[Preface. One of the temptations of blogging is to post things before they're ready. I operate at two extremes of writing - writing blogs which are published immediately and reacted to immediately; and novels, which incubate for years and perhaps never see the light of day. I took down my last post on testimonies because I wasn't happy with it - and yet I had a lot of comments about it; I suspect it's an important topic. So here's my second attempt.]
The testimony is an interesting evangelical genre – a dance between revelation and disclosure. They’re almost always good news stories, and although the gospel is, by definition, good news, telling the story of our lives as if it is good news in itself is surely a temptation to displace the gospel.
Testimonies are meant to confess to some kind of sin, and the overcoming of that sin by renewed piety or a fresh experience of God. The sin itself should be hinted at, but in general terms. (Unless it’s an acceptable sin. Workaholism is an acceptable sin; most forms of pride also are. Sex and drugs less so.) So while I might tend to think badly of a testimony that avoids being honest or specific about sin, perhaps that’s the only safe approach – because people who are too specific about their sins gain a certain infamy.
The other thing about testimonies is that they capture a certain moment in someone’s life, a point at which their life story can be narrated as one of triumph, the victory of faith over sin and doubt. One tells this story and is cheered on by the congregation – because that’s what they want to hear.
But what about the low point of a person’s life, the point at which sin and doubt are dominant? That doesn’t tend to get narrated; the person at that point doesn’t tend to get asked to give a testimony. Our churches are too keen to hear people’s good news stories, reinforcing a culture of success – when the reality of most people’s lives is one of struggle.
Testimonies, like Facebook, should encourage others and build them up. I fear that sometimes, like Facebook, they can paint an idealized version of people, and provoke envy or inadequacy.
Version one of my post received this interesting comment from Kerri:
I grew up in a Pentecostal church and came to be repulsed by people’s testimonies as there seemed to be a sort of contest about whose past was the most lurid and of course the repetition of stories gave some church members the chance to self aggrandise in a most perverse way. However as an adult I did worship in a Uniting Church for seven years where testimonies were not given at all and found myself wondering about how people had come to be there and what experiences they had had that had lead them to decide to become a Christian. There must be some place for a person’s story to be heard.
I’m with her; she said it well!