A Feature Review of
Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church
Carol Howard Merritt
Reviewed by Phil Snider
Have you ever been afraid in the hallways of your high school because you couldn’t find any of your friends from church, and you thought the rapture had occurred and you were left behind?
Have you ever been inclined to “come forward” to the altar just one more time, to make sure your heart is sincere, even though you’ve already committed your life to Christ on multiple occasions yet somehow can still never feel secure in your salvation?
Have you ever questioned the things you’re supposed to believe, like the idea that someone who never accepted Christ—or even heard of Christ—is suffering eternal torture at the hands of a God who feels more like a childish despot than a loving parent?
Have you ever quietly wondered why the Bible seems to frequently contradict itself, yet you’re too nervous to voice these concerns in church out of the fear that you might be rejected?
These examples may seem trite, and perhaps silly. But if you grew up in conservative branches of Christian fundamentalism and evangelicalism, as I did, they may just as easily be par for the course. After all, I vividly remember wandering my high school hallways looking for friends from youth group to assure me the rapture hadn’t happened—and I was so relieved to find them! I remember going to the altar countless times on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights—not to mention every evening during summer church camp—in order to make sure I was saved. I remember sitting on the Bible college bleachers during a basketball game, thinking to myself how unfair it was for Gandhi to be burning in hell forever. I remember trying my best to ignore the haunting suspicion that the Bible was neither inerrant nor infallible, which later led me to question everything I believed.
And even though I’ve been in the mainline Protestant liberal church for over two decades, I still cannot fully shake the visceral feelings of fear, guilt, and shame that were part and parcel of my adolescent religious experiences. I might have taken myself out of the fundamentalist church, but the fundamentalist church never quite took itself out of me.
Over the years, I’ve worried that my faith as an adult has been reduced to little more than a reaction against the fundamentalism of my youth. For example, I know where I’ve been, but I don’t always know where I’m going. I know what I’ve rejected, but I don’t know what I’m accepting in its place. I know what has diminished life, but I’m not always quite sure what gives life.
That’s why I’m immeasurably grateful for Carol Howard Merritt’s Healing Spiritual Wounds. Not only does she understand the fundamentalism of my past (it’s like she was reading my journal), but she provides a beautiful way forward, full of healing and hope.
Indeed, I wish I could go back in time and give my twenty-year-old self this book. I doubt it would’ve shaken off all of my insecurities, but I would’ve encountered images of God, faith, and church that I didn’t know were possible at the time. And I wish my forty-three-year-old self would’ve read it sooner too, for it provides a check against the reactionary cynicism that has marked too much of my post-evangelical life. (This isn’t to say there isn’t room in Merritt’s book for a healthy cynicism, but it is to say that a much more constructive path—one that isn’t paralyzed by the wounds of the past—is possible.) I’m also reminded that liberal churches can inflict hurt as well, and that it’s far too easy for progressives to associate religious trauma only with problematic belief systems, and not personal actions—and structural systems—that remain deeply flawed, despite rhetoric to the contrary.
The themes that emerge in Healing Spiritual Wounds are both spiritual and embodied. Merritt connects us to that which is most ultimate, beyond time and space, yet somehow still connected to time and place. She evokes what cannot fully be described—the wonder of love and the call of justice—yet in a way that only materializes when love and justice take on flesh (otherwise they are just idealized abstractions). Instead of taking the conventional progressive view of reducing the gospel to nothing more than ethics and good works—which are no doubt important in her mind—she also leaves room for the mystery of grace and the balm of redemption. Her vision solicits and compels, harboring a vision of God that isn’t caught up in superstition and magic—which many exiting the church rightfully resist—but exudes transformation and possibility.
As a full-time pastor, I’ve read all of Merritt’s books, and I keep up with her column in The Christian Century. From a vocational/pastoral perspective, I’ve always been grateful that she writes about authentic faith and meaning, as opposed to market-driven approaches on “How to Fill the Pews with Lots of Millennials.™” Even her books on church leadership are filled with the same kind of thoughtful questions and heartfelt honesty that make frequent appearances in Healing Spiritual Wounds. At the same time, however, Healing Spiritual Wounds is a very different book, and it is a gift to pastors in ways that Tribal Church and Reframing Hope—for all of their strengths—simply are not. This is because Merritt has now written a book for a general audience that pastors can readily give to those who have been hurt by damaging voices operating in the name of Christianity and the church, and are in dire need of a fresh understanding, and experience, of the sacred. Her book couldn’t be more timely, especially in light of the increased authoritarianism, patriarchy, racism, xenophobia, and heteronormativity that dominant religious and cultural voices are all too frequently associating with the church in the United States.
As an adolescent, I thought the sole purpose of being a Christian was in order to find life after death. But Merritt shows that the gospel is every bit as interested in life before death. And if “being religious means asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence,” as Paul Tillich once described, then Merritt’s responses offer an entry point into a religion that I will gladly follow. I’m just waiting for the altar call.
Phil Snider is author of Preaching After God.