The movie Logan deserves re-watching. It displays the effects of aging on even the most evergreen and shiny realities. I recommend it. But this isn’t a movie review. As I watched Logan in the theater, Logan (i.e., Wolverine) delivered one line in the film that felt as if he had turned directly to me to say it.
Logan is a man who can heal from anything. The government put inside him an adamantium (metal) skeleton. He discovers the government has also created a clone daughter named Laura out of his DNA, and she has his same ability to heal, his killer instinct, and her own metal skeleton. Logan and Laura are both brutal, skillful killers. He is well-over 150 years old, and she is not older than 12.
In his ever-genuine-Hugh-Jackman way, Logan turns to Laura, with all the violence of a young Wolverine and all the innocence of a 12 year-old girl, and says:
“Don’t be who they made you.”
It was a sobering moment of clarity for me — time slowed down for me. In that moment, my entire seminary experience flashed before my eyes. At Westminster Theological Seminary, they called themselves “Machen’s Warrior Children,” and they wore it like a badge of pride. Faculty behind closed doors would refer to times when they colluded to get other faculty fired as “My tour in ‘Nam.” Students would get together at pubs and talk about how all the other seminaries were much worse, too soft, not insightful enough, not consistent enough, not vigilant enough.
I was new to the whole Presbyterian world. But after only a few months after I moved to Philadelphia to attend Westminster, it felt like home for one reason. My hypervigilant pursuit of truth was rewarded. My “black and white” conception of the world was applauded. Everyone was put in categories of “in” and “out.” If you fell in line, and paid allegiance to the right people, you were treated as family. If not, you were exiled, and treated as untrustworthy. I don’t know if all Presbyterian communities are like this, or if all Reformed communities are like this. But this was my experience of Presbyterianism in Philadelphia. It was political to the core. And the political players at Westminster were looking for soldiers to fight in their war. Against whom? Everyone else.
It was at Westminster that I realized I had experienced trauma in my own childhood. But it wasn’t until I left that I realized how that had changed my time there. Bessel van der Kolk, a trauma theorist, explains:
“Some traumatized people remain preoccupied with the trauma at the expense of other life experiences and continue to re-create it in some form for themselves or for others. War veterans may enlist as mercenaries, victims of incest may become prostitutes, and victims of childhood physical abuse seemingly provoke subsequent abuse in foster families or become self-mutilators. Still others identify with the aggressor and do to others what was done to them.”
One researcher asks why victims don’t simply break the traumatic cycle by leaving. He comments: “they are addicted to each other and to abuse. The system, the interaction, the relation takes hold; the individuals are as powerless as junkies.” I have no doubt become addicted to Reformed evangelicalism. This blog isn’t an indictment of “them.” It’s a moment of honesty for me. The more honest I have been about what I really think, the more pushback I have received from people who could take away what little platform I have here. The time has come for me to place that fear aside, and simply say what needs to be said.
My Personhood and Evangelicalism
In the same way that emotionally abused women are attracted to abusive men when they become older (re-creating the circumstances of their own abuse), so also abused boys can be attracted to militant contexts that recreate their own emotional abuse. I think that Reformed and evangelical communities can serve as prime outposts signaling for the abused to come, singing a siren song of traumatic repetition.
As a man seeking full-time, professional employment within evangelicalism, I am judged as arrogant and warmongering for my strengths and as half-human and emotionally impotent for my weaknesses. I feel like Laura in many ways — with all the anger and violence of a grown man, with an immature innocence inside that needs protecting and to be told “You’re going to be okay.” And that swirl of warmongering and emotional impotence is characterized by the trauma of my childhood. But it was exacerbated, codified, and formalized by my experience at Westminster — and quite honestly, by my experience in evangelicalism thereafter.
In Logan, he has stopped being able to heal, because his metal skeleton had become so toxic to him. The very thing that made him most dangerous and most threating — the center of his “brand” and “platform” — was toxic to him. There is something about this community that is toxic to me. Reformed evangelicalism has done a lot for me, but much of it has been for the worse.
The longer I remain in this community, the longer I feel like I’m losing touch with the Paul who existed before he was militarized — before he was conscripted into Machen’s Army. I haven’t had any formal association with Westminster for several years now. And yet, I still have that killer instinct. I was still trained for 4 years to think of everyone else as stupid. Everyone else’s view on counseling was unbiblical, but we had God’s view. Everyone else’s view on God’s will was unbiblical, but we had God’s view. Everyone else’s view on evil and salvation was illogical, but we had the most consistent view.
My Inferiorities and Evangelicalism
If only I had known how I was using (and being used) by that system, I would have left — had I the courage along with the insight. If only I had known that I was compensating for so much childhood hurt that was only being magnified and worsened, I would have left. If only I had known that the system at Westminster chews people up and spits them out every three years, I would have left. I know of no other seminary with such a trail of bodies, with most of its alumni emotionally damaged from their experience there, still acting out their warrior impulses which they learned — still fighting, still poisoned by their weaponized theological skeletons.
Is There A Place for The Traumatized?
And I’m not sure how to shed this feeling. I’m not sure how to deescalate this trauma. But currently, and I say this in spite of all the books that have been written for “survivors” and “healing” by evangelicals, there is no place for corporate or public healing of trauma in evangelicalism. For all our rhetoric of “redemption” and “reconciliation,” this is the very last place in the world I would ever tell a traumatized person to go. That’s not to say someone can’t be helped here by accident. But we haven’t figured out how to stop hurting people here. And if you’re already here, as a member, and you find your home here, I can only invite you to begin your journey with me:
“Don’t be what they made you.”
The “you” beneath your in-group/out-group instincts is better. We don’t need to conceive of ourselves in terms of “tribes.” And we don’t need to conceive of our world in terms of the lines drawn by 10 major figures who sell all the books. We can figure out a way to heal with God (and grow) on our own terms. And we are probably better off doing that in a world that won’t require us to re-enact our trauma for the sake of its “wartime mindset.” We need peacetime healers for our trauma, not soldiers who took a spiritual CPR course.
In my experience, the Reformed evangelical world wants our trauma when it has battles to fight, and wants us to put the monster back in the closet on Sunday morning. I simply don’t believe there is space for a traumatized person to be their full selves in this community.
God, light the way to you that is beyond and outside of a world that would only reward us for our symptoms of victimhood. Have mercy on us to do what we must for the sake of our own faith, tribes be damned.
 Bessel A. van der Kolk, “The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma,” Psychiatric Clinics of North America 12, no. 2 (1989): 398 [389-411].
 G. M. Erschak “The Escalation and Maintenance of Spouse Abuse: A Cybernetic Model,” Victimology 9 (1984): 247-253.