It's a sad thing when you hit middle age and your mind starts to go. I recently wrote the other GetReligionistas (should we have a kind of Grateful Dead-ish shirt saying that at CafePress?) asking if we had done a post yet about MSM coverage of the whole online confession trend. You know, the ongoing stream of stories like this column by Nancy McLaughlin in the Greensboro (N.C.) News-Record:
He hasn't paid taxes in 20 years, he tells IveScrewedUp.com.
"I keep moving and switching jobs to make it hard for the IRS to catch up with me," the writer, who claims to be 38 and from Florida, taps into the keyboard. "I want to fix this but every time I think about it the anxiety grips me so that it causes convulsions."
... Such anonymous soul-sharing, once reserved for the other side of a dark confessional booth, now unfolds daily in cyberspace. Visitors are encouraged to browse the Web sites -- even to comment on the misdeeds of complete strangers.
Some people of faith say they think cyberspace confession provides a needed outlet. Others scoff at the trend, saying it trivializes a long-held spiritual tradition.
Personally, I think it would be hard to think up something more "Protestant" than online confession. By that, I mean that most free-church Protestant flocks have every right to adapt to modern times in any way that they feel is consistent with their private or collective interpretations of Scripture (on the right) or evolving Scripture plus The New York Times' editorial pages (on the left).
And then there is the question of the fading practice of sacramental confesssion in the Church of Rome (I have never seen any statistics on confession in Eastern Orthodoxy), while evangelical Protestants are trying to come up with their own small-t traditions, whether they are online or in small groups or in the giant, massive, enormous world of pastoral counseling.
Hot story tip for reporters: Check out the ratio of counseling majors to M.Divs on the evangelical seminary campus nearest you. Are pastoral counselors the true priests of American Protestantism these days?
Anyway, I thought of all of this when I received an email this morning pointing me toward a very fine essay on this topic at First Things. Here is a sample:
So where, how, and when does forgiveness come into play, if at all? In what ways are these online confession sites or Oprah shows similar to what you might get from a traditional church's means of confession? Does the confessing individual forgive himself? Does the community forgive? Where's the absolution?
American society has placed confession and absolution on two wholly separate tracks. In the church, there is no separation: We confess that we are poor, miserable sinners who have failed to do good and have broken the Commandments. And God absolves us, forgives our sins on account of Jesus' sacrifice in our place.
... The culture views confession as psychologically therapeutic. By contrast, the "therapy" that the Church seeks to offer is the healing of the soul. That cannot happen with one's computer. If the thousands of confessions dealing with online pornography and adulterous email relationships are any indication, penitents might want to forgo online confession and simply get away from the computer altogether.
And the author of this essay? One Mollie Ziegler Hemingway.
Turns out, we have looked at this before. Check out the Divine Mrs. MZ's piece and let us know if you have seen any interesting variations on this theme in media near you. It ought to hit broadcast news pretty soon.