In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion reads the paper
In a claustrophobic church classroom I was teaching a lesson on modesty to a group of teen boys. One kid raised his hand and said, “Why are we even talking about this? Like any of us are going to wear bikinis or something.” That was the moment when I realized modesty was dying–not among the heathen, but among the religious.
His comment typifies my least favorite thing about the way people tend to talk about modesty: The perpetuation of the ridiculous notion that modesty is primarily an issue of the percentage of skin covered.
This is a serious defeat for the virtue of modesty–just like if we believed the virtue of chastity is only about not having intercourse, or that charity is merely a matter of giving away money. In each of these cases what is actually described is very narrow way in which these virtues can be manifested. However, it’s important to note that all of these manifestations can (and often do) occur even where the virtue is completely absent.
Confusing a virtue for an outward manifestation causes misunderstanding and problems. For instance, if modesty is only about the depth of hem and necklines, then phrases like “a modest house” or “a modest opinion” begin to lose their meaning. Worst still, the virtue will be marginalized and applied in arbitrary and sexist ways. When this shallow understanding of modesty is used, discussions about the issue quickly turn into a sort of fight about traditional values versus body shaming, self-respect in conflict with a culture of objectification, or a perverse blame game amongst the sexes. It seems most of these arguments peter out, as deaf ears refuse to capitulate, perhaps because the whole debate is built on a faulty premise that can’t be reconciled.
But discussions about modesty change significantly when we elevate our thinking. Modesty is not about how much of yourself you cover up; it’s about how you choose to reveal yourself to the world.
Somehow those who publicly champion modesty have got to get it back into their heads that this virtue is about the marginalization of sacred and worthwhile things by temporal and superficial things, and the problem of sacred things getting switched up with superficial things is not unique to fashion, or the pressures women may or may not feel when they dress. This can be the same problem with wanting people to be impressed with your house, your habit of name-dropping, or your pretending to like soccer. There is nothing wrong with fancy houses, relationships with famous people, or a public affinity for soccer per se, but if any of those things are wrapped up with you wanting attention solely for the “merits” of those things, or if you somehow think those things make you better than others who are not associated with those things, then you are running afoul of the virtue of modesty. You begin to run the risk of being viewed almost entirely as something that really doesn’t have much to do with what makes you sacred. Even sadder, you run the risk of losing track of what makes yourself and others sacred.
Personally, the most immodest period of my life was in high school–not because I was wearing short shorts or bearing my midriff, but because I was trying to draw attention to myself in pretty shallow and meritless ways. Rather than a human being with diverse strengths and weaknesses, I wanted to be a “skater,” “rockabilly guy,” or even (shudder) a “rude boy.” There’s nothing wrong with any of those things intrinsically, but as a shortcut to really doing the gritty work of getting to know myself, or letting others get to know me, it led to a pretty meaningless marginalization of who I was. And once I had made cozy (and largely false) lines between in-groups and out-groups, I was then more inclined to be a complete jerk. (Because some people weren’t people at all, but were “jocks,” “Barbies,” or “hicks.”) Thus, immodesty isn’t a scourge of teenage girls “making” boys have dirty thoughts and “driving” other girls to anorexia. It’s a false construct of a world made of us-and-them where people are driven apart from one another for silly reasons and in ways that invariably cause conflict, pain, and objectification.
The bad news is when we think of modesty in this more complete way, it’s a much more pervasive problem than we supposed, and the solution is much more complicated than a good tankini. The good news is this understanding of modesty offers hope and resolution between the old false dichotomies of respect versus shame, and the solution truly makes us Christlike.
Once we start thinking of modesty as a refusal to shortchange the sacred with the superficial, two interesting things happened. First, we can see modesty applies just as much to women, men, old, young, rich, or poor. It applies equally to all human beings. Second, by realizing that the sin of immodesty is reduction of the sacred to a sort of idolatry, then the demands of modesty cut both ways–to the actor and the reactor.
In other words, I might be being immodest by driving a fancy car that I want others to envy. I might want to inspire envy and be seen as “a fancy guy who drives a Ferrari” rather than as a regular old human being who can be fancy, but who also isn’t any better than anyone sans Ferrari. But the burden of modesty does not end there. Someone watching me would be just as guilty of immodesty if they looked at me and said, “There goes a fancy-pants Ferrari driver,” with all the judgment and sense of superiority that can come along with such meaningless distinctions. In both cases, each person is guilty of making a phony reduction of what defines the person to an object associated with the person. Both are acting immodestly.
Thus I believe modesty should be, above all, a concern by each of us for all of us, and a commitment to not view ourselves or those around us as simply a fancy house, a pair of breasts, a nice professional title, or as any other part that if over emphasized will betray the sacred whole.Spread: by