Spirit and Trauma (4 of 6)

John’s account of Jesus’s death is the central biblical text under consideration in the book. As Rambo says, that account is the only one of the gospels with the unique feature of a soldier piercing the body of the crucified Jesus. That piercing produces the startling image of water and blood, where water is a symbol of life and Spirit. Water becomes an image of life and Spirit in the midst of death.

This notion of life in the middle of death is behind Rambo’s query in the book. In this chapter, she investigates Mary Magdalene and the beloved disciple in order to underline the beauty, complexity, and theology of those two unique witnesses and how their stories show the trauma remaining “after a radical ending.”

The radical endings associated with Jesus’s death don’t produce “a clear-cut ending” but “an unclear beginning” according to Rambo (107). This is a very important move in the book. Clear-cut is not a description of trauma or the lens of trauma that Rambo is suggesting to us. Rather, trauma, as an unending and complex experience, is full of unclearness and lack of clarity.

The author takes time to explain the various possibilities inside the experiences of Mary and the beloved disciple. Both of them experience Jesus around the death and rising in ways that make their testimonies problematic, inconsistent, and worth continued investigation, especially given how Bible scholars may move toward clarity and not ambiguity. People concerned with texts often say texts close and come to a close. In Rambo’s hands, the lens of trauma opens us to the possibilities. Opens us rather than closes our understandings of these texts, these persons, and these encounters with Jesus.

Rambo does a great job showing how “a series of turnings” in Mary’s encounters with Jesus might engender a healthy curiosity and a healthy ambiguity about her experience with Jesus. Mary and Jesus address each and don’t seem to recognize each other. Weird for people who are affectionate, no? Rambo discusses the familiarity and affection while pointing to the stiff titles which also exhibit distance. Again, this is worth questioning.

Rambo writes, “We typically associate witness with seeing and, subsequently, with testifying to w hat one has seen. This is not the case here” (89). Rather than seeing, there’s a fair amount of not seeing. The same is true with the beloved disciple, commonly known as John. He is a quieter figure, often not seen when folks like Peter are around since folks like Peter are often seen and heard first. Again, with Peter and John and Jesus and how they interact, Rambo offers an interesting way of seeing John as a witness where the beloved “disrupts this familiar reading, pointing us instead to a different conception of love” that remains (96).

It is pretty difficult to summarize Rambo’s excellent use of biblical, textual, and theological sources here. This chapter more than others needs to be read in order to appreciate her construction, her building, her nuance, and her contribution. I see her doing what one of her sections calls, “Handing Over,” even as she works to frame her lens of trauma and to provide for a way of seeing the familiar passages and persons in different ways.

Furthermore, the later part of the chapter is where she does the foundational work of her expressed pneumatology. Remember that Rambo is suggesting in the book that death and life are not marked episodes but are experiences that spill, experiences that remain rather than end. The Spirit (Pneuma) is at work in the unclear beginnings and in the unclear, unmarked spaces of death and life. Therefore, “The movements of Spirit are less definable and discernible,” says Rambo (107), a critical piece.

If you accept this less definable activity of the Spirit, then the middle space “makes more sense,” as much as the less discernible can make more sense. I find that this pneumatological claim is vital to the book. Seeing this, in the murkiness and in the less clear stories that the bible gives in the beloved disciple’s case and in Mary’s case, takes a faith to see what Rambo offers and, indeed, what scripture offers when thinking about trauma.

For Rambo it’s in this attempt to see and to re-vision where life is redefined. This is where the Spirit is working, in the re-definition, a fascinating piece. If the Spirit is at work in the re-definition, then the “language that emerges when we resist reading the death and resurrection” is more than our stubbornness or criticality; it is the work and operation of the Spirit. When it comes to trauma then, re-defining love and holding fast to the impulse to re-see is the very activity needed for God to remain active in the midst of trauma.