In a 1999 interview, Kathleen Norris introduced CT readers to the term “holy gossip,” which she defined as “things I need to know to be a member of the community.” Specifically writing to church communities, the best-selling author celebrated a sort of prying into others’ personal lives that we do in search of ways to offer help and support.
The word gossip, Norris pointed out, is an etymological cousin of godparent. In fact, for centuries, that was its primary meaning in the English language. Even as the term gradually came to refer to certain kinds of information sharing, it was still rooted in ideas of relational intimacy. People within our inner circles are probably more trustworthy stewards of personal details than people without. We tend to make exceptions to this rule—sharing much of ourselves with doctors, lawyers, and counselors, for instance—only when we believe someone’s professional incentives for guarding our secrets compensate for their relational distance from us.
Yet Norris highlighted something important that we have lost in urbanized Western society. There is nothing inherently bad when some parts of our private selves go public. To the contrary, being known is essential to human love and thriving. But our long project to construct autonomous, walled-off lives has left many of us with terribly poor instincts for how to be known. We’re prone to view acquaintances who have special knowledge about us as creepy, even offensive. We swing between bizarre extremes, opting for complete opaqueness in the real world and calculated over-sharing in the online world.
There are still communal cultures—and small towns and sprawling extended families—far less concerned about the lines between what’s my business and what’s everybody’s business. (I have experienced communities abroad where the pastor, noting someone’s Sunday morning absence for the third week in a row, marched the church to the wayward congregant’s front door for a bonus worship service.) But to be healthy, such spaces—and any place where we expect to be more fully known—must assure us that our ordinary human deeds have a half-life, that they will fade into memory over time rather than define us forever. Gossip, then, becomes sinful whenever it robs individuals of this vitally important mercy.
Therein lies the rub today: The pervasive impact of social media has shaken this confidence. As they say, nothing dies on the internet. So in almost every culture, discerning between holy gossip and harmful gossip requires an entirely new conversation. I hope this month’s cover story helps sharpen your discernment, and that in some way it helps our communities recover a measure of the trust they so desperately need.
Andy Olsen is print managing editor of Christianity Today. Follow him on Twitter @AndyROlsen.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.