PostSecret has been one of those curious phenomena that the internet age has wrought. What began as a simple blog that posts post-card confessions from readers has spawned four books of postcards and a national tour.
The popularity of PostSecret and the growth of other online confessional websites indicates a trend that is both promising and perilous.
On the one hand, PostSecret raises awareness of the very real need to confess our hurts and sins. While some secrets are happy secrets, the large majority are negative--as evidenced by the suicide help line information at the bottom of the page. Expunging these sins and pains depends upon externalizing them, and in doing so, recognizing that they are separate from our very selves. The online confessional movement is simply an acknowledgment of the fact that sin must be confessed. But to whom?
The Catholic rite of confession limited the audience to two: God and His representative on earth. Regardless of whether Catholic theology is correct in this instance, it does have one virtue: it is appropriately modest. By obligating us to confess and by limiting the audience of our confession to one, we are free to neither neglect confession nor revel in it.
Online confessions, on the other hand, expose our sins to faceless, nameless readers. In doing so, they prompt what can only be an artificial sense of cleansing: yes, the sin has been named publicly, but outside the context of an authentic community of grace. Yet confession is not simply for catharsis, but for restoration, which demands forgiveness.
In many ways, online confessions are a microcosm of the merits and limitations of the internet as a whole. The new technologies are a profound lens through which we can understand what humans need to flourish, and yet simultaneously woefully inadequate to meet those needs.
Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.