The Culture Keeps the Score

Replacing Sin with Trauma in Christian Proclamation

At the climax of the 1999 action film The Matrix, the hacker protagonist Neo glimpses for the first time the true nature of the virtual world around him. Lines of glowing green computer code suffuse and constitute everything in sight, spelling out the internal logic of his surrounding landscape. In that moment of revelation, Neo apprehends how his entire social imaginary operates according to certain rules and languages once opaque to him.

In 2023, reading for the first time psychotherapist Bessel van der Kolk’s 2014 bestseller, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, feels rather like glimpsing the Matrix’s inner workings. A popularization of an existing body of academic work, The Body Keeps the Score is the ur-text of ideas about human memory, identity, and experience that enjoy outsize cultural influence. Those who haven’t cracked the cover of the thick volume will still recognize its motifs: the importance of a sense of safety to psychological health, the possibility of interpreting one’s past experiences through the lens of trauma, the somatic effects of abuse that exceed cognitive recall, and so forth.

For van der Kolk and those who have followed him, trauma is everywhere, and so too is the need for therapeutic interventions. “We are on the verge of becoming a trauma-conscious society,” van der Kolk writes in the book’s concluding pages.1 Indeed, his remark seems positively prescient almost a decade after the volume’s publication. “Trauma-informed” programs, initiatives, credentials, and other social artifacts have proliferated across the culture, all testifying to the pervasive influence of van der Kolk’s ideas.2

They have also proliferated throughout the church and parachurch, a development that should surprise no one. In the wake of the 2002 bombshell reports by the Boston Globe chronicling sexual abuse across Catholic parishes, follow-up investigations have revealed failures by other denominations to properly address sexual abuse and misconduct.3 And that’s not even mentioning the problems with pastoral counseling about these issues: Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles once published a notorious “worksheet” asking victims of child sexual abuse to consider their own culpability for the crime.4

From this perspective, van der Kolk’s trauma-centric paradigm is a godsend. It offers a way of reckoning with the lingering impact of sexual harassment, assault, and other offenses, and of speaking truthfully about the fact that pain can persist for years afterward. Most proponents of bringing the framework of “trauma” into the church—many of whom follow van der Kolk’s model wholesale, or at least pay lip service to his work—are simply motivated by a desire to show support to those who have suffered, and to prevent further evils.

But that does not mean, of course, that these ideas as such are immune from evaluation and critique. Given the sensitivity of the subject matter, many of these ideas have largely sidestepped careful theological scrutiny—an oversight perhaps attributable to the sharp disciplinary division between “systematic theology” and “pastoral theology” that prevails in many seminaries.5

In the coming years, that should change. The ideas and assumptions that underpin van der Kolk’s model of trauma should increasingly be engaged from a distinctively Christian perspective, one that does not simply apply a thin layer of “Christianese” but confronts the substance directly.

At bottom, the language of trauma cannot be allowed to displace the church’s own distinctive speech, as if concepts like “sin” have become somehow inadequate to name the reality of destructive evil. Some Christians have called explicitly for such a displacement, and others have shifted their rhetorical emphases more subtly. They may do so with the best of intentions. But that path is a dangerous one nonetheless.

This is because, like all such models across time, van der Kolk’s vision of psychic wellness is not a theologically neutral conception. Rather, the currently dominant way of speaking about “trauma” encodes a set of ideas about human beings that should give Christians serious pause. Specifically, they are ideas that tend to undercut the possibility of traditional Christian proclamation regarding sin and repentance, and that risk devaluing the Christian eschatological hope.

Cultures Define Mental Health

Historically, the concept of mental health has proven conceptually fraught in ways that questions of physical health have not. For instance, a man bleeding from a severed artery will clearly die unless the flow is stanched. But the same isn’t clearly true of what modern culture would describe as “mental disturbances.” A woman experiencing strange visions may be received as a seeress and revered, with her impressions viewed as divine communications, or she may be prescribed antipsychotic medications. Or, put more simply: if she were around today, the ancient Oracle at Delphi would’ve been given Seroquel and sent off to therapy. Where “mental unwellness” is concerned, the mode of response to the psychic phenomena at issue is closely bound up with the governing assumptions of the surrounding culture—a theme powerfully shown by Michel Foucault in his famous study Madness and Civilization.

In the premodern and early-medieval periods, today’s “mentally unwell” were often taken to be visionaries, individuals chosen by the spirits to enjoy unique access to the ever-present divine realities around them.6 The figure of “the fool,” or the court jester, whose socially deviant behaviors were interpreted as manifestations of a deeper esoteric truth, epitomized this unique insight.7 Later eras, for their part, reached different conclusions. Some treated mental unwellness as a matter of laziness and moral deficiency, to be cured through confinement, or as a kind of regression to a primitive animal state.8 Others chalked unwellness up to imbalances in biological humors—supposedly, fluid substances mediating the body’s psychological sensibilities.9

All of this is interesting enough in its own right. But what makes Foucault’s analysis truly challenging is its unwillingness to trace a conventional narrative of intellectual progress. Aristotle famously wrote that all human action occurs for the sake of some end or other—hence the ever-present goal-orientedness, or teleological dimension, of action.10 So, naturally, one can say that the history of psychological care is the history of human actions designed to restore or promote mental health. But as Foucault’s work shows, the difficulty that emerges from the history of mental healthcare is conceptual slippage at both ends of this formulation. The account that emerges from the historical record is not simply the story of primitive treatment methods growing ever more enlightened—such as the fact that, in modern surgery, blood vessels are often now tied off rather than crudely cauterized. Rather, it is a story riven with pervasive disagreement about what constitutes “mental health” in the first place. Not only the treatment methods, but the end goal as such, are in flux.

Consider again Foucault’s examples. For ancient people, “wellness” might be conceived as access to and participation in the mythopoetically Real, such that those labeled “fools” are in fact the most highly favored souls of all. For the early moralists who first pursued the confinement of the mentally disturbed, “wellness” was a function of disciplined work and social propriety. For a subsequent generation, “wellness” was an exercise of the unique capacities distinctive to human beings, over against the brutish animal kingdom. And for early modern scientists, “wellness” was a proper balancing of humors. In short, a radically different understanding of wellness as such emerges within each world picture, resulting in correspondingly different modes of treatment.

It can be hard to confront the historical contingency of “mental health” as a concept. Most people today are fully steeped in the Humean notion that a vast gulf separates “facts” from “values”—with the former the domain of the “objective” sciences, and the latter the domain of the “subjective” humanities. While historically this split is fairly novel, the perceived divide has cast a powerful spell over mass culture. Then, there are the material factors: every year, billions of dollars flow into a credentialing ecosystem dedicated to reproducing the dominant metaphysical consensus, and into a pharmaceutical industry marketing cutting-edge drugs to individuals in pain.11 And of course, many contemporary people have personally experienced psychological relief from treatment in accordance with today’s best practices. But none of this changes the fact that, purely as a matter of intellectual history, the story of psychology is not a plainly linear trajectory from ignorance to enlightenment.

To be sure, some of Foucault’s heirs have pressed his skeptical method toward a more thoroughgoing skepticism of all psychological healthcare as such.12 (After all, for critics who make this argument, who’s to say that a man designated “paranoid-schizophrenic” isn’t, from a different point of view, an unappreciated visionary?) Nothing here should be taken as an endorsement of that approach; acknowledging that conceptions of mental health inevitably reflect dominant intellectual paradigms doesn’t preclude the conclusion that some paradigms might track reality better than others.

Instead, the central point is this: to the extent the Church today speaks of wellness, mental or otherwise, it always does so within its own paradigm—its own tradition—and through the use of its own concepts.13 Those concepts include hoary old words like sin—understood as individual guilt, yes, but guilt grounded in acts that inflict real, ontological damage to others and to the world. And that tradition also includes practices like confession and absolution and the preaching of the Law. Juxtaposed against the dominant contemporary account of wellness, those concepts and practices are positively countercultural.

Mental Health and Safety

What, for van der Kolk, is “mental health” in the first place? His view only becomes truly clear in the closing pages of The Body Keeps the Score: “More than anything else, being able to feel safe with other people defines mental health[.]”14 That definition is clear enough, and this language of safety has today become a fixture of popular discourse (as well as of controversies about free speech and its limits).15

Feelings of safety are no doubt important. But the identification of such feelings with mental health as such is quite the philosophical leap. No real argument is advanced for van der Kolk’s claim—and from a certain point of view, perhaps it is pointless to expect a sustained defense. His definition is, after all, an axiom of his system.

One need not accept that axiom as gospel, though. Indeed, good anthropological evidence tends to undermine its supposed universality.

In his remarkable and genre-defying book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, philosopher Jonathan Lear reflects at length on the Crow Nation of the upper Midwest and their struggle with the encroaching forces of modernity. That struggle is epitomized, for Lear, by the breakdown of the initiation rituals that undergirded Crow culture.

For centuries, a young Crow man came of age through the practice of “counting coups”—striking enemies with his hand rather than his weapon in the midst of battle, as a demonstration of sheer pluck and fearlessness.16 Because conflict with rival tribal groups like the Lakota Sioux was endemic, battles were sufficiently predictable to serve as the requisite initiation rites for generations of young men.17 This meant that a young Crow boy inevitably grew up in the shadow of life-endangering struggle with the Lakota: like all boys, he would at some point be faced with the responsibility of “crossing over” into manhood and would need to do so against the backdrop of potential loss of life.

As Lear recounts, the spread of Western culture into the American heartland put an end to this historic Crow initiation practice.18 The centralization of political authority under American governance stopped the perennial skirmishing between the Crow and Lakota, and so deprived young Crow men of any opportunity to “count coups” and become men.19 Through this process, American settlers—for the most part unconsciously—annulled the entire traditional and ritual structure through which the Crow had navigated the world.20 (If the significance of this shift is in any way unclear, just consider the following: for a Christian belonging to a sacramental tradition, how would one perform a baptism on a planet where liquid water had ceased to exist?)

Lear is a trained psychoanalyst, and much of his volume is dedicated to tracing the devastating psychological effect of these changes on the surviving Crow people. In the words of Crow chief Plenty Coups, speaking of the period after the Crow were confined to a reservation, “the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere.”21

From a mental-health standpoint, the story of the Crow people is a particularly interesting case. It is objectively true to say that Crow young people were safer, or able to feel safer, in the wake of the Americans’ coming. In the absence of constant conflict with the Lakota, Crow boys could pass through adolescence and attain to (biological) manhood without ever being put at risk of life and limb. They could grow up in the knowledge that no feats of counting coup would be expected of them. And yet the collapse of traditional Crow society, with all its attendant risks, was felt as a source of severe psychic distress among the Crow people themselves.

Van der Kolk’s conception of mental health cannot make much sense of the Crow experience. That Crow experience was once characterized by a strong sense of the ubiquity of risk, rather than its absence, and the breakdown of this experience was itself a cause of mental distress. Van der Kolk’s insistence on the importance of felt safety has no real applicability here, since the empirical evidence tips in precisely the opposite direction.

In short, the case of the Crow—and no doubt others could be brought forward—demonstrates that van der Kolk’s model of mental health is not as timeless as it may seem. Like the prior understandings of psychological wellness that Foucault surveyed, it too is a product of its time—less a universal truth than a premise held within a particular historical context and set of assumptions.

Van der Kolk’s concept of “mental health,” however, is only one side of the coin. From a therapeutic perspective, one must ask not only how “mental health” is defined, but how it is secured. And for van der Kolk, improving mental health is directly bound up with managing and processing trauma.

But what is “trauma” anyway? Engaging the question of method would be far easier if the definition of the problem were clear, but as Julia Yost has pointed out in First Things, van der Kolk never actually bothers to narrow the term.22 The closest thing to a definition appears early on when van der Kolk writes that “[t]rauma, by definition, is unbearable and intolerable.”23 Some potentially traumatic experiences seem to include “relentless wars, countless disasters (both natural and man-made), and the violence and betrayal in our own lives.”24 This is a philosophical muddle: there is an obvious and marked difference between (on the one hand) the specificity of phenomena like wars and (on the other hand) the semantic range of a concept like “betrayal in our own lives.”

In van der Kolk’s paradigm, the effects of traumatic experiences lie latent within the body and can surge to the surface under the right conditions. As van der Kolk puts it, “[l]ong after a traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones. This precipitates unpleasant emotions, intense physical sensations, and impulsive and aggressive actions. These posttraumatic reactions feel incomprehensible and overwhelming.”25 In the context of van der Kolk’s work with veterans suffering from posttraumatic stress disorders—many brought on by horrific experiences during the Vietnam War—the theory fits the data.

Far less clear, however, is whether this same model of trauma-reaction naturally correlates with the vaguer ideas of trauma (“betrayal”) embedded in the theory. It seems fair enough to say that, taken as a whole, van der Kolk’s model of trauma processing centers on mitigating a range of amorphously conceived threats to the subject’s sense of safety—threats that leave lasting scars that never truly heal.

This is a historically contingent approach to mental wellness, but so are all such approaches. The relevant question is whether it is an approach worth adopting, at least provisionally. So if the foregoing account is correct, what implications might van der Kolk’s paradigm have for the churches into which it has been introduced?

Sinner or Sufferer of Trauma?

Two consequences, at least, seem likely to follow from uncritically importing van der Kolk’s framework into Christian contexts: a radical critique of the traditional Christian language of sin, and a downplaying of the Christian hope of final redemption.

To speak from within just one branch of the Christian tradition: it is a mainstay of Lutheran pastoral theology that the function of Christian preaching is to “kill and make alive,” where the preaching of the Law “kills,” and the preaching of the Gospel “makes alive.”26 The properly delivered Lutheran sermon forces its hearers into a stark confrontation with the reality of one’s sinful condition. It is a confrontation intended to shatter one’s sense of self-righteousness, one that seeks to deter the Christian from looking inside himself and taking confidence in his own good works.27he preacher is cursed who knows that his congregation needs an application of the Law, yet for a piece of bread he keeps silent. Woe to everyone who pampers secure sinners with soft pillows and cushions! These preachers lull to sleep with the Gospel those who ought to be awakened from their sleep by the Law.”).]

To be sure, awareness of the harsh reality of sin is not a narrowly Lutheran emphasis: the Reformed tradition has written profusely regarding the sovereignty and holiness of God in the face of human sin, and the free-will Baptist tradition has stressed the sheer urgency of conversion. But for Lutherans, the severity of the Law constitutes an ineradicable dimension of preaching as such. The upshot of this commitment is that when the Law is preached, one should not be left feeling safe, in the sense of existential security. Rather, the Christian should be startled into an awareness of their inability to merit salvation on his own terms.

This aspect of Lutheran preaching—and any other preaching that proceeds from a similar standpoint—is decidedly hard to square with van der Kolk’s account of mental health as “felt safety.” Is hearing the preaching of the Law bad for one’s mental health? Is it traumatic in itself? Why shouldn’t pastors just preach the Gospel alone, and avoid the possibility that anyone is pressed into an “unbearable” awareness of their need for salvation?

Numerous Christian writers have invoked theories of trauma as precisely the catalyst for doctrinal reinventions along these lines. Examples are legion, but a few will suffice to demonstrate the point. In a Patheos article calling for “a trauma-informed approach to sin,” Alex Camire wonders “[w]hat if, instead of looking at sin as the root cause of everything wrong in a person’s life, we looked at it as the symptom of a much deeper problem? . . . We cannot treat sin as strictly a spiritual issue or something that we only deal with through salvation or some other religious means.”28 Here, the language of sin is altogether upstaged by a trauma-based framework, with “religious means” of redemption juxtaposed (unfavorably) against secular therapeutic interventions. It is hard to see a role for the preaching of the Law in such a theology.

Significantly, doctrinal proposals along these lines are not limited to self-identified progressives. In a 2022 article, Samuel Youngs—the Dean of Humanities and Christian Studies at the ostensibly conservative Bryan College—argues that “the old ways of construing certain doctrines no longer land in the world: if not reimagined, they may promote harm, irrelevance, or both. . . . The Augustinian legacy is mixed, and it can be reasonably linked to diverse instances of theologized trauma.”29 He muses that “[h]amartiology”—that is, the doctrine of sin— “can and should be reimagined afresh in each era of Christian confession. In our own time and place, what might be involved in a trauma-informed doctrine of sin? How might hamartiology be a help to trauma recovery rather than a petri dish for trauma’s growth?”30 As above, the principles of a van der Kolkian “trauma” framework are here taken for granted, with Christian doctrinal formulations treated as somehow more malleable or contingent than the newer psychological terms.

It is reasonable to conclude that traditional Christian warnings against the ubiquity and horror of sin are unlikely to survive a “trauma-based” reconfiguration. Rather, they will inevitably be downplayed or eliminated, in order to grant pride of philosophical place to the trauma paradigm.

The effects of such a reconfiguration, however, go well beyond the revision of traditional speech about “sin.” They extend even to an alternate understanding of the telos, or final end, towards which the Christian tradition ultimately points. In the pages of the influential mainline magazine The Christian Century, Boston University theology professor (and “Chaplaincy Innovation Lab” senior advisor) Shelly Rambo is admirably clear on the matter:

The experience of trauma dismantles notions of theology as a fixer, a provider of solutions. A move to “fix” things may interfere rather than assist in the process of healing. Theologians who have learned from trauma theory emphasize the importance of accompaniment, truth-telling, and wound tending. Acts of witness and testimony acknowledge the reality of traumatic experiences that can never be fully brought to the surface of consciousness. This posture is not focused confidently on conveying theological or moral certainty. Instead, its confidence is in the healing power of giving a witness to suffering.31

There is a striking parallel here to the “emergent church” movement of the early 2000s. Many of the luminaries of that movement, such as postmodern theologian Peter Rollins, argued that the Christian faith must abandon its supposed idolatry of the intellect and embrace doubt and uncertainty.32 So too, today’s defenders of a “theology of trauma” call for moving beyond talk of “healing,” in favor of a language of ongoing, shared suffering. In both cases, the traditional promises of the Christian walk—a dawning apprehension of divine truths that will eventually culminate in the beatific vision, and a beginning of healing that will eventually culminate in the final restoration—are denied in favor of their negations. Transcendence, and a final victory over the world-destroying evil that is sin, are ruled out a priori.

Of course, the problem with such moves is that they leave those who make them with virtually no reason to self-identify as Christian at all. If the Christian walk is literally no different than the experience of secularity, why not save time and ditch the label altogether? (There’s a reason that not much is heard about the “emergent church” anymore.33) Either Christ—and His people—are raised, or the whole thing is in vain.

Timeless Truth

In the end, proponents of “trauma-based” reinterpretations of traditional theology cannot properly use van der Kolk’s work as a distinctively “scientific” theoretical bludgeon. This approach to mental health is every bit as history-bound as any other, and no doubt will be someday superseded. There is no need today for the church to uncritically adopt this paradigm—and its conceptual baggage—over against traditional Christian language about the damage wrought by sin.

There is plenty of room to work within that traditional language. Van der Kolk’s research, and the work of other trauma specialists, shows that the evil that people do against one another, along with the sheer unpredictable tragedies of life, can leave lingering effects. To the extent the Church has not previously spoken about those lingering effects, it ought to be frank about them. The world, after all, is seared by pain and tragedy.

But that acknowledgment must always be set alongside the promise of Revelation 21:4, that in the End, “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” The Christian community can do no less than proclaim that truth. To the extent it does not, it ceases to be Christian.

*Photo Credit: Unsplash

Show 33 footnotes
  1. Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Viking, 2014), 349.
  2. See Eleanor Cummins, “The Self-Help That No One Needs Right Now,” The Atlantic (October 18, 2021), (tracing the far-reaching impact of van der Kolk’s ideas).
  3. See, e.g., David Crary, “3 of U.S.’s Biggest Denominations in Turmoil Over Sex Abuse, LGBT Policy,” Associated Press (March 3, 2019),
  4. See Libby Anne, “IBLP Worksheet; 4-Year-Old Abuse Victim ‘Equally Guilty,’” Patheos (August 24, 2016),
  5. Christian Scharen and Sharon L. Miller, “Making Theology Matter: Field Education as the Practical-Prophetic Heart of Effective Ministry Preparation,” Auburn Studies (Fall 2018), available at, 13–14.
  6. Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (New York: Vintage, 1969), 21–23.
  7. Foucault, Madness and Civilization, 22.
  8. Foucault, Madness and Civilization, 55–58, 76–78.
  9. Foucault, Madness and Civilization, 117–19.
  10. Aristotle, Physics II.8 (199a9–199a19).
  11. See, e.g., Jeffrey Pfeffer and Leanne Williams, “Mental Health in the Workplace: The Coming Revolution,” McKinsey Quarterly (December 8, 2020), (examining the economics of mental health care).
  12. The canonical text arguing for this position is Thomas S. Szasz, The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct (New York: Harper & Row, 1974).
  13. This, of course, assumes that the Christian tradition is in fact an organic unity with a shared conceptual grammar—an assumption which Christians, if they would consider themselves “orthodox,” cannot afford to reject.
  14. Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, 354.
  15. See, e.g., Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin Press, 2018), 24–31 (examining this phenomenon).
  16. Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 10–19.
  17. Lear, Radical Hope, 11–16.
  18. Lear, Radical Hope, 15–16.
  19. Lear, Radical Hope, 26–33.
  20. Lear, Radical Hope, 31–33.
  21. Lear, Radical Hope, 2.
  22. Julia Yost, “By Our Wounds We Are Healed,” First Things (October 2021),
  23. Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, 1.
  24. Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, 1.
  25. Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, 2.
  26. See, e.g., Robert Kolb, “Luther’s Hermeneutics of Distinctions: Law and Gospel, Two Kinds of Righteousness, Two Realms, Freedom and Bondage,” in The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology, eds. Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, and L’ubomír Batka (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 170–73 (expounding this theme).
  27. See C.F.W. Walther, Law and Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible—A Reader’s Edition (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2010) (“[T
  28. Alex Camire, “A Trauma-Informed Approach to Sin,” Patheos (June 23, 2017),
  29. Samuel J. Youngs, “Ways to Sin: Thinking About Hamartiology and Trauma with Moltmann,” The Other Journal (January 2022),
  30. Youngs, “Ways to Sin.”
  31. Shelly Rambo, “How Christian Theology and Practice Are Being Shaped By Trauma Studies,” The Christian Century (November 1, 2019),
  32. See Peter Rollins, The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction (New York: Howard Books, 2012), 4 (“What if, instead of being the solution (i.e., the one who offers a way for us to gain certainty and satisfaction) (Christ) actually confronts us as a problem, a problem that places every attempt to find a solution for these ailments into question?”).
  33. See C. Michael Patton, “What Do You Think Happened to the Emerging Church?,” Credo House (July 9, 2015), (“The Emerging church, it seemed, refused to really stand up for anything traditionally Protestant. It eventually ran out of Protestant fuel. It called on everyone to leave their theological base and fly with them.”).
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John Ehrett

John Ehrett is an attorney and writer in Washington, D.C., where he lives with his wife and son. His work has previously appeared in American Affairs, Public Discourse, and the Claremont Review of Books, among other venues.