essay · ethical fashion

redefining modesty

“No,” mama said. “You can’t wear that blanket on your head when you sing with the choir!”

It’s not unusual for parents to quibble with their teens over clothing choices, but my poor parents didn’t have a lot of help when it came to setting guidelines for me. I never pushed the boundaries with miniskirts or low necklines, but it wasn’t uncommon for me to ask if I could wear a Little House on the Prairie pioneer costume to school.  After reading C.S. Lewis’s TIll We Have Faces when I was 14, I insisted that I was going wear a full veil, and proceeded to make one from a black nylon slip.

For the most part, my parents indulged these whims, not seeing any harm in my eccentric choices. There were, however, some hard lines, and the pink blanket made at least one of them quite clear.

I had walked to church in a long blue dress, with a pink blanket on my head. I must have looked like Mary from some technicolor nativity scene. As part of the church choir, I was supposed to sit behind the pulpit, rather than in the pews. My mother, however, demanded I surrender the blanket first.

I protested, arguing that across time and cultures it has been considered supremely modest for a woman to cover her head, and that my makeshift veil was surely beyond reproach. Unmoved, my mother flatly pointed out that we lived in Indiana in 1998, and that a girl with a pink blanket on her head would only distract people from prayer and worship.

In retrospect, my mother’s rejection of my abstract, idiosyncratic choice, on the grounds that it would interfere with the ability of others to worship, was probably the most valuable lesson about modesty I received as a young woman.

***

For a humble word, the term “modesty” tends to stir up a great deal of fuss and bother. Religious conversations about modesty are particularly difficult: mocked by outsiders as being oppressive or legalistic, even for the faithful it can be difficult to understand the heart of a Bible verse such as 1 Timothy 2:9, in which Paul argues that “women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire” (ESV).

Growing up, I endured a number of awkward, unsatisfying conversations about modesty at church conferences and retreats. Even as a teenager, I found these talks to be one-sided, fear-based, hopelessly vague. I emerged with the sense that the point of modesty was for men to ignore your body, until some magical moment in which they decided to marry you, body and all. But when the local fire-and-brimstone street preacher began flirting with me, casting longing glances at my ankle-length skirts and oversized sweaters, I realized that everything was much more complicated. Men desire women because we are beautiful, and clothing in Scripture more often celebrate than masks a woman’s loveliness (cf Proverbs 31:22, Psalm 45:13).

All that, of course, was only my experience. I don’t want to generalize too much from it, and indeed my goal with this piece is not to itemize every problem with evangelical conversations about modesty, but rather to call Christians to define our terms: to consider how the Bible uses the language of modesty and clothing, and how we might contextualize our discussions of modesty within a larger ethic of faith and clothing.

Most troubling to a Baptist girl–raised to study the Scriptures in the face of any question–was that the teaching I heard on modesty received very little exegetical treatment at all. When I did turn to the Bible, I found wisdom that sounded a great deal like my mother’s wise rejection of my pink “veil.”

I was surprised to learn, first of all, that the Greek term usually translated as “modesty” (αἰδώς) occurs only once in the New Testament, in 1 Timothy 2:9, quoted above. In classical Greek, as Rudolf Bultmann observes, “αἰδώς comes on man because his existence stands in more than individual connections, the bashful fear of breaking them.” Here is our first clue to a nuanced ethics of modesty: to exhibit αἰδώς means participating in something larger than your individual desires, and understanding that breaking your bonds to the larger group would mean chaos and calamity. At the same time, Bultmann notes that αἰδώς, while congruent with Christian ideals, doesn’t go as far as the more robust, sacrificial demands of ἀγάπη (agape, love). For this reason, when enjoining Christians to govern their pride or desire, biblical writers are much more like to use terms derived from ταπεινος, that is, “humility.”

The discussion becomes even more interesting as we consider the larger context of 1 Timothy 2:9. At the very beginning of his letter to Timothy, Paul explains that everything he writes will build upon one central claim: “The aim of our charge is love [ἀγάπη] that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1:5). Chapter 2, then, outlines one form that love can take: faithful prayer and intercession for those in high positions, so that “we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (2:2).

Whatever Paul is saying about modesty, then, depends upon the supreme value of prayer overflowing from love. While youth-group conversations tended to focus only on modesty as a concession to man’s sinful nature, Paul’s words sound much more like my mother’s: that humble choices about clothing are important because they redirect my attention to the needs of others, freeing them as well as myself to pray and love more fully.

Recognizing modesty’s place in this larger call for love and prayer also allows us to consider men’s place in the conversation–a gap I felt keenly when I was young. 2:9 is actually following the thread of an earlier set of instructions: “likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel.” What is Paul comparing the women’s modesty to? The answer is just above, in verse 8: “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise the women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty…”

In both these verses, Paul recognizes that the prayers of God’s people are being disrupted: the men, it seems, are caught up with anger and quarreling, while the women are too concerned with their appearance to devote their attention to prayer. In both cases, pride is the culprit. Here, too, Paul answers one of my primary frustrations with conversations about modesty: that they always seemed focused on women only. Instead, Paul seems to be calling both men and women to account for the prideful spirit that interferes with prayer. Elsewhere in his pastoral letters, Paul uses urges humility by the example of Christ himself, who “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8). In the life of this sacrificial humility, there is no place for quarreling, no place for showing off one’s fine dress or fretting over its fit.

In a beautiful paradox, the early apostles turn to metaphors of clothing again and again as they call both men and women to humility. Peter, for example, writes to women, “Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” (1 Peter 3:3-4). In the same letter, he issues a similar charge to young men: “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (5:5). Returning to Paul, we find in Romans 13:14 the injunction to all believers to “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (my translation).

Meditating on these passages, I’d like to call us to reconsider how we approach conversations about modesty.

First and foremost, let’s contextualize the discussion for women within Scripture’s larger concern for love, for prayer, and, above all, for all Christians to imitate the humility of Christ.

Let’s study the Bible’s  rich catalog of metaphors and images related to clothing–most of which celebrate beauty, wisdom, and virtue.

Let’s imagine what it would mean for our literal clothing to symbolize our commitment to justice, mercy, and delight.

In the coming days, I will be posting a study and discussion guide on modesty, that I hope you will explore within your families or churches. For now, however, I simply ask that you would join me in exploring these questions of faith and textiles, praying always,

Holy God, free us from the pride that leads to quarreling or vain display. Put love in our hearts, truth in our minds, and wisdom in our hands, that we might clothe ourselves in Christ your Son. In love, He took on the form of a servant, that we might hunger for no good thing. Amen.

***

Works Cited

“αἰδώς.” Bultmann, Rudolf. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol I. Ed. Gerhard Kittel. Trans. Goeffrey Bromiley. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1972. 169-71.

ταπεινος.” Grundmann, Walter. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol VIII. Ed. Gerhard Kittel. Trans. Goeffrey Bromiley. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1972. 1-26.

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7 thoughts on “redefining modesty

  1. Excellent as usual, dear friend! The phrase “vain display” really jumped out at me and reminded me of Lewis’ discussion (in Mere Christianity, maybe?) of gluttony via delicacy. His point was that someone who makes a big production of not eating much or only eating “plain” food, especially when it has to be special ordered just so, is just as much a glutton as someone who eats too much and too indiscriminately. Similarly, I think, people who make a big production of keeping themselves covered–“Look at me, I am Modest; I’m not like those ~hussies!~ over there”–are actually just as immodest as those who show too much skin precisely because the thirst for attention is the same and has the same root in pride. And of course, it’s worth remembering that “modesty” can be used as a synonym for humility.

    1. I love the analogy to Lewis’s discussion of gluttony, and I think you are exactly right. And your comment about modesty as a synonym for humility sent me on an interesting (as always) jaunt to the OED. The history of the term in English is quite interesting, and I’d love to see if it shows up more often (even as a translation for Grk. ‘humility’) in earlier English translations.

  2. In dealing with the word “modesty” itself, I’d caution against extending its meaning too far. In English today, the word “modesty” really does have to do with covering the body so as to avoid putting the body (and especially sexually-charged parts) on display. It is often connected with the idea of shame—covering parts of your body that you would be (or ought to be) ashamed to have somebody gaze at. Ideas like humility, propriety, and appropriateness are certainly related modesty, but they’re not the same thing. So while it’s helpful to look at New Testament Greek, we can’t act as though we are speaking or thinking in Greek. The English word was
    connected to the word “moderate,” with the sense of being free from excess or vanity, of being temperate or decorous. Not very long ago, we could speak of “a modest income” or “a modest apartment.” J. Afred Prufrock wears “a necktie rich and modest, but asserted with a simple pin.” (One wonders how his tie could be both rich and modest at the same time.) In past centuries, the word “modest” did not necessarily suggest the avoidance of lewd dress, although that was always one of its meanings. Today, however, the word modesty is inextricably linked to sexuality, which is why it is such an emotionally-charged subject.

    Attempts to “redefine” a word explicitly are not generally successful (though I would be open to being persuaded otherwise via historical examples). There’s a limited usefulness in what C. S. Lewis calls “tactical definitions,” wherein an author sets out to define a word or phrase in a very particular way, usually in a way that does not reflect either a standard dictionary definition or popular usage at all. In setting out to define words, if we are being honest about the nature of language, we are acting more as discoverers than as inventors. If we can’t “redefine” modesty, perhaps we can recover an older use of the word—or prevent our language from losing that older meaning altogether.

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