In my earliest memory of being an insufferable gossip, I am 5 years old. I am at the top of a very tall playground slide with a friend, both of us cross-legged, as she tells me about how a boy in our class (the dreaded Chris!) pushed a girl off the swing. This was big news because most girls in our class had a crush on Chris. He was very good at kickball.
“Who told you?” I remember asking. I wanted sourcing, to know how good the intel was. It was innate in me, even then, to be nosy as hell.
Throughout my childhood, people confided in me. They told me other people’s secrets, and sometimes their own. But by the time I hit puberty, I had learned that gossip was a sin. That’s when I started attending “Big Church” — upstairs in the large auditorium with the adults at my Double Oak, Texas, nondenominational church, instead of with other children. In Big Church the message was simple: Men were prone to lust, women to gossip.
That, I realized, was me: a woman and a gossip.
Whenever asked in Bible study to confess my sin, I would always pick gossip. “Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down,” reads the New International Version’s translation of Proverbs 26:20. In my high school study Bible, this verse is both underlined and starred. I was trying to learn, to rid myself of this thorn in my side. Gossip, the church leaders reiterated, was something to despise.
Now when I look at this verse that brought me so much pain, I see more nuance. Fire, after all, keeps us warm and cooks our food. It is not always destructive.
It can also be seen as an essential part of who we are as a species. In his 1996 book “Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language,” the anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Dr. Robin Dunbar identified two group practices that are uniquely human: religion and storytelling. In both of those, he added, “we have to be able to imagine that another world exists.”
In a recent email, Dr. Dunbar told me: “Positive gossip is one of the ways we bond communities. Negative gossip can be useful because it allows the community to police itself.” But he makes a distinction between negative gossip that alerts the community to an individual’s bad or dangerous behavior and destructive gossip that’s intended to hurt or undermine. “If it becomes malicious,” he said, “it can actually cause communities to break up into smaller subsets that don’t interact.” Gossip that is cruel or false is something any community leader would want to tamp down, whether it comes from women or from men.
But what we know about gossip indicates that it is rarely negative. A meta-analysis published in Social Psychological and Personality Science in 2019 found that of the 52 minutes a day on average that the 467 participants spent gossiping, about three-quarters of that was neutral conversation (about 15 percent was negative, and 9 percent positive). It is gossip, after all, to say that we ran into a mutual friend on the street or to brag about our child’s good grades.
So why did the church rhetoric that I grew up with condemn gossip so fiercely?
The Oxford English Dictionary traces the first uses of the word to the early 11th century, when it was used as a synonym for “godparent.” By the 17th century, gossip was being used to describe conversations in birthing rooms. Gossip, then, evolved to mean women’s private whispering. While the King James Version of the Bible (1611) contained no uses of the word, later versions and translations turned references to “whisperers” and “talebearers” to “gossips.” It is those versions often used by evangelicals today.
Some believe that evangelical pastors denounce gossip to protect themselves against its power to expose secrets and weaken their own status. Chrissy Stroop, an ex-evangelical and a co-editor of the book of first-person essays “Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church,” is a firm believer in that theory. “These men believe God has granted them authority and that women cannot have authority over men,” Ms. Stroop told me, “and that gossip is a threat to their reputations and power — reputations that are often undeserved and power that is often exploited abusively.”
The ousting of the celebrity pastor Carl Lentz from the Hillsong East Coast church at the end of 2020 is a good example of how gossip can bring a powerful church leader to his knees. One of the reasons given for his firing was “a recent revelation of moral failures” — but it wasn’t so new, as Ruth Graham reported in The Times. Gossip of Mr. Lentz’s infidelity had circulated as early as the fall of 2017, but it was ignored, and volunteers who reported it to church leaders were removed from their positions.
Ms. Stroop said that the emphasis on sin in evangelical churches makes it harder for women to speak freely, even to one another. “Sin theology adds extra layers of guilt, shame and fear to the patriarchal representation of gossip as a negative habit of women,” she told me. The result, she said, is that many victims and witnesses of sexual misconduct or abuse are “shamed into keeping quiet.”
Of course, demonizing gossip in order to protect power isn’t a problem of just the church. Rumors of the film producer Harvey Weinstein’s abusive behavior circled for years before reporters could confirm them in the fall of 2017. The #MeToo movement spawned lists online about abusive men in media, in academia and in politics. This was the codifying of gossip among women that already existed. The reporting of former senator Roy Moore’s inappropriate sexual relationships with teenage girls arose because a Washington Post reporter heard some gossip.
When I think back, most of the gossiping I did is unmemorable. It was about crushes or cafeteria food. It was neutral knowledge acquisition.
Evangelicals might soften their view on gossip by meditating on the New Testament gospel of Luke, chapter 24. In it, Mary Magdalene and other women find Jesus’ tomb empty and are told by two men that he has been resurrected. They run to tell the disciples, and Luke wrote that “they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.” The word “nonsense,” the biblical scholar Marianne Bjelland Kartzow writes, is translated from the Greek word “leros,” meaning “empty talk.”
It was gossip.
Kelsey McKinney (@mckinneykelsey) is a writer and a co-founder of Defector.com. Her novel “God Spare the Girls” was published in June.
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