My grandmother had the sort of theology that believed humans could become sinless, and she believed she had achieved that level in her Christian life. I was suspicious of such a theology, and so were my parents and siblings, not because we were particularly adept in such things but because we were taught that we could not attain sinlessness in this life. Once I heard my grandmother talking about another person on the phone so when she came back into the living room I asked her if gossip was a sin. (I was ready for a gotcha moment with my fun-loving grandma. Grandma: “Of course gossip is sin.” Me: “Weren’t you gossiping on the phone?” Grandma: “What I was doing was a mistake, Scot, and God looks over mistakes.”
What is gossip? When is talking about another gossip?
I ask this because I’m reading Joseph Epstein’s new book, Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit, and he offers plenty of observations on what is and what is not gossip, and I thought I’d toss a few out there — and the one thing he doesn’t do is offer theological probings of what it ought not to be done by God-fearing folks. I’ve been reading Epstein for years, and in all of his writings there’s some gossipy tidbit tossed in about someone, and it has made for years wonder about the guy. What I wonder is two-fold: where does he get all this inside-job stuff and why is he so intent on revealing it? One thing I’ve seen in Epstein: he’s got a good eye for character and where others fall short. He’s not adverse, either, to turning it on himself. Lightly, of course.
For Epstein gossip is a reality; he enjoys it; and he likes to talk about it and observe how it works. But there are limits, and here are some of his many observations, and they can lead us to reflect today — together — on what gossip is, why it’s wrong, and why it is so dadburned incurable among even those who think it’s wrong.
“it usually serves to diminish or tarnish that reputation” (3).
“It’s hearing something you like about someone you don’t” (4) and “it can be mean, ugly, vicious, but also witty, daring, entirely charming” (8).
“To be out of it [the loop, the inner circle, the inside info], in the dark, clueless, this is a condition to which no one but a saint, and maybe not even a saint, would aspire” because, to be honest, it is “a sometimes dubious but often necessary resource” (33).
“… every first-class gossip is, when one comes right down to it, a spy in business for himself” (48).
“In gossip, intent counts for a great deal — sometimes for everything” (51).
“Gossip is the confession of other people’s sins” (58). “… candor, where possible spiced with humor, is the proper conversational note for gossip” (64).
And this one: “… one of the meanest things one can say about another person is that one finds him intrinsically too uninteresting to be worth gossiping about” (64).