Healing and Hilarity in “Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome”

Healing and Hilarity in “Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome” August 19, 2015

If David Sedaris and Anne Lamott had a baby together… it would be this book.



And I mean that in the best possible way.

Sometimes the market seems saturated with spiritual memoirs. (I know, because I want to write one and editors tell me as much…) They range in tone from super feels-y to very jaded; and in creed from the ultra-conservative-gone-athiest to the other-way-around. Some speak to the spiritual-but-not religious crowed, and some address the religious-learning-to-be-spiritual bunch. Some have known partnership with great editors and publicists; while others are self-indulgent rambles that could benefit greatly from the red ink pen of my A.P. high school English Teacher. (Hi, Mrs. McNulty!)

Sure, everyone has a story to tell, and there is an audience for every story. Still– not many authors have both a) a powerful, meaningful story to tell AND b) an engaging, nuanced voice with which to tell it. Enter —Reba Riley.

I’ve read a lot of books, y’all. And this one is going to be a game-changer.

Here is the sad truth about Church these days– I do not know a single person who hasn’t been hurt by it. Not one. People outside the church have felt judged by it, or rejected from it. The lifelong faithful have stories of conflict, bad pastors, and troubling ideological shifts. And people all over that spectrum have felt the painful lack of progress where the world desperately waits for transformation.

In “Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome,” Reba Riley shares a candid story of wounds inflicted by religion, and their potential to carry actual, physical symptoms. Mysterious, chronic, and debilitating symptoms. And yet, this book does not dwell in desperation. On the contrary, it is a story of hope and resurrection.  It helps that it’s hilarious.

Literally knocked on her ass on her 29th birthday–by illness and an unfortunate, “ugly panties”-bearing incident–Reba realizes that she desperately wants to “believe again.” With a moment of equal-parts clumsiness and divine inspiration, she embarks on a year-long journey to experience 30 brands of religion before her 30th birthday.

And then it gets interesting.

The story that unfolds is peppered with: flashbacks to her childhood in a fundamentalist church/home/school environment; candid accounts of her experience as an “outsider” in many different worshipping communities; and moments of direct communication from the divine which I think, if they are real (which I trust they are), qualify the author as a legit mystic. Some might find this quality of the narrative off-putting, but for me it adds a significant layer of authenticity and intrigue.

If you are a pastor or church leader–this book is worth reading for the ‘visitor’ perspectives alone. Riley’s openness about what it’s like to wander into a strange congregation (or whatever) will challenge us all to examine how safe our spaces are for people bringing hard questions and/or deep hurt through our doors.

If you are a skeptic, a critic, a doubter–this book is worth reading because it will both affirm your skepticism, and make you doubt your doubt. All of which will make you a pretty evolved person, all things considered.

If you are a person who has been wounded by organized religion, you will find hope and healing in Riley’s vulnerability.

And if you just love a great read–come on over, because this is it. Like I said, Sedaris +  Lamott, + maybe a little Poehler/Fey sass for good measure. What’s not to love? It is disarmingly funny; it is WELL-WRITTEN which, not for nothing, is not a given these days; and it ultimately contains all the elements that make for a good book. It has context, it has voice, it has rhythm–and it offers a relevant, and especially timely glimpse into the human struggle with the holy.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

Re: childhood in a conservative Christian school: “Even bathroom breaks could be accomplished to the glory of God, if one flushed the toilet with a joyful spirit.” 

Re: the fateful birthday party: “I cried because I was going to have to wear ugly panties to my birthday party, damn it, because I’d been too sick to do laundry for ages…I cried because this seemed a sad metaphor for my life–how everything awful was just barely hidden under a sparkly dress.” 

Re: a brief brush with Scientology: ” ‘I’m Al,’ he said in a heavy brogue. ‘I’ll be conducting your audit…’ He was missing a few teeth. Apparently a state of ‘clear’ didn’t come with a dental plan.”

Re: a witchy dance around the Maypole: “As I grasped my pink ribbon and skipped clockwise around the pole, dipping and standing and dipping, I felt like I had recaptured the glee of childhood…until I got tangled in the ribbons being pulled counterclockwise. January kindly extracted me and relieved me of my post. I stood back and admired the stick woven with multi-colored ribbons. Apart from being flagrantly phallic, it was a pretty great-looking tree branch that would garner many Pinterest pins.” 

Re: pretty much the heart of things: “If I were a different person, it might have been someone different. But I only am, and can ever be, me. So it was my mother’s Jesus, the Psychic Jesus, the Jesus I couldn’t quite reconcile, who smiled at me. Jesus held up (tattooed!) arms in a gesture I named, “Peace, be still,” and I knew why the storms had stopped when he told them to. I was still, because everything in me and around me was still… My questions mattered not, because I already knew the answer to all of them: Love is bigger than everything.” 

I could go on, but just read it. For real. It is an eye-opening, spirit-awakening, belly-laughing and soul-searching good time. And for some, it will come with a breakthrough–that the hurt they’ve long carried, whether in body or spirit, can never be about just one or the other. The physical self and the soul self are not easily extracted from each other. And if one is in pain without apparent explanation–it might be a good idea to examine the other in search of healing.

That’s all I got. Go read.

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