I think Cane Caldo is doing a good work on bringing out the difficulty modern American Christianity has with the concept of modesty. When dealing with clothing, there’s a continuum between something that basically everyone can point to and say, “That’s immodest” – like skintight pants or shirts that show off lots of cleavage – and then there’s all the other clothing that people can get into disagreements about. Hemlines on skirts and collars on shirts; sleeves and headdresses. That means that modesty is a conversation in which people influence each other, rather than a debate in which there is a winner and a loser. How irritating!
One of the other reasons it’s difficult to have a productive conversation is that people will use various gambits to defend themselves whenever they perceive criticism of their choices. First there’s the quote that Cane points out, which is the defense of those who don’t want any rules for modesty: “Any intentional setting of boundaries–even by the community–immediately disqualifies such boundaries as phony.”
I haven’t been following the comments closely enough to pull context on that one; I may have some time to track down a direct link later. But let me just say that the above attitude would have come as quite a shock to both Baptist-run private schools that I attended in middle school! They were quite strict about their intentionally set boundaries, and the girls were given objective guidelines as to the placement of our skirts’ hemlines in relation to our knees. (Ironically, I didn’t like the uniform at one of the schools because I felt that the skirt was too short.)
So I certainly think that disqualifying an intentionally set boundary as “phony” merely because it is intentional is a laughably transparent excuse to defend doing whatever one wants without criticism. Localities have intentionally set boundaries on what qualifies as appropriate public attire since time immemorial, and will continue to do so in the future. People do need guidelines, and it’s a very masculine trait to want to sharply define these, even in a realm of life more given to subjective influences like women’s fashion. (Yiayia probably just “knows it when she sees it,” rather than using rulers and objective scales to determine immodesty.)
Those who wish to be more modest than the current mainstream culture are going to have to set some boundaries, deliberately, rather than going along with the flow and doing whatever everyone else is doing. Disqualifying boundaries simply because they’re artificial makes no sense, especially when dealing with clothing! ALL clothing is artificial!
However, there’s another defense that springs out whenever this topic involves a discussion with people who don’t always see eye-to-eye on where the boundaries ought to go: the Holier-Than-Thou Card. It occupies the opposite extreme to the You’re-A-Pharisee (the phony boundary) Card, and serves the exact same purpose: to shut down conversation.
I’ll have to thank Cane for kinda-sorta pulling this one at the end of his blog post, because I think it illustrates very neatly the problem of sticking to the narrow path. I’d like to avoid attributing bad motives to people in this discussion, so I want to make plain that Cane’s got a really good point. There are people out there who will say exactly those things in order to keep the shepherds from doing any shepherding. Christians do need to keep in mind that they should serve the Lord even when everyone else around them is going astray. But there’s a temptation for people who are “holding the line” against temptations to attribute this “They’re sneering at me because of my serving the Lord” motivation to people who are criticizing means and not ends.
Looking at the extremes, on the one hand, we have sexual immodesty (and its defenders) and on the other hand, we have religious immodesty, and its defenders. And caught in the middle are people who’ve been burned by both, trying not to get into the internet-argument equivalent of PTSD triggers, which have a tendency to derail everything. I don’t want this to devolve into the usual religious flame war between the You’re-A-Pharisee set and the Holier-Than-Thou set. I actually agree with Cane completely that Christians need to stand firm in serving the Lord in the face of sneering. It would be so much easier if we could just have objective standards, but unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a non-culturally-dependent expression of exactly what constitutes modest women’s fashion. Phooey.
Which means I actually need to talk about modesty.
So what do I mean by religious immodesty? Let us consult the dictionary, and look at definition 2 for modest: “ Your clothing can be ostentatious no matter how pure and sincere your intentions are. Just as a woman could be wearing something immodest without realizing it, the modesty crowd can fall into ostentation without meaning to. This is the source of my concern for young girls who would rather wear something other than hand-sewn clothing considered utterly strange by all her peers. If she’s getting teased for consistently dressing more modestly than her peers, that’s one thing: but being teased for dressing like someone with no fashion sense is another thing entirely. Are those girls internalizing what you think you’re teaching them? Or are they going to hear nothing but an endless list of rules for fencing the law? That danger exists, at least for some. I don’t want other families to suffer the same way mine did, over a totalitarian form of outward morality that put the process above the goal.
Nor is the choice of fashion a binary one. There’s more to choose from than leggings and hand-sewn out-of-style dresses. For instance, you could wear hemline-modest clothing that isn’t ugly. There are modest, non-European modern clothing styles readily available in many areas, too. If part of your goal is to make a startling visual statement – immodest modesty, as it were – I’d recommend picking some appealing style that might catch on in your area just as a tactical maneuver. It’s not that standing out is to be always avoided – since following God’s commands means that Christians are going to stand out. But…
If you’re deliberately dressing in a way that draws attention to yourself, are you really being modest?