Covering Nadia Bolz-Weber: It's time for reporters to ditch the public-relations approach

I’ve been following a trail of articles about the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber that correspond to cities where she’s doing a book tour for her latest book “Shameless: A Sexual Reformation.”

Surprise. All the reports have been glowing about this brave, tell-it-like-it is pastor who gives the world her middle finger while writing cool books.

I call this drive-by journalism. This is not an insult to the writers, but these pieces are the kind of thing one does when a entertainment celebrity is in town and she grants you an hour or two for an interview and lets you follow her around a bit. One can crank out quite a bit of copy after such an encounter and puffy pieces about Bolz-Weber like this Houston Chronicle article make reporters think they get this woman.

But they don’t. Let’s not pretend these journalistic one-offs are the whole picture. They’re a snapshot at best and remember, the subject of the story is pushing a book. I have found that some religious personalities, like the Rev. Joel Osteen, are ONLY available when they want some book PR.

One article I’m going to dissect is one of the better ones: Eliza Griswold’s recent New Yorker piece, which involved more than one face-to-face with the pastor. It didn’t satisfy me for several reasons that we will get to shortly.

Bolz-Weber had flown in from her home in Denver to promote her book “Shameless,” which was published last week. In it, she calls for a sexual reformation within Christianity, modelled on the arguments of Martin Luther, the theologian who launched the Protestant Reformation by nailing ninety-five theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, in the sixteenth century. (One of the slogans of the church that Bolz-Weber founded in Denver, House for All Sinners and Saints, is “Nailing shit to the church door since 1517.”)

Yes, this pastor has a way with words. I first heard her in 2011 at the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina, a shindig for the liberal Christian set. The heat that June was awful, but Nadia stood out. She was and is a brilliant quote machine. Her honesty is disarming.

In 2014, I talked More magazine, a glossy for over-40 women that has since gone out of print, into profiling her, so they flew me to Denver that February. On a Saturday, I met her for an early coffee, then followed her to a meeting with parishioners at a another coffee shop, went to Cross Fit with her, dropped by her home (where I met her husband, Matthew, and her two kids )and then had a leisurely lunch for the main interview.

I picked up some vibes that made me wonder about a few things. A few months later, my article won a Wilbur Award for best writing/national magazines.

So I have some experience, linked to this subject material. Back to the current New Yorker:

Bolz-Weber loathes what she sees as the holier-than-thou attitude prevalent among Christians. “Self-righteousness feels good for a moment, but only in the way that peeing your pants feels warm for a moment,” she said. In all of her work, she attempts to skewer sanctimoniousness on both the right and the left. In “Shameless,” she takes aim at everything from Augustine of Hippo, the fourth-century theologian, who taught that Christians should deny the urges of the flesh — “he basically took a dump and the Church encased it in amber,” she writes — to the evangelical purity culture of the past several decades, which holds that women, in particular, must remain virgins before marriage.

Her descent as a teen from a church-going teenager into being an alcoholic and a rebel has been told in many places. To excuse her foray into sexual license (and I haven’t even gone into what she’s saying about the benefits of porn), she goes after the purity movement, which has taken a shellacking this past year from several quarters. And like little puppies, several journalists have joined in. It’s a popular whipping boy these days.

The New Yorker then repeated some new information that Bolz-Weber revealed in her book.

Three years later, while newly sober and attempting an unsuccessful career as a call-center psychic, she got pregnant. She decided that she had no choice but to have an abortion. “I was making two hundred dollars a week and hadn’t seen a dentist in six years,” she told me. “There was no way I could afford a child.” Although Bolz-Weber had been raised in a church that saw abortion as evil, she no longer holds to such teachings. “I was devastated, but not because I felt I’d done something evil or even wrong,” she went on. “I was destroyed by the sadness of my life situation.” She had to borrow three hundred dollars from a friend to pay for the procedure.

She certainly wasn’t talking about this in 2014.

She had married a Lutheran pastor in 1996; in 2016, after two decades of trying at a marriage without much physical intimacy, she got up the courage to get a divorce. Six months later, she reconnected with an old boyfriend named Eric, and, from the start, the sex was amazing. “It was like an exfoliation,” she told me. Through better sex, her spirit softened, and she found herself closer to God, which led her to rethink the relationship between sex and religion. Bolz-Weber discusses these events in “Shameless,” which is both a theological text and a personal one. Until now, she’s never spoken about her abortion, but she believes that it’s time to begin a new conversation about abortion and religion.

Did the writer even try to call the ex-husband and check this out?

I briefly interviewed Matthew Bolz-Weber while researching my piece. After I handed my first draft into More, the editor came back with a zillion questions. And not all at once but bit by bit, meaning I had to call Nadia Bolz-Weber several times while she was in airports and on speaking engagements to do fact checks.

This is rather normal. I always warn interviewees that I will have lots of questions before an article is printed and most people are good-natured enough to put up with my calls, but she quickly lost patience.

After one further half hour on the phone answering questions, she later told me that she’d given me all the information she cared to and was out of time. I was frantic; I had to get her on the line for one last batch of questions the editor had come up with. But she wasn’t budging despite previous assurances that she’d work with me. So, I called her husband and begged him to intervene. Yes, I know that’s very un-feminist of me but one does what one has to do.

Matthew Weber is a Lutheran pastor at a church in Aurora, a suburb of Denver. For inquiring reporters, he is very easy to find. I don’t know what magic he wrought, but his wife called me back soon after I called him. The article was saved. And I saw a side to this famous female pastor that most journalists who do quickie one-offs don’t see. Press her a little and she explodes. Like she told me for the article:

“My first reaction to almost everything is ‘Fuck you’ she says. “I almost never stay there, but I start there. God moves me quickly from that to something more gracious.”

No kidding. She repeated the first part of that quote almost word for word on Twitter this past Feb. 21.

I later figured that Bolz-Weber was used to glorified press releases from journalists who do phoners and call it a day. She wasn’t so happy about people who circle back and ask deeper questions.

Now, it is hard to discern Deep Truths about a person in the space of a few hours, but an experienced writer can discern cracks in the facade. The argument I got into with her told me something was off, so I wonder if her divorce was purely because she wasn’t having the kind of sex she wanted.

Bolz-Weber has gotten a lot of ink from publicity stunts like her vagina statue (which is pictured in the above video and photo and talked about here). She’s found a new lover who doesn’t share her faith but gives her great sex. She’s probably making a pile of money from her book which (if my memory of our conversations in Denver are correct) will fund her kids’ college educations.

The New Yorker piece included some quotes from her kids, with whom I wasn’t allowed to talk five years ago. How do they feel about the divorce and their mom taking up with a new guy? I’m curious but we won’t learn that from this piece.

One thing that is certain: Bolz-Weber is not a victim and she’s not persecuted by other Christians.

Although she thrives when addressing tens of thousands of people from a stage, she’s privately nervous about the backlash that “Shameless” will receive, particularly around the issue of abortion. For support, she turns to twelve friends who call themselves the “Hedge of Protection”: eleven women and one man, “with varying degrees of queer,” Jes Kast, a United Church of Christ pastor and a member of the Hedge, told me. The Hedge shares a text thread, and, one afternoon, over lunch, Bolz-Weber received a video message from Kast. Word of the abortion in the book was getting out, and Bolz-Weber was scared. “We will hedge you,” Kast said in the video. “Take a deep breath and know that you are blessing many, many people.”

I’ve googled everywhere I know to look and I’m not seeing any major condemnations from people about her abortion. Many folks in the pro-life movement have had abortions themselves, so they’re not going to go after her.

In other words, the idea of a wave of condemnation headed her way is a straw man.

But the idea of nasty sex-obsessed conservative Christians makes for a nice bogeyman and Bolz-Weber will play this drama for as long as she can. So why are reporters letting her get away with it? Because it fits their narrative?

To quote Al Gore, there are inconvenient truths. Start looking for a few here.

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