The thirty-six-year-old man from Sunrise, Florida, had years’ worth of sin to unload. As he prepared to make a confession, he wondered where to begin. Finally, he just let it all out:
"I have been with women who were married . . . . I have done enough drugs to make Keith Richards envious!!!!! I have been extremely hot tempered and violent for the majority of my life. I have stolen things for drugs and money. I have disrespected my both my parents. I have disrespected my marriage by being unfaithful. Truth is I have just about done it all wrong."
But this confession was not delivered to a priest or pastor. It was typed online at IveScrewedUp.com , a project that Florida’s Flamingo Road Church began at Easter. With the tag line "Confession is good for the soul," the site says "We hope this is the beginning of a cool journey for you" and says the confessions will be discussed over eleven weekends and that the church hopes the penitents will "hang out with us."
The site is one of a growing number¯both secular and church-sponsored¯where the guilty can unload their mental baggage. GroupHug.us has posted half a million confessions; MySecret.tv has more than ten thousand confessions and millions of readers; DailyConfession.com adds hundreds of confessions a day; and PostSecret.com is so popular that books reprinting the beautifully composed postcard confessions sent to the site are on bestseller lists. Anonymous penitents sharing their peccadilloes to an audience of untold numbers of voyeurs is a booming industry.
There’s nothing new with these sites. From 1980 to1995, New York conceptual artist Allan Bridge created The Apology Project , where he encouraged anonymous strangers to confess to his answering machine; from there confessions were compiled into a sporadically published underground magazine. Bridge eventually heard more than ten thousand confessions and had plans to move the project online before his death in 1995.
This market for confessions proves that sin eats away at individuals’ consciences. Although his Apology Project was completely secular, Bridge theorized that "the act of confession and apology is itself a creative act: an attempt to find meaning in the restructuring of one’s experience into a moral tale. Only by finding a moral can one turn the page and move on."
While Bridge’s summation of his work is redolent with the requisite art-school pretension, the success of his project doesn’t necessarily justify his observation that Americans are eager to put their sin into a moral context greater than themselves. He’s right that many people are desperate to "turn the page and move on," but it does not follow that they want to find the moral or even understand why they lost the plot in the first place.
While Bridge claimed the Apology Project helped participants "find meaning," he turned other people’s sins into a profitable enterprise. The Apology Project was the subject of a novel, an HBO thriller, a New Yorker profile and episode of the popular radio program This American Life , among other works.
One of my favorite confessions from the project was from the man who had lost custody of his twin sons after taking pornographic pictures of them. But that wasn’t his confession. His confession was that he’d stolen a priest’s vestments by accident (he thought he was stealing a coat) and assumed a priest’s identity.
"And I heard some confessions, and¯and¯you know, tried to, you know, make people feel better. I didn’t think I was doing anything bad because I was making them feel better about what they were doing," the faux-priest told the confession line. That someone would confess imitating a priest to someone imitating a priest is priceless.
And what embodies the American confessional more than daytime television? The Jerry Springer Show features dysfunctional families discussing their prurient problems¯family rivalries, complicated extramarital affairs, emetophilia , etc.¯before a live audience. Even the supposedly more respectful Oprah has the same model. Springer might have men who marry horses, but Oprah featured defrocked memoirist James Frey confessing and justifying his imagined drug-related sins to the cheers and sympathy of hundreds of Midwestern, middle-aged women.
Many online confession sites leave penitents shouting into the ether, uncertain of who is reading their confession. But LifeChurch.tv ¯a large evangelical church with "campuses" in multiple states¯sponsors a confession site with a wrinkle: the aforementioned MySecret.tv, which gives voyeurs a chance to offer advice and commentary to penitents, some of whom write confessions of a most titillating and salacious kind. When a man explained that he lost, in a high-stakes poker game with a colleague, a pornographic videotape he’d made of himself, his wife, and a prostitute, the first response was: "Wow. That’s hot."
So where, how, and when does forgiveness come into play, if at all? In what ways are these online confession sites or Oprah shows similar to what you might get from a traditional church’s means of confession? Does the confessing individual forgive himself? Does the community forgive? Where’s the absolution?
American society has placed confession and absolution on two wholly separate tracks. In the church, there is no separation: We confess that we are poor, miserable sinners who have failed to do good and have broken the Commandments. And God absolves us, forgives our sins on account of Jesus’ sacrifice in our place.
As Martin Luther said: "Now mark well what I have said often, that confession consists of two parts. The first is our work and doing, that I lament my sins and desire comfort and renewal of my soul. The other is a work which God does, who absolves me from my sins through His Word spoken by the mouth of man. This is the most important and precious part, as it also makes it lovely and comforting."
Compare such a comment with the disclaimer that greets visitors to the Flamingo Road Church’s website: "By sending information to this website, the sender has granted Ivescrewedup.com a perpetual, royalty-free license to use, reproduce, modify, publish, distribute, and otherwise exercise all rights with respect to the information, at its sole discretion," it says in part.
Flamingo Road pastor Troy Gramling says the goal of the online site and the eleven-week-series of discussions is to help congregants learn from their mistakes. This comment gives pause. In churches where private confession and absolution is taken very seriously, the reason why people do it before a priest or pastor is not primarily to learn from their mistakes, empower themselves, or confide in a therapist. The primary purpose is to be absolved.
With Oprah, Jerry, and online confession forums, we absolve ourselves. The culture views confession as psychologically therapeutic. By contrast, the "therapy" that the Church seeks to offer is the healing of the soul. That cannot happen with one’s computer. If the thousands of confessions dealing with online pornography and adulterous email relationships are any indication, penitents might want to forgo online confession and simply get away from the computer altogether.
There’s a flip side to the problem of confession without absolution, and that’s absolution without confession.
Take former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey, who inexplicably titled his memoir The Confession after he did anything but confess his sins. After a male aide claimed the married father sexually harassed him, McGreevey resigned from office with the line "My truth is that I’m a gay American." This "confession" enabled him to escape from sexual harassment, bribery, and extortion charges. He also escaped from his vows to his wife. McGreevey confessed to suffering for being gay¯not for doing anything wrong.
When Rep. Mark Foley was exposed as an ephebophile , he tied his resignation to revelations of his own adolescent sexual relationship with his priest and a drinking problem. Confession requires humility and recognition of one’s complete sinfulness. Blaming other people for the abuses you commit does not make for confession.
Former president Bill Clinton perfected the art of receiving public absolution without meaningful confession. In 1992 he was beset by questions about a well-documented affair with an Arkansas state employee. He neither confirmed nor denied that he had participated in extramarital affairs, but his nebulous acknowledgement of wrongdoing satisfied voters and carried him to the White House.
Thankfully, Americans are a forgiving people. When leaders say they screwed up, we have a hard time not letting them off the hook. But that means that public confession has often times been turned into just another tactic, as opposed to something done out of repentance¯for example, it’s hard to find a plea for absolution from a Hollywood celebrity that doesn’t use the time-honored ploy of a trip to drug or alcohol rehab.
Political and celebrity pleas for such absolution usually work. We believe that if someone is even talking about their sinfulness, that somehow makes them better people. Of course, sometimes admitting imperfections without ever doing anything to improve is a great way to keep being a bad person. And is it too cynical to note that the power of these non-confession confessions often depends on their public nature? The admission of a "problem" is not a gut-wrenching aspect of humble penitence but a noble sacrifice worthy of public acknowledgment and reward. Fortunately, when celebrities and politicians slip up they have any number of mass media platforms available to them for offloading.
But the Internet, ever a relentlessly democratizing force, now brings the pseudo-confession as public manipulation into every home in America. Christianity teaches that we are born in sin and struggle with it throughout our lives. The age of the Internet has added a new Warholian twist on this idea, and not for the better. We’re all still sinners but only for fifteen minutes at a time, and relegated to the message board of our choosing.
Mollie Ziegler Hemingway is a journalist in Washington, D.C. She blogs for GetReligion.org .