Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A read I prescribe to those on all walks of faith

A big thank you to Howard Books for sending me an early copy of this book! And hardcover, no less! It comes to shelves today and I’m excited to see what other readers think.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Review: In Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome, Reba Riley recounts her experiences with thirty religions in one year–a quest she felt led to undertake on her 29th birthday.

Riley struggles with “Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome,” which she describes as “A condition of spiritual injury that occurs as a result of religion, faith, and/or the leaving, losing, or breaking thereof.” While I haven’t faced a big break with the church, I know people who have and I’m sure many can relate to the term.

During her 29th year, Riley also struggled with a mysterious illness no doctor seemed able to diagnose. She felt that, if she couldn’t heal her body, she could at least work toward healing her spirit.

In the novel, Riley discusses her experiences among the Amish, Buddhist, Muslim, Scientologist, Hindu, Native American, Wiccan, Jewish, and a whole hodgepodge of Christian churches varying from virtual reality to a drive-in to a movie theater.

What impresses me most about this book is not the fact that the peacock and disco ball on the cover actually relate to the story (though that is impressive); it’s Riley’s voice. She manages not only to keep me laughing, but also to keep me thinking. I’ve never read a memoir with so prominent a voice. At some point near the beginning of the book, I connected with her (I think it was when she fell down the stairs and flashed her birthday party crowd and everyone on the street). By the end, I felt like we were good friends. If I ever run into her on the street, I’ll probably start conversing as though I’ve known her for years and she’ll just stare back at me wondering who the heck this blonde chick is.

I’m also amazed by Riley’s story. I always have a hard time believing miracles in memoirs because the author is typically biased. But Riley clearly didn’t want to go back to church. And I don’t believe she would change her memory of her story to fit the religion she chose because she didn’t chose a religion at the end of her experience; she simply chose faith.

I don’t fully agree with her theology, but I don’t have to in order to appreciate this book. It is clear that God has made an imprint in her life; miracles are woven into each page. More than her story itself, I was interested to hear her thoughts on religions I’m unfamiliar with. Through her experiences, I feel more open to experiences like meditation and fasting, to which I was previously closed. I also feel more tolerant of beliefs like Scientology and Native American religions, at which I previously scoffed.

Though I believe many of Riley’s anecdotes about visits to different sects of Christianity were important to her personal story, I would have liked to hear more about her visits to other religions. I know there’s not a wide variety of religions represented in Ohio, but at one point Riley casually mentions she visited Christian Science, Unitarian Universalism, Sikhism, and Seventh-Day Adventism. She does acknowledge that these visits “barely registered” because her illness drained her of the energy needed to “research or get into the services.” If she did not attend services, how did she visit these religions? What were her interactions with these religions like? I’ve been curious about the beliefs of Christian Science and Sikhism in particular, and I wish she would’ve explored these more later or written more about what experiences she did have.

Though I would’ve liked to hear more of Riley’s experiences, this is only because I found the experiences she did share incredibly interesting. She doesn’t just attend services of other religions; she does what people of those religions do on her visits, cleaning herself before service at a mosque; getting audited by Scientologists; eating peanut butter, marshmallow cream, maple syrup, jelly, meat, cheese, and pickle sandwiches with the Amish. Anytime an individual steps far out of their comfort zone, an interesting story begins.

Throughout the book, people of all religions tell Riley of her destiny as a healer. I think this is a destiny she lives out through her book and her blog. This book will bring healing to many people, regardless of whether they’re searching for faith, running from faith, or already bound to faith. Reading Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome is especially a good remedy for those who identify with the title diagnosis.

Recommendation: Everyone should read this book.

Well, not everyone everyone–I can think of one or two super conservative people who may be disturbed by Riley’s theology to the point of burning or banning it, which I don’t much care for–but people from all walks of faith should read this. (Yes, I’m talking to you.)

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