Monday, July 25, 2011

A Modest(y) Proposal

A reader asked us to have a look at a Christian website essay on the virtues of modesty. As a prelude a few comments are necessary about what, Biblically, "modesty" would have meant. The main focus of the word would have been on excessive ornamentation for the sake of honor. In modern times the connotation has to do with, as is said, how much "skin" is shown. But given the nature of social interactions between men and women in the Biblical world -- the whole complex of arranged marriages and so forth -- modesty in that sense would have been less relevant of an issue. No woman would show a lot of skin in the first place unless perhaps they were prostitutes.

So that's a bit of refinement. Now for some expansion. I'm obviously not an expert anthropologist, but it does appear that there is a sort of balance in various cultures between modesty and self-control. Some cultures (particularly in warmer climates) seem to have less inhibition about showing skin; correspondingly, if I were investigating any particular culture, I'd ask where their "modesty level" is (as we understand the word) and what sort of self-control people have.

In my own cartoon universe of Hearthstone, the dress code is what in Puritan terms would be called immodest. But it's also a world where ogling and disrespect is likely to get you a fist in the face (including from the female members of the races there, who are just as apt fighters as the male characters). Perhaps some other balancing act is at work in cultures here as well. I can say that in the Biblical world, any male showing too much attention to an eligible woman without permission was likely to find himself beaten to a pulp by other male members of the woman's family.

So what then of the website I was asked to check? It starts with discussion of what it calls the sin of Bathsheba, which it regards as a sin of carelessness. I'm not so sure of that myself; such is never directly said of Bathsheba, and the Bible, though high context, isn't hesitant to assign guilt for such actions which have such an important bearing on major figures. But it matters little in context for the article's author -- who is not named, but who I'll call Shelly, for no particular reason -- because they could no doubt find other real life examples of what they want to discuss, which is the careless sin of Christian women who dress immodestly.

Caveat time again. Though I have the artist's appreciation for the human form, 20 deliriously happy years of marriage to my beloved Mrs. H speaks to where my only interests are. My beloved is a strong and willful woman -- and I love her all the more for that. Under that consideration, I'm hard pressed to share Shelly's intention to warn women of "careless" acts of immodesty. I blame men entirely when imagination is what drives them rather than purposeful exposure.

But what does Shelly consideer immodest? The first answer is offered in this rather strained analysis:

The first thing which must be understood is that nakedness before the eyes of others is wrong. It is wrong in a man, and it is wrong in a woman. When Adam and Eve sinned, God made "coats of skins, and clothed them." (Gen.3:21) The sole reason for His clothing them was to cover their nakedness, as the Genesis account makes plain.

Er, hold on a moment. Genesis says they were naked before the Fall, so there was a time when it was not wrong. Actually, this has some relation to the conception of nudity as shameful, due to exposure and humiliation -- not "wrong" in a moral sense. Perhaps Shelly didn't think this statement through, but she just condemned everything from sex with the lights on to undressing before your physician.

Observe, he clothed them with coats. They were already wearing aprons, which probably covered as much as, or more than, much of the clothing which is worn today, yet in spite of their aprons they were still naked in their own eyes, and in God's.

Say what? Coats? Yes, that word is in the KJV, but the garment so described was essentially (cough) a type of underwear. So if we want to be purely literal, Shelly just told us we can go outside in our underwear. Moreover, there's no specification as to the exact extent of the accoutrements. Shelly's purpose in lengthening the wardrobe as much as possible becomes evident, though, in the next observation:

And God did not clothe them with shorts, or swimming suits, or "tank tops", or "halter tops", or anything of the sort —nor with jackets either, but with coats. He did not clothe Eve with a coat, and Adam with a pair of shorts. He clothed them both with coats —whence we may assuredly gather that nakedness is just as wrong in a man as it is in a woman.

Sorry, but....as I said, there's nothing of precise tailoring instructions. A case for "modesty" won't be able to fly on such rampant speculations.

From here, Shelly embarks on a rather tendentious attempt to argue that "when a woman exposes herself only a little, she becomes a fiery dart to tempt the heart of every man who sees her". But while she's good at finding passages warnings of lust, adultery, wickedness, and temptation, and is all too ready to designate men as too weak to control their thoughts, setting up guidelines for what is "modest" ultimately falls back to that same creative notion that Adam and Eve were made "coats," and anything less is sinful:

Bare backs, bare midriffs, bare legs and thighs, are wrong —wrong in the sight of that God Who clothed Adam and Eve with coats to cover their bare bodies. Shorts, halter tops, swimming suits, and anything and everything else which intentionally leaves you partially exposed, have no place in the dress of a woman professing godliness.

From here, it all gets rather legalistic; eg:

...exposed legs and thighs are a provocation to lust in the eyes of men...

See that your legs are covered below the knee, front and back, while you are bending over or sitting down, and you will be safe enough. But be careful here: it is not enough that your legs should be covered only from the vantage point of your own eyeballs. When you bend over or sit down, the front of your dress will naturally hang lower, so as to cover more of your legs, but the back will be drawn up so as to cover the less...

But only bend over a little, so that the material of your blouse falls away from your body, and immediately the most provocative and tempting part of your anatomy is exposed to the view of any man who happens to be standing in front of you. The same is true, of course, when you dress with the top two or three buttons of your blouse unbuttoned. This looks provocative, even if nothing were actually exposed by it. It looks seductive. It looks to a man as though you must design to expose yourself and tantalize his passions. What else can he think? For what other purpose could you leave two or three buttons of your blouse unbuttoned?

Sleeveless blouses always reveal too much. Little as you may be able to understand it, the area beneath your arms, and the parts of your chest or your back which immediately adjoin them, are very attractive to a man; and a sleeveless blouse cannot help but display these parts. You must also bear in mind that others will see you from all angles and in all positions, and thearmholes of a sleeveless blouse will often allow a man to see inside the blouse, especially when your arms are uplifted or outstretched, thus displaying part of your chest.

And first, in their very nature slacks are apt to reveal and display the form of a woman. Women contend for modest slacks, but who wears them? In the very nature of the case, it is difficult to make a pair of modest slacks, (especially for a woman who has a full figure), and as a matter of fact, it is an extremely rare thing to see a woman in slacks which are not too tight. Why is this? Why may men wear slacks which fit loosely, while the slacks of women must cling to every inch of their legs and loins? Verily because it is the god of this world who inspires these styles, and he knows his business only too well.

In essence, we end up with everything but a recommendation to use a straight-edged ruler to figure out what to wear. Maybe there's something immodest about rulers.

If it all sounds good to them, I have a news flash for Shelley: Many of the male prison inmates I used to supervise would get sexually excited just reading these warnings. So perhaps for good measure, she should take down her article before any men see it.

In all this, of course, I am not saying humans aren't capable of flaunting sexuality (men and women alike). But Jesus warned against adultery in the heart, and the women of his day were wearing stuff a lot more "modest" than anything modern women wear. Shelly's controls -- and any other controls that put the burden on the woman to be the one who takes the preventative measures -- are unfair and absurd, and thoroughly neglect the proper balance of responsibility.
So what's my take on it then? Well, it's sure not a matter of Romans 14, as Shelley suggests, because no one is apostasizing because of low necklines, and that is what Rom. 14 means when it speaks of stumbling. So no woman will be held responsible for some man taking the advantage in whatever way to sate his lusts.

But the decision is the same one we all have with any appetite, including food: Weighing when so much is "too much" can't be rated closely on a scale beforehand, and there are too many variables at any given time to account for other people's behaviors. As I said, the inmates I knew would get excited just from Shelley's descriptions, and would even get too happy over the most modest dress she prescribed. So doesn't that tell us where the real problem lies?


So yes, everyone, men and women alike: Carefully consider the limits, but don't make the limits your control. The heart has that job in all of us.

1 comment:

  1. Men should see this as an insult as well. Is this to say that we have no self-control whatsoever so all the women must dress nicely because, well, we men are just wild beasts who can't help ourselves?

    Now I think a woman ought to dress appropriately, but this is just extreme. If my wife goes out in short-sleeves, should I be concerned since her naked arms are being displayed?

    What about on a date? Should I be concerned that, horror of horrors, my single male friends are guys who admire the female body? Should I be concerned that they do desire it and wonder what their dates could look like under all those clothes? That would be just terrible wouldn't it? That might mean that they were, well, men with desires for sex!

    It would be just awful then for a woman to pretty herself up for a date because, well, that poor guy is a slave to his hormones and he can't really do anything about that.

    Let's not dare mention the other side too that women might actually desire sex sometimes as well...

    And as a married man, I can say that I can recognize beauty in other women, but I do not desire anyone except my Mrs. I am at that point because of the practice of self-control based on my covenant relation to my woman. It is not a goal all reach, but it is one worth reaching.

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