Trauma + Grace (Serene Jones) -- A Review

TRAUMA + GRACE: Theology in a Ruptured World. Second Edition. By Serene Jones. Foreword by Kelly Brown Douglas. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019. Xxvii + 199 pages.

                It was just a year ago that I read the first edition of Serene Jones’s Trauma + Grace. I wasn't reading it for review, so I might have been a bit less focused than I was this second time around. The original book appeared in 2009, so much has happened in the world since that moment. Some of that change is reflected in this new edition, though the core of the book remains as it was before.

Why a book like this? The answer is that a growing number of theologians have begun to explore the connection between the reality of trauma and our theological reflections. Theodicy has been a major component of theological discussion for eons, but this is more personal, more intimate. Where is God in the midst of a person’s experience of trauma, whether the result of violence or severe illness (such as cancer). How might we believe in God in the context of trauma-producing events. Not only that, but where does the idea of grace fit? As Serene Jones notes in the introduction to this Second Edition of her book, "The Bible is one long series of traumatic events and accounts of how people struggle to speak about God in the midst of them." (p. xi). Standing at the center of this story is the crucifixion and its effect on those who experienced life with Jesus. It’s important to note that this is a this-world reflection. She doesn’t take the route of everything working out in the next life.

Serene Jones made news during Easter weekend (2019) with her comments about the resurrection of Jesus among other things. Whether or not one agreed with her sentiments in that interview, this book is worth reading, especially by clergy who are called upon to minister to and with those experiencing traumatic events. As for her identity, Jones is the President of Union Theological Seminary in New York and is a member of a UCC congregation. Although participating in a UCC congregation Jones grew up in a Disciples of Christ home (her father is Disciples theologian Joe R. Jones). Although it may seem odd at first, Jones is a liberal feminist theologian who engages with John Calvin and the Trinity.
As for this edition of Jones’s book, the core of the book is composed of original essays, some of which were new at the time of publication, while others were published elsewhere before being included in this collection. Like any collection of essays, the book doesn’t necessarily flow from chapter to chapter, though it does flow better than most. To this original core, is added a foreword written by Kelly Brown Douglas of the Episcopal Divinity School, and a new introduction to the Second Edition, in which she resets the book. She writes that while her thinking from the earlier work hasn't changed, she is more aware of 1) "of the impact of collective traumas that get passed down from generation to generation." (p. xii). 2) She is "more aware of secondary trauma, or the effects of trauma on the lives of those who haven't directly undergone the trauma." (p. xiii). 3) she notes that she appreciates in a way she did not earlier the way in which "the different forms of violence I was describing have also been perpetrated against the earth itself" (p. xiv). With these new insights she has concluded that trauma studies are essential not only to the understanding of Scripture, but the theological task itself. This resource brings theology out of the realm of the abstract into the reality of our lives. It is in this context that she seeks to understand the grace of God. 

The book is divided into three parts. Part 1 is titled "Traumatic Faith. She has chapters that delve into the concept of trauma and grace. There is a chapter that brings the Emmaus story into conversation with 9/11, and finally a chapter in which she engages with Calvin's Psalms as a means of pursuing healing.

This section is followed in Part 2, titled “Crucified Beginnings,” with three chapters exploring the cross. There is a chapter on the alluring cross; while brief, it invites us to consider why the cross, despite its repulsive nature calls out to us. From there we move to a chapter on "The Mirrored Cross," which moves to a more embodied conversation about the cross and its message to those experiencing trauma. In the mirrored cross, the cross reflects back to us our own suffering. Finally, there is a chapter on the "unending cross." She points us to Mark, the gospel without an ending as a place to explore the connection of trauma and the cross. 

In Part 3, she builds on what has gone before. It's titled "Ruptured Redeemings." She has a chapter on "sin, creativity, and the Christian life." In an area that clergy are becoming more aware of, Jones addresses the traumatic nature of reproductive loss. The chapter is titled "hope deferred,” and it is here that she gives the most attention to the Trinity. She suggests that the doctrine of the Trinity provides a way of understanding how God standing with the person experiencing this trauma, even as God stood with Jesus on the cross.  Finally, there is a chapter on "Mourning and Wonder." Throughout the book Jones weaves story of her own life, but more often of others she has encountered in life. She tells the story, as she walked with them. These are not disembodied stories. There are real-life stories of people—mostly women, but not only women—who have experienced trauma and are seeking ways of remaining persons of faith, even as they seek healing grace. 

To these nine chapters, Jones adds two new closing pieces. Both are conversations. The first is a conversation with Kelly Brown Douglas on the relationship of trauma and race. This conversation emerged out of a greater realization of the role that race plays in trauma, especially that trauma that is passed on from generation to generation. The closing piece is a conversation/interview of the author by David Maxwell, her editor at WJK Press. Issues of race figure here as well, though she speaks of other causes of trauma. 

It is a compelling book. I think we often do theology in an abstract manner. Perhaps that's because much published theology is written by white/Euro-American men. While there are points of trauma, we have experienced, especially in times of war (not my experience though), we do not deal with the same realities of trauma as a person of color. The one critique of this conversation is that Jones often speaks of "white people" in the abstract, as if, for instance, she's not a white woman. If whiteness is spoken in generalities, then it would important for her to own her own whiteness. It's not that what she shares is incorrect, it just seems disembodied. 

Overall, this second edition of Trauma + Grace is an important contribution to our theological conversation, which brings concepts like the Trinity and sin out of the realm of the abstract into the realm of real life. That is the key to theology being of earthly value as well as heavenly value! 


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