A Modest Proposal

Sometimes, I wonder how thousands of parents across the country would feel if they realized their children were being indoctrinated by a twenty-three-year-old who writes a blog with “heretic” in the title.

The responses I imagine are not encouraging.

Odyssey

Explanation: I sometimes write devotionals for kids’ magazines and Bibles. Most recently, I’ve been working on devotionals for the Odyssey Adventure Club. This requires re-listening to entertaining audio snapshots of my evangelical childhood and remembering the unreasonable but persistent crush I had on conspiracy-theorist Jared DeWhite. It’s a hard life, I know.

I think there is a certain responsibility that comes with teaching, whether that’s from the pulpit or on a website. This is particularly true when it comes to tricky topics. How do you write a devotional about abortion appropriate for eight-year-olds? How do you discuss Job without making it sound like God will whisk away any problems or suffering?

And how do you talk about modesty without reinforcing some harmful messages that Christian girls are hearing already?

In the episode in question, Donna Barclay wears a slinky dress to a school banquet against her father’s wishes. She receives some flattering attention, so she sneakily buys another immodest outfit, accidentally steals another girl’s boyfriend, and drags her poor friend Jack in on the whole mess. In the end, she learns the lesson of respecting herself in the way she dresses and not lying to her parents.

A younger version of Donna (the girl, not the dog).

A younger version of Donna (the girl, not the dog–I have no idea what’s going on with the dog).

You can pick fights here, but I don’t think there’s anything too unreasonable in this episode.

But some of you may be flashing back to youth group modesty talks motivated by shame, with strict measurements of which skits were long enough and which necklines high enough. Others may be thinking of the approximately 7 bajillion blog posts going around Facebook about what modesty means in a Christian context.

I’ve read at least 3 bajillion of these, and here are a few things that stand out to me:

  • Let’s just admit it: Christians have done an awful job addressing modesty (and most other issues remotely connected with sexuality). Doing anything in a spirit of legalism or motivated by shame is a really bad idea. Regardless of what kind of clothing you consider appropriate, can we agree on this?
  •  I don’t think only one gender is the victim here. We shouldn’t say, “Poor men, surrounded by vixens with intentionally ensnaring clothing that leads inevitably to lust!” But we also shouldn’t say, “Poor women, enslaved by a double-standard society so they feel that they have to dress either to protect or entice men!” Instead, I think it should be, “Poor everyone, stuck in a sinful world where we have to decide how best to love others when issues are complicated.” But that’s not as catchy.
  • I’ve seen many variations on this statement: I am the only one I should need to consider when it comes to what I wear. (Example: “Why should women have to be careful to dress for men while men just get to dress for themselves?”) People, sacrifice is kind of a big deal in Christianity. Mutual submission. Thinking of others before yourself. Making allowances for someone else even when that person is actually wrong. And I’m talking about both genders here—nothing we do should be just for us. It should be for the glory of God.
  • Yes, if we start talking about who to blame for rape instead of who to blame for yoga pants, things get really serious really fast. But I just don’t feel victimized enough. How hard is it, really, for me to dress modestly, even by a somewhat conservative standard? What kind of sacrifice am I making? I might have to put back a cute dress a few times. Oooh. Can you feel the oppression? If I can make a relatively easy choice that might help others in their struggle against lust, shouldn’t I do it?* It just feels hard to fight for my right to not be judged for wearing a bikini when, you know, famine and persecution and poverty exist.
  •  That said, how we talk about modesty matters because of what it says about women. Women are not sexual objects, important only for how they relate to men. So modesty shouldn’t be about how sinfully attractive women must shield their bodies from lust-crazed men. This doesn’t do any favors for either gender.
  •  Also, modesty is not actually supposed to be limited to a dress code. (Read this definition and think about all the areas “modesty” could cover.) The way we talk about modesty is like saying that kindness is narrowly defined as “not punching people in the face.” Maybe it includes that as one subcategory, and maybe we need to talk about that. But we’re missing out on a much bigger discussion.
Admit it. You've seen this attitude. Why not talk about this?

Admit it. You’ve seen this attitude. Why not talk about this?

So, given how clear and simple this is, what did I tell the children?

I used my assigned verse, the go-to for this type of conversation because it addresses women and uses the word “modesty,” 1 Timothy 2:9-10: “I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.”

And then I basically said, “Strange, this isn’t what we usually mean when we talk about modesty.” I mean, here Paul is worried about women who are flaunting their wealth, who are dressing to show off in a way that doesn’t consider others and focuses only on their outward appearance instead of their character.

Oh hey, maybe this does relate to the traditional view of modesty after all. But only if modesty—for both genders—is really an issue of the heart, not a list of rules, not a measure of how much skin can show, not a competition for whose satire blog post is the wittiest or most relevant.

I did not say all of this in my devotional. Parents, you can thank me. But I did try to talk less about legalism and more about love, because I think that is often missing from conversations on this topic—both the old-school youth group modesty talks and many of the 8 bajillion rebuttal blog posts.

I'm pretty sure there's a sign like this outside of heaven.

I’m pretty sure there’s a sign like this outside of heaven. Not.

If you had (or have) a daughter, what would you most want her to remember about modesty? Or what is something commonly taught that you disagree with?

*Stuffy Philosophical Footnote For the Dedicated Reader: A slippery-slope argument can be made here: What if a guy says your arms cause him to stumble and you should only wear long sleeves? But the problem with a slippery-slope argument is that it’s an actual logical fallacy. In my opinion, modesty is cultural. I would advocate using discretion and trying to dress in a way that meets and even exceeds what is considered appropriate in a given culture. Which isn’t as easy or as dangerous as a list of specific rules. Sorry, sort of, not really.

10 comments

  1. Being a girl in athe CS department, I actually talked at length with the guys about this issue. Over and over again I heard, “I just wish women could understand how visual we are. Its not just yoga pants, it can be baggy jeans even!” “I’m working on my heart of lust, I really am, but women are making it so damn hard. I don’t even want to go outside” When you understand that over 50% of christian men struggle with pornography (which leads to objectification), you start thinking less about how cute you are and how you can help your brothers in their struggle.

    1. Now maybe I’m a selfish person, but here in Texas when it’s in the hundreds I don’t think I’ll be bundling myself in clothes every time I step outside just because someone can’t deal with me wearing a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. I don’t think it’s okay for girls to go out in a sports bra and a wide belt- I mean skirt, but nor should men expect us to hide away in swathes of fabric. I’m sorry, but that’s my opinion.

  2. Seriously, though, I appreciated your point about Christians sacrificing for each other. 1 Corinthians 8 is my go-to passage about it. If simply changing shirts will help us build up our brothers in Christ, I’m all for it.

  3. Instead, I think it should be, “Poor everyone, stuck in a sinful world where we have to decide how best to love others when issues are complicated.” But that’s not as catchy.
    This made me chuckle! How true.
    This is one of those areas that is so easy to start shifting the blame and make a list. If I was a killer and said that if stupid people would just stop being stupid I’d quit killing them, it wouldn’t get me off the hook. Women are only a hair less visual than men and if you don’t believe me, go look up the latest heart throb. Yes, he’s a heart throb because of his smarts….We lust visually as well.
    I think this has far more to do with the heart which will flow out into your clothes and how the Lord has commanded us to come worship Him. Like all of Christianity, it’s not about rules, it’s about Christ working on us to make us more like him.

    1. Very well put, I like your balance. We’re all struggling with this issue and It dosen’t compute for me to blame another ‘sinner’ for my struggle with sin. I don’t know about the 7 bajillion thing, but I do know that I need to spend less time looking around for excuses for what is going on inside me and spend a good deal more time bending the knee before my Lord to refresh His focus in my daily life.

  4. Great thoughts as usual. I do feel like our kinds of churches have put too much of the responsibility on girls and haven’t emphasized the fact that guys aren’t struggling with a woman wearing a short skirt, they’re struggling with the lust in their own heart. More of the burden ought to be shifted to the guys end of it. I’m tending to agree with a lot of what Rachel Held Evans has written on this:
    http://qideas.org/articles/modesty-i-dont-think-it-means-what-you-think-it-means/

  5. Hey there! I have a friend who enjoys reading your blog and has commented several times on various articles. It doesn’t seem to show up and it is likely going to spam. Por favor . . . would you mind checking for “Gentle and Quiet Spirit” and approve her to comment? Gracias!

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