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The OA: Near Death Experiences, Storytelling, Trauma, & Grace

The OA: Near Death Experiences, Storytelling, Trauma, & Grace

This essay was originally written for a class I took in seminary that put TV narrative storytelling in dialogue with theological concepts and ideas, taught by Kutter Callaway at Fuller Theological Seminary. I used Netflix’s “The OA” to talk about storytelling as it relates to emotional healing. I was frustrated by the fact that I did not have more psychological training to inform this piece, which I hope you’ll forgive. I’m currently reading Emotion and Narrative by Tilmann Habermas, and if you’re interested in hearing a scientist talk about near death experiences, check out this interesting video. Spoiler alert for season 1 of the OA. I’ll have to write something new about the phenomenal season 2, which is now available on Netflix.

Introduction

“Knowledge is a rumor until it lives in the body.” – The OA

The OA premiered as a Netflix Original series on December 16th 2016, with very little advance marketing. An inexplicit trailer appeared online 4 days prior to the show’s 8-episode first season becoming available for streaming, giving the show a mystique. It unfolded as a blend of sci-fi and supernatural mystery that explored themes like death, loss, resurrection, the afterlife, freedom/captivity, vision/blindness, angels, resurrection, identity, and community. But at its heart, the show told a story about a woman sharing her story, with an unlikely community, in the aftermath of extreme trauma. Setting these themes in the frame of an 8-part TV show offers a multi-tiered and potent lesson about the power of communication. We know that communication is more than simply the transfer of propositional facts between human beings,[1] but how is it that communication (particularly story-telling) has the power to heal people from severe emotional and psychological trauma, and what does Christian theology lend to this conversation? The powerful drama of The OA invites a rich conversation that inspires awe at the role of narrative communication in emotional healing—a process that is nothing short of Divine.

So What Happens?

The show starts as a woman in a tattered dress jumps off a bridge. She survives and is identified by her adoptive parents as their daughter, Prairie Johnson, who has been missing for 7 years. They are shocked to find that she is no longer blind, and that she no longer wishes to be called by her name “Prairie,” but rather to be referred to as “The OA.” When questioned about where she’s been, her responses are cryptic or incomprehensible, and her parents and the FBI agree she needs more time to emotionally process her experiences, whatever that may have been. They return to her hometown, she gets a lot of unwanted attention from neighbors and journalists.

After connecting with a volatile and violent 17-year-old boy named Steven, she forms a group with 3 other teen boys (Jesse, French, and Buck), and a teacher, Betty Broderick-Allen (“BBA.”) Initially unsure of the purpose of these group meetings, The OA begins confiding in them her life story, which begins the parallel flashback plot line of the show. She explains that she was born in Russia to a wealthy father. She had a premonition about a disastrous school bus accident, which then occurs, nearly killing her. She experienced a Near Death Experience (“NDE”) wherein she is given the choice by a celestial being to stay in an alternate reality (“heaven”?), or return to her life without sight. She chooses to return to life, but things become worse for her as she’s moved to America, hears of her father’s death, and is given up for adoption by her aunt. She exhibits what her adoptive parents consider paranoid fantasies and PTSD symptoms, so they have her put on psychiatric meds. After years of strange dreams and premonitions, Prairie leaves home with the belief that her biological father is somehow still alive, and in New York City.

She doesn’t return home. A NDE-obsessed scientist abducts her. He seeks to scientifically prove what happens after death, and keeps a handful of human specimens for study in the basement of his home. He repeatedly kills them, observes their experience, and revives them. But over time, members of the group (beginning with Prairie) begin receiving revelations. These revelations lead them to believe that (and here’s where it gets really interesting) they are angels, and that they will be able to channel a power to travel inter-dimensionally if the five of them perform a series of dance movements,[2] which gives them hope. However, the day the fifth (and final) movement is revealed to them, their captor removes Prairie/OA from her cell and leaves her drugged by the side of an unknown road. From there, we know she found her way to the bridge from which she jumped, and found herself back in her home town.

The OA has been teaching her new cohort of listener these five movements, in the belief that they will be able to perform them together, open a portal, and that she will be able to enter it and save her previous co-captives. As the season nears its close, the group is torn apart by parental authorities who learn of their strange, clandestine meetings, and shocking information is revealed to put Prairie’s whole story into question. We’re left wondering if we as viewers have put too much faith in our allegedly angelic narrator, who’s had a rough go of things and perhaps needed to build false narratives in order to heal from her ordeals. The polarizing final action of the season was open to multiple interpretations as the 5 friends employed their 5 movements to save their fellow classmates from mortal danger – but whether those results were natural or supernatural is still up for debate.

Is Heaven Really For Real? The Ultimate Metaphor

The subject of NDEs has gained popularity over the last decade. Books like Life After Life [3] and Proof of Heaven have topped the best seller list, taking advantage of people’s deep questions and fears associated with death. In the Evangelical community, books like Heaven is for Real and 90 Minutes in Heaven have captured the imaginations of a community seeking stories of particularly Jesus-flavored NDEs. Death is a frightening, inevitable prospect, and a force that ultimately thwarts our sense of control, so concrete facts about that “boundary crossing” can be comforting. But to use this essay to debate the meaning and veracity of these experiences from a biblical or theological perspective would not do justice to the world of The OA. What’s more important is a discussion of their metaphorical meaning within the show.

The co-creator and star of The OA, Brit Marling, recounts being inspired by a woman she met at a party who claimed to have such an NDE:

“I was really moved by the encounter, and also by her electric way of being. It just felt like she was humming at a different frequency from everybody else, like she had touched something at the other side, whatever that is, and she had come back, and was invested in life with a kind of passion and ferocity of someone who just knows more than everybody else.”[4]

Similarly however, the other co-creator of the show, Zal Batmanglij, talks about being fascinated by survivors of trauma, as a point of inspiration.

“…how do you survive trauma and then integrate after you’ve been traumatized or experienced a traumatic experience? How do you integrate back into society? That’s something that fascinated us in our own lives, to a lesser degree, and then also when you read about these horrific experiences that people like Elizabeth Smart experienced and the bravery that she had is just remarkable. When you see her interviewed or you read things that she’s written, you can tell that she has been somewhere and come back, and she can’t fully tell you where she’s been because you’re not ready for it, but you feel it.”[5]

In both instances, the creators speak of a personal human journey. A person going into darkness, surviving, and coming back changed in some fascinating or ineffable way. And what greater enemy or obstacle is there than death? This is very reminiscent of the “monomyth,” identified by Joseph Campbell, present in almost all storytelling; those who study NDEs have made the connection between the common sequence of NDE events and the hero’s journey.[6] Since the dawn of time and into the foreseeable future, we never seem to tire of this story. Of course theologians will be quick to see the connection to biblical faith here—Christianity’s own patterns of life/death/resurrection manifested fully in the passion of Jesus. C.S. Lewis connects this “hero’s journey” in ancient myth to Christian theology, saying:

“The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the dying god, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history... We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed.”[7][8]

“Myth-making” has not ceased. Rather it’s flourished, particularly as we live in the age of Hollywood, which turns out “spiritual sustenance” for modern people to no end.

In the case of The OA, there is a story within a story. Prairie/OA has gone into the unknown place, and returned different. She’s so different (signified in the fact that she is no longer blind) that everyone wants to know what has happened to her. Everybody wants to hear her story, but she won’t tell it for several reasons. She believes with good reason that it would sounds crazy, that people wouldn’t understand, and that it would frighten or upset people. She’s probably right, until she collects her group of five unlikely friends, each with their own personal hurdle. At one point, the high school principle observes them dining together and remarks, “I kind of pride myself on my high school anthropology, but I can’t imagine what the five of you have in common." What’s created a bond between them is sharing in The OA’s story; it’s a narrative that is full of trauma and violence, but also somehow presents an intoxicating sense of transcendence, and sharing in its meaning and mission. In the finale, the five are able to use what they’ve learned from her story to save lives, even though they feel unsure if it is true, showing that there is still value in the meaning of the story whether or not it is factually reliable.

Trauma and Storytelling

At this point, it may be helpful to introduce a definition of trauma:

“Psychological trauma is the unique individual experience of an event or enduring conditions, in which: The individual’s ability to integrate his/her emotional experience is overwhelmed, or the individual experiences (subjectively) a threat to life, bodily integrity, or sanity. Thus, a traumatic event or situation creates psychological trauma when it overwhelms the individual’s ability to cope, and leaves that person fearing death, annihilation, mutilation, or psychosis. The individual may feel emotionally, cognitively, and physically overwhelmed. The circumstances of the event commonly include abuse of power, betrayal of trust, entrapment, helplessness, pain, confusion, and/or loss.”[9]

The field of psychology has named storytelling as key to the survivor’s healing.[10] It’s very difficult and painful to recount these memories, and sometimes, fiction and myth works as a bridge for catharsis, as victims of trauma identify with characters and scenarios. This is the kind of information that brought doubt about Prairie’s story in The OA. Perhaps she was constructing an alternate reality, wherein fact and myth blended to protect her mind from the depths of tragedy she’d experienced. Richard Kearny discusses this concept in his essay Narrating Pain: The Power of Catharsis.

“Many modern psychologists have followed Levi-Strauss' claim that the cathartic function of myth is by no means confined to 'primitive' societies but continues to operate in the human psyche today. Examining the depth structures of mythic stories both Maria Louise Von Franz (The Uses of Enchantment) and Bruno Bettelheini (The Enchanted Fortress) make the point that folkloric tales can serve to heal deep psychic wounds by allowing trauma victims or other disturbed persons find some expression for inhibited feelings. Myths enable us to experience certain otherwise inexperienced experiences — that is, events that were too painful to be properly registered at the time but which can, apres coup, be allowed into expression indirectly, fictionally, 'as if’ they were happening.”[11]

When ready, psychologist help teach clients to tell their own story. Clients map out the plot points in their trauma story and are given the chance to relive it in a new way, where they realize they have survived and can put things into a new perspective. In psychotherapy, with safe pacing, patients are walked through “remembrance, reconstruction, and mourning” of the trauma narrative. [12]

Jesus and Trauma

But does Christianity have anything to say to the trauma survivor, or should they stay in the kingdom of psychology until they can safely enter the walls of a church? How many people in and around our churches have stories they won’t tell (like The OA) because of the idea that they will be perceived as crazy or that they will upset people or be misunderstood? Yet at the center of Christian faith is the God-man who was abandoned, tortured, and murdered. Many churches talk about his spilled blood every week, yet the church culture that follows can feel bleached and sanitized. How can we foster community environments of safety, like The OA found in her little midnight rendezvous? In our church communities, practices of personal storytelling appear in the small group settings, or in the worship service in the form of testimony. But even then, we are often trying to rush to the triumphal resurrection of Easter Sunday, when many are sitting in the pain of Black Friday, which results in projecting further alienation towards the person already living in psychological isolation. We can allow ourselves to be informed by the psychological understanding that recognizes there must be a period of mourning, before the victory and good news can be achieved. Our Bibles even teach us that lament precedes assurance of hope.

In a beautiful essay by theologian Serene Jones, she writes in response to a new awareness of persons with severe emotional wounds:

“…when one becomes aware of the extensive wounds that events of overwhelming violence can inflict on the souls, bodies, and psyches of people, one’s whole understanding of what human beings are and can do changes. It shifts how one thinks about language and silence, how one understands the workings of memory, how one assesses the instability of reason and the fragility of our capacity to will and to act, how one grapples with the fragmentation of perception and the quick disintegration of order, and how one conceives of imagination, recognizing that at any moment, haunting, shadowy scenes of violence can disrupt it, twist it, shut it down…If the church’s message about God’s love for the world is to be offered to those who suffer these wounds, then we are going to have to think anew about how we use language and how we put bodies in motion and employ imagery and sound. We are also going to have to grapple anew with the meaning of beliefs not only about grace, but also about such things as sin, redemption, hope, community, communion, violence, death, crucifixion, and resurrection.”

Jones came to this realization after a friend’s PTSD from severe childhood abuse was triggered by the description of the Eucharist. She describes the experience this way:

“It happens to me, sometimes. I am sitting there listening to the pastor, thinking about God and love and everything, and then suddenly I hear or see something and it’s like a button in me gets pushed. In an instant, I feel terrified, like I’m going to die or get hurt bad. My body tells me to run away, but instead, I just freeze and then numb-out. Last week it was the part about Jesus’ blood and body that did it. There was a flash in my head and I couldn’t tell the difference between me and Jesus, and then I saw blood everywhere, and broken body parts, and I got so afraid I just disappeared.”[13]

Obviously, not all people suffering with the wounds of trauma are triggered by crucifixion imagery as this woman was, but it’s a powerful expansion to the Christian imagination to learn that it could be. Jones puts forth the hope, that by embodying God’s love to such a person, and learning to be understanding in a specific way, the church could enter the space of the traumatized and be partners in healing. We must learn what it is to “Bear one another's burdens,” and not just certain kinds of burdens, so that we can “fulfill the law of Christ.”[14]

At this point, I’d like to make a quick caveat. To clarify, I don’t want to be perceived as creating distinct “us and them” categories, as if one could neatly draw a line between the traumatized and the un-traumatized. In a world sick with sin, we are all on a spectrum woundedness and healing, having faced great evils and tragedies, for which we could never have been fully prepared for.

In the example from Jones’ essay, her friend couldn’t help but overly identify emotionally/psychologically with Christ’s crucifixion in a way that she really felt the anxiety of being threatened by death. But theologically, Paul speaks of our faith spiritually uniting us with those tragic events—events that cumulate in resurrection and glorification: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:5.) The Christian imagination is one that finds healing as we bring out personal narratives in harmony with the story of redemptive history in general, and specifically, with the journey of Christ.

The message implicit in The OA is that the characters in the show are lacking narratives that give their lives meaning. For example, Prairie tells the troubled young Steven that his “invisible self” (his soul, mind) is undeveloped. Kevin is engaged in a non-committal, hyper-sexual relationship with a girl from his school who is honest that she just wants him for his body. He is obsessed with athletics and works out all the time, but it’s obvious that he is deeply unhappy, full of violence and anger. After his parents try to have him shipped off to a boot camp for troubled youths, Kevin encounters The OA, full of rage. He rails against her as she embraces him, but she doesn’t let go. He grabs a nearby pencil and stabs her in the leg, but she doesn’t let go. Then he cries. The liturgy of meeting nightly with the same group of people, learning the movements, and hearing a story about Prairie’s “hero’s journey” (a literal resurrection story no less) has begun to calibrate Steve to an awareness of what his truest desire is for: unconditional love. In this way, the world of The OA reflects the theory of James K.A. Smith in that that way to healing his “invisible self” is through the bodily practices that foster communal connection for God, self, and others.[15]

The Bible is not silent on the connection between storytelling and trauma; rather the Bible is a collection of stories written about trauma and for its victims. There’s the story of all creation, suffering the violence of the fall, and Israel suffering the violence of slavery, famine, and war. The Psalms and the prophets clearly provide a metanarrative for these events. Both stories reached their violent climax when God was murdered on a Roman cross, and their denouement unfolds in His resurrection. That story being told has and will continue to heal hearts in ages to come.


[1] Callaway, K., & Batali, D. (2016). Watching TV Religiously: Television and theology in dialogue (Engaging culture). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group. p 144

[2] The movements were designed by choreographer Ryan Heffington (known for his work on Sia’s music videos) and have been likened to interpretive dance, African rain dance, and martial arts.

[3] Raymond Moody’s book was first published in 1975 but has received a new wave of attention with a new edition that included new research and an introduction by Dr. Eben Alexander.

[4] Birnbaum, D. (2016, December 16). ‘The OA’ Creators Explain Netflix’s Mysterious New Drama (SPOILERS). Retrieved June 10, 2017, from http://variety.com/2016/tv/news/the-oa-producers-netflix-brit-marling-zal-batmanglij-1201942744/

[5] Birnbaum, D. (2016, December 16). ‘The OA’ Creators Explain Netflix’s Mysterious New Drama (SPOILERS). Retrieved June 10, 2017, from http://variety.com/2016/tv/news/the-oa-producers-netflix-brit-marling-zal-batmanglij-1201942744/. Italics mine.

[6] Lichfield, G. (2015, November 23). The Science of Near-Death Experiences. Retrieved June 10, 2017, from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/04/the-science-of-near-death-experiences/386231/

[7] Lewis, C. (2014). God in the dock : Essays on theology and ethics (W. Hooper, Ed.). Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

[8] Lewis here is also making the point about the historicity of the “myth” of “the dying God” incarnating in a certain time and place. The “hero’s journey,” which apparently abides in our cultural consciousness, made manifest.

[9] Giller, E. (n.d.). What Is Psychological Trauma? Retrieved June 10, 2017, from https://www.sidran.org/resources/for-survivors-and-loved-ones/what-is-psychological-trauma/

[10] Serani, D. (2014, January 04). Why Your Story Matters. Retrieved June 10, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/two-takes-depression/201401/why-your-story-matters

[11] Kearney, R. (2007). Narrating Pain: The Power of Catharsis. Paragraph30(1), 51-66.

[12] Serani, D. (2014, January 04). Why Your Story Matters. Retrieved June 10, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/two-takes-depression/201401/why-your-story-matters

[13] Jones, S. (1970, January 01). Yale University. Retrieved June 10, 2017, from http://reflections.yale.edu/article/violence-and-theology/trauma-and-grace

[14] Galatians 6:2

[15] Smith, J. (2016). You Are What You Love: The spiritual power of habit. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

Can I Hurt God's Feelings?

Can I Hurt God's Feelings?