Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church
Carol Howard Merritt
I have a small stack of books for which I’ve promised to write book reviews. I finally made the time to read them and sketch out my thoughts. These reviews will be appearing in my blog this week. Also reviewed this week are Lee Hull Moses’s More Than Enough and Still A Mother, edited by Joy Freeman and Tabatha Johnson.
Ten years ago or so, I picked up a copy of Carol Howard Merritt’s Tribal Church. For many of my colleagues in ministry, it was a touchstone book: with clear-eyed analysis and a knack for narrative, Merritt told a story that resonated with a new generation of ministers who brought hopes for more innovative, just, and creative ways of doing church but ran into structures that were often counter-intuitively bureaucratic, oppressively hierarchical, and downright stodgy. As I watch my denominational and ecumenical contemporaries come into their own (we Gen Xers are all at least 40something these days–even Millennials have a hard time calling themselves “Young Adults” anymore!), Tribal Church is one of a short list of books with lessons that still resonate. Merritt is a gifted memoirist, but her books always goes beyond her own story. Such is the case with Healing Spiritual Wounds.
Wounds could not have been an easy book to write. Merritt tells her own story of a journey from fundamentalist Christianity to a spirituality where “God got bigger.” She dares to dig into memories that range from uneasy to painful, and she frames her time growing up in a family, church, and Bible college that drew delineations between parent and child, church and member, school and student so sharp that the resulting scars are hardly surprising. Merritt paints the days of her life in fundamentalist Christianity in bold colors: dress codes and rapture pranks at Moody Bible College pop off the page with wicked attention to humor, and the more hurtful, often violent underbelly of a faith that makes demands without giving nurture comes through with dark clarity.
There is, however, a gorgeous lightness when she tells of her “a-ha” moments that pushed her to a more generous, open, and life-affirming Christian vision. Serendipitous relationships and hard-won epiphanies–even painful ones–lead Merritt to discover faith-filled alternatives to misogyny, homophobia, supersessionism, and an abusive theological anthropology.
What makes Wounds so unique is that Merritt intertwines pastoral skill with her gift for memoir. Solid exegesis and history are woven into the narrative, as is a deep care for folks who have taken similar paths. She tells the stories of so many folks she encounters–old friends, neighbors, strangers at parties–and how she has journeyed alongside them as they’ve worked on their own healing as they discover a Christianity so different from that of their fundamentalist childhoods. While Merritt grinds no axes here, she fearlessly confronts the roots of a rage she comes by honestly, and she deftly reminds us that healing is something that must be done intentionally.
Which leads me to the only part of the book that didn’t initially “work” for me. Each section concludes with an exercise, sometimes directing a journaling discipline, sometimes a private or group liturgy, sometimes a meditation exercise. I initially bristled at their inclusion, wondering if such exercises take away from the power of a memoir. I found myself asking what a book like this is for –should we not let stories speak for themselves? Do such structured exercises distract or augment?
As I reviewed my notes, however, I rethought my reluctance. Ironically, it was a quote from Merritt’s evangelism professor at Moody that led me there:
“I know. It’s terrible,” Dr. Fisher, the course professor, said while shaking his head. “You take an evangelism class to talk about evangelism, and here I am going to make you actually do evangelism.”
Perhaps it should have been obvious–this brave book is not simply a memoir of healing, but it’s an invitation to others who’ve found themselves weighed down by the harm that is often done in the name of God. And Merritt, as theologian, thinker, pastor, and coach, doesn’t just talk about how to begin a new type of faith journey, she sketches a blueprint for the “doing,” too.