Why yes. Your skirt is too short… and other thoughts on modesty

Modesty. For many Christians, especially in the US, the word conjures up unwelcome images of unfashionable and uncomfortable clothing choices imposed and monitored by strict and legalistic preachers.   For others, it is seen as a way of controlling womens’ sexuality and of enforcing the ‘Madonna – whore’ dichotomy that someone (probably in a ‘studies’ programme) decided is a patriarchal meme that validates the suppression / oppression of women. There are ‘good girls’ and ‘bad girls’ and ‘good girls’ don’t dress like that. Such a bifurcated view of female sexuality is rejected by sex-positive feminists as being inherently oppressive of women.

Now to be honest, I am not too familiar with the various shades of meanings attached to these terms. I was fortunately spared having to go through any ‘studies’ programme at university and am consequently delightfully ignorant of a great many things. I first read the ‘Madonna-whore’ dichotomy mentioned in the comments section of some article I read (which I cannot now find), but which basically was railing against something called ‘purity culture’. An article by Sarah Bessey  and a sympathetic response by Jen Pollock Michel in Christianity Today were part of the discussion.   Then there was this article that dealt specifically with the question of modesty and the Christian woman..

Taken all together with a number of other recent articles, books, and blogposts, a picture begins to emerge of Christian women revolting against certain assumed norms of behaviour that seem to be part and parcel of the evangelical sub-culture and the double-standard that obtains for men and women.

What to make of all this? Well, I cannot really answer all the questions surrounding purity cultures and virgin-whore dichotomies, but I can say that, all protestations to the contrary – your skirt is probably too short. Let me explain.

Working on college campuses, I’ve watched as women have embraced fashion trends that make simply walking through campus akin to perusing soft-core porn. I’ve seen women embrace styles and trends that were formerly seen only on prostitutes. I’ve read men describe church services as the ‘Sunday morning night-club’ because of what women wear there. I’ve counselled Christian men who dread the coming of warm weather because of the barrage of temptation with which they will inevitably be faced, and the guilt and shame heaped on them for not ‘guarding their eyes’ or for somehow ‘making women responsible for their lust’. And I’ve scratched my head in wonder that I have to advise Christian women going for short-term mission that skin tight jeans and skirts half-way up their thighs are not appropriate dress.

At the same time, I’ve listened to and read how many countless times of the need for Christian women to not ‘cause their brother’s to stumble’ by their dress. I’ve also read of the frustration many women feel about this, as they (rightfully) point to the responsibilities men have to manage their own sexuality and take responsibility for their own choices.

In all of this, the discussion has almost always revolved around the male response to female sexuality. I have rarely seen anything about what I believe lies closer to the heart of issues of modesty in dress – vanity.

In almost every case wide numbers of women have embraced these styles of clothing because of the fact that it appeals to their sinful nature and their vanity.

(Cue howls of protest from the gallery)

Yes, yes I know I know. I’m a misogynist patriarchal sexist who wants to utilise religion to subvert and suppress women.

So what do I mean? Well simply put women generally like to dress in ways that enhance their visual / sexual appeal. Women want to be seen as desirable and attractive to men (that is to men they like and/or deem to be an attractive catch. Other men not so much). Women like to look pretty, and it usually makes them feel good to look good. And as far as I can tell this is a universal trait, equally apparent among ‘decadent westerners’ and ‘conservative Muslims’ (if you doubt it then you’ve never really observed Muslim women, covered nearly from head to toe in swaths of fabric manage to somehow rock a runway-worthy fashion sense while not showing a stitch of skin beyond their hands and face.)

I don’t have any problem with this and I think it is a good thing; a God given thing even. Women like to look good and be appealing. Wonderful.

Like all good things however this one has been warped and twisted by the Fall. So what was a good gift has become a nightmare. The result is women caught in a never-ending vanity arms (and legs, and thighs, and mid-drift…) race with other women, mostly falsely projected images of idealised women, that they can never meet and that leaves them dissatisfied and perpetually unhappy and looking for someone to blame.

The advert comes out, the skirts on the rack are shorter this year and vanity kicks in. One doesn’t want to be unappealing and wearing a longer skirt would be unappealing and to be appealing is to be ‘sexy’ and to show more and more skin and well everyone else is wearing it and it really can’t be so bad if that is what everyone else is wearing and who wants to look like an old woman (because old women aren’t sexy whatever else they might be) and it’s the sexist patriarchy that is responsible for all this and, and and…

Annnd you know what? It isn’t men or the ‘patriarchy’ that drives the immodest clothing arms race. Its other women. The women that women compare themselves to in the media, among their network of friends, and the woman in their heads that tell them that to be appealing or beautiful or desirable is to do this to wear that.

And the church comes in with teaching that generally is more harmful than helpful by deflecting the issue into one of women being responsible somehow for men’s sins – a stance which simultaneously infantilises and dehumanises men by making them little more than walking gonads AND avoids dealing substantively with women’s sins and sexual power. It fails to address the fact that yes, women who are seen to be ‘sexy’ have power; power that is used to extract unearned privileges that men and unattractive or older women do not have. It neglects the fact that women have and do often use sex, sexiness and the male attention it generates for their own advantage. It forgets that women are sinners and that the admonition to modest dress in the Bible is made without any reference at all to men, but is made in reference to holiness and prayerfulness, watchfulness and submission.

So yes, when you pour yourself into that pair of skin-tight jeans don’t deluded yourself into thinking it’s because they are comfortable. They aren’t and besides, – there are plenty of comfortable clothes that don’t allow me to trace every part of your figure so closely that I can see the outline of the birthmark on your upper left thigh. And when you put on that super short skirt, please don’t pretend that it’s because it’s hot since the men all around you are equally hot and they don’t wear things like that and the only men who do so are gay men and they’re wearing them for the same reason you really are. Admit the truth of how it appeals to your vanity and your carnal nature. Admit it and repent.

 

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Somebody ought to testify

“First giving honor to God, who is the head of my life.  To the pastor, first lady, all the ministers, deacons, mothers, missionaries, saints & friends…”

I’m sorry, you must have thought I was talking about this kind of testimony:

Testimony Before Congress
Testimony Before Congress

What I really mean is quite different, and its related to my post on Things I Miss About the Black Church.

Giving a testimony in church is one of the most amazing and wonderful expressions of participatory worship you might imagine.    Each person that stands to testify gives a song, an inspiring story, shares a prayer request, exhorts the congregation,  unburdens themselves from the struggles of the week and allows the whole community of God’s people to laugh with them, cry with them, rejoice with them and yes, sometimes even roll their eyes at them.

It was funny to see the concerns of one group of folks as they prepared for a testimony service that is upcoming.  Being reformed, there is of course a great deal of course about maintaining proper order in the midst of it all.  One quote:

one testimony service in the past had been billed, at least to the worship leaders, as a “Spirit-Filled Free-for-All.” A few songs were chosen to start things up, and then … whatever. There is something exciting and spontaneous and … all right, authentic about that. I get it. I even like it. But yikes! The Spirit leads us into freedom, but is it freedom for “all”? Freedom to do anything? Does the Spirit work only in the direction of liberation from perceived stricture and structure? Surely this is appealing—especially to young people. But doesn’t the Holy Spirit also work, as in Genesis 1, in the direction of creating order from chaos? Finding true freedom only in slavery to Christ? How do we balance these two?

I find their questions humorous, but understandable coming from their perspective.  What if the spirit gets out of control?  But it was the next section that made me laugh:

How do we, as a worship team, as musicians, prepare for such a service? Do we choose no songs at all ahead of time? Do we rehearse anything? Do we wait and hope for students to suggest songs that we know? Do we pray for the Spirit to move us in the moment, and move us to play the same song in the same key? What if the Spirit tells us, like that old joke has it, “Oops. You should done more planning.”

And what happens if someone’s testimony turns inappropriate? We can’t control what folks will and won’t say…

Well now that’s just part of the fun of a testimony service.  They could perhaps learn from these folks about how to manage a testimony service:

It may be perhaps difficult to understand what’s being said, but the scene in that church is pointedly NOT chaos, and there are rules of engagement that differ a bit from one church to another, but some which are commonly understood. Testimony service has a rhythm and flow all its own.  And musicians are just along for the ride.

Allow me to tell you some of these rules:

1) The testimony leader (usually an up and coming fiery preacher, or a missionary, or someone who can keep the crowd going) conducts the service.  If there aren’t a lot of people waiting to testify, you can just stand up and start, but if two or three stand up at a time, the testimony leader tells who can go first.

2) The testimony will also shut down the testimony if it goes too long or veers off into “crazy.”  They usually do this by at first saying things like, “Amen, Amen.  Praise God sister” in a calming voice.  They may also interrupt at what seems to be a pause in the testimony and make some remarks before moving on to the next person.  If its really bad they will collaborate with the organist to start a praise song to shut you down.

3) The testimony leader may take over your singing of a song if the singing is really bad

4) Your testimony should begin with giving honor to God in some way, acknowledging the leaders of the congregation and the pastor (whether present or absent) and should end with some sort of, “You all pray for me”

5) It is perfectable permissible to lead out in a song during testimony service, especially if you know the words and can sing.  but even if you don’t people will try to help you out.

6) Your testimony cannot take longer than about 3 minutes unless it is REALLY good and folks get to dancing and shouting from it.  If folks start doing this, then you are not permitted to come back at the end of the shouting session to resume your testimony unless YOU were the one dancing, and then only to give a closing.

I will close with a typical testimony that I might have heard growing up in the Universal Christian Holiness Church (yes, I know our church was the one holy catholic church)
“Praise the Lord saints! Praise the Lord saints!  To the pastor, pulpit guest, deacons, missionaries, saints and friends. Truly we give honor to God today for all that he has been to us.  Down through the years, God has been good to me.  Earlier this week I was thinking back on some times when I thought I wasn’t gonna make it.  Thought I was gonna lose my mind.  But God!  But God!  Even this week, he keeps on blessing me, in spite of all the things I’ve done.  And I thank him for it. He’s been better than good.  You know I’ve been so worried lately; so many people being laid off, and the economy is down.  But God continues to provide for me and my family.   I think about all the young people running the streets and getting into trouble, and then just this week some of my nephews stopped by the house, and they aren’t doing all that they should be doing, but God has kept them from dangers seen and unseen.  They could be out here in the streets, but God continues to have mercy.  He’s been so good, I just can’t tell it all.  Pray for me saints, as I’m traveling next week that God would give me traveling mercies.  And pray that the Lord would help me to hold on until the end.  Y’all pray my strength in the Lord.”

What happens to a dream deferred…?


Some of you who have followed this blog may remember a rather odd posting some time back wherein I recounted an even odder dream starring Eugene Cho and Wayne Park. Here’s the recap:

In the dream, I and Eugene are walking through what appears to be conference center of some kind, but which really looks like a student center on a college campus. As we walk I am explaining to him something about this “event” that we are apparently both a part of and which I am evidently in charge of coordinating. While walking through we pass by a number of rooms in which various student gospel choirs are preparing themselves for a concert. We also passed by one of my current student who I recognized only from the back of his head, as he was busy studying. Then (this is really weird) we passed by Wayne Park, who I have also never met, but who is sitting with his laptop typing something. Eugene greets him, and I am surprised they know each other, but say nothing as I remember that they do indeed know one another. All the time we’re walking, I keep thinking to myself, “Eugene is a lot shorter than I thought he would be,” and “wow, his hair is really interesting.”

We finally arrive at “the room” where Eugene’s presentation is to take place. It is a very nice room set up amphitheater style with large red very modern sofa type seating arranged in a semi-circle. Eugene comments that it is just like his church, but I am confused because I thought his church met in some other kind of space, but again I say nothing. Of course I’ve never seen his church either. He leaves the room to go get some “equipment,” and I again wonder why he isn’t taller than I thought he would be. My last thought before waking? I really like this room.

Well this dream is a dream deferred no longer as I had the opportunity (nay only a few short moments ago) to actually meet Eugene Cho while he was at a conference in Knoxville. Some of the interesting similarities:
– the conference he was attending was on a college campus
– the conference was in a city in my “territory” (i.e. I could be thought of as “hosting” him)
– Eugene is shorter than I thought he would be (which is weird because I had no idea of his height whatsoever)
– his hair is really interesting
– we ate a restaurant with red chairs

Perhaps I’m a prophet!!!

Anyway… it was great fun meeting Eugene in person. We had some good conversation simply getting to know one another in person as opposed to through the blogosphere and I left the conversation feeling a bit sharpened in my own journey. We discussed some people we know in common, and reflected a bit on the temptations of valuing the appearance of wisdom (or spirituality or depth) over actually being wise. I hope to soon travel to the west coast to take him up on his offer of coffee.

Cold Shower

A cold shower has often been recommended as a quick way of dampening the overly ardent passion of young men. As a single man, such advice strikes me as dubious at best, and it is advice that I’ve never taken, at least not intentionally.

Perhaps our Lord believes that I need more encouragement towards good and godly thoughts as my water heater has apparently broken. So now all my water is cold. However, since it broke back in April, and I spent the summer in less than first world conditions, and its hot here, I’ve actually grown accustomed to colder water. Oh how pressing the luxuries of life seem when they first go missing, and how unimportant they are upon further reflection.