I want to share some new thoughts and summarize old thoughts on one of my oft discussed topics – Christian Modesty, based on some discussions I’ve had of late. First, I want to re-iterate some facts: 1) Men are visually oriented to be sexually attracted to exposed women’s body parts. 2) There are generally recognized body parts that have special intimate energy, as A) recognized by the law and B) harnessed by those whose express desire is to titillate. 3) Exposed and partially exposed intimate parts are harnessed by the marketplace to the tune of uncountable amounts of money in a vast “distraction industry” that traffics in men’s sexual nature. 4) Any serious attempt to take a culture captive to the Gospel cannot be evaluated merely on what people say. A culture must be evaluated based on what people both say and do – simply examining a culture by what people say is to examine it superficially.
There is an idea that has taken root in our world that either ignores and/or exploits the above mentioned facts. It is this idea that women find their liberation in the exposure of intimate body parts and that men’s capacity to be distracted by it is a thing to either be ignored or harnessed for money and pleasure. This is an idea so powerful and so pervasive that it has acquired all the Orwellian power that political correctness can endow it with. It is the very intensity with which people believe this that they simultaneously act upon it and silence the critique of it from discourse.
The narrative of feminism and sexual liberation behind this idea is so powerfully believed that it has entered, un-challenged and un-examined into vast swaths of the church and has become syncretized with ideas of Christian virtue in the minds of many Christians. Many Christians have embraced and/or accepted this idea and have advanced the unquestioned tolerance this idea as even being a form of Christian maturity.
As I’ve said before and I’ll say again, this aforementioned idea emanates from a view of liberation that is not based on any calculus of being freed from the bondage of sin. It is not based on any serious effort at discerning God’s voice or His will as per Scripture. It is not based on any serious understanding of moral freedom as it exists within the claims that God makes on mens’ and women’s sexuality, including all heart behavior. It is not based on an idea that a fashion choice to expose an intimate body part is a sexual act, and it therefore not “just fashion”. Rather, this fashion is falsely believed to be a “value-neutral” aspect of the culture that people are to accept in order to participate in the culture in order to relate to it as Christians. It is upon embracing this latter fallacy that many in the church have considered the fashion trend of partially exposing intimate body parts as being beyond the scope of culture that the Gospel is called to challenge in people’s lives.
I have observed that there is a spectrum in the manner that Christians are accepting and appropriating partially exposed intimate body parts into the realm of Christian behavior. On one end of the spectrum, I have met Christians who accept the feminist/sexual revolution narrative as wholesale truth, who will say that when a man is distracted by a woman’s partially exposing intimate parts, he is the one who is objectifying her and is threatening her moral freedom to wear whatever she wants. In this idea, there is no responsibility whatsoever that women have for the social environment wherein men must negotiate their call to sexual holiness and purity.
As I have reflected on this idea, it has occurred to me that hookers on the street do not express any regard for my inner life with God with their fashion. Then, again, I don’t have any expectations of Christian community from hookers. For a Christian woman at church to say that she has absolutely no responsibility to my inner life in regard to her clothing as an obligation of Christian community and fellowship, I take this to mean that she wants to me to have no more expectation of her than a hooker in regard to what I can expect my eyes to have to confront at church.
For those Christians who do not go quite so far as to fully and out-and-out embrace the feminist/sexual revolution narrative of fashion as being thoroughly compatible with Christian virtue, many of them will say that it is a virtue of manly Christian maturity for a man to not distracted/bothered by what a woman wears, even in church. In this idea, men must give a woman the room to arrive on her own idea of modesty based exclusively on her own intellectual journey with God and not by ever being confronted by men. In other words, it is beyond the purvue of pastoral guidance to ever suggest openly that God is making claims on our clothing as an arena of sexual holiness. Of course, it is for the very reason that men may be distracted that a woman may realize the value of proper dress. With this notion of immodestly tolerance though, a woman must arrive at this knowledge without ever be informed of it directly by men.
And then there are Christians who do recognize that there is some sort of problem out there in the world and in Christendom, but that the church is many years, or even decades, away from being ready to be confronted on its modesty problem as a topic of sexual holiness. Now I have some sympathy this notion, in the limited sense that, generally speaking, there is some latitude that Jesus provides as to how and when to deal with the topic of clothing and sexual holiness with a group of people. I recognize the value of having a vocabulary for dealing with culture and with complexity as a pre-requisite for this topic, and I do not necessarily support the Victorian missionaries of old who made it first priority to clothe the savages. However, I am convinced that the church in the modern cosmopolitan world of 2007 is in a crisis in regard to modesty and to all of the beliefs and justifications that undergird the unmitigated acceptance of worldly dress standards, and that the church requires an urgent addressing of the topic.
As I’ve said before, when the line regarding clothing is not defined as what is intimate and not intimate, the line will be defined as “what can I get away with where no one will say anything to me”. In the current mechanics of PC in our culture, PC has powerful taboos that keep people from questioning the feminist/sexual revolution narrative. In our current culture, for a Christian to make clothing decisions that is bound only by that which people will risk make an issue out of is for that Christian to allow PC to filter important considerations from his/her decision making. As I’ve said before and I’ll say again and again, one cannot look merely at “what people are willing to make a stink about” as a means to take a culture captive to Christ.
I have asked myself, why the church has been so willing to accept PC and so unable to challenge it in regard to this topic of modesty. I have written an extensive analysis of this in my Crisis of Modesty in the Evangelical Church. At the core of it all, though, is a profound desire on the part of many Christians to fit in with their fellow Christians and to fit in peaceably with the world. It is a desire that is so deep and pervasive that Christians will give PC ideas a gloss of Christianoid wisdom and maturity. To challenge the feminist/sexual revolution/PC notions of modesty is to risk entering into a “social
One interesting bit of Christianoid wisdom I’ve encountered regarding this topic Christians who regard the seriousness with which I take modestly and the lengths that I am willing to go to confront it in the church as being “my choice”. Well, in a sense, they’re right, but not for the reason that they’re thinking. For me, facing the topic is a matter of doing something that is essential to my inner life and to the calling that God has placed with force on my conscience. For me, my choice is to either act or to allow my heart to be cozy with the cognitive dissonance of our sexual culture. Those Christians who present to me as “my choice” are doing so with idea that I can choose my conscience, and that I can choose to have a conscience that is less confrontation and demanding of my fellow Christians. Upon this fallacious idea, these Christians believe that I can thus choose to have a conscience that is happier and more socially adaptive to the current norms around me. Encountering such Christians, I must simply dust off my feet and seek those Christians who crossed a certain threshold of intellectual seriousness.
I recognize that dealing with modesty properly is very hard. Modesty is a very easy thing for one to present merely as a rule, as a “that is just what we do and we don’t question it, and what you should do too” form of legalism. It is very difficult to deal with modesty in the more multi-dimensional context of cause and effect, and textured cultural analysis. That said, I am convinced that underneath the various intellectual deficiencies in the church in these times is a fundamental laziness that must be addressed, lest immodestly -- and the justifications for it-- be allowed to grow and become an ever bigger “elephant in the room”.
Modesty needs to be presented to Christians as an invitation to pick up their cross and be willing to be “baptized” into entering the “social Siberia” that will inevitably enter when they begin questioning something that our culture holds as a sacred cow. As for pastors, it can be very hard to tell the difference between A) pastoral leadership that is not now dealing with the topic of modesty and the feminist/sexual revolution/PC narrative as a genuine God-lead strategy of ministry timing and B) pastoral leadership that is not dealing with the topic for reasons of the fear that they would simply annoy too many Christians, and therefore lose their careers as pastors. It is my concern that in 2007 in regard to Christian modesty there is more far more social fear, laziness, incompetence and cognitive dissonance on both sides of the pulpit than there is any genuine interest in facing the difficult topic.