Tuesday, 16 October 2007

What the Bible says about modesty

In October last year, Australia's most senior Muslim cleric caused outrage when he appeared to blame the "suggestive swaying", immodest dress and make-up of the victims for what happened to them in the infamous gang rapes committed by Bilal Skaf and his friends six years earlier. The most widely quoted part of the speech was the part where he compared women who don't wear the hijab to 'uncovered meat': "If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it... whose fault is it, the cats or the uncovered meat? The uncovered meat is the problem... If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred."

The clash with secular Australian thinking could not have been more stark. In our culture, we have been taught by feminism to regard all talk about 'modesty' as a repressive strategy employed by men to keep women under control and blame crimes of violence committed against women on the 'suggestive dress' of the victims. Whilst most feminists would agree on the right of women to wear whatever they want, wherever and whenever they want to wear it, the various versions of contemporary feminism differ sharply on how women ought to use that freedom of choice - some advocating a complete rejection of heterosexual eroticism and fashion, others embracing 'raunch culture' as somehow constituting a gesture of liberatedness.

So how are we as Christians to think about these things? Seeing as it's 'modesty week' (well, actually, I just declared it to be myself, because I think it will be a while before the UN gets around to it!) I thought I'd start with a few thoughts about what I think the Bible tells us on the subject.

1. The Bible makes it clear that both men and women need to treat their bodies with modesty and honour.

From Genesis, it is clear that with the introduction of sin in the world, both men and women are to cover their nakedness. It is interesting that after the fall, God made them both garments (Gen 3). Another example that suggests that men in a fallen world are also to 'cover up' can be seen in Gen 9 where there is shame in Noah's sons gazing on their father's nakedness.

Similarly, on the positive side of the ledger, the Bible's teaching is that sexual desire and the appreciation of physical beauty are meant to be mutual in marriage (eg. Song of Songs 1:15-16, 1 Cor 7:2-5).

2. Nevertheless, the Bible has particular words to say to women about how they dress and to men about how they look at women.

Maybe it's something to do with the different natures that God gave us in creation; maybe it's something to do with the different ways in which we are affected by the fall; maybe it's a bit of both, but whatever the reason, the Bible goes beyond those unisex principles of honour and modesty to give particular instructions to women about what we do with our clothes and to men about what they do with their eyes.

So in passages like 1 Tim 2:9-10 and 1 Pet 3:3-4, the Bible directly addresses us as women and urges us to dress appropriately. (Notice, by the way, that it's not just about skimpy clothes, but also about ostentation and extravagance; also, it's not just about the literal clothes we wear but also about the 'metaphorical' clothes of our lifestyle and attitudes.)

The Bible also makes it clear that a core godliness issue for men is how they look at women (eg. Job 31:1, Matt 5:27-30).

3. Jesus takes temptation to sin very seriously.

To the person who is potentially tempted, Jesus says it is better to tear their eye out than to let it cause them to sin; but to the person who is in a position to lead another into sin, he also gives an equally stern warning (Matt 5:27-30, Matt 18:7-9).

Both verses are relevant to the modesty issue - not only do I want to take responsibility for whether I am using the power of how I dress to lead men toward sin; I also want to avoid a scenario where the men I know feel a responsibility to avert their eyes or stay out of conversation with me because of their obedience to the words of Jesus.

This is not in any way about letting men off the hook, either in how they dress themselves or in how they look at and relate to women. But it is about us as women choosing to take responsibility for what we do with our bodies and our clothes.

4. Nor is this about embracing drabness or despising the body and its pleasures.

According to passages like Song of Songs, Proverbs 5 and 1 Cor 7, sex is a good gift from God to be enjoyed within marriage. One of the big reasons why we need to be modest is to guard the intensity and the exclusivity of that enjoyment. This means that within marriage we have the freedom (and the responsibility!) to be intensely and enthusiastically erotic.

Nor do the things we have said so far mean that we need to be boring in the way we dress. We can be creative with colour, shape, design in a way that expresses that God is a God of beauty while being modest at the same time.

So how should we dress? I'll have a few suggestions about the 'how to' in the next few days.


Rachael said...

Hi Nicole,
I think that modesty is an universal (a universal??) concept across cultures, although different cultures express it differently. In Vanuatu, the traditional or kastom dress for women, a simple grass skirt, is a far cry from the hijab! However, culturally, their nakedness is covered. To appear without the grass skirt would be immodest. Now, women on the whole no longer where the grass skirt (unless you go deep into the bush) and instead, the conservative mode of dress for respectable married women is the island dress, or mother hubbard. This is a shapeless, billowy garment that maternity clothes uneccessary that by Western standards is extremely modest.

However, there is an interesting throw back to traditional ways for breast feeding mothers. You see, the island dress does not open at the front. It's simple V-neck seems to make breast-feeding impossible. This perplexed be when we were planning to come to Vanuatu just after the birth of our second child. How would it work? Well, let me tell you, there is nothing discrete about it. A woman simply 'hoicks' her milk supply out of the neck opening of her dress (often needing to pull up the back of the dress to make the V go down far enought) and the baby suckles away happily enough.

To me, this seemed totally immodest. Culturally however, it is not. A woman may be singing in a choir in church and will happily feed a child in this manner at the same time.

Now, however, I have become proficient at this manner of breast feeding.

Except of course when there are white men around... and then I cover up.

Leslie said...

You touch on something that I think is key: honor. I'd bet most people can't define it. I know there are many reasons for immodest dress and immodest behavior and the dishonorable treatment of women, but I still believe that if honor and respect were heralded as virtues, as they used to be, we would be much better off.

girlonfire said...

Thanks for doing this series!
I liked how you showed the mutual responsibility - of women to cover bodies and men to cover eyes. A lot of the complaints I hear from young women about modesty are along the lines of "it's not my fault if they can't control their thoughts" and "It's my body, I can wear what I want. They don't have to look at me".
I think we forget that we're supposed to do the loving thing, which is not leading others to sin.
That leads me to a question...
Say a Christian brother approaches you and says that a particular item of clothing is immodest, but you have no conviction against it, and all the other Christian men in your life approve. Should you stop wearing something because one person feels it is inappropriate?
Jess xx

Kathryn said...

Hi Nicole,
Firstly,I have been really enjoying exploring your thoughts on your blog this week. Since becoming a Mum recently I have realised how little I have been thinking through issues and using my brain. Reading your blog has helped me think as well as given me more to talk about with others as well as my husband other than nappies and tummy time!

Jess has touched on a question that I logged on to raise with people. A while ago at a church we were at a girl spoke to us very upset because soon after a group trip to the beach a guy from church rang her up to tell her that what she had worn was unhelpful for him and that she shouldn't have been wearing it.

She was particularly upset because she was aware of the issue and had deliberately dressed modestly (she thought) in a swimsuit as well as board shorts.

This leads me to a question on my mind.... She was a particularly attractive girl and so I think that no matter what she wore she would've caused men to "take a second glance" How should we respond to this situation and what should we advise our fellow christian women who are especially attractive to do?