a modest(y) proposal

(This is in response to an article by the lovely Emily Maynard, titled Is a Woman Responsible For a Man’s Lust? It’s a great piece that deserves to be read. She was incredibly bold to write what she did, and I admire the sincerity and truth behind much of what she says. Check it out. Even if you don’t read what I write in response, you should read what she has to say.)

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I’m pretty sure nobody knows what the word “modesty” means anymore, especially within the context of the evangelical church. And when I say “nobody” I include myself. Over the years my understanding of the word has always seemed terribly shallow and distressingly tangential, as if its charged and controversial outer layer denies all attempts to comprehend its blessed center.

But we sure think it’s important to talk about it! Well, at least for women. It seems that modesty has become, primarily, the rope with which the evangelical church hopes to pull each junior high girl from the deep-v abyss into the light of unassuming crew-necks and inner adornment.

This is important, the common rhetoric goes, because to reveal “flesh” or dress to enhance the feminine figure is just asking the male masses, dominated as they are by uncontrollable sexual urges, to lust. It’s inevitable because men are “visual” creatures (as opposed to the tactile and verbal females), and can’t help themselves. By dressing immodestly, women are causing their vulnerable brothers to stumble, striking a critical blow to their pursuit of purity. This has been the standard discourse on modesty for some time.

But things might be changing. Courageous women are coming forward and opening up about the harm they have suffered on the receiving end of this kind of rhetoric. In the linked article above, and in the subsequent comments, we hear numerous stories from women whose relationship with their bodies, with men, other women, and even God, have been vitiated and filled with poisonous, painful lies.

Implicit in the rhetoric of “modesty” is the idea that women are responsible for male lust. In a nutshell: (straight) men lust because women dress immodestly. There’s more, obviously, but that is the consistent emphasis. I know I thought along similar lines growing up, and it’s taken the testimonies of brave friends and strangers to open my eyes to the horrible consequences of “modesty” as we know it. (Again, read the article for greater detail.)

For the sake of space and time, I simply want to ask some questions and throw around some ideas that may help us move forward as a loving community dedicated to mutual responsibility. I don’t claim to have answers – I’m new to this discussion – so bear with me.

  1. Modesty is not just a female virtue, and lust is not just a male vice. So often the relational dynamic is framed as “Men struggle with lust, and women struggle with a desire to be lusted after.” This goes hand in hand with the lie that porn is just a male problem, and contributes to the sinful stereotype that women are naturally designed as “responders” rather than “actors.” What is more, I, as a male, never had a message on modesty addressed to me. Bluntly, that is ridiculous. How can we reclaim modesty as a non-gendered virtue that is integral in the life of the church?
  2. The sin of lusting is not merely the presence of “dirty thoughts,” but exists, primarily, in the act of stripping someone of their inherent dignity and worth before God. Emily Maynard’s article addresses this point beautifully. It’s impossible for a woman to be responsible for male lust defined in this way. The question needs to be asked, however, When does “natural, non-sinful desire” end and “lust” begin?
  3. Modesty as an ecclesial virtue (akin to humility and an awareness of one’s value before Christ) is not a cultural construct. Modesty as an apodictic shopping list for women is a cultural construct, and means vastly different things all around the world. Topless women in rural Africa are not being immodest; Victorian-era women showing ankle are. Women’s hair in 1st century Palestine was considered sexual; now, we are totally fine with whipping it back and forth in public.
  4. I worry that the truth of #3 too often leads critics of “modesty” to say standards are arbitrary and therefore theologically irrelevant. I don’t think this is the case. Paul’s understanding of modest dress in his letter to the Corinthians and elsewhere is certainly culturally bound (head coverings, anyone?), and yet transgressing those cultural constructions was still a sinful transgression. Are current standards the problem, or is it found primarily in the rhetorical failings of those who speak about them? Are we past the point of being able to deal with the two separately?
  5. Paul’s culturally bound instructions, however, do not primarily frame modesty in terms of sexuality and lust, but in terms of power and excess and a failure to live into one’s status as a new creation. Though we cannot ignore the present reality that modesty intersects significantly with sexuality, we need to reclaim it’s broader purpose of challenging the selfish use of wealth, the refusal to consider the good of the community more important than your own desires, and the maintenance of unchristian power dynamics (e.g. to wear the ignomious “braided hair” Paul references would require the tedious labor of a servant).
  6. Emily Maynard says, “…nothing you do or do not do can influence lust in someone else.” This is, I think, incorrect. Temptation is influence. You can’t force someone else to lust, but you can sure make it harder not to! Women have been the locus of blame for so long, that I understand (in a limited way) the desire to be totally blameless. But autonomy has never been the modus operandi of the church, or of Christian morality.
  7.  She continues, “…you’re only responsible for taking your own heart to Jesus.” In the sense that we are not responsible for the salvation of others, and that women must be freed from the crippling guilt of male lust, this is true. But, as I said above, the Church is built upon mutual responsibility to the other. The solution to the problem of “modesty” will not come from emphasizing individualism, autonomy, or freedom from responsibility, but from reclaiming a just mutuality that requires men to bear the weight of their own sin and to acknowledge their role in the suffering of women and to strive alongside them to eradicate the stigma and shame. This won’t be resolved by “men doing something” or “women doing something” but by the Church doing something. What this looks like, I’m not sure yet. But it certainly wouldn’t be a mistake to begin by giving women a safe space to tell their stories and be heard, as they always should have been.
  8. Romans 15 (“Do not cause another to stumble…”) has been used incessantly to charge women to be modest. But it also mentions that if we unduly cause others in the church pain, we are accountable for it. It’s about time we realize that the old rhetoric is causing many women and girls incredible pain, and that this pain has been largely ignored or demonized by those in positions of cultural and ecclesial power. Whatever male “need” there is for women to dress certain ways may have to take a backseat to the female need to know their bodies are good, beautiful, loved, and their own.
  9. Women need to be listened to, more and more. Their voices have been historically muted in the Church, and we must do everything in our power to acknowledge the worthiness and truth of what they have to say, especially in regard to (though certainly not limited to) their own bodies. If I hear another sermon with someone “mansplaining” to a woman about her body, I may go crazy.
  10. The radical love and mutual submission taught by Christ must be the posture we assume as we move forward. To continue on as we have been would require us to blind ourselves to the demands of the Gospel.

There is so much more to this, and I have this nagging, dreadful feeling that, even still, I’m perpetuating some of the same terrible binaries, stereotypes, and inconsistencies so prevalent in this discussion. I had hoped to write more constructively about what modesty actually is, how it must also be articulated as an essential virtue for men, and how American culture generally devalues and abuses women’s bodies, but living in an orphanage with a crazy schedule and a lack of resources has made that a bit more of a task than I could manage right now.

Please, let’s talk about this. Any ideas? Thoughts? Rants? Stories? It’s about time we create a space to have this discussion in love.

Jordan

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tense

Well, everybody, it’s time to admit the humiliating truth: I can’t see into the future.

I know, I know, it’s embarrassing, but I’ve got to be honest with myself, and the reality is that, for all my effort, all my reading, all my thinking, all my praying, I simply don’t know what my life will look like five, ten, or fifty years from now. Heck, I can’t even guarantee an irradiated dino-spider isn’t going burst into my room within the next three seconds.

No worries guys, I made it.

My inability to pierce the hazy veil of time usually stings most when I’m at home; because I spend so many months away, people want to know who I am now, how I’ve changed, and who I am becoming. That is all wonderful, and I appreciate being able to process through things with people and share what God has been doing in my life, but since I began coming out to people this past summer a new question has started to dominate certain conversations: who will I be in the future?

People who love and care about me want assurance that I will always be staunchly conservative and celibate. I mean, I want that assurance of myself, too. It would make life so simple to be able to say, “I will always and forever believe all the things I think to be true right now. I will never doubt, never question, never reconsider, never ‘switch sides.’ So don’t worry.”

Simple and, I think, totally miserable. It would be miserable because I know I’m not right about everything. In fact, I count it as one of God’s greatest gifts that we can learn and grow and be challenged and changed. I am thrilled I am not now who I was five years ago, and I suspect, five years from now (if I am still alive), I will be similarly amazed at what God has done to draw me closer to him in, I’m sure, surprising and unforeseen ways.

Before I went to college, I thought I would always be a “creationist,” never question gender roles, always be a Calvinist, never be a pacifist, always avoid an espresso addiction and, of course, never be gay. 

Oops.

So I can’t promise I’ll always be convinced that celibacy is my requisite (though not unhappy) path. I just can’t. I know myself too well, and I don’t know the future well enough.

What I can promise, though, is that I will live each day pursuing the glory of God, seeking to rest in his love and display it relentlessly to others. I can promise that I will place myself under the authority of scripture and Christian community, and that I will ask hard questions and, I hope, obey hard answers.

As it is, if I continue to live that kind of life, I feel confident the convictions toward sexuality that I have now will remain, though enriched, nuanced, and deepened. I hope they do.

I hope they do, because I’m scared they won’t.

I hope they do, because, when I lay in bed some nights, I hope they don’t.

I’m not some invincible dogmatic war-machine, impervious to any and all pain or insecurity. There are enough people telling me exactly who I need to be now because of my sexuality that I’ve found the added demand to simultaneously guarantee and justify who I will be in the future both beyond my capacity and deeply exhausting.

For so long I felt the need to put up some kind of iron-clad front to earn people’s approval, to dispel any doubt that I will always believe what I believe now. That I will be strong enough. That I will be wise enough.

Ridiculous. I’m a Christian. I should be the first to admit that I am both weak and unbearably stupid on my own. I am, as all humans are, an ever-changing work in progress.

No, I need God desperately, and trying to come across as sufficiently immutable was just smoke and mirrors to deter people from piercing me with that uncertain stare that says, You aren’t going to make it past forty, little more than a small rebellion against my utter dependence on Christ and the Church.

Because I am weak, I need to cling to the God whose strong embrace surrounds me and lifts me up. Because I am irrational and inconsistent, I need to draw near to the God who will lead me in righteousness all the days of my life. Because I can’t rely on my own feeble promises, I need to trust solely in the God whose promises never fail, who will guide me and teach me and nurture me and place before me a joyful path of discipleship that will lead me ever further into his marvelous light. Because I don’t know who exactly I will be as I grow, I need a church community to continually remind me who I am and who I serve.

Precisely because the future is hidden from me, I need to seek God in the present. My fear-fueled visions of what may be will always overwhelm me because I don’t yet have what it takes to overcome them. I suspect I won’t until that future becomes the present and God, as he always does, meets me in a way that is more astounding, more good than I could conceive of right now.

I’m only 22. I still struggle with child-proof Advil bottles and sometimes daydream about being a Pokémon master. I have a lot of maturing to do. As I have recently engaged in the conversation surrounding homosexuality and the church, I have realized that no matter how much research I may do, no matter how many blog posts I may write, I simply cannot change the fact that there is much I am unable to learn about myself and my sexuality except through the passing of time. There are fears and trials I cannot fully address until they actually materialize. Now, I’m in no rush – the future can hold on to its crow’s feet and baldness – but, well, patience doesn’t come naturally.

So, I’d rather not have to pretend that I have all, most, or even a decent chunk of the answers right now. What I do have is Jesus, transcendant and imminent, and his assurance that he will be with me as the seconds pass like gravel or grass beneath my uncalloused feet. And, as he’s told me in the past, I shouldn’t worry so much about the future because it distracts me from the present moment in which he is working miracles.

My goal in life is to glorify God in all that I do, not to merely be successfully celibate. Just because I’m confident the former leads to the latter, and just because I am committed to working hard to develop as someone who flourishes in singleness, doesn’t make the distinction any less important.

Why do I get the feeling that I’m just now beginning to learn what it looks like to really trust God? Maybe it’s that I’m finally having to admit that I don’t trust myself. Not yet, at least.

Well, whatever it is, to God be the glory, forever and ever, amen.

Jordan

the times they are a-changin’

Hey there, you. How are you doing? Well? Glad to hear it. I’m doing fine, I guess. Lots of stuff going on, so I’ve been pretty busy.

Now that we got the awkward small-talk out of the way, I figured I’d let you in on what’s happening over on our side of things, including some info on how the blog may be changing in the coming months.

So, as you may know, I (Jordan) recently got back from a brief three month romp in Africa. What you may not know is that I (still Jordan) am leaving this weekend for a brief four month romp in Latin America to work with street kids and orphans. Internships are addicting, ok?

I (Tony… j/k it’s Jordan) am not sure how often I will post once I arrive down there. There are a few reasons for this uncertainty: 1) I’ll be living with a bunch of insane latino teenagers and may exist in a perpetual state of semi-unconsciousness, and 2) I’ll be focusing on blogging from a separate, non-pseudonymous website (assuming I can ever decide on a gosh-darn domain name) about my time with the kids and all the zany lessons I learn, and to effectively maintain both seems unrealistic given how lazy I am (on a scale from 1 to 10, I didn’t bother to fill it in).

I’m to the point, now, that I think it would be best for me to take a small break from writing and thinking constantly about sexuality and to grow up a bit while focusing on my other passions (of which there are distressingly many). But I hope to jump headlong back into the sexuality discussion when I return from Latin America, at which point I will “come out” on my personal website and continue things from there.

I’ve decided not to “go public” until then because I don’t want to risk complicating this internship. I’m not sure it would, but I can wait. Once I do, however, I will post links on this blog.

While I may not write as many full-length posts, I intend to become more active on GaySubtlety’s Twitter, so if you aren’t following us there, you totally should (I’ll give you, like, 20,000,000 GS points if you do). I’ll frequently post links to interesting articles and videos, though not necessarily opining about them. As for this blog, we are looking at ways of turning it into a more formalized, indexed resource, but more on that later.

Anyway, thanks for your grace as we move into a bit of a different season and try to figure things out. I’ve already finished a post that I’ll put up on Friday. It’s one of the more important ones that I’ve written, at least for myself. After that, who knows! I’ll keep you updated as things progress.

Oh, and have a blessed Advent. What an incredible time to meditate on the nearness of Christ and the overwhelming beauty of the incarnation. God is very, very good, isn’t he?

Jordan

link: “To Come First for Someone”

I’m a little late to the party on this one, but a dear friend’s tumblr alerted me to a recent post I had missed by the incomparable Eve Tushnet on the subject of the common desire to be the most important person in someone else’s life (which I’ve written about here and here). If you haven’t read much of Eve’s stuff (she’s a lesbian Catholic), I would highly recommend you do. She’s a phenomenal writer and thinker with a profound gift for expressing ideas that are surprising and thought-provoking and resonantly human.

You can find her post here.

At the risk of you deciding not to expend the herculean effort to depress your mouse button or track-pad, here’s an excerpt:

“There are a lot of pieces to this emotion [of wanting to come first]. To be always the one who watches the love between spouses or parents and children, supporting that intense your-needs-first love but never receiving it yourself… Feeling like you’re burdening people when you need them–like you’re asking them to do something outrageously above and beyond the call of duty when you ask them to sacrifice time, effort, or their own priorities to care for you, even when you’re really seriously in need…

This is an area where our refusal to honor or even imagine important vocations other than marriage causes a huge amount of pain, loneliness, and sense of worthlessness. If we took friendship seriously as a potential site of devotion and sacrifice, far fewer people would feel neglected and unwanted. If we considered lay community life (“intentional communities”) more seriously, and if we expanded our concept of family and welcomed single people into familial homes (for a season or for life), many more people could have the experience of living in a realistic familial love in which we all come first at times, and nobody is just there as support personnel…

And finally, maybe the most important thing to say about this desire to ‘come first’ is simply that I’ve felt it too. It’s been really hard for me sometimes. Other times, like now, I don’t feel it as strongly. But maybe the most important thing I can offer in response to this painful and pretty humbling cry isn’t advice or theology but just solidarity. I feel it too.”

There’s plenty more to read, and you simply must clink the link. Here it is again. Click it. Then click all her other links, because they’re great too.

Peace,

Jordan