11/01/2007 09:52 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Subtext of Confession

THE BISHOP paused. He glanced back at me sitting there. He seemed to look directly into my soul, his eyes intense, passionate.

My eyes dropped. I studied a snag in my blue double-knit pants, realizing that I had caught it that morning at the table bench as I argued with my sister over a piece of gum.

"Confession is good for the soul," I suddenly heard him say.

I looked up to see two sisters standing in front of the altar. They had come to seek the church's pardon. They stood there quietly - one small, the other great with child. Their shoulders hunched in humiliation.

"Sin separates us from God," said the bishop. "The Lord hates evil but loves the sinner. 'Wherefore, come out from among them, and be ye separate,' saith the Lord, 'and touch not the unclean thing.'"
~ From the novel Schwartz Creek

I GREW UP in a separated religious culture. When I turned 25, I fought my way out.

I wish I'd had a road map for life, as Francis McDormand's character says in the film Wonder Boys. But no one does. You have to draw your own.

I left the familiar. I quickly got lost. Only in the last few years have I located my true home - among a worldwide community of Mennonites. Only lately have I located my passion - writing.

But then again, I've always been a late bloomer.

SUBTEXT - WHAT IS ACTUALLY being said beneath the surface of words. Figuring out what someone is actually trying to tell you.

I'm not the dullest knife in the drawer. I have my little awards I won during my undergraduate and graduate years in college. Even while teaching. But before 2003, I didn't understand subtext. Not until screenwriting teacher Robert McKee taught me that people don't say what they mean.

A GOOD FRIEND of mine recently told me that when he was a boy living within a conservative Mennonite community in Holmes County, Ohio, he and his classmates used to play a game called "Children of Israel."

In this game, the boys were the leaders. The girls served them. And the boys took their position very seriously. They were preparing for life.

At its heart, these children were struggling with the same basic issue that cheerleaders and football players face in high school: how men and women should relate to each other within a culture.

HOW MANY SITCOMS depend upon one basic truth: that men and women communicate very differently?

This hit me as I sat at the Urth Cafe in Melrose on Tuesday night with two friends of mine - one a young woman, 22, who's heading to D.C. and its world of politics - and the other a dear friend, 75, who is wise.

The young woman pulled out a terse goodbye email from a male friend: precisely three lines long. She showed it to me. She had no idea what it meant. Or so she said. So I tried to explain. I told her that men and women speak in two different languages: Male and Female.

OUR DIFFERENCES ARE GROUNDED in culture, I admit. Why these differences exist is another discussion.

But if you're a man, you wish a woman would simply say what she means - why can't she just tell you what she wants? And what does she mean when she says you're not very good at intimacy?

If you're a woman, you tend to ponder deeply over that goodbye email, wondering what he really means. You cannot accept that the email might mean exactly what it says, because you would never write one that way. So you call your friends, obsess over what he said on the phone, read them the email he sent you.

Men tend to approach subjects forthrightly. They exchange facts about baseball, or football, or politics. They show mastery of life by reciting statistics - drawing conclusions. Life is a courtroom. I'm Denny Crane. What's up with those Lakers?

Women approach their world relationally. They tend to express the extreme ranges of emotion. They tell stories. If you wish to connect with them, you too must share your feelings.

If you're a man, your significant other expects you to figure out this game. Women call this communication. It's all part of being a good boyfriend or husband: reading her actions, subtle gestures, and thoughts - rather than the words. It's not hard. Just pay attention.

I saw this conflict clearly while teaching for six years at The Archer School for Girls. There, if one of the girls (or teachers) started crying as she shared her feelings, it was bad form not to join her. I usually exercised bad form.

FOR ME, LIFE HAS been even more complex than the average American male. As a conservative Mennonite, I was taught - no, believed - that it is a virtue to say exactly what you mean to say: your yes should mean yes, and your no should mean no.

This isn't true, by the way.

ADD A FINAL LAYER to our communication difficulties: in language lies control. The fact that men and women speak different languages means that they're always fighting for control.

And control kills love.

Thus, the spine of my novel Schwartz Creek: We learn to love as we give up control.

THIS MUST BE why I am so moved by the film A River Runs Through It. It has the same theme. The older brother only understands true love after he realizes that he cannot save his younger brother, or fix his problems. And this happens years after the younger brother is dead.

How to love unconditionally? Evolutionary wiring makes us fight to stay in control of our world. But what if we wish to transcend evolution?

For example, the cross has been interpreted for years as a symbol of sacrifice. But if so, what did Jesus actually sacrifice? The late John Howard Yoder argues in The Politics of Jesus that Jesus' death on the cross was not about sacrifice, but instead, a rejection of all forms of violence, including the violence of emotional control.

THUS, IT IS IRONIC that Christianity, which claims to be about Jesus' willing sacrifice on the cross, has spawned the most controlling religious organization on the planet.

Jesus advocated giving up control. Giving away your cloak and your coat, letting people slap you on both cheeks.

Then he modeled this thesis by willingly going to his death. It wasn't an easy death. Crucifixion by the Romans was a horrific way to die. So what lesson did the Church take from all this?

Approximately 300 years later, they set up in a city on seven hills: Rome. And they quickly learned to control their world, rather than exposing their cheeks.

About a thousand years later, a group of radical Anabaptists decided they wanted to break from Rome. And Holy Mother tried to stop them.

WHILE DEVELOPING a horror/romance screenplay, I had to research the Inquisition. Imagine my delight when I realize that without Rome's ceremonial approach to faith, we wouldn't have the horror film. It's the most Christian of all genres. It depends on superstitious rituals - and the meaning we attach to them - to create fear.

The church did nasty stuff to my recalcitrant ancestors: ripping out their tongues, hanging them upside down, tightening thumb-screws in order to get to the truth, shoving red-hot pokers into various body cavities. Should I go on?

In spite of all this, the Anabaptist movement survived, evolving into the Amish and Mennonites.

THE CONSERVATIVE MENNONITES split off from the Mennonites in the 1950s. And they learned very quickly about the power of guilt and humiliation.

In my home community, confession became a ritual, part of the process of getting ready for communion twice a year. It took place the Sunday before communion.

Men and women lined up. Each went alone into a small room at the front of the sanctuary. There, after confessing any outstanding sins to the minister (depending on the sensitivity of his or her conscience), each repeated the same sentence: I have peace with God and my fellow men, and would like to take communion.

But there was another ritual that came before these private confessions. This was when the bishop opened up the service for a public time of confession. Anyone could share. Some confessions were planned, others unplanned.

These included confessions of sexual sin. Fornication was a different type of sin, the bishop said. The act of fornication destroyed the body of Christ in a unique way. Thus, the bishop was most severe with the sins of the flesh.

"Confession is good for the soul," he would say in the silence.

THIS ACT of public confession - that's what really intrigues me. What was the subtext?

People explore these issues in the underworld of BDSM (Bondage, Dominance, Sadism, and Masochism) - by playing literally with sexuality and power. When they start their journey, few understand the impact these issues have had on their lives.

So what was going on in my conservative Mennonite community underneath those times of confession?

WHY, FOR EXAMPLE, did our bishop demand that those two young women bare their sexual lives before a crowded church on the biggest event of the half-year? Why not to God, or perhaps privately to the bishop?

And the most obvious question of all: where were their partners?

If this took place in the world of BDSM, the observers would parse that scene quickly. The preacher enjoyed watching these two young women humiliated, they would conclude.

But that couldn't be, could it? Wasn't the bishop a good man who wanted the best for his flock? Surely, he used this kind of public humiliation only to discourage similar behavior.

To anyone who has watched Law and Order, or seen a priest brought up on charges of molestation, or watched church leaders obstruct justice - this kind of naïve comment would create a moment of knowing laughter, followed by inner pain.

They know better, now. Too many of their own kindly, caring but strict fathers, who shepherded them within the many Catholic parishes across America, were found to be ravening wolves in sheepskin.

Yes, they would know exactly what that scene was about.

AS A YOUNG MAN, I thought confession was just about being honest.

But today, as I ponder my memories of that scene, I wonder. Could those confession rituals really be about people's need to submit to a certain type of punishment? Why were people encouraged to expose themselves? Why did they choose to endure public humiliation?

The community demanded that you trust them enough to bare yourself. Those who understood the game knew what to confess - things that didn't fatally expose them.

Knowing what I know now, I wonder. Were we being taught to enjoy punishment? Or at least taught to enjoy watching it happen?

As my bishop said, "Confession is good for the soul."

WHILE I WAS TEACHING at Catholic Central High School in Steubenville, Ohio, I was fortunate enough to make friends with a young priest just out of divinity school. He was a kindly soul, brilliant, trustworthy.

I remember asking him how he was able to keep secret the many confessions he had heard.

He explained to me the significance of the confessional seal. Repeating anything heard under the seal was a grave offense. So grave it would take absolution from the Holy Father himself.

For my friend, being able to keep the secrets of the confessional was a gift from God.

"I never remember them," he told me. "I forget everything I hear in the confessional booth."
Was he speaking literally or figuratively?

FOR MY UNDERGRADUATE senior thesis, I wrote about a revival that took place in 1974 and wreaked havoc on my community. While researching the event, I discovered that my bishop had kept a diary of all the confessions he had heard over the years.

Naturally, I was interested in finding out what had happened to his diaries. But by then, the bishop had passed away. I was told that the family could not allow me to use it as a resource for my paper.

Surely, I understood.

I did at the time. Today, I'm not so sure.

"CONFESSION IS GOOD for the soul," my bishop liked to say.

But I wonder, what did he really mean?