Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: Part VI, On Gossip

I recently posted on Luther and Calvin on Slander; now here’s Richard Lischer offering a different take on a similar theme – gossip:

‘The word gossip originally implied a spiritual relationship. A gossip was a sponsor at a baptism, one who spoke on behalf of the child and who would provide spiritual guidance to the child as it grew in years. A gossip was your godmother or godfather. Gossiping was speech within the community of the baptized.

For all its negative associations, gossip retains something of its salutary function in a small town … Gossip is the community’s way of conducting moral discourse and, in an oddly indirect way, of forgiving old offenses. In our town all desires were known, no secrets were hid, and every heart was an open book. Every life was gossiped by all, and all were gossips.

The continuous reworking of the community’s stories, characters, and themes served two purposes. Gossip helps soften the edges of people who are simply too accessible to one another, who irritate one another to death, but who can’t escape one another or their common history. Gossip also explains peculiarities … and tells how they came to be.

Second, our gossip was common discourse. It contributed to a moral consensus on, say, what constitutes decent farming, honorable business, tolerable preaching, or effective parenting. Gossip was our community’s continuing education … Gossip is always a painful business but, when it functions as speech in the community of the baptized, it can serve a constructive end. In my wife’s case, the sifting of stories led to grudging appreciation of a ‘peculiar” sort of prairie wife’. – Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery, 95–6, 99.

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