I’ve thought about writing more about books on the blog, especially memoirs. I enjoy fiction and poetry and plenty of other things, but personal essay collections and memoirs will always be my first love. The trouble is, I hate writing reviews of them. How do you break someone else’s life story down into a five-star rating system? If the hand Life dealt them isn’t that interesting to me, do I give it one-star? If I can relate, do I give it five?
Instead of writing reviews, I’ve decided to write recommendations. At the beginning of the month I’ll share a book (or maybe five) that I’m in love with. The book that, if you lived closer, I’d pull out and read sections that I’ve underlined with a pencil and tabbed with sticky notes. The book that, if you lived closer, I might have already bought you a copy of. Many of them I’m sure will be memoirs because that’s what I like and seeing as you’re reading a memoir-esque blog, you probably are kind of fond of the genre, yourself. (Even if you’re not aware of it.) But, really, they’ll just be whatever I’d push across the table towards you while asking, “Have you read it?”
I didn’t have any question when it came to which book to kick 2016 off with. Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Memoir of Humor and Healing by Reba Riley. This is the most recent book I’ve sticky-noted to death. And I suspect that the title alone resonates with a lot of you as well.
If you have Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome, the first thing you need to know is that this is not a how-to-heal book. Riley isn’t going to give you a step-by-step guide to getting rid of the shudders, shakes and panic attacks that strike when you accidentally stop on the local Christian station while flipping through the radio channels in the car.
Instead, what Riley’s memoir has to offer (besides a well-told and humor-drenched story) is hope. Hope for healing, even though the way we go about achieving our individual healing from religious trauma (or any other trauma) might be completely different.
I’ll be honest with you, I was a little skeptical when I first started reading. The book is focused around Riley’s “Thirty by Thirty” project in which she samples thirty religions (although Christianity does make several guest appearances but in vastly different reincarnations) by her thirtieth birthday. I feared it’d be an adventure in religious tourism; I feared it’d be shallow. But Thirty by Thirty isn’t shallow. It’s basically exposure therapy, existentaling, and spiritual questing all smashed into one epic personal goal.
My two favorite religious adventures were when Riley was interrogated by delightful, noisy Amish grandmothers about her sex life and when she celebrated the summer solstice with a group of geeky wiccans in a field while wearing a Minnie Mouse rain poncho. But there were also so many more serious pages that made my innermost heart with all its religious bruises and scars whisper yes and me, too. Sometimes it’s healing just to know you’re not alone.
One of the most helpful concepts for me that Riley brings up in her book is the idea of being “Christianish.” Riley writes:
What if instead of constantly warring with my religious past, I think of Christianity as my country of origin? Could I claim everything helpful as my heritage, my birthright, and get rid of the rest? Could Christianity be the bedrock of my transformation instead of something to overcome? (p. 129)
Christianish isn’t for all of the Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome suffers out there. Some of you don’t want or need an -ish. And some of you want or need to let go of the whole religion in order to find healing. And that’s okay. But for me this idea was helpful because it gave me permission to keep the parts of Christianity and Christian culture (the liturgical calendar just as one example) that I still find powerful, beautiful, and helpful. And to let go of the parts that cause my soul to sting and ache.
I was raised in Christianity. Not just in the sense that I was raised in a religious household or that I grew up going to church a lot (although both are certainly true) but I was raised in Christianity Land. Christianity is my homeland. It’s my culture. It’s my country of origin. I learned to speak Evangelical before I learned to speak Standard American English. It’s like I’m a transplant now, an immigrant from Christianity Land. And I’m trying to figure out what bits of my country of origin I want to keep, what holidays and cookie recipes and songs and cultural stories I’m going to hold onto and maybe introduce to future hypothetical children. And which ones I’m going to let quietly fade away.
Christianish. To me it means that I can walk the line between being a Christian and being so happily heretical I’m something else and be okay with that. To me it means that I have control over what parts of my cultural heritage I want to keep. To me it means that I’m not locked into a false dichotomy: you have to keep everything or nothing.
I also loved how Riley acknowledged something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, myself.
Throughout the service … I was troubled by this question: Why do so many people believe that if I seek the truth with an open mind, I’ll end up thinking exactly as they do? (p. 172)
When my post I’m Tired of Being a Christian attracted more than a little love (and hate) a few months back, what stood out to me more than anything as I read over the comments was how everyone honestly believed that if I were to truly seek truth diligently and with an open mind, I’d end up as ideological twinsies in the end. Conservative Christians. Progressive Christians. Muslims. Mormons. Atheists. Everyone believed their boxed set of beliefs would be my end game if I were serious in my questing. And, to quote Best Friend, it started to feel kind of fishy.
Riley writes about one of her visits, “I could imagine a pleasant future of spiritual adoption and potluck suppers with this kindly family, where we would eat seven-layer salad and laugh at my days of Thirty by Thirty seeking. But I knew I didn’t ever want to think about spirituality within a self-sustained system again” (p. 172). Riley doesn’t “pick a religion” in the end. Because, really now, why should she have to? Instead, she finds healing. And she rediscovers and reinvents her relationship to the Godiverse: “Something bigger than the Trinity we grew up with, but smaller and more personal than the great beyond” (p. 9).
For me, the best thing about this book was that it told me that I wasn’t alone. And between the pages Riley gave me the space I needed to figure out how I can continue to heal. Instead of wanting to copy Thirty by Thirty, I felt encouraged in my own unique journey. Riley claims the peacock as her symbol of healing. And instead of claiming the peacock myself, every time I see a peacock now it’s a reminder that there are so many unique and beautiful paths to healing. And I have the power and authority to find my own way.
If you’ve already read the book, I’d love to hear what you think.