Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Unintended Consequences of the Modesty Movement

So how do a man and a woman get together? This is an old question that has no definitive answer. The Bible puts it this way, "Proverbs 30:18-19 "There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand. The way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a young woman."

Now since Solomon is held as the author of Proverbs, and he had 1000 wives according to the Old Testament, this is an interesting statement coming from him. He was a man of 1000 conquests, yet even he did not have an understanding of the romantic workings of men and women. Now I believe this to be because he understood that his conquests were likely only possible because he was king, and he likely never had the experience of having to pursue a woman as a normal man. He also does not give advice to his son, other than some words about enjoying the wife of your youth, but this is likely because he deals largely with the importance of fidelity; he has little advice toward the process.

Yet, this is not a complicated process. I think our perception of the normal process, the instinctive one we all experience in one way or another, goes something like this.

Men: man sees attractive woman. Man thinks, I want her. Man woos her in some way, and if she agrees, they consummate.

Women: woman meets man she likes. Woman presents herself to is man in a way she thinks he will like. Man woos her. Woman loves it. They consummate.

I contend that this is the way the genders perceive their ideal "perfect" coupling. Women are generally hostile to the male approach unless they "liked him first" in some way, and men don't like to think they are pursuing a woman for any other reason than that they found her attractive. Yet we have put obstacles in this path since the beginning of civilization.

First, godly and godless civilizations alike adopted marriage as a social institution. We can debate and disagree on the reason why, but it is clear that there was a sense that this romantic notion and its sexual attributes needed to be controlled and confined.

Again, we will skip by the whys and the hows, and just accept that this is so.

The other obstacles are social and vary by culture, but again, the idea is that sexual attraction alone is not a wise basis for a sexual relationship.

This itself is an interesting notion. An evolutionary understanding might suggest that this is a fallacy, and that sexual relationships should not be governed by anything other than desire. As a Christian, the only explanation I have for this is that the fall of man in Genesis 3 "damaged" the sex drive, taking something that was supposed to foster attraction and loyalty between two life partners into something completely open that could in fact destroy such a relationship. While believe this makes sense, I have no evidence to support this, and so it is just speculation.

But if we accept this idea, then all the obstacles we have placed in the way of our own sexuality is an attempt to recapture something of that original, monogamous state. This could explain the problems and contradictions involved; we are forced to work within a system that fundamentally doesn't work.

We get a hint of this in the teachings of Jesus when he says,"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery. But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." This was a great departure from the understanding of the time. The Jews believed that adultery was a crime, and that coveting your neighbor's wife was forbidden, but single women, in that day taking the form of a prostitute, were largely considered fair game. Jesus was not claiming to add to the law, but to point out the hypocrisy of the Jews. He was in effect saying, "you think you can skirt the law by doing x, y and z, but I say if you even think these thoughts are just as guilty as the adulterer." He follows this with a rather difficult statement, "If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell."

This passage is the basis for the "modesty movement" in the American Evangelical Church. While 1 Peter 3 is really the passage that addresses female modesty, the discussion more often turns toward the Matthew passage and the issue of lust for men than the actual issue of female modesty. Christian women, particularly young women, are concerned with "not causing a brother to stumble." This has had a (somewhat unintended) consequence of encouraging young Christian women to look unattractive, as the assumption becomes out of necessity "if I look good to a man I am causing him to stumble." This may be true in a way. However I do not think the language is correct. For what one man stumbles at another may not, so is it fair to place the blame on the woman? I do not think so, unless she is intentionally attempting to entice that man sexually. On the other hand, is that not the essence of wooing? You see this idea can strip a woman of her main tool in the quest to find herself a man. This is where the flaw in the system comes into play. In the effort to avoid sin, we can throw the baby out with the bath water.

Is this what Jesus calls us to do when he says "if your hand causes you to stumble cut it off?" I would be tempted to think so, except that in the history of Christianity no one to my knowledge has actually done this. I admit this may be a slight logical leap, but I am going to take it. I do not believe that Jesus was instructing us to cut out our lustful eyes or sinful hands, but to come to the understanding that salvation through compliance to a moral law is not possible. That every male in that audience, upon hearing that statement, gulped, and saw themselves as an adulterer. To what end? To demonstrate our need, as a species, for salvation through the grace of God, and through no act of our own. A salvation that can redeem our nature, including our sexuality.

What does this say to the modesty movement? It says that its heart is in the right place, but not to be diverted into thinking it can conquer male lust by simply covering up skin. What it can do is make good, Christian women unattractive to Christian men, which means those men stay unmarried longer, which means delaying the only state in which those men can deal with their sexuality in a holy and God honoring way, and in that way, putting a different kind of stumbling block in their path. We have tried to come up with a lot of trite definitions about what lust is and is not so we can claim to be skirting around it in our lives. Rules like "looking once is natural but looking twice is sin," or "noticing is ok but thinking about it later is not." These are man made distinctions. Is there a distinction between noticing a woman's beauty and lusting after her? Yes. Is it externally quantifiable? No. No amount of clothing can protect us from this sin. Because this sin is not some external force trying to fight its way in, it is already inside of us. It is us. The only thing that can save us is that grace that Jesus bought for us at great price.

To women, as a man, I say this, don't fear your sexuality, understand it. Understand what it can drive you to do, understand it's purpose. Lots of preachers out there are calling for the church to address this topic more openly. I think we will see this in our lifetime, and Christian youth of tomorrow will be better equipped to handle this than we were. Until then, be discerning, and do not act in fear.
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