According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, true fellowship requires that we must not only live together as believers but also ‘as the undevout, as sinners’. Lynette, at ZD, recently described a Church where we fail to see ourselves as a hospital but rather focus on projecting sainthood. Additionally, Scott’s excellent post on worthiness and repentance has outlined very clearly why we are in the position Lynette discussed. In the comments of Lynette’s post, Kristine shared a beautiful post articulating the emotional necessity of being able to avoid the intensely raw suffering of others in our community while recognising that there are moments when grief and pain need to rupture the procedural fabric of our Worship services. These ruptures are very often difficult to respond to. Over the summer I read a wonderful account of a teacher who tried to develop classes where children could share difficult experiences and at the same time I was reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These two texts have helped me see that confession is still a form of spiritual practice but that confessing in private, to people other than our close friends, is one way of extending a particular conception of repentance.
Karen Gallas is a teacher/researcher who used ‘sharing time’ (a form of ‘show and tell’) to explore how children composed oral texts about home, community and family. Gallas recognised that ‘sharing time’ was laden with legitimated codes of speech which shaped how the children spoke. Although ‘sharing time’ primarily served to facilitate appropriation of these legitimated codes, she also observed that there were instances when this appropriation moved in more than one direction.
Jiana was a ‘tall and skinny, six year old African-American girl’ who lived in a shelter across from the school and whose father was in jail for drug related incidents. When Jiana first came to the class she was functioning at a pre-kindergarten level. Gallas allowed the children to manage sharing time themselves although each child had a designated day of the week to share a story or object. Jiana always wanted to share. Gallas remembers that she initially found Jiana’s presentations ‘terribly painful to witness’ and yet after ‘three interminable months’ something altered. Jiana’s linguistic performance became more confident. During one week in particular Jiana began to speak about her family in some detail; she spoke about cocaine, drug programs and separation in the family. Gallas worried that this was ‘not appropriate for the classroom’ but also felt that it was not her place to ‘stop a discussion’. The children responded with serious questions and Jiana answered them with authority. Jiana’s stories, both fantasy and real-life, slowly began to shape the codes of language that were available within the classroom. Although some initially resisted, eventually they came to enjoy this new form of ‘sharing time’. Gallas observed that the children helped Jiana appropriate legitimated speech but Jiana also expanded the discursive repertoires of the other children beyond solely dominant forms. There was a reciprocity here that was more fundamental that spoken dialogue; rather there was, according to Gallas, a transformation of the group.
Gallas’ research raises questions regarding how our religious idiom facilitates certain types of experience and seeks to exclude others. There are those testimonies or comments, arising from life experiences, that are ‘terribly painful to witness’. They are awkwardly constructed and fail to conform to Mormonism’s legitimated codes of speech. This post is not intended to condemn those who feel discomfort with these alternative forms of speech: there is a very real sense in which these forms of speech are in fact inappropriate or are, in many ways, just unintelligible within a specific context. Gallas’ experience indicates that her privileged position (as the only person in that room who could close down that conversation) allowed her to make a personal choice to facilitate this form of sharing. Most of us are rarely in such positions at Church. As such, in a room full of people who are unprepared for this kind of rupture, it is very difficult to nurture illegitimate (or alternative) codes of speech. Yet, because I believe this type of multi-directional appropriation of linguistic codes is something that might facilitate retention, whilst engendering empathy and affection, I would like to see this type of openness in our congregations.
However, rather than public confession, which resists the current idiom of our Sunday meetings, we can follow Dietrich Bonhoeffer in creating spaces where repentance and confession are practiced and where this form linguistic reciprocity can be enacted. Bonhoeffer, in his wonderful book ‘Life Together’, argues that confession is a necessary part of a community that wants Christ to be the central component of their Christian fellowship. However, Bonhoeffer’s confession-practice is quite different from that currently practiced in Mormonism. He suggests that we should confess our sins privately to another member of the community and not necessarily an ecclesiastical leader; to seek their help, inspiration and guidance as a fellow disciple of Christ. We should avoid public confession and should practice confidentiality, but the very act of sharing our sins will bring Christ into that relationship and reconfigure the idiom which currently governs that interaction.
Although in many cases we can do very little to shape the linguistic codes of our worship services, there is much that we can do to change the codes of our individual relationships with others. Private confession between individuals might be one way through which we can fellowship ‘as sinners’ and begin to see worthiness, as Scott observed, ‘as an aspiration or desire–something we strive for, like perfection.’