This post originally ran August 5, 2009.
Suppose that John R. Rice, during his Sword of the Lord days, accidentally took a couple hits of acid, and prophesied wildly about what would happen down the road if women quit wearing their hair in a bun, and started wearing slacks like crazy. Suppose he got really out there, and promised us all that the day would soon come when men would be marrying men, and women women. He said that people would begin paying surgeons to cut perfectly good organs off so they could justify wearing a dress, and that Secular Man, in solemn assembly, would pronounce the results to be a surgically-altered good. And the evening and the morning were the weird day.
Suppose he had done that. The results have refuted his predictions exactly . . . how? If we added up all the dire predictions that the fundamentalists have made down through the years, what about them didn’t happen? Fundamentalists are the cassandras of American cultural life. Back when everything seemed so stable in its Eisenhowerishness, the fundamentalist would say that everything was soon to be headed for hell in a handbasket. Ho, ho, ho was the cogent reply. Now here we are bouncing along in the handbasket, with some of the more gifted of our number getting grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities to puke over the side of the handbasket as we bounce along. “This small performance is one I like to call ‘Seasickness Against the Absolute.’ Thank you, thank you!” And a fundamentalist in the corner says, “You know, I don’t see how you can call that art.” Everybody, all together now, ho, ho, ho!
Fast forward to our day. When people object to tattoos, or jewels stuck in odd places, and someone objects to the objection by saying that back in the day they used to object to slacks for women, what about this makes it seem like a strong argument? Now before anyone rushes to the keyboard in order to type I can’t believe . . ., let me say that I do believe the fundamentalist argument is simplistic and inadequate. But compared to the arguments for getting the tats and other badges of the moment, the fundamentalists come off looking like Derrida on one of his subtler days.
A fundamentalist woman in a sun bonnet and a gingham dress, who gets a wicker basket to go pick blueberries, so she can bake her man a pie, with a golden crust, the kind he likes, may be a little bit hokey for your tastes, and certainly for mine. But at least she is trying to achieve an effect that the Bible says women should strive for — she wants to be modest and discrete. She is not trying to achieve an effect that the Bible never urges women to strive for, as in “edgy.” Or “provocative, but not too skanky for an evangelical.” She may be playing the instrument badly, but at least she is playing the right one. Suppose the Bible tells women to play the piano. This does not make every woman an accomplished pianist, but I do have respect for every woman who practices the piano, blunders and all. But the women who show up with a leaky concertina they got at Goodwill are trying to do something else. In other words, let us make a distinction between doing the right thing badly, and doing the wrong thing well. And, as Herodotus might say, so much for the fundamentalists.
Let’s talk for a moment about establishment worldliness, as distinct from organic food, tattooed, burlap shopping bag, NPR-listening worldliness. There is country club worldliness, and there is earth muffin worldliness. When I tag tats and odd jewelry as worldliness, as I have most certainly done, the response is often that women who have their nails done by Pierre at the salon for six hundred dollars a minute can be worldly too. There is a two-fold response to this. The first is sure, worldliness is quite possible there, and at this ostentatious level, inevitable. But what is that to you? You follow Christ. The fact that she shouldn’t be at the salon doesn’t mean that you get to go to the tattoo parlor. And secondly, this kind of monied worldliness is the result of a real failure in the right area, as opposed to success in the wrong one. Bear with me for a minute.
The Bible calls upon women to be sober (Tit. 2:4) and discrete (Tit. 2:5). They are to live in a way that provides no occasion for others to speak reproachfully (1 Tim. 5:14). Their demeanor should be characterized by shamefacedness (1 Tim. 2:9) and sobriety (1 Tim. 2:9). It is important to note that the word translated shamefacedness is aidous, which does not denote an Islamic browbeaten demeanor. That said, neither does it constitute an invitation to go ahead and buy a halter top that is two sizes too small. The word is not that elastic, unlike the halter top. In this same verse, the ESV says that women should wear respectable apparel. The word is one of those judgment-call words.
Who makes the judgments? The Bible says that older women should teach younger women how to achieve that effect, an effect we can sum up with the word respectable. Strikingly, it does not call upon the younger women to push the envelope until the older women finally say something critical about it. Again, the older women are to help the younger women try to achieve a modest respectability. The younger women are not called upon to demand the older women prove that something or other is not positively disreputable. According to the Bible, respectability is the goal. This means that the wife of the country club president is being worldly as she tries too hard to be respectable, with results that are too flashy. And she shouldn’t do that — she is playing the piano poorly. But a woman who is schlepping around the supermarket in sweat pants is playing the concertina, and it doesn’t matter if she is playing poorly or well.
Clothing and jewelry are all forms of communication. They are a form of language. Some elements of communication and language are universal — such as laughter or weeping. Other forms are culturally determined, such as a phonetic collection of sounds that mean an obscenity in one language and doorknob in another. When someone inveighs against tattoos, as I am more than willing to do, the resultant dispute often gets dragged into a debate over whether there is a deep structure to this, like laughter (as I believe), or not. But this usually happens with the objectors bringing an assumption that if it is not a universal sort of thing, then it is entirely arbitrary, and nobody can say anything about it. But the fact that English obscenities are not obscenities in every language does not grant one the right to stand on the street corner, yelling them at the passing motorists.
There is a deep, human way of showing respect, and there are particular linguistic ways of doing so. The Bible requires us to use both and to honor both. And the Bible says that younger women should learn about respectability from older women, and not the other way around. Any system of propriety-definition that has to say that the younger women know more about it than do the older women has scratched at the starting line. Whether we are talking about creational language or cultural language, showing honor and respect are the fixed goals. We shouldn’t be distracted by the creational/cultural debate such that we allow in a different goal entirely just so long as “it is not a sin in every culture.” A Christian woman may not adorn herself in a way that is flippant, lazy, disrespectful, or irreverent. And if she has an honest question about something that seems on the line, she should ask her grandmother, not her fourteen-year-old cousin.
Now I am prepared to argue that bodily mutilation and tatting is a necessary manifestation of cultural unbelief (Lev. 19:27-28; 1 Kings 18:28; Gal. 5:12). Idols always bring the knives with them. God created man in His image, like a priceless Durer woodcut, and so the devil brings the marker pens to doodle with. But suppose for a moment that this is all wrong, and that hypothetically and postmillennially there could be a culture someday in which tatting up your thirteen year virgin with dragon pictures was a practice that God the Father thought was swell, and about time the Holy Spirit added, encouragingly. It still remains true that in our culture, in English, nothing says trailer trash like a halter top and a tat. And when you get a nose stud, you are a lot closer to Brittany and Paris Hilton than you were before, and farther away from all the fifty-year-old church ladies. Which, come to think of it, may have been the whole point.