Hey, Have You Heard the Latest?

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Here’s another good reason to read the Bible regularly and think about it hard: It will help you avoid succumbing to pleasantly written nonsense.

Today’s example comes from that fine American magazine, The Atlantic. In this month’s number, a breezy Ben Healy tells us, in his come-hither headline, that “Gossip Is Good.” The subhead tells us that we haven’t misunderstood his meaning: “The surprising virtue of talking behind people’s backs.”

Healy acknowledges up front that gossip has a bad reputation. He quotes authorities as varied as advice columnist Ann Landers (“the faceless demon that breaks hearts and ruins careers”) and the Talmud (“the three-pronged tongue” that kills all three people involved: the teller, the listener, and the subject of the gossip). Even Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal gets invoked (“If people really knew what others said about them, there would not be four friends left in the world”).

Sounds pretty toxic and best avoided, right?

Not so fast. Healy sets these (old, outdated, outmoded) authorities aside and proceeds to shower us with Actual Truth—namely, the assured findings of social science. (That’s subversive teaching #1: It doesn’t matter what wise people have said. Focus on what social science claims instead.)

He trades, alas, in equivocation. He doesn’t define gossip as Ann Landers, the Talmud, and Blaise Pascal surely would have: injurious talk, conversation that selfishly targets another to the advantage of the gossipers.

This is the definition used in the Bible: “I am the subject of gossip for those who sit in the gate, and the drunkards make songs about me” (Ps. 69:12). “A gossip reveals secrets; therefore do not associate with a babbler” (Prov. 20:19); “They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips” (Rom. 1:29); and “They are not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not say” (I Tim. 5:13).

That really sounds irredeemably evil, doesn’t it? And it’s not what Healy is talking about—except, it turns out, it is.

Gossip, to be fair, has another proper definition, according to the definitive American dictionary (the unabridged Merriam Webster): “rumor, report, tattle, or behind-the-scenes information especially of an intimate or personal nature” or “light familiar chatty talk or writing.” And that kind of conversation, Healy assures us, is commended by social science.

Well, no kidding. Still, let’s see what he says the scientists say about friendly chat. “Positive gossip inspired self-improvement efforts.” And it takes the place of primate grooming in building and reinforcing social bonds. But I think we already knew that about sociable conversation, didn’t we?

Here’s subversive teaching #2: negative gossip is good, also. To be sure, Healy says, “a surprisingly small share of it—as little as 3 to 4 percent—is actually malicious.” Silly old Bible, and Pascal, and Talmud, and Landers: worrying about a mere tincture of poison!

But even then: “If two people share negative feelings about a third person, they are likely to feel close to teach other than they would if they both felt positively about him or her.” This might be interesting, especially imagining how psychologists would actually measure such things, but the conclusion merely confirms what your misanthropic old uncle says about human nature, right?

“Negative gossip made people prouder of themselves”—but, from a Christian point of view, puffing up people’s pride doesn’t count as a desirable outcome.

“Negative gossip can also have a prosocial effect on those who are gossiped about. Researchers at Stanford and UC Berkeley found that once people were ostracized from a group due to reputed selfishness, they reformed their ways in an attempt to regain the approval of the people they had alienated.” This might indeed show the benefit of enforcing prudent church discipline—or merely attest to the baleful conformist pressures of a high school clique. Again, no surprise there, and “prosocial” is left conveniently vague: what kind of “society” and “sociality” is being advanced?

The Bible recognizes people who trade in such confusion: “Ah, you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Ah, you who are wise in your own eyes, and shrewd in your own sight!” (Isa. 5:20-21)—and it declares that the end of such people is the wrath of God.

Best, then, to be quite clear about gossip. In the Bible’s lexicon, it’s just bad. And people who engage in it are not “prosocial,” but instead weaken healthy social bonds, strengthen wicked ones, and harm everyone involved.

Light, friendly chat? Who can be against that? Certainly not the Bible…so long as it doesn’t, in fact, blithely and ever-so-companionably slide into slandering people, disclosing secrets, and injuring both reputations and relationships. Then let’s call it what it is, despite the confused and confusing insouciance of The Atlantic:

Verbal cancer.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).