A Review of “Trauma & Grace” by Serene Jones

“How do people whose hearts and minds have been wounded by violence, come to feel and know the redeeming power of God’s grace (viii)?” That’s the overall question that drives Serene Jones in this collection of essays. Her desire is to help those who have suffered trauma, and those who would seek to help them, know God and feel divine love in the midst of their sorrow. While the book is a work of theology, it orients itself towards applied theology. Trauma and Grace is a unique exploration of the relevance of theological belief for deep sorrow.

Applying theology to trauma is not an easy matter in and of itself. Jones does a commendable job in blending well the key elements of trauma theory and theology. She demonstrates her acumen in both and shows both a sensitivity to victims and commitment to theological formulations at the same time. Interestingly enough, Jones is a liberal/progressive theologian, but many of her conclusions and teachings seem far more conservative than liberal. I was shocked throughout by how much I agreed with what she wrote. For example, her exploration of Calvin’s use of the Psalms was not only positive but accurate. In addition her definitions of sin, and her discussion of the atonement is more conservative than many liberal soteriologies these days. There are, of course, still plenty of places where her liberalism shows through and where I would take issue with her Christology or aspects of her anthropology, and yet I was far more pleased with her theology than I thought I would be. This is a unique book indeed.

Trauma & Grace is a collection of essays that seek to develop a constructive relationship between trauma theory and “religious understandings of the nature of self and salvation” (vii). The book is not necessarily designed, Jones says, to provide answers to the impact of trauma, but rather intends to provide a theological framework for thinking about the impact of trauma and its corresponding healing. The book is broken down into three parts. Part 1 introduces the concept at hand and clarifies what she means by the term “trauma.” Here she clarifies not simply what trauma is, but also demonstrates how the Christian faith has rituals and stories which can be a means to offering healing. She notes the ways in which the “liberal Protestant tradition” has long ago “conceded its storytelling, meaning-making powers years ago, giving over its imaginative way to science, to experts, to the rational certainty of modernity” (31). Yet, she states that it is precisely through the story of the Bible that healing can come. Storytelling is the means of healing at both the individual and the collective level, hinting here at the ideas of Charles Taylor’s “social imagination” concept. The Psalms, in particular, offer the best narratival guide for victims of trauma. Chapter three’s exploration of Calvin’s theology and exegesis of the Psalms is remarkable! It’s remarkable not just because it is written by a liberal theologian, but because it seeks to accurately apply his grid for reading the Psalms to real life counseling situations. I absolutely loved this chapter and found it immediately helpful in counseling situations.

Part two turns attention directly to the doctrine of the atonement and the crucifixion. Here she wrestles with how to handle the trauma of the cross and how to apply it in the situations of those who have been uniquely traumatized. Here she explores various models of the atonement and explains its varied meanings for those who meditate upon it. These various lenses on the work of Christ provide different therapeutic benefits. For some it is speaks of justice, for others of freedom, for still others forgiveness. This was a great exploration of the diverse applications and implications of Christ’s work. Her reluctance to accept penal substitutionary atonement is noted, as is hints of universalism, and yet much else that she says in this section resonates well with me as a conservative theologians and counselor. Her analysis of the Gospel of Mark and its “unresolved” ending opens up a unique avenue of encouragement as well.

Part three focuses specifically on the doctrine of grace and its relevance to healing trauma. Here Jones gives readers an interesting exploration of grace applied. Her own storytelling shows its mark here and she is good at it. The fictional tale she weaves in chapter seven puts skin and bone on grace applied post-trauma. She navigates God grace on human agency, sense of time, individuality, and vocation is insightful. As a conservative theologian I would have wanted more interplay with the call to glorify God in our lives; most of what Jones writes about centers on the self, where Scriptures is more keen to point us towards service to God, but there is still much here that is accurate and right and good for us to consider. The book ends with some beautiful meditations on specific losses, mournings, and the application of grace in such situations. Overall part three needs more development for me, but there are touch points here that provide insight and fresh encouragement for both those I seek to help and for my own heart.

I really enjoyed this book and was honestly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Clearly Jones and I would disagree on many important aspects of both doctrine and counseling, and yet I found much common ground in this work. Her exploration of grace is often too divorced from the gospel, and even her sense of the gospel is more broad than how I read the Scriptures. Nonetheless there is much here that a Biblical Counselor will find fresh and encouraging. Her use of Scriptural narratives in counseling, her insistence on the therapeutic value of theology, and her belief in the need of grace for healing can be affirmed and appreciated by those who are more conservative. In God’s common grace he has given of another great resource to draw from, and with discernment we even conservative counselors can find help here. Trauma and Grace offers a unique perspective on trauma counseling both because it applies Scripture and doctrine in fresh ways, and because it comes from a different perspective than our own.

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