Digging deep on the beat

confessionNeela Banerjee highlighted a fascinating evangelical phenomenon in a New York Times article. The article shows that Banerjee is really going out of her way to cover a wide variety of folks on her religion beat:

On a Web site called mysecret.tv, there is the writer who was molested years ago by her baby sitter and who still cannot forgive herself for failing to protect her younger siblings from the same abuse.

There is the happy father, businessman and churchgoer who is having a sexual relationship with another man in his church. There is the young woman who shot an abusive boyfriend when she was high on methamphetamine.

. . . About a month ago, LifeChurch, an evangelical network with nine locations and based in Edmond, Okla., set up mysecret.tv as a forum for people to confess anonymously on the Internet.

Drama! A nine-church network with an open, anonymous confessional booth. Private confession and absolution are common -- or at least offered -- in historic Christian churches. The manner in which they are administered varies, of course. In Roman Catholic churches, priests hand out tasks for reconciliation as part of the absolution. In Lutheran churches, there is no private booth and tasks are not assigned during the absolution.

Evangelical Protestant churches long ago shunned confession as part of a larger movement against creeds, documented confessions of faith and rigorously trained clergy. American Protestantism has favored personal piety, conversions that were demonstrated in improved personal behavior, testimonials, and solutions to temporal life problems. Could this be a move back toward a more sacramental view of absolution?:

The LifeChurch founder, the Rev. Craig Groeschel, said that after 16 years in the ministry he knew that the smiles and eager handshakes that greeted him each week often masked a lot of pain. But the accounts of anguish and guilt that have poured into mysecret.tv have stunned him, Mr. Groeschel said, and affirmed his belief in the need for confession.

"We confess to God for forgiveness but to each other for healing," Mr. Groeschel said. "Secrets isolate you, and keep you away from God, from those people closest to you."

. . . Absolution is not part of the bargain, just the beginning of release.

"There's no magic in confessing on a Web site," Mr. Groeschel said. "My biggest fear is that someone would think that and would go on with life. This is just Step 1."

Because the site is anonymous, the staff at LifeChurch cannot reach out to those who are in danger of harming themselves or others, Mr. Groeschel said.

Looks like it's a thoroughly Protestant understanding. I'm surprised that Groeschel is surprised by the sins and anguish that are being revealed. I'm sure that a pastor or priest who regularly hears confession would not be so shocked at what is afflicting the flock. In fact, I would think that confession-hearing pastors get an insight into the life of the congregation that non-confession-hearing pastors are oblivious to. I'm also interested to read that Groeschel believes healing comes from confessing to other people. Oprah would certainly agree.

An open, anonymous confession site has interesting implications. On the one hand, assuming that there is any truth to these claims, the pastor can better preach to the flock. On the other hand, given that these confessions are coming in from at least nine separate congregations as well as, well, the rest of the world, then how useful is it to hear the confession in terms of more focused preaching?

In historic Christian churches, confession is heard so that it may be absolved. The pastor or priest directly pronounces God's forgiveness for the penitent. Here, the confession is heard but the forgiveness is not directly applied. It's something the penitent must find himself by knowing about God's nature. I'm not arguing about which method is desired -- but just pointing out that there are monumental differences between historic confession and what's going on here.

LifeChurch, which is 10 years old, tries to draw back those who may have left the faith, Mr. Groeschel said. The church hews to a conservative theology on homosexuality and abortion.

Clarke Smith, the reader who pointed us to the article, thought that last line curious:

The pastor never refers to the church's positions on those issues but it felt like an attempt to marginalize the church (or at least categorize it) in the midst of what I thought was a very cool and thoughtful article otherwise.

I think the line serves a useful purpose. Many of the confessions are about the ultimate secret act -- abortion. And others are about homosexual behavior. Knowing that the church considers abortion and homosexual behavior sinful is not without merit.

I agree that the article is very cool and thoughtful. I think a further exploration of individual confession and absolution would be interesting as well.

Photo via Volubis on Flickr.

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