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Unspeakable: Preaching and Trauma-Informed Theology

Sarah Travis

Review by Matt Allen, Blackburn Centre Lead Tutor, Emmanuel Theological College

Cascade Books, 2021, £19.00

<strong><em>Unspeakable: Preaching and Trauma-Informed Theology</em></strong>

Sarah Travis’s book is both useful and timely. It adds to the growing number of resources which equip ministers to grow in their understanding of the impact of trauma on the lives of survivors and victims.


In her introduction, Travis explains how her engagement with Shelly Rambo’s work on Hurricane Katrina and its effects create ‘a desire to know more about how to preach in the face of trauma and the unspeakable events that destroy homes and lives’. Increasing awareness of the effects of traumatic events and how commonly people are affected by trauma in their lives invites preachers to consider this area of human experience. In Unspeakable, Travis explores how preachers can craft sermons which do not retraumatize trauma survivors, sermons which offer a theology of the cross that does not glorify violence.


There is much in this book including: an introduction to trauma and its effects and an exploration of the theological implications of trauma, particularly how to preach the gospel in ways which speak credibly given the impact of trauma. Later chapters address how preachers might prepare and deliver sermons which ‘aim to transform the pain and grief of trauma into something resembling new life’ and they invite consideration of important questions of communal identity and biblical interpretation.


It is, unashamedly, a book shaped by a contextual theology which begins in experience. Where preaching as a response to human suffering, points to the hope which is found by proclaiming the actions of God which speak into this experience. For preachers from some church traditions this may appear upside-down. However, the component parts to what Travis proposes are relevant across different theologies. In particular, she notes the following: the importance of acknowledging physicality, as trauma is experienced bodily; the acknowledgment of trauma narratives which resist simple thinking about grace and healing; and highlighting to preachers that their task is always to some extent pastoral as preaching occurs within communities who gather to meet with God together to be built up as a body.


Books on preaching which highlight the vital participation and meaning-creation of the congregation in the preaching event are useful for preachers working across a breadth of contexts and traditions. This is such a book. It is a practical and thoughtfully prepared resource for preachers who want to consider their approach to scripture, sermon preparation, and preaching among hearers mindful of the far-reaching impact of trauma and the deeper riches of grace that might speak into what is unspeakable.

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