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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

What Came Before Trauma in the Pews?

If you read Trauma in the Pews but not my first three books and I suggest you do so it sounds like I am trying to sell books--fair enough. But, don't listen to me--listen to Gethsemane Lynn who explains it so much better than I ever could! Thank you!


Last year, I read and reviewed a series of life-changing books by Janyne McConnaughey PH.D.: Brave, Jeannie's Brave Childhood, A Brave Life, and Trauma in the Pews (TITP). In my review of TITP, her most popular book, I made the following statement:

Trauma in the Pews certainly stands on its own as an excellent resource for providing information on how trauma affects the brain and person, as well as how spiritual trauma adds to that confusion, shame, and pain. It also provides a clear way forward for individuals, and the church, to first find their own healing, and then to be a safe place and guide for those who need healing as well. However, in my opinion, only reading this, without knowing and understanding her life story that led her to write it, would be tragic.

Since then, I've seen many more people read TITP without knowing and understanding McConnaughey's story. I'd like to address the reasons why I think it's important that readers read each of her books in the order they were written in.

Understanding The Journey's Context

McConnaughey's message in TITP is the culmination of her journey, which included her inner reflections, spiritual struggle, path toward healing, and metamorphosis of thought,. However, the significance of that message is inextricably bound with her life experiences, and they cannot be fully understood outside of her autobiographical books. Sure, we can read TITP and get the broad sense that she endured abuse, experienced trauma, and struggled to find healing… but we cannot understand who she truly is, the grueling process of healing, and the complex nature of spiritual abuse when they're removed from the context of her story.

To emphasize this point, I'd like you to think of a nicely illustrated cookbook. Imagine all your favorite recipe ingredients written out on glossy pages, colorful pictures that make your mouth water, clear directions on how to prepare and cook your food, and perhaps the best part: the resources - handy temperature, measurement, and substitutions charts. What it won't do is prepare you for the time investment, inevitable mishaps, and the messy cleanup!

Using a cookbook is great, but it will never help you to truly know and understand how it feels to prepare, cook, and eat your favorite food. Nothing compares to getting your hands in the mix, smelling the aromatic spices as you chop, feeling the warmth of the oven, the anticipation of that first delicious bite…

Like a good cookbook, I want to create a hunger in readers of TITP - a hunger for more of McConnaughey's and other survivors' stories. In the same way that reading a cookbook does not compare to the experience of making your own meal, TITP does not give more than a cursory understanding of who she is, how she was affected by abuse and trauma, and the process she went through to move toward healing. I do not say this to diminish the importance of TITP in any way. It is a powerful book, full of challenging ideas and wonderful resources. However, by reading her earlier books, you'll gain a deeper knowledge of how her personal experiences, struggles, and resilience inform and shape the narrative of TITP.

Understanding the Christian Separation From Story, Empathy, and Compassion

McConnaughey's books are not only about healing but about fostering empathy and compassion for all trauma survivors. Her earlier works immerse you in the raw emotions and challenges she faced within the religious context. This is the part we often shy away from. However, closing our eyes, hearts, and minds to the harsh realities survivors face does not make them go away. More importantly, I believe this is one of the greatest issues at the core of how the cycles of abuse continue…particularly in religious contexts.

I grew up in the Christian tradition and am also a survivor of abuse. As I have processed my grief and walked my own path of healing, I've noticed many common threads in the way Christians often respond to abuse/trauma; I am going to focus on one.

As I explained earlier, we cannot truly understand who a person is apart from their story. Christians, in my experience, have a long tradition, first of silencing (more on that later), and then separating people from their stories. One of the ways I've often seen this play out is when Christians use scripture, separated from the heart, intent, and story of Jesus to build theologies and condemn others who don't agree with their interpretation of said scriptures. The Bible is seen and used as a rule book, a book of absolute truth for every life issue - the very "Word of God."

Because we are so far removed from the culture, language, society, lived experiences, and the story of God expressed through The Word Of God in flesh (Jesus), we instead insert our own culture, language, society, lived experiences, and personal story into our interpretation…. and call it the "gospel truth." We then wield our perceived truth like a weapon, oblivious or downright callous to the harm we cause.

Because TITP explores the intersection of faith, religion, and trauma, it can shed light on how religious communities and faith can be used both to harm and to heal. However, it's her "Brave Series" that provides specific examples of the ways that scriptures, theology, and people/systems in power caused her harm.

The sad truth is that when survivors speak up, religious communities are often the most unsafe places for them to do so. It is exceedingly rare for a survivor to even be believed, but common for scripture (or societal standards) to be used to blame, shame, and continually restrain them. The survivor is looked at as a problem to be solved - a situation to be controlled, while their story, heart, health and well-being are rarely considered. This is so much easier to do when we remove the person from their story.

When we don't have to bear witness to their unfiltered pain or sit in the midst of their chaos, anger, grief, etc, we feel more free to remain disengaged. Or worse, we proudly think we've "done our part" by sharing a Bible verse and telling them we are praying. This topic is far more nuanced than I can ever fully address here, but I felt it was too important not to include.

McConnaughey's Trauma in the Pews invites us to choose a new way--to engage in the chaos and discomfort of story. Reading her "Brave Series" gives us one very practical way to do that. What difference will it make? The truth is, there's a lot in that question that I can't answer because it depends on how each of us chooses to respond. However, there are a couple of important points I'd like to draw your attention to.

Understanding Reading the Series as Giving Audience To Her Voice

This is the most important thing anyone can do for survivors of abuse. It takes great courage for someone to tell their story. In fact, it's often one of the hardest things they'll ever do. When someone is able to find their voice and share vulnerably, we should listen, believe, support, and embrace them. However, this is rarely what happens…. especially for those in religious contexts.

Survivors are often silenced, blamed, condemned, publicly humiliated, shunned, or excommunicated. It is a rare gem to find those who listen, believe, and who are truly safe, loving, supportive, humble, and willing to learn - they are giving the gift of empathy. In return, they're receiving the gift of that survivor's trust and an invitation into their story. This is often the first step in many survivors' healing. McConnaughey gave us that gift by telling her "Brave" story. Not only did she find her voice, but as she wrote, her voice became more powerful, culminating in TITP where she advocates for and platforms the voices of other survivors. We should want to listen and celebrate that, not stifle her voice by ignoring her story!

Understanding Her Story--Every Story--as Sacred

Story is sacred. It is not to be given or taken lightly. Just as we don't pick up a book, read the first page, a few middle pages, and the last page to gain a thorough understanding of the storyline and characters, we cannot read TITP and gain an in-depth understanding of McConnaughey's story. Each book, every page was written in intentional order. The "Brave Series" does the vital work of laying the foundation for the themes and ideas she later explores in TITP. Perhaps even more vital, is that as you read McConnaughey's earlier books, and are invited into her experiences, you'll bear witness to her growth, the transformation of her thinking, and the motivation behind her advocacy for trauma survivors.

I believe survivors will never heal, and the institutionalized church will never be safe, without our willingness to enter into another's story. Healing comes by our active listening and participation in the transformative journey ourselves - the presence, the questions, the wrestling, the lamenting… that is holy ground. For those who are concerned about following Jesus's example, I can think of no better way. His life is a model of entering people's stories, staying present, listening well, journeying alongside them, asking the hard questions, wrestling with painful truths, lamenting the losses, rejoicing over triumphs, and giving/receiving strength, encouragement, love, healing, and transformation. Everywhere He walked was holy ground, not just for who He was, but for who He became as He entered our story.

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