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.
To Tat or Not To Tat… Pastor Wilson, no doubt you will receive a million responses to the essay “Unleashing Your Inner Fundamentalist,” with the entire spectrum, outliers included, fully represented. I do not wish to add to the hypothetical “what abouts” that are inevitably (and unenviably) to be dumped upon you. So, with that said… I have it in mind that there once was a day that women did not shave their armpits and/or legs. In America even. Nor were they universally apt to paint their lips and/or fingernails red. Having not actually lived “back then” I cannot say… Read more »
It think it’s important not to use culture as the only line. We still have standards of modesty and gender distinctiveness that will draw lines no matter where the culture draws them. Halter tops come to mind.
As a little girl I longed to wear long, flowing dresses like I saw in classic children’s book illustrations and am so thankful that maxi skirts/dresses have become fashionable. Modest, beautiful, and for now, pretty mainstream. There’s your postmillenial paradigm of hope!
Re. “when did we cross the line”. This response requires more sussing out than can be done here, but the simplified versions is this: As the redeemed, we are to be pointing folks’ attention to Christ, not to ourselves. Modesty, in any particular context, would be dress and behavior that does not make us stand out, and so aids in our effort to point folks’ attention to Christ and not to ourselves. Where this breaks down and requires more lengthy thinking is to consider things like when the culture has dispensed entirely with clothing and continually works and plays in… Read more »
Makes sense…but since Wilson brought up tattoos–and we all know there’s a difference between an “arm sleeve,” a “tramp stamp,” and a little flower on the shoulder–when our culture (and the godly grandmothers among us) have deemed tattoos “respectable,” are we in the right place to declare that they are not, regardless? Or, as we have done with shaved legs, painted lips, etc., are we in the right place to say the cultural shift that our great-grandmothers once railed against is actually okay? Why have shaved legs, as an example, become fine and dandy–against the wishes of the godly elderly… Read more »
Paul argues that whatsoever is not of faith is sin. Read through Romans 14. Romans 13 also if you have time. It will help put this discussing into context. Without going into detail, it can be argued that Paul was actually discussing a willingness to disobey God. If you think God says not to do something (when he actually didn’t say not to do it), and you do it anyway, you have displayed a willingess to disobey God. Romans 13 and 14 make sense in the context that not everybody has the same level of native intelligence, education, and ability… Read more »
My approach would be to ask whether the issue is cultural or creational. If creational* then it is forbidden (such as cultic emasculation). If it is cultural then what matters is how something is currently seen, not so much how it was previously seen. This is easier when cultures change slowly, but less so when grandma remembers. So women wearing pants when doing so is the mark of the rebellious is inappropriate. Wearing them in the 21st century is of no concern. This means that Christians are not to be on the forefront of intentional trangressional cultural change. But they… Read more »
Colored hair may be of less consequence than some other things (for one thing, at least it is reversible) but when the color is one that no one ever naturally has it strikes me as more a creational issue than merely a cultural one. Of course the intent, of colored hair or anything else, matters even apart from how the thing is broadly perceived. I would also suggest the origins of a practice, or the reasons why a thing was once perceived negatively, can still matter even when most people have forgotten what were. Perhaps most people just need to… Read more »
But what is that to you? You follow Christ.
Thank you, Pastor Doug (and I hope you have a blessed and restful vacation). The details of most of the fads in discussion already here in the comments are a bit of a distraction. Honestly, no one really cares whether an outfit would have been considered proper in such and such a time or society. That is hardly besides the point and the wrong question entirely. As Wilson noted correctly, clothes are for communication. When a young and fashionable youth minister, a married lady mind you, is all covered in fashionable tattoos and in a fashionable summer dress missing so… Read more »
I agree wholeheartedly with you–I even up-voted your comment! So perhaps I was distracting even myself. So, allow me to try again, briefly this time. How are we to counsel a young maiden who wants to wear or do “fill in the blank” that we have deemed “unrespectable” when we are currently wearing or doing the sorts of things that our forebears deemed “unrespectable” in their day? Were they wrong? Are we right? Will we be regarded as wrong fifty years from now when everyone’s wearing tats anyway and the larger issue is general nudity? Truly, I do not want… Read more »
Drew, I think these are important questions. BPG is framing this in an internal way – the tatooed and immodest youth minister is flouting respectability in order to demonstrate her independence (or something). The warning should be against that sort of internal problem and if you have a heart that seeks God and wise counsel you won’t have this problem.. But, there is also an external way to view this. And that is where the questions you bring up fit in. Are their certain behaviors, decorations, modes of dress, and body modifications that are, or should be, off limits to… Read more »
Demo, do you see face and nail painting as akin to cosmetic surgery, which I know you oppose? The effect of women’s cosmetics can be modest–a delicate improvement on nature, done so skillfully that men might not even notice that makeup is being worn. Is your concern not with the modesty of the result but rather of the intention? I wear blush, not in the deluded hope of attracting male attention but because too often when I leave the house without it, people assume i am about to faint and act accordingly. If you are naturally deathly pale, wearing makeup… Read more »
Jill, No I think makeup and finger/toe nail polish is very different from cosmetic surgery (or other sorts of body modifications – i guess technically inserting beads under your skin or filing your teeth is cosmetic surgery, but is comes from different motives, I think). I am not necessarily opposed to all makeup and I am even less opposed to painting finger nails and toes, but I think we should consider things that our forefathers woukd have considered abominable and take them seriously. We should examine our lives. Makeup, in its current form, is pernicious, i believe. Look on any… Read more »
Jill, I wrote you a long response, but it seems that once again the software ate it…. Short story is, no I don’t think makeup is the same as body modification. But I do think we should be more thoughtful about the way we present and compoet ourselves, and give more weight to our forefathers. I think makeup has become a major marker of class and status in the way that clothing and jewelry once was. If you are unfortunate enough to see a picture of a celebrity on your news feed you will note that they have an artificial… Read more »
“tatting up your thirteen year virgin with dragon pictures”
Lol where do you get your information on pop culture? By never leaving the house in Moscow Idaho?
I reply to this comment, although it is not a true reply, from an undisclosed location in Europe.
The above means that Wilson somehow left the house.
If the Venus De Milo and the David are then mysteriously discovered, draped in Kilts, well yes, that could look like some sort of modesty crusade!😏
Maybe we should consider whether a modesty crusade would be good? As far as anyone knows Christendom didn’t create any nude statuary, and very little nude art, until the rennaissance when all things greco-roman pagan were exalted. Michaellangelo’s david was quite scandalous and immediately received a skirt of copper to cover him. This, and other means of covering, was removed and replaced many times. At the council of Trent the church declared that nudity should not be used in religious art. This was in part a response to effective protestant derision regarding the decadence and lustfullness of Roman art and… Read more »
“So after Josh Harris’ downfall and the failure of the purity movement, we’re going to start a modesty movement now?! I’ll take Jesus along with my bikini, tats, purple hair and nude paintings, thank you!!”
Not a serious response at all…just a typical reply if you floated this idea in the TGC or most anywhere else right now…outside of a few sites like this one and some very conservative Catholic/Orthodox spots.
I was really impressed by how the Ark Encounter handled the exhibits of Adam + Eve in the garden. I don’t remember details, but the execution managed to be realistic and yet not sexually suggestive, a feat not always achieved by strategically placed foilage.
I was thinking more like a humor crusade would be a good thing!
My dear mother simply couldn’t abide all those naked cherubs. As my taste in religious art grows more austere, I am beginning to see her point.
I believe this is what is known as a deliberately extreme example to make the point clear.
Now that I think about it, the David would still look pretty good in a kilt!😏
Wow! I guess my sense of humor has more precedent than I thought!😏👍
As I have said previously, Avoid the sin of transgressing the natural. Natural may be creational or it may be cultural; it is the transgressing that is the sin.
I am logged in with Google. Have we lost WordPress?
Oh, dear. I hope not for good. ☹️
Yeah, and I don’t want the Zuckverse or Googleverse tentacles into yet another thing I interact with. I accept the fact that I’m deeply entwined with them, but does it have to be everything?
At least now we can edit and upvote without logging in, and unless we get a WordPress or Disqus option back, I’m staying logged out.
Just thought you might like to know that you have two of John R Rice’s great-grandsons enrolled in your high school. 😏
This discussion is much appreciated. There is much wisdom and balance in realizing that modesty is an attitude that someone must have. A harlot in a garbage bag isn’t modest – although she may be physically covered. Modesty is a disposition of the heart, a humility that seeks for God to be seen, not self. And as much as we point to women as the culprits of our immodest culture, the blame falla squarely on the shoulders of men. Fathers – for failing to teach their daughters what true modesty looks like. Teachers of the word – for not teaching… Read more »
To the droves that will keep wasting keystrokes on some notion of relative modesty determined by culture, you need to wake up: It’s the wrong game; the kind of game an alcoholic plays when he “wonders” how much more harm another beer might do. As Doug so ably said, The bonnet-wearing fundamentalist, on the other hand, is playing the right game: discerning modesty and avoiding the line. I would argue, in addition to Doug’s point, that clothing goes beyond communication. Clothing, as a subject of the greater mandate to love the weaker brother/sister, is a matter of war against sin.… Read more »
Some makeup these days makes a person look like they are part of transhumanism lite.