Recommended Reads: The Only C.S. Lewis Book I Still Own

A Grief Observed.jpgC.S. Lewis died years before I was even born, but yet I feel as if that old crusty British academic and I have a long and complex history together. He was my first literary love. I fell in love with his world of Narnia, and with so many of the characters (Lucy will always be my favorite). A world of imagination. A world of fantasy. The type of world that usually would’ve been banned.

Fantasy was strictly banned because it was considered a gateway to the occult. The Chronicles of Narnia were only allowed because C.S. Lewis was a devout Christian and his books contained a crap ton of Christian metaphors. The fact that Aslan represented Jesus and that that little rat Edmond who sold his siblings out for some gross British candy (come on, Edmond, it wasn’t even something good like cookie dough ice cream) represented me was pointed out and discussed in length in order to be sure I hadn’t missed the symbolism. Aslan died for Edmond. Or, how it felt to me: I was Edmond; I killed Aslan. (I recently packed up my collection of Narnia reads and set them to Goodwill because I knew the whole You Killed Aslan thing would set off my Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome. And besides, I’ve gone for the harder stuff. Now I read things like Harry Potter.)

I loved Narnia and fantasy and magical creatures so much that I named my first cat, Lewis, after C.S. Lewis. And my next cat, Jack, also after C.S. Lewis. His world is imaginative and wonderful in so many ways, and it was also the only fantasy world that I had access to.

Later on, when I was experimenting with things like The Five Points of Calvinism when other teens and college students were experimenting sexually, I read through his Christian Classics (Mere Christianity, and so forth). I owned a pretty matching set of all his works that I displayed proudly on my shelf.

But things changed, I changed, and I tend to not agree much with C.S. these days, which is fine. And some of his books are trigger-y so I don’t plan on rereading them, but that’s not really his fault. It’s more the context they were discussed in and the way they were presented (like the whole Edmond thing). But despite clearing out most of my books by old C.S. (and so many other Christian books from my past lifetime), there’s one that I won’t be parting with. Read More

Recommended Reads: What I read since I no longer read the bible

It was hard to pick which books to share because February is an interesting month. It’s the Love Month. It’s when all the lovey-dovey cards, heart-shaped chocolates, tacky and sexy lingerie, sidewalk-chalk-flavored candy, and cheesy-cute stuffed animals have an entire grocery store aisle all to themselves. But it’s also the beginning of Lent, which is a more serious, introspective, faith-focused season for the faith-communities and individuals who observe it.

I was torn between whether or not to share a few favorite romance novels or more Lent-appropriate works. And I decided that, instead, I’d recommend two books that are a part of my own self-care time (which relates to love and spirituality, or at least it does for me).

For years the quiet of the mornings was my “quiet time with God” or “daily devotions.” My mornings were severely regimented and there was often a lot of guilt hanging in the morning air, but there was beauty and introspection, too. However, thanks to my serious case of Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome I have a complex relationship with the Bible these days, so we don’t spend our mornings together. And for a while it felt like there was a hole in my day. Something was missing, that time to reflect. These books have helped fill that hole; they inspire me, remind me what’s truly important, make me feel less alone, and leave me feeling more grounded for spending a morning with them. They’re also beautiful. And that’s a good reason just right there.

1. Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace by Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is my personal patron saint, and I feel like her books were the first spiritual life rafts that my fingers, out of sheer luck, managed to grab. She was the very first person to give me a glimpse of the reality that Christianity could taste differently than the particular flavor that I’d been raised with.

She introduce me to freedom. She introduce me to hope. She showed me that it was okay to be honest, even about hard things and the feelings you weren’t “supposed to” have. She showed me that I could be snarky and spiritual at the same time. She made me laugh out loud and she told me it was okay to grieve and that it was okay to take care of myself. She made me feel less broken, and more just messy. And that messiness was okay.

When I saw Lamott speak last year she described Small Victories as her “best of album” (but there are still some new essay additions). And I think that’s the perfect way of describing it.

It was hard to decide which quotes to share with you since there are so many sticky notes in my copy, but this is one that resonated the most deeply with me.

 I told them about my most vile behavior, and they said, “Me, too!” I told them about my crimes against the innocent, especially me. And they said, “Ditto. Yay. Welcome.” I couldn’t seem to get them to reject me. It was a nightmare, and then my salvation. [p. 22]

Crimes against the innocent — me. Within the pages of her book I feel welcomed, safe. And on the next page she continues:

This welcome towards myself took adjustment, a rebalancing of my soul. There had been so much energy thrown into performance, achievement, and disguise. [p. 23]

A rebalancing of my soul. That is exactly where I’m at.

I read through this slowly, one essay a morning, the way I used to read through daily devotionals. And I’m planning on rereading it during Lent (a time in the Christian year that I have reimagined, reclaimed for myself as a time of more focused, more intentional self-care).

2. Dream Work by Mary Oliver.

Poetry, like music or ice cream flavors, really comes down to personal taste. But I’m madly, deeply in love with Mary Oliver’s words. (I’m also dead jealous.) This is what I’m currently reading through in the mornings, just a poem or two at a time. I feel like it helps my mornings to be reflective, peaceful, and spiritual. And perhaps most importantly of all, it’s a time of self-care.

Although, Oliver’s poems certainly touch on a wide variety of topics and emotions I feel like this would be the perfect book to give to anyone who said they didn’t like poetry because it’s always sad.

It’s hard to choose a favorite, but I think The Journey might be my favorite of her poems that I’ve read so far. Sometimes, when I read poems like this one, I feel as if she’s writing directly to all of us who have made or are making the long, hard journey out of religious fundamentalism; those of us who grew up believing for so long that we were responsible for the entire world — every person, every soul. Here’s a small excerpt:

as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save the only life you could save.

Oliver’s poems aren’t religious-y, I’m not honestly sure that she’s even religious herself, but I found this section of Morning Poem beautiful.

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

If you want something reflective and beautiful to read that will help care for your soul, these are the books. (Or at least they are for me.)

What books feed your soul? And my fellow Religious Trauma survivors who also can’t read their Holy Book of Origin, what do you read now that’s adding light and life to your life?

Recommended Reads: Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome

PTCSI’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.