Rated “R” for Religion
This happens all the time:
A friend or new co-worker casually mentions an Old Testament reference, and suddenly we realize a bond: religious trauma. We’re exchanging stories of the nightmare-feeding stories we heard as young children:
- Vivid depictions of blood sacrifice
- Eternal damnation in hell, with lakes of fire illustrated in our Bibles for Children
- The screaming mothers of Isreal over the slaughter of the innocents (also illustrated. My bible had two paintings of infants being sliced by swords. King Solomon in the Old Testament and Roman soldiers in the New)
- Graphic abortion videos of chewed up babies to scare us into chastity
- Constant fear our loved ones would be raptured, but we’d be left behind, our heads severed by the heathens who kill us for refusing to accept the Mark of the Beast.
We trade stories of exhausting summer camp sessions. For them, it might be anxiety and pressure to fit in by speaking in tongues while people around them are slain in the spirit. For me, it’s shrinking down in the pew as sweaty, red-faced preachers scream about sexual practices I wouldn’t have heard of as a young kid, even if I grew up in 2020 with porn online.
The stories trigger me back to hours sitting in a pew feeling dirty, afraid, and confused. Why would I feel that about church? Why do these memories override other teachings about creation, love, forgiveness, and redemption? And why do I shut down inside when I see them now, even after all these years?
Walt Disney is Dead
In 1968, a few years before I was born, the Motion Picture Association introduced the rating system for movies. The purpose was to flag content that was inappropriate for young children, so parents could avoid exposing them too upsetting imagery. The R rating indicates adult subject matter: nudity, profanity, and violence that no one under 17 should see unless accompanied by an adult.
The churches I attended upped the ante of censoring violent and profane movies. They taught us that any movie rated beyond a G — although sometimes a PG-13 was allowed in certain circumstances — would contain ungodly behavior that would lead us to sin. At one point, we were encouraged to avoid Blockbuster and movie theaters altogether, lest some lost person spots us, not know we only saw G content, and thus assume we were watching R rated films. The appearance of evil would shatter our testimony.
Our megachurch pastor often stormed the pulpit against Hollywood, saying Walt Disney was dead and that no movie made since was worth watching. He’d then sing a few lines of the little song we all learned as kids in Vacation Bible School: “Oh be careful little eyes what you see, be careful little ears what you hear.”
The impact of violent imagery on a child’s mind has been well studied. Pediatricians warn that young children don’t have the reasoning skills to decipher between real and fake scenes in movies or the complex defense mechanisms to put graphic violence depicted on a screen into perspective with real life.
When their worst fears are played out — kidnapping, loss, surprise attack, torture, death — they can feel helpless and vulnerable. Because children are, by nature, literal and concrete thinkers, they may easily worry that what they just witnessed can happen to them too. They’re at risk of internalizing what they see without an ability to understand perspective, likelihood, or cause.
After watching horrific content in a movie or on TV, children may:
- Become afraid of the dark or going to bed
- Suffer from nightmares and night terrors
- Have difficulty concentrating
- Develop a fear and anxiety of the world
My parents were careful about what I watched on TV and in the movies. They screened content, forbade me to watch inappropriate movies, and talked to me about reality versus fantasy. Sometimes I snuck around with my friends, but this usually meant an occasional f-bomb or glimpse of bare breasts. I already struggled with the full list of behavioral signs of trauma above and naturally stayed away from horror films. I didn’t like feeling scared.
I was a good kid who, for the most part, obeyed the rules. I belonged to good parents who, for the most part, did everything they could to shelter me from the dangers of the world.
They also took me to church, sent me to a Christian private school, and drove me several times a week to youth group activities. It was supposed to be a good thing.
What is Religious Trauma?
Religious trauma is deeply distressing damage caused by authoritarian and dogmatic indoctrination that results in terror, helplessness, or horror, and a distorted view of self, identity, and worth. These repressive religious environments are often coupled with emotional, mental, physical, or sexual abuse. The traumatic impact is long-lasting and invasive, altering the trajectory of emotional development and an otherwise healthy person's social functioning.
Church, the way I attended it, created a saturated environment that centered on violence. It would be impossible to tally the number of hours I’ve listened to (and watched depicted in detail) the agony of the crucifixion, the thud of the hammer driving nails into the hands of an innocent Christ, the crack of the whip fileting the flesh of his back, the blood, and water flowing down the pale muscles of his young, white body. (The Evangelical Jesus is caucasian and pale, certainly an anomaly from his region of origin, sigh).
The list continues. The sermon by a well-known doctor that described in detail the agonizing physiological process of a three-day death on a cross. The countless Easter passion plays that put a weeping, bleeding Jesus in our faces as he dragged his cross down the aisle. The emotional pleas from pastors to repent of our sins, because we made choices every day that made us the final executioner. We were supposed to internalize this violence. We did this. Our personal, modern-day sin put the Savior on that cross. We were all Pharisees. Pilate. Roman soldiers. Murderers. One of the Easter performances directed the congregation to join the call to “Crucify Him!” We needed to identify with all of it, role-playing one of the most violent acts ever committed to a human being and the crowd that frothed for it to be done.
In 2004, when Mel Gibson’s The Passion was released, the rating decision between R and NC-17 created controversy. I was a parent then, a mother trapped in a patriarchal, fundamentalist, and abusive marriage. The church we attended organized a group to see the film in a bought-out theater. While I could leave my kids with their grandparents, the theater was otherwise full of families with children.
In adulthood, I hit a point when I realized it all seemed too cruel.
To Mary: what mother can endure the method of her son’s death retold and reenacted in splayed, gory detail for two thousand years?
To children: we forbid violent movies but then expose them to vivid imitations of the Via Dolorosa and Golgotha?
To trauma survivors: who recoil at the sound of a whip, at the sound of a hammer as it strikes a nail into a hand — these are trigger sounds to anyone who has lived in violence.
The impact religious violence had on my young mind achieved exactly what it was designed to do: it scared me into a compliant, obedient, repentant box.
By the time I was an adult, I assumed real love meant pain, that loss via a sudden rapture could happen at any second, and that the world was out to get me. This only became more complicated when my then-husband abused me — and church counselors condoned it — because he was “loving me as Christ loved the church.” My job was to submit to him the way Christ had prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not your will but thine.” The solution to violence was to honor him more.
Years after I got out, as I researched religious trauma, I came to understand a few defining aspects of it better. I began to recognize where I’d numbed myself and disassociated from my feelings. I came to understand the cumulative mindset that led me to co-dependency and wishful thinking, willfully ignoring dangerous traits in others to “save” or “fix” them, and accepting an abusive relationship as the love I felt I deserved.
When I close my eyes and think about religious violence, I transport instantly to very young childhood — 3 or 4 years old. Trying to comprehend King Solomon holding a writhing baby by the foot, threatening to sever it in half with a sword as two women argue over it. Trying to connect the cookie I stole as a “sin” to that poor man hanging from bleeding palms on a cross, the stormy skies around him a nauseous green. I’m as unable to do this math at 46 as I was at 4. His visage is heartbreaking. All I know is that humanity can be cruel and that ruminating on the details sickens my mind.
Pediatricians recommend that parents protect their child’s mental health by shielding them from traumatic content. Perhaps they should issue warnings and ratings to churches too.