.  You can disagree with the creeds, but then, you disagree with conventional, orthodox Christianity as understood for 2000 years.

There are a couple of issues with respect to the Nicene creed that conventional churches disagree about. One is whether or not the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, or both the Father and the Son. This is not an issue I tend to worry about, although I tend to go East (from the Father only). The other issue is the phrase “I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church” (“catholic” meaning “universal”), which would be disputed by some, and which is interpreted differently by others.  Thus, some fundamentalist churches (who are very anti-Catholic and anti-Eastern Orthodox), would reject the Nicene Creed, again, making them progressives…

So…

What do you think? Is it enough to believe in God, or does one have to believe in one or more of the creedal statements?

On how to read the Bible

On “Progressives”

I just read an interesting blog post entitled, “16 Ways Progressive Christians Interpret the Bible.”

First, a rant about how much I hate the word “progressive.”  I think it’s a terrible word. For one thing, the implications of being “progressive” is that somehow you are more advanced than non-progressives.  To that, I simply respond, “bullshit.”  Seriously, I do.  I could go on and on about self-proclaimed “progressives,” but I won’t. At various times and places, progressives have been much different than many of the ones we have today.  For example, our founding fathers were at one time progressives, but now they are not, much less revolutionary.

Another thing about the word, “progressive” is that it’s tied in with the flawed view that progress is necessarily positive, a mentality rooted in the Enlightenment, which wasn’t always as enlightened as many think.  The concept is also tied to a certain view of evolution in which, again, everything necessarily improves over time. However, I think we also see that the opposite is often the case. Without a lot of effort, things tend to fall apart.

The use of “progressive” may simply be to distinguish themselves from “fundamentalists” or other conservative extremists, which I can understand. However, there is also the implication that progressives are more educated and sophisticated, which also falls into the BS category. More educated has never meant “smarter,” and I’ve found over the years that “sophisticated” is often a fancy word for “sin.”

This is not to judge anyone in particular, who may or may not be in some advanced state of development. I’m simply talking about the word and its implications. So, it remains to be seen whether Christian “progressives” are any further along, or are just simply screwed up.  Unfortunately, many I’ve seen fall into the latter category.

Ways of reading the Bible

That being said, there are different ways to read and interpret Scripture, from the so-called “literalist” approach, to viewing all of the Bible as myth.

First, about literalism: No one reads the Bible literally, even if they say they do. They may read many more things literally than others, but that’s about it.  Sometimes, “literalism” means they also read the side notes of the Scofield Bible as inerrant. “Inerrant,” too, is a rather useless word.  It seems to have been used to draw a line between true “evangelicals” and others (progressives?).  In any event, I don’t think it’s helpful. And, oddly enough, I’ve heard some of the most twisted interpretations of Scripture coming from those who claim to believe in inerrancy. It seems that a belief in inerrancy has little to do with how much you respect Scripture. And, as the article points out, often atheists read the Bible more literally than many Christians.

On the other hand, I don’t think anyone with any real brains can seriously look at the whole Bible as myth (that is, not factual, but written to make a point). I know some who try, and try as they might, they simply can’t sound intelligent while defending this claim. The reality is, some of the Bible is meant to be taken as fact, and some of it obviously employs various literary devices to make a point.

Without endorsing everything in the article, “16 Ways Progressive Christians Interpret the Bible” provides an interesting set of points for discussion, and I think anyone who is serious about interpreting and understanding the Bible will at least appreciate the opportunity to think about this things, whether progressive or otherwise.

I have read some other “liberal” guidelines for interpreting Scripture which I couldn’t respect at all, as they were as skewed as what you’d expect from fundamentalist guidelines. The 16 points in this article, however, are at least sensible.  Take, for example, #12: “We also tend to employ a “canon within the canon” lens whereby we give greater weight and priority to certain texts over others.”  I think all of us do this already, even if we don’t realize it. Personally, I give highest priority to the words of Jesus, who is the highest revelation of God that we have.  And, I tend not to stick to the verses I understand, and let the rest work themselves out.  (One of my life rules, that my kids have heard me say a lot, is “you can only do what you can do.”)

I am sure that there are some who will have knee-jerk reactions to this and to be honest, I’m not very interested in what you have to say. But, I think this outline would make a for a very interesting discussion, and then to consider how reading the Bible differently would impact our faith.

Thoughts?

 

 

Learn what this means.

Twice

10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”  (Matthew 9:10-13, ESV)

5 Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? 6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:5-8, ESV)

Matthew records Jesus as quoting from Hosea 6:6 on 2 different occasions.  For reference, the passage in Hosea reads:

4 What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that goes early away.
5 Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets;
I have slain them by the words of my mouth,
and my judgment goes forth as the light.
6 For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:4-6, ESV)

So, assuming this is important, perhaps it’s time we figured out what it means?

I can relate—or perhaps I can’t…

You don’t have to have Asperger’s to experience an inability to relate to the Evangelical Christian culture…

 

 

 

 

Review: Pastrix


It’s been quite a while since I’ve done any kind of book review, but this one warrants a bit of attention because it is—and it isn’t—what I expected.

Trendy and hip

Anymore, I tend to avoid books that belong in the trendy, hip, postmodern category. Been there, done that. I’ve had enough of disenfranchised, “progressive” or Bono-esque Christians who think their calling is to offend, shock, or stretch the limits of theology. So, when I first heard mention of Pastrix, I thought, “oh, Anne Lamott with tattoos,” and didn’t give the book another thought.

Except, that I knew the person who designed the cover, which is totally awesome. I remember sending JuLee a Facebook message that I’d probably buy the book just for the cover. But, I didn’t, at least right away. I have too many “spiritual” books laying around that I’ve never read.

But, as weeks went by, I kept seeing Nadia’s name pop up, and then found a video of one of her messages. It was probably one of the most grace-filled sermons I’d heard in a long time. Then I listened to a couple of more of her sermons, and found her to have a very tenacious hold on grace, which I am attracted to. So, I broke down and bought the book.

The Review

On one hand, it’s not a great book. I mean, she’s not a C.S. Lewis, and you’re not going to be impressed with either her prose or her theological brilliance (I’d say the same thing about my own book). But, Pastrix is not that kind of book.  It’s also not a typical autobiography, although it is intensely personal and autobiographical. It’s also not an angry rant against traditional evangelical attitudes, or a treatise on gay rights, or an attempt to change anything. Neither is it an attempt at self-justification, the way so many memoirs are.

It is, according to it’s book flap, a spiritual memoir. I would describe it as a confession—of a sinner who is being saved by grace, an admitted misanthrope who was called to pastor “her people” as well as a bunch of people she couldn’t relate to at all.  The book is filled with her past and present failings, and her constant discovery that grace is both challenging and essential, and that life is a process of death and resurrection.

The shocking thing…

There are a number of things in the book that many of what I refer to as “shiny, happy people” Christians will find shocking. Nadia swears like a sailor, has a very colorful past, and uses a few colorful phrases that I don’t even understand. She doesn’t edit her language for the book.  At first, you might think the “f” word is inserted throughout the text on purpose, and in spite of the fact that I believe this is her “native” language, it does seem at times self-aware. But, some of that is possibly due to an editor striving to find a balance between honesty and readability. But that’s not what I think is shocking.

There are also a number of stories about a number of people who fall into the “non-straight” categories, and the fact that Nadia’s church, the House for All Sinners and Saints, is, according to their website, “queer-inclusive.” But that also is not the most shocking thing in the book.

What is perhaps the most shocking thing is that Bolz-Weber is, of all things, a Lutheran. I mean, when’s the last time a Lutheran had a best-selling Christian book? And who would expect a tattooed, foul-mouthed ex-comedian to have such a respect for the Eucharist or baptism or the Liturgical Calendar?  She is, at the same time, both liberal and traditional.

One of the things that struck me was her talking about following the Lectionary, which is essentially a preaching schedule that prescribes what texts to preach from on any given Sunday.  She expresses concern about what would happen should she ever stray from this schedule, and allow herself to preach  on any topic she wishes, as well as her concern to stay true to the text. I could only wish that evangelical pastors could follow this example. It is clear that she does not take her role as pastor lightly, and if anything, is something of a reluctant pastor, knowing that she, on her own, is inadequate.

I imagine, for some evangelicals, the fact that she’s Lutheran will just confirm the fact that she’s not really a Christian (believe me, I’ve heard some wacko stuff through the years, being of Lutheran extraction myself).  But, she understands the gospel, and it comes through time and again. Perhaps, being someone who has admittedly been “forgiven much,” she has a much batter grasp on grace than some of us. It’s no coincidence that she has a tattoo of Mary Magdalene on her arm.

Personal reflection

I expected the book to have a certain amount of self-righteousness due her church’s acceptance of sinners of all stripes, because these kind of books often do. But, there is none of that to be found. Bolz-Weber owns up to her self-righteous tendencies, and calls sin sin, taking an extremely humble attitude, and constantly looks to Jesus as savior, healer and redeemer. I found myself having to admit that at times, my own belief in grace fell somewhat short, and I was challenged to reexamine myself. But, it’s an interesting book in that it never lets you walk away feeling anything less than loved, forgiven, and in the process of being saved.

The message of the book is not to build up Nadia Bolz-Weber in any way. Where some authors take the “this is just who I am” approach to justify who they are, Bolz-Weber never falls into that trap. She knows she is inadequate, so clings strongly to the Cross and the Empty Tomb. The message that comes through loud and clear is that the Gospel is dangerous, that it will confront you and change you. That, in the words of another friend of mine, the Gospel accepts you as you are, but it won’t let you stay the way you are.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am challenging myself to reexamine some things, and this book was quite helpful in that regard, as it identified and challenged the “boundaries” of grace. This personal challenge, by the way, is not a response to current events or issues, but from actually reading the Gospels. As I’ve stated in the past, when I read the Gospels as a whole, rather than in bite-size chunks, I tend to come away more “liberal,” with a much bigger picture of grace. I noticed, for one thing, that when Jesus says,”Go and sin no more,” he doesn’t identify which sin. I try never to be presumptuous in interpreting Scripture, but it’s funny how easily we fill in certain blanks.

I am not saying I agree with everything in the book

I don’t want to give the impression that I agree with everything in the book.  She makes some statements that make me go, “Now, hold on a minute…”  I’m guessing everyone could find at least one of those in the book, and some people obviously more than others.  But, why bother to read a book that you already agree with?  That’s kind of a waste of time.

Pastrix, perhaps, is not a book for everyone. I can think of many people I wouldn’t give the book to, for a number of reasons. But, if you think you understand grace—or want to—and dare to be challenged, this may be a great book for you.

Click here to read or listen to some of her sermons.