Public Confession: A Mirror or a Portal?

Blair Smith
A poignant scene unfolds in Whit Stillman's remarkable debut film Metropolitan about a group of young people in New York City living on the cusp of a new social age. The scene presents the main characters playing a game called 'Truth', set up for participants to answer unpredictable questions with "absolute honesty and openness". Audrey Roget, the film's Jane-Austen-loving female protagonist, is hesitant to join in, stating, "There are good reasons why people don't go around telling each other their most intimate thoughts." Social conventions, she thinks, serve as a curb against the allure of highly personal and emotionally damaging details being divulged in an instant, jarring the unsuspecting and sending them into a tailspin. Indeed, after being coaxed into joining her friends in 'Truth', this is what happens to Audrey: the scene ends with the hurtful truth revealed about a love interest. The 'truth' was told but the damage was also done. 
I was brought back to this scene and what it reveals about the changing dynamics of personal truth-telling after reading a recent essay by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig in The Hedgehog Review, 'Why We Confess: From Augustine to Oprah'.  In this first installment of a two-part post, I want to give several reflections on Bruenig's illuminating essay as it pertains to how we understand confession in our late (post)modern moment where too often, like the game in Metropolitan, the 'truth' is told but in a damaging way that does not bring healing. In the second installment I will suggest ways public confession can be reclaimed as indispensible to Christian discipleship in the Church today. For the sake of clarity I should state upfront the sense in which I am using 'confession' throughout this post: it comprises whatever we choose to share with a larger group that they would otherwise not know. That might include revelations of wrongdoing that you would find in a confession of sin, but is not limited to that - it is a personal disclosure, an unveiling of the wider self.   

In her essay Bruenig deftly draws out evidence for the modern West's desire for intimacy, a desire fueled by the estranging conditions of the 21st century. One need look no further for incontinent self-disclosure than our culture's ubiquitous confessional literature, reality TV shows, tell-all memoirs, and, as she puts it, social media posts "brimming with lurid detail". Such public confession is often highly postured, 'tagged' with #KeepinItReal or #authenticity. 

But to what end, all this confession? Does it create spaces for genuine intimacy, or does it lack a feel for the proper function of our personal truth-telling? 
The intimacy produced in confessional literature can seem a useful antidote to our modern estrangement from one another, a signal of genuineness and longing for community. We believe that we come to confessional literature for a brush with authenticity, that jolt of the honest and real that is missing in a world of advertising and campaigning. But if confessional authenticity can bring people together, then it is equally adept at tearing them apart. 
This judgment by Bruenig senses that the intimate space that could grow through confession shrinks instead when the audience treats confession as a commodity. Our age is known as one where everything is commodified, from human body parts to express lanes on the beltway. Commodification entails the bleeding of financial considerations into every area of our lives. However, its greater meaning involves shaping things, people, experiences, institutions - even religions - for what they do for us only to be disposed of at a later date. Just as water is now packaged in bottles, with the plastic promptly thrown into the recycling bin after a refreshing drink, so is treated even the weightier matters in our lives - something or someone to help us now, to help us get from here to there, yet cast off when no longer useful.   

Confession has often been evaluated and judged by the opportunity it presents for the 'speaker' to overly tailor his or her persona. A corruption of genuine intimacy unfolds when the confessor sets out, in the words of Sir Walter Scott, "first to deceive". If pride was humanity's first sin, and the mother to all others, this is an abiding problem. Yet, like Rome's ancient coliseum, the dominant dynamic is determined not by the gladiators on display but by the thronging audience with eyes hungry for action. 

The thronging audience of today's public confessions has had no small role in shaping confession into an experience fraught with two temptations. The first, which I mention only in passing, is to gawk endlessly at a distance (Naturally, one of the most popular blog networks on the internet today is The second, highlighted by Bruenig, needs more reflection, because I think it has a role in the patterns of confessing that we bring into the Church. It is where, as consumers enjoying a commodity, confession "affirms them in their normality, whether they are like the confessor or not. While this confession is still capable of creating an intimate space, perhaps even a healing one, it must also reckon with an audience that is not interested in either."

What is underscored here is that confession is increasingly looked upon not as an opportunity for effecting change but for reconfirming acceptance. On the one hand, from the standpoint of confessors, we are tempted to calibrate the tone of our self-disclosures to the prejudices of our hearers. On the other, as audiences, we are drawn to look and to listen for that which, either by radical contrast or cozy familiarity, supports where we are at the moment. After all, commodities are not meant to challenge us in new directions so much as to give us a little boost for where we are or want to go.  

In a Christian context, the temptation is to forget that we are given to each other by the Father, as brothers and sisters in the Son, to cultivate intimacy through our shared life in Christ (see Romans 12:10, 16; 15:7). Confession has a role in creating that space where intimacy flourishes, so long as loving trust, humility and forgiveness mark the atmosphere. What is more, confession is indispensible for our growth in Christ, where we learn to engage in the holistic living of life before God and others.  

At this point of my life I hesitate to think I have a whole lot to say on how to do that for the benefit of others. Using King David, the Apostle Paul, and Augustine of Hippo as examples, however, I do have some thoughts in Part Two of this post on why the Church as a whole, especially in the 21st century West, is in desperate need to be receptive to confessional models that attract us away from our complacency and push us into compelling pictures of authentic godliness. Contrary to what might be expected, such confessional models are not filled with excessive candor. They do tell the truth - as Christian confession invariably does - yet are attentive to the why and for what in their truth-telling. 

Whit Stillman portrayed Audrey Roget as representative of a world passing away, whose wisdom, instilled in social custom, guarded against 'truth for truth's sake'. More often than not, such an unvarnished approach spoils both the confessor and her audience. As Audrey wisely put it, "It's not just the truth; it's how and when you learn it." Truth is not a weapon to wallop or a commodity to consume. It is a well-placed portal. 

Rev. D. Blair Smith is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and a doctoral student in early christian history and theology at Durham University. He's currently a research visitor at the University of Notre Dame. Follow him on twitter @dblairsmith