What’s one good thing you learned in church? During the month of April, a handful of contributors from Talking Taboo are running with this question – and inviting you to do the same with the hashtag #onegoodchurch. First up? K.D. Byers on confession and why everyone – religious or not – needs to be doing it.
“Go ahead and call me a whore; everyone who writes a memoir is a whore.”
It was Lena Dunham’s truly awful wig that drew the most attention after her recent guest-star appearance on Scandal, but her comeback has stayed with me. In the episode, It’s Good to be Kink, Dunham’s character, Sue, writes a tell-all book about her sexual encounters with a fictional list of Washington elite, and fixer Olivia Pope dresses her down in a vain attempt to stop its publication. Although Dunham’s thesis is hyperbolic (Scandal’s modus operandi is titillation) I think it names an important fact about us as people: We desire to be known, and that drives us to confess.
Confession, by definition, is public in some mode or manner. I might concede my faults and failings when I’m alone, but to confess is to tell someone what I would rather keep private. Scandal confirms we live in a confessional culture, but it’s the church has taught me how to confess well and acts as my confessor.
In my local congregation we confess at the beginning of each Sunday morning worship. The liturgy is up on screens so I can’t get away with half-hearted mumbling; my chin is held high and my eyes cast forward toward the cross on the altar. My voice joins my neighbors’ as we confess together. After, there is silence, and then the minister raises his or her hands and announces, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.” We echo back: “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”
Each detail of the ritual teaches me how to confess: to do so with earnest effort, to focus on the cross, to remember that I’m not alone, to receive forgiveness, but also to echo it back to one another. When I confess, I’m brought face-to-face with my humanity and – perhaps even more importantly – my corporate humanity. A cold reminds us that our bodies aren’t indestructible so we slow down and take care. Likewise, confession reminds me of my human-ness, and invites me to slow down and heed God’s forgiveness.
Everyone needs a confessor or someone to hear their confession. Scandal is not our only pop culture confessional box. Our novels, films, blogs, television, music, and – yes – memoirs all function as our collective confessors. Scandal collects our scurrilous confessions while superhero movies play out our collective desire to be invincible. We keep inventing ways to be known. These cultural confessionals are good and important, but the church holds a unique position as the Body of Christ.
Like any rite confession can also be harmful if abused. It can be used to shame someone so much it is hard for him or her to believe forgiveness is possible. It can be half-hearted. Perhaps, the most dangerous thing confession can be is comfortable; it can become a moment in which we lie to God, one another, and ourselves by what we’re unwilling to say publicly and desperate to ignore.
I desire to be known, and I look for means to do so. Does that make me a harlot, willing to trade and sell myself for attention as Dunham’s retort implies? No, I think it makes me human. I am thankful for the church and our confessions. Each time I’m left not convicted, but with the conviction to boldly proclaim, in the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven.
K.D. Byers is a writer with degrees from Seattle Pacific University, Duke, and the University of Iowa. She writes about belief and disbelief. Her essays and articles have appeared in Talking Taboo and in online magazines. Find her on Twitter at @katiedbyers.