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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Richard Baxter on Gossip

In his Christian Directory, Richard Baxter (1615-1691) offered extensive “Directions for the Government of the Tongue.”1 He says, “Another sin is, backbiting and venting ill reports behind men’s backs, without any warrant. Be the matter true or false, as long as you either know it not to be true, or if you do, yet vent it to make the person less respected, or at least without a sufficient cause, it is a sin against God, and a wrong to men.”2




1Richard Baxter, Christian Directory, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/baxter/practical.i.iv.ix.html (accessed July 12, 2012).
2Ibid.

***
Note: We are in the middle of a long blog series working through my doctoral research into the problem of gossip. We have listened to many voices along the way--proponents of gossip, those who have exacerbated or exploited the problem, those who are ambiguous or ambivalent, and now opponents of gossip both secular and religious.

Last week, we surveyed the contributions of business leaders, social workers, educators, and Jewish moral teaching against gossip.

This week, we are interacting with Christian teachers throughout church history.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Martin Luther on Gossip

Martin Luther (1483-1546) spoke against gossip in his large catechism.


It is a common, pernicious plague that everyone would rather hear evil than good about their neighbors. Even though we ourselves are evil, we cannot tolerate it when anyone speaks evil of us; instead, we want to hear the whole world say golden things of us. Yet we cannot bear it when someone says the best things about others.1

Luther also said, with his characteristic wit and wisdom, “Those who are not content just to know but rush ahead and judge are called backbiters. Learning a bit of gossip about someone else, they spread it into every corner, relishing and delighting in the chance to stir up someone else’s dirt like pigs that roll in manure and root around in it with their snouts.”2



1Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert, and James Schaffer, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. Charles Arand et al. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 421.
2Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert, and James Schaffer, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. Charles Arand et al. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 422.

***

Note: We are in the middle of a long blog series working through my doctoral research into the problem of gossip. We have listened to many voices along the way--proponents of gossip, those who have exacerbated or exploited the problem, those who are ambiguous or ambivalent, and now opponents of gossip both secular and religious.

Last week, we surveyed the contributions of business leaders, social workers, educators, and Jewish moral teaching against gossip.

Starting today, we're going to interact with Christian teachers throughout church history.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Jewish Moral Teaching Against Gossip #3: Where Forgiveness Comes From

[Note: We are in the middle of a long blog series working through my doctoral research into the problem of gossip. We are listening to many voices along the way--proponents of gossip, those who have exacerbated or exploited the problem, those who are ambiguous or ambivalent, and now opponents of gossip both secular and religious.

Last Thursday, we started a three post interaction with the Jewish moral teaching against gossip embodied most powerfully in a work called Chofetz Chaim [popularized by three modern books]. I suggested that while there is much to learn from this disciplined approach to the tongue, there are significant differences between this Jewish approach and Christian teaching. The first two differences are were about rules and we talked about them on Friday. Today, we interact briefly with their teaching on atonement and grace.]

***


3. No Atonement. More casuistic convolutions could be noted,1 but the saddest feature of the Jewish traditional teaching on gossip is the absence of atonement before God. The Jewish authors all have good discussions of confession and repentance for those who have fallen into sinful gossip, but they do not know how one gets right with God.



Wylen attributes the power of forgiveness to confession itself. “As confession has the power to remove all sin from us and make us pure before God, so also does confession to a fellow human being remove all anger, hatred, and desire for retribution, making us beloved of men and women.”2 But he also tells this cautionary tale:3

A person came to his rabbi and said to him, “Rabbi, I have gossiped against all the people in town. Now I regret what I have done. Please assign me a penance.” The rabbi plucked a dandelion and blew on it, so that the white seeds flew off into the air. “Your penance is to gather all the dandelion seeds and bring them back to me,” said the rabbi. “How can I do that?” cried the man, “the seeds have scattered to the four winds!” “Well,” said the rabbi, “so has your gossip. Nevertheless, confess before God, be ashamed, and resolve never to gossip again, and you will be forgiven.”4
           
Palatnik adds rehabilitation to repentance to equal expiation.

Once you have completed these steps [of repentance], God accepts your return, but it’s still on the books, so to speak. Yes, it is noted that it was taken care of, but it’s still there. How do you completely edit it out? By going to the next step, called teshuvah gamurah, or “complete return” (another term provided us by Maimonides). This occurs after you have gone through the steps, time has passed, and God, sometimes with a very good sense of humor, puts you in the same position as when you originally made the mistake, and you do not repeat the mistake. When this occurs, not only are you forgiven, but it’s as if you never made the original mistake. It is edited out of the story of your life, as if it had never happened.5

How thankful these authors make me for the atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ! Forgiveness comes, not from finding all of the dandelion seeds or from eventually taming our speech, but from the precious blood of Jesus (Rom 3:21-24, 1 John 2:1-2).



1For example, in knowing whether or not you may share a secret, Wylen states, “According to Jewish wisdom, a communication addressed to three or more people is not considered secret. If you are in the company of four or more people, and one of the group reveals a personal matter, you are free to repeat it to others. . . . This permission is not valid, of course, if the speaker announces that ‘this is a secret.’” Stephen M. Wylen, Gossip: The Power of the Word (Hoboken: KTAV Publishing House, 1993), 116.
2Stephen M. Wylen, Gossip: The Power of the Word (Hoboken: KTAV Publishing House, 1993), 125.
3I have encountered various forms of this story from numerous sources. The “wise person” has been a rabbi, a pastor, and a sagacious woman. The dandelion seeds are more regularly depicted as feathers from a pillowcase.
4Ibid., 134.
5Lori Palatnik with Bob Burg, Gossip: Ten Pathways to Eliminate It from Your Life and Transform Your Soul (Deerfield Beach: Simcha Press, 2002), 116.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sunday Are for Sermons #3: Kevin DeYoung on Preaching

On Sundays this month, I'm posting key thoughts on my philosophy of preaching.

In 2012, Kevin DeYoung gave two lectures on preaching at Westminster Theological Seminary.  Kevin is a young guy, probably younger than me, so I wouldn't count him as a major influence on my preaching (like I did Piper last week and I will Bullmore next week), but I really enjoyed his "refresher course in preaching."

How Can a Biblical Sermon Be So Boring? Part 1: The Case for Clarity, Specificity, and Authenticity

How Can a Biblical Sermon Be So Boring? Part 2: The Case for Ingenuity, Spontaneity, and Authority

As I said after I first listened to them:
One of the things I really enjoyed about DeYoung's talks was that I am already doing 95% of what he talked about. Not only was it not "new," but it was fun to hear someone else talk about what I do week in and week out. It encouraged me that I'm on the right track.
At the same time, DeYoung challenged me to keep growing in my craft, and he gave me some strong exhortation to truly believe that God is doing His work through the preaching.
I needed to hear that. In the second lecture, DeYoung taught on Mark 4:26-29 and pressed home that the Word is the seed, and it is powerful even though it work is mysterious. Good reminders to keep preaching going.
 Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Friday, July 26, 2013

Jewish Moral Teaching Against Gossip #2: Rules, Rules, Rules

[Note: We are in the middle of a long blog series working through my doctoral research into the problem of gossip. We are listening to many voices along the way--proponents of gossip, those who have exacerbated or exploited the problem, those who are ambiguous or ambivalent, and now opponents of gossip both secular and religious.

Yesterday, we started a three post interaction with the Jewish moral teaching against gossip embodied most powerfully in a work called Chofetz Chaim [popularized by three modern books]. I suggested that while there is much to learn from this disciplined approach to the tongue, there are significant differences between this Jewish approach and Christian teaching. The first two differences are about rules. "First, the Jewish tradition places an inordinate emphasis on rule-keeping. Second, the Jewish tradition’s understanding of the rules becomes casuistic and borders, at times, on nonsense."]

*** 

1. Rule Keeping. The original Chofetz Chaim was a legal work in Hebrew. It is a list of rules to follow, to do and to not do. Wylen’s book ends with a summary list of fifty-three points. He suggests,

Review the list of rules every morning when you wake up. Tell yourself that you will try not to break any of these rules today. . . . After a few weeks or months of effort you will no longer need this . . . review. The rules for proper speech will be ingrained in your character. . . . Soon you will know the joy that comes from having only good things to say about others.”1

Palatnik says similarly, “At the end of this book, you will find an appendix reviewing these rules. . . . Five minutes a day spent learning the laws of speech can make a dramatic difference in reducing the amount of gossip spoken.”2

Meditation on truth does have a maturing effect upon the believer (Ps 119). These books impress me, however, as offering a collection of iron-clad laws to be rigidly applied and promising righteousness when followed. Wylen astonishingly asserts that

by thoroughly learning the laws set forth in the Hofetz Haim and applying them diligently, one could become perfect in speech, knowing the right words for any situation, no matter how complex or ambiguous. Rabbi Kagan himself was a renowned leader of Lithuanian Jewry, deeply involved in communal affairs in times of great stress and strife. Despite this, he was never heard to speak even one single improper word in his whole life.3

2. Casuistic Rules. Any list of rules can take on a life of its own, especially as more rules are added to explain the original rules or to untangle contradictions between them. This was the case with the Pharisees in the New Testament and appears to be the case with these modern Jews as they teach on gossip.

For example, the definition Wylen offers for gossip is “any statement about someone that lowers him or her in the esteem of the listener.”4 The intention of the statement is important, but it is the possible effect that determines whether or not the speaker ought to utter the statement. “Whether the statement pertains to something essential or something incidental, it is gossip so long as it lowers the subject in the esteem of those who hear it.”5

Wylen offers these examples, “Jeremy’s car is a really old clunker!” “Maria’s clothes are all last year’s fashions.” “Al and Roberta’s house is the least valuable one on their block.”6 Wylen explains, “Many of us feel that our property is an extension of ourselves or a statement about who we are. To disparage someone’s possessions, then, is in a sense, to disparage the owner of the possessions.”7

Perhaps. These authors go on to state that people should be careful not to praise other people because the conversation could easily turn in an evil direction. Telushkin teaches that gossip can include “information and comments about others that are nondefamatory and true.”8 He gives this example as bad, “I was at a party at so-and-so’s house last night. It’s absolutely gorgeous what they’ve done with their kitchen” and then asks, “What possible reason could there be for discouraging people from exchanging such innocuous, even complimentary, information?”9

Apparently, there are several. First, “The listener might not find the information so innocuous. While one person is describing how wonderful the party was, the other might well wonder, ‘Why wasn’t I invited?’”10 Second, “The more important reason for discouraging ‘innocuous’ gossip is that it rarely remains so.”11 Thirdly, Telushkin urges caution about “inadvertent harm that your words may cause. For example, although praising a friend might seem like a laudable act, doing so in the presence of someone who dislikes her will probably do your friend’s reputation more harm than good.”12

Astonishingly, Telushkin charges God with this kind of wrongdoing! God’s praise of Job became the occasion for Satan’s attack on Job (Job 1:8). Telushkin avers, “Although the Book of Job has a happy ending, would anyone dispute that Job’s life would have proceeded far more smoothly had God not chosen to praise him before Satan?”13

Similarly tangled are the rules covering lying. Apparently, it is good to lie so that you do not gossip. Wylen explains that “One should lie rather than tell the truth when . . . [y]our purpose in telling a lie is to create peace between people in a situation where revealing the truth would cause ill feeling.”14 He says, “Some people wrongly believe that ‘Thou shalt not lie!’ is one of the Ten Commandments. Not so! The third commandment obligates us to fulfill vows made in God’s name. The ninth commandment prohibits perjury when giving testimony under oath in a court of law. Nowhere in Scripture is there a prohibition of lying.”15

This seems fantastical to me, given the amount of passages that condemn lying speech (e.g., Prov 6:17, 12:19, 21:6, 26:28). But Wylen argues that this kind of peace-keeping falsehood is good in several situations. For example, when a person is asked to give their opinion of a purchase: “If your friend has already purchased the article or service in question and merely wants you to confirm the wisdom or good taste of the purchase, it is better not to say what you think. Praise the new acquisition regardless of your true opinion.”16

Surprisingly, Wylen believes that God lies in similar situations. “Scripture depicts God as telling a lie rather than hurt Abraham’s feelings (Genesis 18:13).”17 It is shocking to me that people who are so concerned with following God’s law would be so quick to think that God acts in reckless blameworthy ways himself.



1Stephen M. Wylen, Gossip: The Power of the Word (Hoboken: KTAV Publishing House, 1993), 156-157.
2Lori Palatnik with Bob Burg, Gossip: Ten Pathways to Eliminate It from Your Life and Transform Your Soul (Deerfield Beach: Simcha Press, 2002), 116.
3Stephen M. Wylen, Gossip: The Power of the Word (Hoboken: KTAV Publishing House, 1993), 15-16.
4Ibid., 21.
5Stephen M. Wylen, Gossip: The Power of the Word (Hoboken: KTAV Publishing House, 1993), 21.
6Ibid., 23.
7Ibid., 23-24.
8Joseph Telushkin, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well (New York: Quill, 1996), 17.
9Ibid., 18.
10Joseph Telushkin, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well (New York: Quill, 1996), 18.
11Ibid.
12Ibid., 19.
13Ibid. It must be noted that Telushkin does not actually say that God sinned, but that seems to be the unavoidable implication of his words. A much better approach to the subject of praising others can be found in Sam Crabtree, Practicing Affirmation: God-Centered Praise of Those Who Are Not God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011).
14Stephen M. Wylen, Gossip: The Power of the Word (Hoboken: KTAV Publishing House, 1993), 80-81.
15Ibid., 80.
16Ibid., 81. Wylen also commends lying when you cannot be certain of your own objectivity and when you know that your advice will not be heeded. Telushkin offers an entire chapter on these rules governing lying, “Is Lying Always Wrong” in Joseph Telushkin, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well (New York: Quill, 1996), 133-146. It must be said that these teachers are against lying in the main but are trying to lay out rules that govern exceptions.
17Stephen M. Wylen, Gossip: The Power of the Word (Hoboken: KTAV Publishing House, 1993), 80.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Jewish Moral Teaching Against Gossip #1: "Lashon Hora"


Lashon Hora

Some people have opposed gossip on practical grounds. Others have spoken against it for religious reasons, none more strenuously than the Jews.1 Judaism has a rich tradition of moral teaching on the subject of the “evil tongue,” in Hebrew, “Lashon Hora.”

This body of teaching stretches back, of course, to the Old Testament, which we have explored at length in chapter two of this project. But it has developed over the centuries and taken some surprising turns.

The richest vein of this teaching stems from a Hebrew book entitled Chofetz Chaim “Lover of Life” by a nineteenth century Lithuanian rabbi, Israel Meir Hacohen Kagan.2 “The Hofetz Haim is a compendium of all the legal sources in the Jewish tradition that deal with forbidden speech. It became so famous that Rabbi Kagan received the highest honor accorded an author in traditional Jewish life–the title of the book became his nickname.”3

Many of Chofetz Chaim’s thoughts are distilled for us in English in three popular works by modern day Jews, Gossip: The Power of the Word by Stephen M. Wylen, Gossip: Ten Pathways to Eliminate It from Your Life and Transform Your Soul by Lori Palatnik, and Words that Hurt, Words that Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.4 These three books, while being very different from each other in style, generally teach the same things.

Chofetz Chaim’s teachings are, in many ways, consistent with what we learned in chapter two of this project. Gossip is dangerous; it comes from a wicked heart; it is not just telling lies but also telling shameful truths about someone not present; it often stems from a judgmental spirit; it is wrong even to listen to gossip; it is gossip to reveal secrets, etc. Writers in Chaim’s tradition also recognize that there are times to speak out about someone, including issuing a warning to keep someone else from harm.

And yet, this Jewish teaching against gossip diverges significantly from Christian teaching (at least, as I understand it) in three different ways. First, the Jewish tradition places an inordinate emphasis on rule-keeping. Second, the Jewish tradition’s understanding of the rules becomes casuistic and borders, at times, on nonsense. Third, the Jewish tradition has very little notion of grace because of a faulty understanding of atonement.
***

Tomorrow, we will consider the first two differences and, on Monday, the third.  


1Roman Catholicism has also consistently preached against gossip. For pertinent quotes, see Joseph M. Esper, Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems: From Anger, Boredom, and Temptation to Gluttony, Gossip, and Greed (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2001). Sadly, while many of the suggestions of the “saints” in this volume are good, Esper believes that the “saints” themselves can currently solve common problems. “We, of course, are in no position to imitate these particular saints, but their prayers, and those of the entire heavenly court, can certainly help us overcome a tendency toward gossip, if we desire to do so.” (ibid., 157).
2The title refers to Psalm 34. “Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies” (Ps 34:12-13).
3Stephen M. Wylen, Gossip: The Power of the Word (Hoboken: KTAV Publishing House, 1993), 10.
4Stephen M. Wylen, Gossip: The Power of the Word (Hoboken: KTAV Publishing House, 1993); Lori Palatnik with Bob Burg, Gossip: Ten Pathways to Eliminate It from Your Life and Transform Your Soul (Deerfield Beach: Simcha Press, 2002); Joseph Telushkin, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well (New York: Quill, 1996).

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Educators and Social Workers on Gossip

Those who work with young people, including social workers, educational theorists, and parenting experts, have tried to equip youth, especially girls, to navigate the hurtful things said about them during their adolescence. This equipping can begin at even earlier ages. Joy Berry’s Let’s Talk about Gossiping, is a picture book which illustrates a simple definition of gossip and a list of “do’s and don’ts” for small children.1


But it is during the turbulent teenage years that issues of gossip can become life dominating and future determining. Catherine Rondina has produced an illustrated handbook, much like a comic book for teens, entitled Gossip: Deal With It Before Word Gets Around.2 Each picture tells a story. “Whenever private or negative things are discussed behind someone’s back, it’s gossip. It doesn’t matter whether the information is true or false, whether you start the rumour or just keep it going, if it doesn’t stop its travels with you, you’re gossiping.”3

Rondina’s book is creative, including quizzes, advice-column-style questions and answers, and even case studies. “While your friend Oscar is away over summer vacation, someone starts a rumour that he is gay. You hear the gossip going around. What should you do?”4 Her book is also practical, dishing out lists of sound advice and motivation to change. “Hey, gossip can be a really nasty thing. If you go around telling stories that you’re not sure are true, sooner or later no one will believe anything you tell them! . . . Once your friends realize they can’t trust you to keep a secret, they’ll never tell you anything personal again. Before long, you won’t have friends left to gossip about.”5

Gossip: Deal With It Before Word Gets Around reminds me of the book of Proverbs, pithy, vividly illustrated, aimed at younger people, and immediately applicable. If it has a downside, it is that contemporary, comic-book style illustrations go quickly out of style. And as a completely secular book, it is limited to a very temporal value. Without the fear of the Lord, true wisdom never really gets started (Prov 1:7).

Rosalind Wiseman wants to empower parents, especially mothers, to equip their own daughters against malicious gossip. In Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter to Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence, Wiseman claims, “99.99 percent of girls gossip, including your daughter. The longer and more adamantly you deny this fact, the worse of a gossip she’ll be.”6 Wiseman wants mothers to wise up and get busy.

I’ll give you more strategies so you’ll know which battles to fight for her and which ones you should let her fight on her own. But I’ll also challenge you to take action when your daughter is the one who starts the rumors. Most girls who are gossiped about, gossip themselves. It’s more than probable that your daughter has been cruel to someone else. It’s up to you to teach her differently.7

Wiseman’s strategies start with understanding how adolescent girls are suffering at each other’s hands. She narrates typical gossip scenarios of contemporary teens and categorizes various important types of girls within juvenile social strata, such as “Queen Bees,” “Wannabes,” and “RMGs,” that is, “Really Mean Girls.”8 She stresses that this is very important to America’s daughters.

When your daughter reports being humiliated by gossip at school, don’t say ‘It’s not a big deal; no one noticed but you’ or ‘Don’t worry, everyone will have forgotten about it by tomorrow.’ As far as she’s concerned, there is no tomorrow. She needs you to understand that she’s hurting now, and it is a big deal. Try to convince her otherwise, and she’ll think you’re hopelessly out of touch.9

After establishing supportive empathy, Wiseman then lays out five options for mothers to offer to their daughters if they’ve been the subject of gossip. “Your daughter can confront the RMG. She can ask a teacher or counselor for help. You can call the RMG’s parents. You can talk to the teacher. You can talk to an administrator.”10 Wiseman offers sample scripts for mothers to use for each option. Moreover, she also teaches mothers what to do and say if their daughter is the offending party.11

There is much to commend in Wiseman’s approach to gossip. She helps parents to take their daughters’ experiences seriously and to take responsibility for resolving their own problems. Her advice about apologies, for example, is very good, including not putting “spin” on their actions, not getting in “last licks” during the apology, not using qualifiers such as “but” while apologizing, and not expecting reciprocation.12

Wiseman is at her best when she is describing teenage life. A mom who reads Queen Bees and Wannabes will have her eyes opened to what many girls are experiencing daily. But like most secular helping books, the advice is ultimately limited to self-esteem and empowerment. Wiseman cannot really go to the heart of things. While counsel in the chapter on “Nasty Girls: Teasing, Gossip, and Reputations” is fairly sound,13 the advice throughout the rest of book is more sketchy and settles for too little in its aspirations for girls (Prov 31:10-31, 1 Pet 3:1-6, Titus 2:4-5).



1Joy Berry, Let’s Talk About Gossiping (Fallbrook: Living Skills Press, 1984).
2Catherine Rondina, Gossip: Deal With It Before Word Gets Around (Toronto: James Lorimer, 2004).
3Ibid., 5.
4Catherine Rondina, Gossip: Deal With It Before Word Gets Around (Toronto: James Lorimer, 2004), 28. The answer, written upside-down on the page, is to inform Oscar, work with him to come up with a response, and tell a helpful adult.
5Ibid., 18.
6Rosalind Wiseman, Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter to Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002), 112.
7Ibid.
8Ibid., 138.
9Ibid., 122.
10Ibid., 138.
11Rosalind Wiseman, Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter to Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002), 147-150.
12Ibid., 149.
13Ibid., 111-150.

***
Yesterday, we began listening to opponents of gossip, beginning with leaders in the business world.
Tomorrow, we will start interacting with Jewish religious teaching on the problem of gossip.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"The No Gossip Zone" -- Business Leaders and Gossip


CEO Sam Chapman fires people who gossip at work. At Empower Public Relations in Chicago, Chapman has instituted a “No-Gossip Zone Policy,”1 This policy includes

A formal agreement among all employees (either verbal or written) to not participate in gossip . . . to identify and stop gossip when it is heard . . . to ‘follow up’ with the person who was being gossiped about and share what was said . . . to reveal one’s true feelings, thoughts, and desires within the work environment, thereby removing any need or environment for gossip.2

Chapman established this policy to increase productivity and job satisfaction among his employees. “In a recent study performed by Randstad Corporation, employees cited office gossip as their number one annoyance in their workplace. Employers also have good reason to curb loose lips, as office gossip takes up to sixty-five hours a year of an employee’s time at work, according to a July 2002 survey by Equisys. But it doesn’t have to be that way.”3

Managers have been, understandably, against gossip for a long time.4 What makes Chapman’s policy different is how seriously it is enforced. “No gossip becomes more than just a choice; it becomes a job requirement.”5 Not only are workers required to refrain from gossip, they are required to go directly to the person being gossiped about and inform them of what was being said.

Chapman defines gossip fairly broadly as “an exchange of negative information between two or more people about someone who isn’t present. So unless what you are saying is complimentary, it is best to be avoided. Pretty simple–if it is negative, it is gossip.”6 For Chapman, motivation is not a controlling factor. “The surprising fact is, the intent rarely makes a difference.”7 His reasoning is that after the negative information has been shared, the original speaker loses control over it, and it could be misused. “The only way to be truly safe from such a possible negative outcome is to avoid gossip entirely.”8 Chapman has been pleased with the results and provides multiple testimonies from employees about their new-found enjoyment of work.

As someone committed to resisting sinful gossip, I can see how satisfying it would be to transition from a workplace cluttered with rumors, innuendo, scandal, and whispers into a environment where co-workers were forthright and emotionally healthy. I am glad that the employees at Empower Public Relations have “bought in” to the concept.

I do wonder, however, how this policy works out in actual practice. Exactly what constitutes “negative information,” especially if intention is not taken into account? Over the long term, what are the effects of requiring the reporting of gossip to the one gossiped about? Does that turn employees against each other in another pernicious way? How do you document infractions of this policy for use in a termination proceeding?9 It seems to me that a no-gossip policy is “good business,” but it will only flourish in an atmosphere of grace.




1Sam Chapman with Bridget Sharkey, The No-Gossip Zone: A No-Nonsense Guide to a Healthy, High Performing Work Environment (Naperville: Sourcebooks, 2009).
2Sam Chapman with Bridget Sharkey, The No-Gossip Zone: A No-Nonsense Guide to a Healthy, High Performing Work Environment (Naperville: Sourcebooks, 2009), 10.
3Ibid., 1.
4See, for example, from the American Management Association, Robert L. Genua, Managing Your Mouth: An Owner’s Manual For Your Most Important Business Asset (New York: Amacom, 1992). For a similar approach from a Christian employer perspective, see Craig Williford and Carolyn Williford, How To Treat a Staff Infection: Resolving Problems in Your Church or Ministry Team (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006). The Willifords use a medical model as their operative illustration of staff health and call gossip a symptom of “Flaccidity of the Lips.” (ibid., 71).
5Sam Chapman with Bridget Sharkey, The No-Gossip Zone: A No-Nonsense Guide to a Healthy, High Performing Work Environment (Naperville: Sourcebooks, 2009), 14.
6Sam Chapman with Bridget Sharkey, The No-Gossip Zone: A No-Nonsense Guide to a Healthy, High Performing Work Environment (Naperville: Sourcebooks, 2009), 6.
7Ibid.
8Ibid., 7.
9Chapman provides a few brief illustrations that shed some light on these questions, but he moves on quickly from the “No-Gossip Zone” after the first chapter to present advice about “authentic communication” and other self-help concepts for business people.
***
With today's post, we have begun to consider the other side in our series -- opponents of gossip, starting with business leaders.
Tomorrow, we will listen to educators and social workers and their take on the problem of gossip.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Social Media Shepherd

In the last several years, I've found social media to be an effective tool for extending and enhancing my pastoral ministry.

In a new article at EFCA Today, I offer some of my thoughts about both the potential pitfalls and benefits of a social media for shepherding the flock of God.

Read the whole thing.

Gossip and Pastoral Counseling


Professor Donald Capps of Princeton Theological Seminary thinks that pastoral counseling could be conceived of as “a higher form of gossip.”1 In Living Stories: Pastoral Counseling in Congregational Context, Capps characterizes the key benefit of pastoral counseling as “the experience of telling stories within a constructive framework.”2 That framework might even include gossip. Capps believes that gossip “sometimes, perhaps often, plays the same constructive role in the life of a social group that I am ascribing to pastoral counseling.”3

Capps comes to his somewhat positive appraisal of gossip by covering the same ground we have above, focusing in, especially, on the social and personal benefits of gossip asserted by writers such as Jack Levin, Arnold Arluke, and Patricia Meyer Spacks.

Capps’ main contribution is to directly compare the features of social gossip with the practice of pastoral counseling. He notes, “Like gossip, the ‘subject matter’ of pastoral counseling is the ‘trivia’ that often gets demeaned by those who . . . value only ‘important’ subject matter, whether complex ‘intellectual matters’ on the one hand or ‘deep spiritual matters’ on the other.”4 “Another is that, precisely because it deals in ‘small particulars,’ the worldview that pastoral counseling expresses is not that of ‘the dominant culture’ but ‘the beliefs of quiet sub-cultures.’”5 “Still another similarity . . . is the fact that it is a kind of creative play, providing the counselee (and also the pastor) a sense of freedom that they do not experience in the other ‘language systems’ of their lives.”6 He also observes that pastoral counseling often involves talking about people who are not present in the counseling room.7

There is nuance, however, to this positive comparison. Professor Capps wants pastoral counseling to rise above garden variety gossip. “While it shares these and other characteristics of gossip, pastoral counseling (ideally) differs from gossip as well.”8 It should not, for example, “degenerate into malice” or “destroy the reputation of an innocent person.”9  He also says, “Another difference between pastoral counseling and gossip is that the pastor has greater freedom, even, at times, the obligation, to introduce a values perspective that does not confirm the counselee’s own values but instead brings other value considerations to bear.”10 The pastor has an obligation to scripture and truth.11

Openness, for Capps, is the area in which pastoral counseling truly transcends traditional gossip.

I suggest that the central value that the pastor represents in the pastoral counseling context is precisely that of openness, and that this value is expressed both in the pastoral counseling role itself and in the perspective that the pastor takes concerning the parishioner’s life problems. It is precisely in its openness that pastoral counseling becomes a gospel form of gossip. The subject matter of pastoral counseling is still the small talk that prevails in other forms of gossip, but an open atmosphere is created and maintained in every aspect of the counseling process.12

I appreciate Capps’ nuances and think there is much to meditate upon in the concept of pastoral counseling as constructive story telling. I see some truth in the parallels drawn between pastoral counseling and non-malicious gossip, especially how we are called to bring truth to bear on the so-called “trivial” and “mundane” aspects of life. And I love the phraseology of “gospel gossip”! But the gospel Capps preaches seems much more dependent upon Carl Rogers than Jesus Christ. The biblical gospel is more than a dynamic openness and “unconditional positive regard.” The gospel we are called to proclaim is the good news of a Savior that loved us while we were still sinners and loves us now in a way that leads us into dynamic personal change (Rom 5:8, Titus 2:11-12).



1Donald Capps, Living Stories: Pastoral Counseling in Congregational Context (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 192. Capp’s theory of pastoral counseling is in the stream of Rogerian thought. For an alternative “family-systems” approach to counseling see Edwin H. Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (New York: Guilford Press, 1985). Friedman’s theory includes something he calls “triangulation” which is pitting the wrong members of a family against one another, usually by inappropriate secret keeping. This may be gossip by yet another name.
2Donald Capps, Living Stories: Pastoral Counseling in Congregational Context (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 10.
3Ibid., 173.
4Ibid., 192.
5Ibid., 193.
6Donald Capps, Living Stories: Pastoral Counseling in Congregational Context (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 194.
7Ibid., 195.
8Ibid., 194.
9Ibid.
10Ibid., 196.
11As a theological liberal, Capps equivocates a bit at this point, declining to definitively share what those “value considerations” might be, but the implication of his words is obvious and true.
12Donald Capps, Living Stories: Pastoral Counseling in Congregational Context (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 198-199.

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This post is part #3 in a series on "Ambiguity and Ambivalence about Gossip" in a longer series about "Taking Sides on Gossip" drawn from my doctoral research on the problem.
Starting tomorrow, we shift onto the other side of the debate, and start listening to opponents of gossip.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sundays Are for Sermons #2: Piper on Preaching

I've read a number of books on preaching over the years, but the one that has loomed in my consciousness the most is John Piper's The Supremacy of God in Preaching.

Back in seminary, I wrote this book review.
In probably the most helpful section of the first part, Piper explains the manner of approach that the God-centered preacher will take to this task: gladness and gravity. Piper defines this approach as "Gladness and gravity should be woven together in the life and preaching of a pastor in such a way as to sober the careless soul and sweeten the burden of the saints" (52). Gravity is not somberness but a "blood-earnestness" that communicates through its intensity the weighty importance of the biblical principles being exposed.
This is a "hot orthodoxy" approach to preaching that still guides me every Sunday.

Read my whole review.

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At some point, I'd like to read the updated 2004 version.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Snowdrops




Remember snow? 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Happy Birthday, Isaac!

The many faces of Isaac Matthew Mitchell...

























Thursday, July 18, 2013

"How to Gossip" by The British Association of Gossipmongers

Perhaps no one has written anything more humourous (or ambiguous) on the subject of gossip than Nicole Banerji. Banerji satirically created the fictional organization The British Association of Gossipmongers (BAG) and wrote their handbook How to Gossip.1 According Banerji, BAG exists, among other things, to “enhance the status of gossip, moving its image from seedy and shameful to positive and proud” and to “create a growing body of expert gossipmongers who can elicit and transmit sensitive and salacious information with passion and panache.”2

How to Gossip is clearly satire. What is not clear, however, is what message (if any) Banerji is trying to satirically convey. At times, Banerji seems to truly want to promote the practice of gossiping. “It is healthy to take an interest in your fellow human being, it is healthy to encourage others to share secrets, it is healthy to talk. We need to stop apologizing for doing what comes naturally and start celebrating it!”3

In other places, she wants to temper that with “ethical gossipmongering.”4 But the ethics of “ethical gossipmongering” are satirically dubious themselves, encapsulated by “the four D’s: Discretion. Discipline. Distance. Duality.”5 Discretion, for example, is practiced like this, “Be selective in who you tell, only spill in one-to-one situations, make them feel special . . . and no witnesses!”6 The ethic of distance includes, “Make it clear that you are just repeating what you have been told – say that you don’t know whether it is true or not.”7

The entire book has this kind of ongoing hilarious “advice.” There are chapters on how to find people to gossip to, how to get gossip out of people, how to carry on gossip online, how to effectively reveal secrets, and what to do if caught. As I read it, I kept thinking that Banerji was trying to shock her readers into actually doing the opposite thing in a kind of “Screwtape” sort of way.

But the evidence for that reading of How to Gossip is thin. Banerji never tips her hand to reveal an ironic agenda. Instead she concludes by saying, “The approach laid out in this handbook is all about ethical gossipmongering. It is about discretion and self-discipline whilst still enjoying the pleasure of full and frank information exchange.”8 In the end, Banerji is unapologetic. “We can all do our bit to rescue the image of gossiping from the clutches of the neurotics, the ne’er do wells, and the downright nasty, and return it to being something to be proud of. Right then, go out and goss.”9



1Nicole Banerji, How to Gossip: Expert Advice from the British Association of Gossipmongers (Leicester: Matador, 2005).
2Ibid., ix.
3Ibid., 5.
4Chapter 3 is entitled “Ethical Gossipmongering: What the Devil Is That?” (ibid., 21).
5Ibid., 24.
6Ibid.
7Nicole Banerji, How to Gossip: Expert Advice from the British Association of Gossipmongers (Leicester: Matador, 2005), 25.
8Ibid., 74.
9Ibid., 75. As near as I can tell, Banerji coined “goss” as her own abbreviated slang word for the action of gossiping. She autographed my personal copy of the book with the superscription, “So . . . what’s the goss?”


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This is part #2 of "Ambiguity and Ambivalence about Gossip."

[To Be Continued on Monday]