Okay. Okay. I’m fed up with the annual Summer Modesty Argument On The Interwebz.

Here’s the rundown:

1) Modesty keeps men’s uncontrollable sex drives in check! vs. NO THAT’S RAPE CULTURE

2) God commands modesty to honor his creation, your body! vs. Uh, modesty is a shame thing and that’s the result of the fall.

3) Modesty makes a statement about What Your Heart Really Wants, so be a good witness! vs. Rape culture, again! I wear what I want, and I’m not asking for anything, AND Jesus doesn’t depend on my clothes for his Kingdom, thanks.

4) Everything in our culture is so sexualized! Wish we could go back to the Good Old Days. vs. Let me give you a history lesson! Everyone was having sex and covering up is a cultural standard, not a godliness thing.

And then, there’s the one that set me off last night, which basically argues that I need to cover up to protect my God-given dignity as a woman.

I want to tackle this idea that my behavior, clothing, or other external things dictates the way church people perceive my dignity. I know it does. I grew up in the thick of modesty-shame culture in SGM.

The message of modesty = dignity was clear, though perhaps not defined in such a reductive fashion. But if your listeners (or readers) are coming away with an idea that’s false, the burden is on you, the teacher/speaker (or writer) to use your language clearly enough to eliminate miscommunication. And so I feel it fair to take on this idea in the manner in which it was received and assumed to be true.

Here’s the beefy quote on this from the article in the Atlantic yesterday:

Here, there is freedom for individual women to practice modesty not primarily to preserve men’s sexual purity, but to preserve their own dignity. To show in outward form the inward truth that they matter to society for their minds, their leadership, their passions, and their talents–talents that have nothing to do with how many heads they can turn. Modesty can become a form of female power.

Female power can take LOTS of forms. Usually by transgressing against a social expectation and rewriting some rules. I get that. I applaud that. Some of my favorite things about feminism is how it’s transgressing social orders as those who are traditionally marginalized are empowering themselves and speaking up.

But my dignity is not won or lost by my clothing OR my level of empowerment. And when we’re talking about my body and dignity and working with the assumption that our motives for this discussion are in keeping with pursuing orthodox Christianity, then I’ll take further issue with this.

If you separate my dignity from my physical self, you’re assuming that my spiritual self is “better” or “holier” than my body, and you are 1) demeaning Christ’s incarnation (and thereby devaluing the sacrament of communion), and 2) embracing Gnosticism, a classic heresy. 

God made humankind in his/her image and called us very good. God is not gendered, and we happen to be, but that means that ALL of us are in the image of God. Then, the fall happened, and THEN humans were introduced to shame and shame introduced clothing.

  1. Bodies made, called good.
  2. Sin/shame introduced, clothing happens.

My dignity as a human being comes from the fact that God made me and called it good. My body is inseparable from my human experience and identity, and my body is inseparable from my identity as a Christian, because it was through my understanding of the incarnation that I was able to overcome modesty culture shame about my body and re-embrace it as beautiful and good. Same goes for my sexuality, actually.

Don’t buy the lie that “modesty” will win you respect and dignity. If it does, it’s in a fear- and shame-centered legalistic culture, and Christ died to set us free, not bind us with more shame. My dignity doesn’t need clothes. Or your respect.

 


In which I will probably sound a lot like Lauren Dubinsky, who is usually right about this stuff.

The credits were rolling on the Disney princess movie. I was in a swoony-moony eight-year-old’s post-Disney euphoria, soaking up the soundtrack swelling as I leaned back on my elbows on the living room carpet.

I don’t remember which parent said it or the exact words, but what I heard was something to the effect of

“Now, Hannah, we know that this is a good story, but the Bible teaches us that following our hearts is bad, and you can see how she made choices that hurt her family and friends because she was being selfish and followed her heart.”

This little moment was followed up later by years of Bible memory drills and post-spanking lectures:

The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?”

This verse was later reinforced by SGM teachings drawn from various bits and pieces of reformed theology.

  • You are the greatest sinner you know. 
  • I’m doing better than I deserve. 
  • I just don’t know if this is a good choice, because I need to pray and discern my motives. 
  • This is how this situation makes me feel, but I need to pray about it, because I might be reacting wrongly, because my heart is fundamentally evil, you know.

This was my justification for faith: people do bad things even if they want to be good. So T.U.L.I.P. and the SGM gospel had to be true. They were logically sound.

If you grew up like I did, you know what I’m talking about. And I’m not here to argue the logic of the theology. I know it “works” but I also know that it takes a toll on the heart, and that room for the miraculous and the impossible and the creative grace of a vastly loving God are so much more important to sane orthodoxy than systematic theology.

So I believed this. I doubted myself. I tried to act on reason and Scripture. If you look at my prayer journals (because talking about my feelings wasn’t okay, in my mind, unless I was “praying” about them) from when I was dating my ex, you’d see me agonizing about issues in our relationship (that never got better), and then you’d see me talking myself out of being worried about them because of reasons like: God is Sovereign, and God Led Us Here, and Love Endures and Hopes All Things. And I shoved red flags into a “hard things I can live with” pile.

I did this with everything, not just dating. Actually, I probably did it MORE with other parts of my life. I didn’t aspire very high with my college options, because I thought I should go to a Christian college so I’d have accountability from other Christians in authority over me, because, obviously, my heart was deceitful and college is a time when people explore, which naturally leads them into sin, so. Don’t follow your heart. Stay safe. Stay in authority structures that will keep you safe from you.

I chose to not make an issue about moving to my ex’s hometown when we got married, because I wanted to respect his preferences and he wanted to be near his family. I didn’t even make an issue out of the fact that I was the one who wanted to go to grad school and had definite ideas about what career I wanted. And later, we talked about grad school options, and assumed he’d “go first” and then I’d do my schooling later. Even my job choices were dictated by practicality and security, not passion.

Choice after choice after choice was pushed and nudged and bumped into place by systematic self-distrust and self-effacement in my head. I don’t regret the choices I made, not really. How could I? These choices have made me who I am. But they took a toll on me.

I stopped doing things I loved. I stopped being creative. During college, I didn’t do anything creative–I just did school and spent time with friends. I wrote a little poetry, but mostly for creative writing class. I painted and drew one semester, but again, for a class. I was happier than I’d been in a long time, but I still did it for the grade. I didn’t dance much. I didn’t cook or bake much. I didn’t write fiction or draw. If I was dying for creativity to stay sane, I’d indulge and make a batch of cookies or go for a walk. But it wasn’t a healthy habit–it was loosening the cap on a high-pressure container to let a little gas out so I could screw the lid back on, tight. So I could keep going, being productive, achieving goals, looking ahead.

And yes, I got shit done. But big changes happened to me, and I’m realizing I don’t know who I am now. What does “new” me like? Is that what “little me” liked? Were these things I identified with in the height of my fundydom really part of me, or just part of the alternate self I created to stay sane and fly under the legalism radar?

On Saturday I sat out on a slab of concrete above the James River in Richmond and started to make a list of things I knew about me. Trying to reintroduce myself to myself, in a way. I got overwhelmed pretty shortly after starting this list, because, shit, my life and choices don’t really give me space to breathe and be me. I’m not feeding myself, the breathing living creative soul-self. And I can’t just shove that aside and give it attention every few months to keep it from dying. I can’t just make choices for the sake of “balance” when my creative self is atrophied and disoriented–there is no balance without health in all parts.

Fighting fragments of evangelical Gnosticism keeps getting stranger and stranger. It’s not just the body we’ve forgotten, but the heart, too.

If my heart is so desperately wicked, why does following my gut leave me more rested and healthy and satisfied than constant self-control and vigilance in rational, Church-people-approved life choices? If my heart is so desperately wicked, why do I love beautiful things? If my heart is so desperately wicked, why does caring for myself allow me to care for people better? It can’t just be the one thing. It much more likely to be both/and.

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secretes are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name: through Christ our Lord. Amen. [Book of Common Prayer, 1662]

***

Edit: Here’s why this is a big deal. Go find a QF daughter or a woman who has spent significant time in either a legalistic church/family situation or a hyper-reformed group and ask her (if she’s still “in”) if she knows what her strengths are. Ask her what she likes about herself. Ask her what she wants her legacy to be. And if she’s “out,” ask her what she would have said when she was “in.”

I bet it’ll be really hard for her to say.


This week’s collection is a little more light and brief than the last few have been. Enjoy!


Previous posts in this series: Loving Your FoodEating in Community, and Jesus Ate.

For the benefit of my readers: I write this for Christians, with the understanding that communion is a sacrament and an essential, regular part of a healthy practice of faith and a healthy church. For my own part, I am of the Anglican persuasion, believing in what is called the doctrine of “real presence” (as opposed to transubstantiation or the idea that communion is simply a memorial act). 

Anglican service in Portland, ME last week.

As I touched on in my last post, Jesus eating, as a man with ordinary people, transformed the manner in which we as Christians and humans can relate to each other and food. But that Jesus ate is really the fluffy part of his reinvention of community and eating through his incarnation. The real weight of this new perspective comes in his institution of the sacrament of communion. Every time he ate was either a foreshadowing or echo of this act, and every time the church gathers, we dutifully walk through the ceremonial reverencing of this act and acknowledge our odd but profound need for it.

The most sacred act of the church is the practicing of the sacrament of communion. This is really rather odd. It’s crass—the idea that we receive grace and sustenance because God died and we can eat his body and blood? It’s a repulsive concept in the elemental ways. Perhaps as a result, most evangelical churches skirt around the reality of what is implied by communion by sanitizing the sacrament  into a mere memorial act, a bread-and-wine mimic of the last supper to honor Christ’s final hours. The idea in these circles is that we eat the bread and wine a few times a year to remind us that Jesus broke bread and drank wine with his disciples as a foreshadowing of what would happen to his body, and so the church now mimics this last supper to recall what was done to his body for us. It’s tidy and clean. All symbolic, no gore, no rush to do it every week. This perspective is Gnostic, which is to say, it is a heretical mockery of the real thing.

Gnosticism is often explained in terms of its mysticism and achievement of holiness via secret knowledge and gradual initiation into said knowledge. But the reason it existed (and is still alive and well in a new form in the church today) is because the humanness of Jesus and the physicality of the cross and resurrection and ascension were difficult paradoxes in the ancient world. It didn’t sit well in the context of philosophies like Stoicism to have a God who affirmed the body. To accept the paradox of incarnation and Jesus as fully God and fully man would require believers to accept the worth of one’s own flesh and physicality. Instead, Gnosticism simplifies Christianity and removes this paradox, and allows Christianity to be all about the intellect, spiritual experience, and the knowledge of truth.  There is little value in the body or the physical life—because the flesh is wholly sinful, it should be dominated and made as irrelevant as possible to the spiritual life. The creeping discomfort of the Gnostic Christian with the physical aspect of being human undermines the sacraments and the daily routines of life. It says that your time is better spent in the Word than studying for tomorrow’s test at school. It says that prayer is more valuable than doing household chores. It says that worship songs are inherently better than any other songs. It says that art should only ever be beautiful, because only the true things are beautiful, and the nude body is always pornography and that a mundane or grittily gross scene from real life can’t be true art because it has ugliness (e.g., Thomas Kincade and his ilk). In essence, Gnosticism is an impatience with the realities of daily life and the sin and ugliness and slow realities of a physical body, and tries to practice Christianity as a sort of pre-heaven escapism by devaluing anything that is physical or mundane or ordinary. [My apologies to Dr. Messer for the content of this paragraph.]

Now, I understand the impulse of this skewed perspective. Life as a physical being is contradictory, and the most beautiful and the most gross are usually two sides of the same thing. Sex, for example, is a beautiful union where the purest of passions can be expressed in the safety of your lover’s affections and embraces. But it’s also a gross bodily function with funky noises and awkward angles. Likewise, eating can be an almost spiritual experience if the food is really good. But you still have to digest and pass it later. Childbirth, as well: it’s a life-changing and beautifully holy moment when a baby is born and takes its first gasping breathes and begins to cry, and suckles at the breast of its mother. But there’s also blood and mucus and feces to be cleaned up, and the mother may have tearing, and will usually be exhausted, pale, with greasy hair, and sweat trickling down her face. These ugly and gross sides of these events are things we’d like to do without, but because we are physical beings in a physical world, we cannot. Likewise, to sanitize communion as only a memorial act is an immature escapist impulse. We are physical beings, Jesus is a physical being, his death was a physical act, and communion cannot be just symbolism. To treat communion as if it was just symbolic is to cheapen his death in a way that is dangerous and irreverent.

[Before I continue, I must ask my readers to do me a favor: be comfortable with mystery, and don’t expect of me a theologian’s precision. I am not trying to give a completely thorough, systematic apologetic for the theological nuances of “real presence” in communion. I gave up on being Presbyterian in part because of the OCD-like obsession with a wholly reasonable theology. Paradox is an essential part of the Christian faith, and I am not equipped to be an educated defender of it. I am only trying to impart here my layman’s understanding of the significance of communion as a physical sacrament whereby God imparts grace tangibly to his people.]

So here we are: Gnostic Christianity creates a bad substitute for the real meaning of communion. Having explained this, I can now continue onto my larger point: Jesus ate and because he ate I can eat with a holy enjoyment of food and fellowship, imitating his united experience of food with people as a centering activity for healthy relationships.

Jesus was God incarnate, and as God incarnate, he achieved a restoration of relationships in the context of food as good and a guiltless pleasure.  When he ate the Passover feast with his disciples he made this personal, as he broke the bread and passed the cup and said to them “This is my body” and “This is my blood.” Suddenly it became more obvious what he meant during a talk with leaders of the Jews, when he said to them,

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. I tell you the truth, he who believes in me has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” – John 6:44-58, NIV

Jesus’s body as manna for his people is, clearly, symbolic of God’s provision of the appropriate salvation for the needs of his people in the physical wilderness wanderings and in the spiritual desert of the old covenant isolation from God without blood appeasement for transgressions. This is an appropriate metaphorical parallel for Jesus, as the sacrificial Lamb of God, to draw. Whoever fed on the manna was saved; whoever puts their faith in Jesus’s sufficient sacrifice on their behalf is saved.

But it’s much more literal than just this, as became evident during the last supper. Jesus reiterated the literal command to eat his flesh and drink his blood, passing the bread and wine as physical symbols of this. He was there with them in this shared, communal experience, and partaking of it was in a way, the last seal of the fellowship existing between the disciples and with their Lord.

And when Jesus died on the cross, bleeding and mangled, and the propitiation for sins was achieved, the reality of partaking in the supper as partaking in his death and living by his death—both physically and spiritually—the deeper truth was made firm. At the command of Christ to remember his sacrifice by sharing the bread and wine as they shared in his body and blood whenever the disciples gathered together, the routine of communion was established, and fellowship with each other was renewed by the common need and the common cup, and the Holy Spirit sustained the fellowship and blessed the act of communion to the church.

This is, sort of, what is implied by the term “real presence” in communion: Christ is present through his Spirit when the believers gather in his name, and Christ is made tangible in the body and blood, the bread and wine, and the Spirit restores and renews the faith of the individual believers taking of this food, and restores and renews the unity and fellowship—the communion—of the church, of the saints.

And because of this, I say that tangible grace is directly imparted to the soul of the believer who partakes of the sacrament of communion. To take part in this sacrament requires nothing of the believer except for an acknowledgement of his sinfulness and need of spiritual food, his need of grace, and his need of fellowship with other believers to sustain his faith. (This is why, in the Anglican church, one joins in a congregational confession of sin and hears the words of peace from the scriptures, and then offers the hand of peace to the other congregants, before processing to the altar to kneel [an appropriate posture for those dependent on Christ for life] and receive [not take, but passively receive, reflecting our helplessness and God’s willingness to meet us just where we are in our worst selves] the sacrament and the blessing.) Grace is unmerited favor poured out with generosity from God on man—communion is the most physically real experience of grace in its purest, most elemental form a believer can have.

I like how one author describes it,

“Not only is Christ present at the altar, but He also gives Himself to us. As we eat the bread, we are receiving, in an intimate and personal way, His body that was broken on the cross. When we sip the wine, we are receiving His blood that sealed the covenant, assuring the forgiveness of sin. We are literally united with Christ—Christ crucified, resurrected, and ascended—bridging the gap between here and Golgotha, now and eternity.

It has been said that this contact with Christ is more direct and closer and more intimate than what His disciples enjoyed. Again, Christ comes to us. It is not something we do, but something Christ does, which we have only to receive. The Lord’s Supper is nothing less than the Gospel. . . .

There is nothing vague here. There is no need to worry about my decisions or whether or not I have been elected to be saved or whether or not I am sinful. In the Sacrament, Christ gives Himself to me. All of His promises and everything He did for my redemption and forgiveness on the cross are made so tangible, I can taste them. I am touching, in fact, the risen Christ, as the first disciples did. And God’s Word, ringing in my ears as I take this nourishment, tells me that His body and blood are for me. That means that my sins are actually forgiven, that I can be assured of God’s favor.” (The Spirituality of the Cross, Veith)

Because God incarnate as the man Jesus made such a big deal of instituting the sacrament of communion food, for the Christian, can never again be just something we put in our mouths to give us energy. Seriously, just reread the gospels with an eye out for the phrases, “body and blood,” “eat my flesh,” and for the idea of Jesus as food for eternal life. It is a central theme in his ministry, intertwining elegantly with his affirmation of the physical body as he walked about the country healing the bodies of those who believed, and eating with them and knowing them intimately through that fellowship.

God has taken flesh and eaten with us and made the very act of eating together with him and others a vital part of how we relate to him and each other. I would argue that a church isn’t a church if it’s not celebrating communion together regularly, because without it, our fellowship is only a heady and intellectual, rational sort of relating to God and to each other. With communion, our practice of faith and our need of grace and our need of each other suddenly become powerfully physical, and we must be united to take the elements in a sacramental, reverential way. It is the literal lifeblood of the church.

In our church on Sunday mornings, the priest prays over the elements and when he is done, he lifts them up for the congregation to see, saying,

The gifts of God for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.

And when I kneel to take the bread, he says to me,

The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for you, preserve your body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your heart by faith, with thanksgiving.

And then as I am given the cup,

The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for you, preserve your body and soul unto everlasting life. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for you, and be thankful.

Some versions of the liturgy has this, instead:

The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven.
The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.

The wedding feast of the Lamb. The body and blood on the cross. The breaking of bread with the disciples and with the faithful, socially despicable. The God of holiness in human flesh, hungry. Jesus Christ, the bread of life.

Eating can’t be done just for its own sake ever again. It is now Christ-haunted.

{This post was written with this song on repeat in my “mental stereo.” Go listen.}

Iron and marble, wood and stone
Craftsman’s chisel, hammer and nail
All the straight lines form our gath’ring place
At the Altar of God, at the Communion Rail

And the powerful and common, we all come alike
With our faith so weak and our souls so frail
To dine upon the promises of Christ the Lamb
Kept safe for His sheep at the Communion Rail

I can’t help but watch this blessed parade
Of strangers and neighbors, we all fall and fail
We come to have our lives made new again
And to return our thanks at the Communion Rail

And a great cloud of witnesses surrounds us out of time
We will follow their footsteps beyond this earthly veil
We will all join together at the Supper of the Lamb
And we glimpse that shining time
At the Communion Rail

We will follow their footsteps beyond this earthly veil
And we glimpse that shining time now
At the Communion Rail 

Bob Bennett, “The Communion Rail”