Thursday, August 22, 2013

Book Review -- "Grapevine: The Spirituality of Gossip"

Jerry Camery-Hoggat says, “Gossip plays an important role in our ongoing effort to come to terms with the challenges of life; it’s how we find our way, and sometimes how we lose it.”[1] Camery-Hoggatt’s book might belong better in the section about “Ambiguity and Ambivalence” above. He clearly likes gossip and wants to discuss the ways that it contributes to Christian community. But it is not the malicious kind of gossip that Camery-Hoggatt extols. Rather, it is what we might call “small talk.” “This book is about the role the daily talk plays in the ways we form our ideas about the world, about ourselves, and about God. Gossip comes and goes, but before it leaves it can permanently mark our spiritual lives–for good or for ill.”[2]
Camery-Hoggatt believes that our lives are made up of little stories.
There’s a lot of anxious talk these days about the decline of the meta-narratives in our culture. Without the grand stories, so the argument goes, we don’t know who we are. In this book I offer another view, one that is both more hopeful and more cautionary. Here I am concerned about the micro-narratives that are packaged in the daily conversations around the water cooler, in the coffee shop, on the porch, at the dinner table. These tiny stories–sometimes no longer than a few short sentences–can have a cumulative effect on our private experience that far outweighs the mass effect of the meta-narratives of the culture in general. This book is about daily gossip.[3]
There is a lot of wisdom in this concept. Our God is a God of details, a God who loves stories, a God who calls upon us to seize every little moment as a part of something grand. In twelve engaging chapters, Professor Camery-Hoggatt of Vanguard University, a former small town pastor, explores the concept of life as a collection of micro-narratives from a variety of interesting perspectives. Camery-Hoggatt illustrates everything he says with lively stories drawn from both fine and pop culture, from The Incredible Hulk to Dances with Wolves. He recognizes evil as evil and speaks about the darkness and “shadow” of human souls.[4] Gossip can be very bad.

But at the same time, Camery-Hoggatt thinks that gossip can be very good, especially if it is “turned to good. When our talk creates artificial boundaries that keep people out of the church, it is not morally neutral, but is a pact with the devil. It is something for which we need forgiveness and healing. But when our talk batters down the walls that keep people out, then it is a way of participating in the reality of redemption.”[5]

Camery-Hoggatt believes that we should gossip about the macro-narrative of grace. “The reality of grace is the most astonishing and wonderful fact in the whole of creation, the trim-tab on which the depth of our humanity turns. . . . In the story of Jesus we encounter grace, freely, and fully given. It is a story that asks us also to be gracious in God’s name–gracious to the strangers in our midst.”[6]

I don’t think I can be as positive as Camery-Hoggatt about gossip, even noting that the term is very elastic. He sees benefits to even malicious gossip that I cannot.[7] I am also sure that I do not agree with his psychological theory and its pastoral applications. I cannot commend Grapevine without several caveats and loud calls for discernment. But I do think that he has made many suggestions worthy of meaningful meditation, especially about how to season our Christian conversation with grace, and is correct that our view of our world, ourselves, and our God is created and sustained by millions of small social interactions–all the more reason to be very careful in how we talk and listen.

[1]Jerry Camery-Hoggatt, Grapevine: The Spirituality of Gossip (Scottdale: Herald Press, 2004), 13.
[2]Jerry Camery-Hoggatt, Grapevine: The Spirituality of Gossip (Scottdale: Herald Press, 2004), 13.
[4]Though this is drawn from his Jungian psychological theory, so it may not always be consistent with biblical teaching on sin.
[5]Jerry Camery-Hoggatt, Grapevine: The Spirituality of Gossip (Scottdale: Herald Press, 2004), 168.
[6]Ibid., 196. If I understand him correctly, this idea dovetails with the concept of “holy gossip” promulgated by Kathleen Norris in an interview at Leadership Journal where she says, “I love the part in our Presbyterian service when, before prayer, we share joys and concerns. We hear about somebody's grandkids visiting from Spokane or the birth of a great-grandchild. We also hear about someone losing a job or going into surgery. That's when the gossips get busy after church and call around. They get in touch with friends, neighbors, and relatives—does he really want to see people? Or is he too tired? Should I drop in today? That is a good use of gossip.” Kathleen Norris, Mark Galli, and David Goetz, “Amazing Grace-Filled Gossip: An Interview with Author Kathleen Norris,” Leadership 20, no. 1 (Winter 1999): 56-61, in ATLAReligion Database with ATLASerials, (accessed July 26, 2011).
[7]Jerry Camery-Hoggatt, Grapevine: The Spirituality of Gossip (Scottdale: Herald Press, 2004), 15-16.


Note: We are rounding up a long blog series working through my doctoral research into the problem of gossip.

My contribution to the literature, Resisting Gossip: Winning the War of the Wagging Tongue will soon be available:


CLC Book Center

Next Step Resources