Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: Reclaiming the Journey.

Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: Reclaiming the Journey. August 18, 2015

I’m reading this book, Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome* by Reba Riley, and I wanted to talk about something that really sprang out at me about it that I thought y’all would find interesting.

PTCD book cover

In this autobiography, we meet the author, Reba, who is suffering from an undiagnosed but serious chronic pain- and fatigue-causing illness. Reba grew up very religious in one of those churches that would have sounded extreme even by my old Pentecostal church’s standards, but she walked away from Christianity in adulthood. She’s 29 years old and a firm “None” by the time the book opens.

Reba remains traumatized by the treatment she got from her Christian community and to a lesser extent her own very religious parents, calling her experience “Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome.” She is so traumatized, in fact, that she gets badly triggered by fundagelical practices and common Christianese–to the point of hives, vomiting, and panic attacks. Added to her physical ailments, she’s sometimes engulfed in pain and misery for days on end.

She decides to go on a journey to “experience 30 religions before she turns 30.” In other words, she’ll visit and get to know 30 different religions by attending their communal devotions. There’s an idea lurking there of picking one at the end of the project; people often seem to ask her which religion she was leaning toward or had picked, at any rate, so even if that wasn’t her own goal it was definitely something people around her wondered about.

She’s decided to embark on this personal project as part of a self-directed recovery effort to at least heal her spirit if she can’t heal her body. Beginning with the church her family attended in her youth, she starts visiting as many different centers of worship as she can.

Some of her writing is difficult to read. Every gay person seems to be a Sassy Gay Friend caricature, while pagans almost all come across as genuine whackjobs with no sense of personal space or what normal social customs look like (which may well be her experience, but it sure doesn’t line up with my own time in the RL pagan community)–and the Jewish guy she talks to is a marriage-hungry young doctor. She uses terms like “transgendered,” which is a bit out of date (the term nowadays is “transgender” —here’s a nice writeup of terms if you need them).  Some of her own self-characterization sounds a little Mary Sue-ish as well, which I know is going to annoy some readers. On the plus side, she’s very LGBTQ-friendly as well as non-judgmental.

Reba’s journey itself sometimes comes off less as spiritual tourism (itself not the very best thing in the world) and more as a trip to a religious zoo to watch the monkeys fling poo at each other in the primate house. She tries to make her journey sound a bit like her heroine Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love chronicle (which Ms. Gilbert herself seems to notice in her own glowing recommendation on the book’s back cover), but doesn’t always succeed. If I’d been a member at some of these religious groups she visits (like one very rowdy church described in terms of an amusement-park thrill ride), I’d have been offended to see someone behaving like she describes herself as behaving. As with the characterization choices she made, the narrative choices may seem grating to some folks.

And yes, there’s some quibbling to be done about the terminology of “30 religions.” Most of the places she visits are Christian denominations and factions (Catholicism, Seventh-Day Adventism, etc). She might consider a denomination as a separate religion, but I sure don’t. There are some 4200 distinct religions so it was strange to see that she’d settled on the list she did. That said, if she hadn’t gone that route it might have been much harder to find 30 distinct, discrete religions nearby enough to travel to. She was, again, physically sick so it wouldn’t have been easy to travel to find some of these religions’ communities. I can cut some slack there.

So yes, I had some problems with how she talks about some stuff.That said, there were times that I felt tears prickling in my eyes as I read her struggles. Those who look past the concerns I’ve mentioned may find quite a lot of her story resonating with them, just as I did.

Not to state the obvious here, but many of us have been seriously hurt emotionally by religion.

Some of us are so hurt by Christianity that we’re just as traumatized as Reba is at the beginning of the book. Recovering from that trauma is a hugely difficult journey for those of us who’ve been that badly hurt. I think it’d be hugely beneficial for such people to read about someone who made that journey. Her journey might not look the same as our own, and it might not end in the same place, but it’ll be a welcome perspective in a field of literature that isn’t well-populated right now.

Indeed, most of the books dealing with “I had this problem with Christianity” journeys usually end with “YAY! I was able to find some way to stay Christian!” And that way is usually some riff on “spiritual but not religious.” This account doesn’t quite end that way. A little, but not totally. And Reba describes her project and journey with quite a lot of spirit and verve, with unexpected spots of humor peppering it (a comparison of her puppy to Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games made me laugh out loud).

When Reba talks about moments of connection she feels with people who understand what it’s like to be hurt by religion, her relief and sense of validation are palpable. One of those people is one of her former teachers from the ultra-religious private school she’d attended as a kid; this teacher was a formerly extremely fervent “Jesus Camp” type of lady who has since left that church over the same treatment that Reba got–making Reba hard-lock in shock. She fully expected this teacher to reject her or try to “save” her, so this sudden turnabout and change is a huge surprise to her. But Reba certainly doesn’t lack for Christians rejecting her and trying to save her; her constant references to the judgmental and unkind comments from the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ around her won’t be surprising at all to those of us who’ve escaped the religion.

When she meets a man she refers to as the Urban Monk at a small, urban Orthodox church, she starts feeling a sense of completeness and spiritual safety. He teaches her to meditate, which–along with an intense physical exercise regimen her doctor recommends–starts getting her back on track. It’s presented as a sort of mental exercise to start calming the stormy waters of her mind–which sounds about right.

On that note, I’ve got a real resistance to supernatural jabber and nothing I saw in this book particularly bugged me. Reba isn’t 100% non-supernaturally-minded (she takes totally for granted that there is some kind of universal “God,” even if she’s sure most religions don’t know who that god really is), but she does not often fall into “woo”–by which term I mean dangerously unsupported, unverified, non-credible supernatural ideas. Reba has the bad habit of capitalizing words that she doesn’t really have definitions for (sort of like how the Electric Monk thinks of “The Way” and “The Door” in Dirk Gently and the Holistic Detective Agency) and sees signs and portents from what she refers to as the “Godiverse” on a regular basis**, but it’s nothing that really gets in the way overmuch or interferes with the narrative she’s constructing and generally she resists the urge to buy in to unsupported ideas. I don’t agree with her conclusions, and I don’t need to.

I want to talk a little more about the specific journey itself next time, but for now, I want to talk about an idea she hints at throughout the book:

Don’t let other people define your personal journey.

Christianity is all about labels. What X are you? What kind of X are you? What degree of X are you? When I was Christian, I thought of this obsession with labels as a sort of riff off Adam naming all the animals; even then, I knew that those who control the labels control the ideas behind and beyond those labels.

Fundagelical Christians are well aware that labeling power equals ownership. That’s why such Christians and their leaders particularly want to control labels like “man,” “woman,” and even “Christian” itself. If they can control exactly what the labels mean, then if someone wants to identify as one of those labels then they will either need to conform with the new definition or fight against it–and either way the fundagelicals win at least some attention.***

We need to quit letting fundagelicals define us and our journeys.

I mean, why should they?

They sure don’t know any more than any of the rest of us do.

As we move away from giving them and their ways authority in our heads, we start moving away from the damage they can and do inflict in their rush for power over us. Reba herself very slowly starts to heal when she does that. She starts being able to see her Christianity as more of a cultural background than a mental prison sentence–an idea we’ll explore later on–and letting go of her super-strong negative reactions to anything too reminiscent of her past. When she does, she starts seeing what little good there is to see in her old faith community, validating her own experiences, being able to forgive her parents and see their perspective, and even appreciating some of her old religion’s less harmful ideas.

Where we end up might not be exactly where we thought we would, and it might not even be a place that other folks approve of or even fully understand, but our journeys belong to us and nobody else. It’s our right to pursue our own roads to the end that is right for each of us. As long as we’re not hurting anyone and we’re doing our best to let others handle their own lives, I don’t really see why it’s anyone else’s business what we end up doing or thinking.

That idea is going to drive Christians like Reba’s ex-pastor and small-group leader wild, but more and more often that is what people are doing. I’m glad I got to read about one of those people and how she resolved her own religious trauma.

You don’t have to end your journey the way Reba did. Hell, you really don’t even have to take the same route she did.

That’s the whole point. There is no one journey and no single destination. 

That might be the most important discovery any of us could make.


* Disclosures: I received the book at no cost from Patheos for review purposes, but was not told what to write or what “grade” it should receive or anything like that. The author blogs here at Patheos on the Progressive Christian channel. Aside from those disclosures, I’ve got no relationship with her or her publisher that I’m aware of.

** One word that shows up frequently is not that uncommon of a word in spiritual circles. If she’d decided “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” was the ultra-significant word she would consider a portent, I’d have been a lot more impressed. To each their own, I reckon.

*** The tactic can backfire as often as it succeeds, though; as more and more Christians get the idea that being “Christian” means signing off on a raft of politicized conservative talking points, they’re deciding to abandon the label altogether rather than accept that definition or fight it.

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