Book review: Spirit & Trauma, by Shelly Rambo

Spirit-and-Trauma2Shelly Rambo, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010). xiv+ 176 pp., Paper, $25.00, ISBN 978-0-664-23503-1. 

This has been on my “to read” shelf since its appearance in 2010. I was actually in Professor Shelly Rambo’s graduate seminar on Theology & Trauma at Boston U. She was a wonderful instructor. Belatedly, but just in time for Easter, I found the time to read it.

Shelly works at the intersection of literary theory, trauma studies, and theology, and draws from a wealth of perspectives and theories from each of these areas in her text.

Basically, she argues that traditional models of atonement and explanations of the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection fail to account for the experiences of victims of trauma by moving too quickly from death to life, and failing to account for the experience of the middle. She provides a theology of Holy Saturday, the Spirit, and the act of witness, especially in the Gospel of John, through this lens of “trauma.”

After grounding her work in contemporary theories of trauma and witness (chapter 1), her text basically makes three moves:

First, she examines Holy Saturday, “the theological middle day between death and life.” To do so she draws largely on the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, particularly his attempts to interpret and describe the mystical experiences of Adrienne von Speyr, who had mystical visions/experiences of the passion weekend. von Balthasar concluded that the Spirit was the thin thread connecting death and life.  “On the one side, there is death in godforsakenness; on the other, there is eternal life. To get from one side to the other, we need a means of crossing.  … What kind of path can survive the powers of death and hell? What remains in this space? Balthasar indicates that the way through this impossibility can only be conceptualized through the figure of Spirit” (pp. 74-75).

Second, she performs an exhaustive re-reading and analysis of the Gospel of John through a deconstructive/postmodern lens, focusing on the gaps and elisions of the text – what is forgotten and glossed over. She focuses on the experiences of the beloved disciple and Mary Magdalene as “trauma survivors” who inhabit the “complex territory of witnessing to the ongoing traces of death in life.” She highlights especially the physicality of the post-resurrection experiences, their confusion, their bearing witness, and their inability to make sense of the experience: what she sees as the hallmarks of a traumatic experience. (*Here, I must say, some doubts arose on my side as to whether one can really apply the lens of “trauma,” which was basically invented by Freud, to biblical characters; I was not entirely convinced.)

Third, she moves to a critique of traditional theologies of the Spirit as a life force and sustainer. In doing so she draws on the work of process theologian Catherine Keller. She identifies Spirit as love and as witness, inhabiting the uneasy middle between death ad life. Shelly concludes: “Spirit is the breath that gives rise to new forms of life forged through death. A theology of the Spirit, if developed in this way, will attest to the haunting losses and elisions that constitute traumatic experience” (p. 139).


And now for the IMHO part:

The essential problem I kept coming back to while reading was her vagueness about what constitutes “trauma.” Despite an entire chapter on trauma and witness theory, it remained ambiguous for me. It seemed to become almost a catch-all term in her usage in the book; i.e.  “trauma” is apparently a wide enough net to catch the biblical figures in it (?) as well as Katrina survivors and war veterans and I don’t know who else.  Is trauma only a matter of degree (something we all experience, at different intensities), or is there some boundary line that separates the traumatized from the rest of us, and demands that the traumatized have a different, particular theology?

I thoroughly enjoyed her discussion of von Balthasar & von Speyr; her reading of John pushed my boundaries (and sometimes my buttons), but I give her credit for highlighting easily overlooked aspects of the text and providing a very fresh and insightful reading; and her pneumatology was powerful and moving, especially in the way that she brings the Spirit back into focus at the heart of the passion/resurrection weekend (the strength of the book, for me).

But I must admit: I actually think I would have preferred the book without its “trauma” lens. The heavy burden of the modern theories of trauma and their ambiguity almost threatened to overshadow and overpower the theology of the text, which could easily stand on its own. Frankly, I think her reading of the Spirit, Holy Saturday, and John’s Gospel would have been stronger and certainly more generally accessible if she had just left this vague, (in my mind) unhelpful, and cloudy lens of “trauma studies” out. But no doubt she would vehemently disagree with me!

Those are my few small quibbles and queries in response to a thought-provoking and challenging text. It’s certainly the perfect time of the Christian year to order a copy and chew on her provocative and disrupting ideas about the Spirit and the meaning of Holy Saturday, which by extension radically “deconstructs” the solidity and meaning of Easter. Will you agree with her? Who knows. I am still mulling over many of her assertions, and will continue to do so throughout this Easter season. But if you read it I suspect you will never think of Holy Saturday, the Johannine gospel, or the Spirit in quite the same way ever again.


One thought on “Book review: Spirit & Trauma, by Shelly Rambo

  1. I’m trying to find this book. Because of your review, I’m fascinated with the whole aspect of trauma and theology, and very intrigued about how Rambo comes up with her thesis on it. Thanks for sharing.

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