Christian Modesty (TBB)

The “TBB” in the name of this post means that it is part of The Big Box series. If you’re new to Scarlet Letters, read the introductory post to see what the Big Box is all about.

There are a few topics on which any anti-patriocentric blogger will eventually be obligated to comment, because they are such a prominent part of patriarchal culture. Courtship, militant fecundity, submission – you probably know the lineup if you’ve been reading in this corner of the blogosphere for any significant amount of time. Modesty is one of those topics.

To be honest, Jeff Pollard’s Christian Modesty was not nearly as bad as I expected it to be. The first half of the lecture actually contained some decent advice – for instance, the idea that you can focus so much on purely external matters that you develop a holier-than-thou attitude. Not just patriarchal culture, but also many megachurches and their smaller spinoffs and wannabes would do well to reduce their focus on externals (are you cool enough?). That being said, however, we do encounter a familiar and predictable set of contradictions and tensions, which I’ll explore in the rest of this post.

The tank top made me do it

I was pleasantly surprised to hear Pollard say this near the end of the lecture:

Men, we need to grow up and learn by God’s Word how to guard our hearts. Most of the material that I have read regarding modesty very often becomes very shrill, and the men are standing there writing it, pointing at the women, pointing at the women going, them, them! What they’re wearing, what they’re wearing! And it should be saying, what you are thinking and you need to guide and guard your heart first, because this world isn’t gonna go away in the fashion that it’s in.

What Pollard is, of course, talking about here is the almost universal attitude in modesty-inclined circles that male lust is entirely (or almost entirely) women’s responsibility. We witnessed this attitude in action only a few short months ago, when the victim of Doug Phillips’ clergy sexual abuse was predictably painted as a seductress. Probably the best portrayal of this attitude that I know of, however, comes not from patriarchy but, of all places, Disney:

Now in fairness to Frollo, at least the woman he’s obsessing over in this song was actually pole dancing when he first saw her (though that still doesn’t excuse or justify his attitude). Most patriarchal men, however, are not so lucky. Moreover, Jesus Himself seems to place the blame for lust not in the person being looked at, but in the observer:

You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to cast into hell. (Matthew 5:27-30)

Pollard, however, would retort – and did in the lecture – that women who dress immodestly are still indirectly responsible for men’s lust, because they essentially “provoked” them with their clothing and thus caused their brother to stumble. So while he appears to condemn men shifting all the blame onto women, he still preaches a sort of “nicer” version of this idea, and seems to see men and women sharing the blame equally.

Truth be told, I’m a little uncertain what to make of this. On the one hand, causing another to stumble is not a good thing (1 Cor. 8:9-13), we should be considerate of others, and there are probably some forms of clothing that are too suggestive. But on the other hand, no matter how hard we try, we can never completely prevent lust with our clothing. Even if a woman wore a burqah or a potato sack, there are some men who would still leer and stare for the very simple reason Jesus outlined two millennia ago: lust springs ultimately from the heart of the observer, not in the person being lusted after.

Pollard’s reasoning also reminds me a little too much of the excuses often made in the face of domestic violence and rape. When a woman confesses that her husband has been beating her, it seems many people ask, not how they can help or get her out of the situation, but whether she nagged him, whether she’s been giving him enough sex, or whether she somehow “provoked” the attack. With a rape victim, they want to know whether she “asked for it” by wearing the wrong kind of clothing – and thus we find ourselves right back where we started. If a woman can “ask for” men to lust after her, it’s only a small step to her being able to “ask for” men to rape her. And I’m absolutely certain what to make of that! (Read: throwing my computer across the room in rage.)

Kruitramp_Wesel_1642Also, whether Pollard realizes it or not, much of the language used in these discussions is subtly degrading to men. For example, at one point he quoted well-known Puritan Richard Baxter (though unfortunately I can’t give you the exact quote because I stupidly forgot to write it down), who compared a woman wearing “sensual” clothing to a person playing with a candle in a room full of gunpowder. Now if we don’t think about this very hard, it may sound sensible, but let’s go deeper. Gunpowder has no brain, no will and no conscience. It doesn’t choose to explode when touched by a flame, it just does due to the laws of chemistry and physics. And surely Baxter did not intend to claim that men cannot help but lust when confronted with women! That’s certainly not what Jesus taught. And so with all due respect to Richard Baxter, I have to say that his comparison falls flat.

Immodesty in blue (and lust in pink)

Another chronic problem that haunts Pollard and other modesty proponents is their ability to see only in pink and blue. What I mean by that is, they not only rely heavily on inaccurate gender stereotypes, but they consistently define immodesty as only a female problem, and lust as only a male problem. For instance, early in the lecture Pollard quoted Noah Webster on modesty as “the sweetest charm of female excellence,” and of course his jumping-off point for the whole talk was 1 Timothy 2:9-10:

…in like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works.

506px-Joseph_and_Potiphar's_WifeNever once in the entire lecture did Pollard even hint at the question of whether a man can dress immodestly (in either the sexual or ostentatious sense), nor at the corollary question of whether a woman can lust. But if they’re so eager to condemn women wearing low-cut jeans and V-necks, where are the denunciations of men wearing tight pants and muscle shirts (which can show just as much or more)? And do they seriously think women never lust after men? Even a glance at the Twilight phenomenon (or Potiphar’s wife for that matter!) should tell them this is a complete fantasy. In fact I suspect most women, if they were perfectly honest, would have to confess at least one lust-related misstep. We are, after all, sexual beings just like men (except of course the asexuals among us).

That’s not to say Pollard never mentioned men, of course. In fact he devoted the whole last part of the lecture to them, when he instructed husbands and fathers to make sure they “guide” their wives and children, and pastors their congregations, in the area of modesty. Thus, in the end, modesty is really just another weapon in the control arsenal of patriocentric fathers and pastors.

Who says?

On the back of Christian Modesty’s jewel case, it was claimed that Pollard “avoids both license and legalism.” In a way this is true, but only because Pollard largely avoided specifics altogether (as I’ll explain below), aside from one brief statement at the very beginning of the lecture:

Many churches now loudly defend sensual clothing or males and females taking off most of their clothing at the pool or the beach as an inviolable part of Christian liberty. Many professing churches once protected children from various forms of media that exposed them to shameful nakedness. Many of us now desperately try to protect our children from various church gatherings that expose them to shameful nakedness. We have descended into an age of Christian immodesty and the public undressing of the church.

The quote above raises two questions: whose modesty standard are we going to enforce, and how do we determine whose standards are most in accord with the Bible?

It’s obvious even to casual observers that there are many differing views on modesty in Christianity. Most mainstream American Christians allow their daughters to wear pants and buy clothes from “normal” stores, while conservative homeschoolers are often stereotyped as wearing only calico prairie dresses and denim jumpers (though this homeschool graduate is sad to say that this isn’t always a stereotype). So in light of all these different opinions, how do we determine who’s right? The description in 1 Timothy 2:9-10 above is hardly specific, and it’s not as if our Bibles come with an appendix listing “good” and “bad” clothing choices (at least mine didn’t – maybe the Book of Habiliments was left out of my edition). Pollard appears to imply that modesty (or at least swimwear) is emphatically not a matter of Christian liberty, so he must believe some eternal and absolute standard exists somewhere. Exactly where, however, he never points out.

What makes this even more difficult is that, as I mentioned above, Pollard traffics in a number of ambiguities throughout the lecture. Take, for example, the idea of nakedness. Pollard has a lot to say about it, and states flatly that it is pagan:

In ancient Egypt, Crete and Greece, the naked body was not considered immodest. Slaves, athletes habitually went without clothing, while people of high rank wore garments that were cut and draped so as to show a good deal of the body in motion. So while a naked body is not uncommon in paganism, being without one’s outer garment was considered immodest and even shameful among God’s people. God’s people cover their body in public, while pagans uncover theirs.

394px-La_Cigale_-_la_chantronOkay, I won’t argue with him that public nudity was not considered immodest in ancient Greece. But last time I checked, most Christians weren’t walking around in the buff in public, even though Pollard claims that children must be “protected” from the “shameful nakedness” at church gatherings. So whatever he means by nakedness, it’s clearly something other than the usual dictionary definition.

Then there are those pesky words “provocative” and “revealing.” What does Pollard have in mind when he talks about “revealing” clothing? He jokes a few times that the women in his audience don’t have to go out and buy “gunny sacks,” and we can guess easily from his quote earlier that he probably doesn’t like bikinis, but where do we go from there? Are V-necks “revealing”? Short skirts? Leggings? Pants of any kind on a woman? Do headcoverings come into this at all? And while we can all agree that pole dancing and stripteases are sexually “provocative,” what other behaviors might qualify in Pollard’s mind?

Without these definitions (or access to Pollard’s full-length Christian Modesty book), it becomes very difficult to proceed or even to nail Pollard down. Complicating matters further is the fact that modesty is often profoundly affected by its cultural context. This is probably best illustrated by the fact that, in a single lecture, Pollard cites both Paul and Richard Baxter (1615-1691), apparently without awareness of what they had in mind. Clothing in the 1st-century Roman Empire, and clothing in 17th-century England, were vastly different, and that’s putting it mildly! This leads us to the all-important point that what is considered immodest or vulgar in one period, might be seen as ordinary or maybe even conservative in another. How would Pollard resolve this? Can he resolve it? What does this do to his apparent absolute and eternal Biblical standard for modesty?

I’d also like to raise a related question after hearing Pollard’s rant about nakedness. If he thinks all forms of public nudity are unacceptable, no matter what, how far are we supposed to go with this? Is he aware that it’s common and often required for art students to practice working with the human form by sketching live nude models, usually of both sexes? Should we remove all nude statues and paintings from art museums? What about anatomy textbooks? Cadaver dissections at medical schools? Gynecological exams? I hope Pollard wouldn’t go this far – but I also know better than to trust anyone associated with Vision Forum further than I can spit.

Your V-neck is pointing to hell

And while we’re on the topic of not trusting Vision Forum, I’d like to point out some less than pleasant implications in some of Pollard’s statements:

This is the truth according to the Word of God: when we are alive internally by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, we will express ourselves externally in conformity to the Word of God. … If you have been born of God’s Spirit, if you are alive in God’s Spirit, it’s going to work its way out, and it will be seen in the life. And that’s why if we take one or the other, we ultimately run into error. Another way of putting this is that holiness in the Christian is lived inside out. It’s never outside in. It is inside out. And this is exactly Paul’s point in 1 Timothy 2:9.

Without a new heart, husbands and fathers will neither have the love for Christ, the love for their families, nor the backbone to guide their homes according to the Word of God. Because of our sinful nature, most of us modern men are utterly spineless, feminized cowards, who are ruled by our wives, our children, our lusts, and Hollywood. But when we are born of God’s Spirit and set free from bondage, we will desire to do what honors the Lord Jesus Christ.

In ancient Egypt, Crete and Greece, the naked body was not considered immodest. Slaves, athletes habitually went without clothing, while people of high rank wore garments that were cut and draped so as to show a good deal of the body in motion. So while a naked body is not uncommon in paganism, being without one’s outer garment was considered immodest and even shameful among God’s people. God’s people cover their body in public, while pagans uncover theirs.

The first quote is not necessarily alarming on its own, but in context of Pollard’s other statements, I have to ask what happens if another Christian disagrees with Pollard’s modesty standards and consistently dresses in a way he thinks is unbiblical. Would he say that they’re not regenerate, since their public behavior is “clearly” not reflecting the work of the Spirit (which would obviously lead them to agree with him)? Now would also be a good time to remember that he does not think all questions of modesty are matters of Christian liberty. The third quote has a similar theme, since Pollard is contrasting the “people of God” with “pagans” and claiming that pagans uncover their bodies in public. So if you consistently don’t cover up enough – and remember that Pollard claims there are mountains of “shameful nakedness” at most church gatherings – would Pollard call you a “pagan” and tell you that you aren’t really a Christian?

The second quote is on a different topic, but a frequent one for Vision Forum. I’ve actually addressed it before here, though Pollard is a little more direct about it. He seems to say quite clearly that if a man is truly regenerate, he will implement not only Pollard’s modesty standards, but also a broader patriarchal (or at least complementarian) version of gender roles in his home. Thus, I can only conclude that in Pollard’s view, egalitarian men must be unregenerate – as well as, to use Pollard’s phrase, “spineless, feminized cowards.”

But you already knew that, didn’t you, my dear male readers? Doug Phillips already called you “emasculated,” so what’s a little spinelessness and unregeneracy to top it all off? Move along, folks – nothing to see here. At least not anything new.

4 comments on “Christian Modesty (TBB)

  1. Anne says:

    When I read the modesty passages, it always seems to me that it has little to do with skin, but rather refers to not showing off your wealth.

    • Hester says:

      Yeah, he claimed that in historical context some of the words in that verse added up to not dressing like a prostitute. He quoted a bunch of commentators but they could have all been patriarchy-inclined for all I know. So basically I didn’t have the time/resources to verify that part to my satisfaction, so I didn’t address it. I do agree, though, that wealth/ostentation is the clearer meaning if you just take the verse(s) at face value.

      • Nick C says:

        There is another interpretation as well. I don’t have the link handy, but the oft cited passage in Timothy is addressing not just ostentatious clothing by women, but also of a particular fashion associated with women who worshiped at the temple of Artemis. Additionally, the follow on passages re: not suffering a woman to preach, is directed at [i] a woman [/i] not [i]women[/i] a distinction which is found in original texts not just English. I think it is assumed women woman interchanged but the distinction is deliberate. The interpretation I mentioned discusses in fact a particular woman, if I call correctly, was associated with the cult of Artemis.

  2. Nick C says:

    The booklet is available as a download. I have many many issues with the booklet. But here are two points I would like to make here:

    The first is relatively minor. “God’s people cover their body in public, while pagans uncover theirs.” Contrast this with “….athletes habitually went without clothing” Pollard does not explore this concept any further. Does he imply that “God’s people” never competed in athletic events? That the early Olympics were taboo? That athletes are pagan (even in this age, where many competitive sports would require clothing which I assume would not pass the approximate tunic test.) I have done no research on this subject, but would be interested to know his conclusion.

    The next is much more serious.

    “David’s horrible sin with Bathsheba was clearly his fault; yet Bathsheba’s unwise and imprudent public nakedness certainly fueled the fire of David’s lust.” *** …Bathsheba failed to govern her modesty; David failed to govern his eyes, Candle, Gunpowder.”

    David’s horrible sin was rape. He was an absolute monarch, he could and did demand her submission. To characterize his actions as anything other than rape, is completely dishonest. Bathsheba shares some responsibility? According to Pollard she does. Therefore ***every woman who is sexually assaulted is partially at fault if she is wearing anything other than Pollard’s Approximate Tunic*** This tunic is so vaguely defined that nearly any dress could cause a woman to become a candle, and turn every man into gunpowder.

    The only logical conclusion from Pollard’s booklet is that women are partially responsible for sexual assault. That is extremely dangerous, but many fundamentalist sects share the same belief, however subtle.

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