Monday, July 21, 2014

Simon, Who Is Called Peter by Mackenzie Mulligan

Source of book: I was given a copy by the author

First, in the interest of full disclosure, let me note that this review is a bit of a first for me. I have never reviewed a book written by someone who I know even a little bit. (Leave aside for a minute the fact that a great many of the authors I read are, well, dead.) This is not because I don’t know any authors personally. Rather, it is because I have a hard time writing an honest review of a book when I know that I will have to personally interact with the author afterward. Also, in many cases, I may not enjoy the book, not because of its faults, but because of the genre. For example, I really dislike self help books, books on current politics, most genre fiction, and many books in the “women’s” section. That is a personal preference, not a reflection on the merits of any of those genres. So I tend to avoid writing about these books for the same reason I don’t review hip-hop music or green bean casserole recipes.

The reasons I chose to make an exception in this case are as follows. First, I do not know the author in person, just online. Thus, if he hates my review, there won’t be any awkward moments when we see each other. Second, the way we met (at least on my end) was that he made some insightful and interesting comments on my review of Till We Have Faces. Upon further exploration, we discovered a mutual love of C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton. I also discovered that he and I might just be the two last remaining young men of our generations who are still Arminians, rather than neo-Calvinists (or, more accurately in many cases, neo-Puritans.) Finally, the topic of the book sounded interesting, so I took a chance.

In any case, I am not likely to be taking on reviews on request as a general rule. I blog purely for my own pleasure - I do not make a dime in any way from the blog. Likewise, I read for pleasure and my own education, so I am only likely to read books that I think will be worth my time for one of those reasons. So, future inevitable author of Amish Vampires of the Tribulation, don’t bother.

According to the Afterword, Mulligan began this book as part of his senior project while at Biola University. It kind of got out of hand and turned into a book.

If you want to read more about Mulligan, he blogs at


Simon, Who Is Called Peter is written as a first person account by the apostle Peter of his life and experiences. All of the original disciples are fascinating, but Peter has to be one of the most intriguing by any measure. (For the record, I tend to identify with the skeptical Thomas rather than the impulsive Peter.)

It is easy to make the saints of the past into types, mere cardboard outlines with some piety in the middle, but they are really more fascinating in their humanity than in their greatness. The Bible is a much more earthy book than we tend to acknowledge, filled with more failure than success, and more frailty than strength. Peter serves as a great example of all of the above, mixed together in a marvelously human contradiction.

Mulligan takes the approach of sticking entirely to the biblical account, with a very few exceptions taken deliberately to make the narrative flow. In each case, he footnotes and explains his decision. In addition, where there are multiple views as to the meaning of events, he explains those views, and why he chose his particular narrative path. For anyone wishing to follow along in their own bibles, he also footnotes the sources. The link to the academic project that birthed this book is pretty clear, and in that sense, the book does have a little bit of an academic flavor. I am a bit OCD when it comes to footnotes, so I kept breaking the narrative to read them. (I’m even worse with endnotes, trying futilely to keep a pinky finger in the back of the book so I can toggle back and forth…)

As a narrative story, I found the writing to be fluid and natural. I’m sure that if the real Saint Peter had written it, it would have read quite differently. (Peter was a fisherman, unlikely to have been polished in Greek, and appears to have credited his editor or ghostwriter in his epistles.) Mulligan, on the other hand, writes the story with polish, giving evidence of his English degree and extensive reading. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I enjoy good writing, and the polish gives Peter the chance to be more introspective and in touch with his own feelings than he may have been had he tried to put it all into writing himself. In addition, it isn’t far off from the tone that Peter’s editor/ghostwriter took in his epistles.

One thing that Mulligan captured well was Peter’s impulsiveness. If any a man ever seemed to act without even realizing what he was doing and saying, it would be Saint Peter. It is a good part of what makes him so fascinating. In this book, Peter truly can’t understand why he does what he does - and I think that is exactly as it should be. Everything from amazing courage - even recklessness - to senseless cowardice, and from brilliant insight to the ability to miss the obvious: all of us know someone like this, who is both loveable and irritating.

I’ll also note that Mulligan sticks closely to his purpose: a first person narrative of the details. There is no digression regarding the culture of the day, or the theological framework, or much of anything outside of the Gospels and Acts. Don’t expect a full theological tome, or an expanded history. It isn’t a commentary, or a book with an axe to grind.

It is a straightforward and unsensational tale of an ordinary man, impulsive and generous, and his experience with Christ. At less than 120 pages, it is a quick read.

While little will be new knowledge to someone who is well-versed (sorry about the pun) in the Gospel accounts, there were a couple of things that I did notice for the first time.

First, since I am not really a theology nerd nor skilled in the languages of the bible, I missed an interesting point that Mulligan makes in a footnote. In the iconic meeting between Saint Peter and Jesus after the resurrection, where Christ asks Peter if he loves him, much hay, and by that I mean much hay, has been made of the different Greek words used for love in that passage. I have heard quite a few theories about the significance of the words used, and one can easily end up with a theological knot of Gordian complexity. Mulligan takes a slice that seems obvious, once you read it: Jesus and Peter weren’t speaking Greek during this conversation. They were speaking Aramaic. Which doesn’t have the different words for love like Greek does. So, either the writer of the Gospel of John (traditionally believed to be Saint John) used the different words for some point of his own, which wasn’t actually part of the conversation, or he just did it for some random or stylistic reason. (My snarky side wonders if he had a Greek 101 teacher who taught him not to repeat the same word too much, but to look for synonyms…) In any case, it is a reminder that many theological disputes may be rooted in translation semantics rather than the plain will of God.

The other thing that I hadn’t really considered was just how weird Peter’s name - or rather nickname - was. Maybe we consider nicknames to be a common part of our experience, but when Simon was dubbed “Peter,” it really was a strange name. Probably even stranger than Dwayne Johnson’s eventual appropriation of Peter’s moniker. If one may be so bold, “You shall no longer be Jesse, but shall be called, ‘The Body.’” Or something like that. (Pro wrestling meets theology?)


If you want to get this book, Amazon is probably your best bet, as I do not know how widely available it is elsewhere.

One quibble I have is that, for some reason, it isn’t currently available on Kindle. I can’t imagine it would be that hard to make available in that format as well.

For another book on the disciples, see my review of John MacArthur’s book.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Reading With My Kids: Homer Price and Centerburg Tales by Robert McCloskey

Source of books: I own these.

I chose to read these two related books to the kids because they were some of my favorites when I was a kid. My oldest daughter had already read them herself, but was happy to hear them again.

Robert McCloskey was an author and illustrator of children’s books. Although his output was fairly small, what he did write were enduring classics.

Homer Price and Centerburg Tales are a matched set, both featuring Homer, a boy, probably 11 or 12 years old, living in a stereotypical small midwestern town in the 1940s. The denizens of the town are the source of gentle humor and wry observation.

McCloskey also illustrated the book, and his drawings are a part of the charm. 

The books are both a fond look at small town life and a good-natured satire on the foibles of small town America. Homer is more sophisticated than the rest of the kids - and most of the adults, but he isn’t cynical or sour about the silliness and gullibility of the rest of the town at all. He takes it all in good-natured stride, helping out when he can, and even preserving the dignity of the resident teller of tall tales.

McCloskey pokes fun at snake oil salesmen, automated machines, earworms, marketing, comicbook heroes, tract homes, and more. The highlights (at least in my opinion) would have to be the unforgettable incident with an out-of-control automatic doughnut maker, and the greatest product of all time: “Eversomuch-more-so.”

The San Luis Obispo farmer’s market has a stand employing one of these.
Let’s just say that the kids love watching it…

In fact, “Eversomuch-more-so” has been a running joke between my wife and me for years. (She also loved the books as a kid.) The idea that the placebo effect could be reduced to an invisible, tasteless, odorless product in attractive packaging is pretty funny. As Grandpa Herc (the teller of tall tales) put it, back in his day, you could buy it in bulk, and it wasn’t nearly as expensive…

There’s lots more, of course, from giant ragweed to a new twist on The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Throughout, McCloskey shows a sense of humor combined with goodwill, with even the worst of characters (a group of robbers) eliciting a little sympathy for their hard luck. The imperturbable Homer keeps his head throughout, unfazed by the hilarity that surrounds him.

The name Homer is merely one of the many classical Greek names used throughout. Besides Hercules, Ulysses and Telemachus get characters of their own.

I don’t wish to spoil any more of the books than I already have, so I won’t give any further detail.

I’ll just end with a quote of the earworm song that is so, so much fun to say - and kept the kids in stitches every time I said it. The concept is take from a short story by Mark Twain, which McCloskey references in the story.

Sing hi-diddle-diddle,
For a silly little vittle.
Sing get-gat-gittle,
Got a home in the middle.
Sing dough-de-dough-dough,
There’s dough, you know.
There’s not no nuts
In you-know-whats.
In a whole doughnut
There’s a nice whole hole.
When you take a big bite,
Hold the whole hole tight.
If a little bit bitten,
Or a great bit bitten,
Any whole hole with a hole bitten in it,
Is a holey whole hole
And it JUST - PLAIN - ISN’T!

Say that nice and fast with a good lilt, and it can’t help but be funny.

These two books fortunately still remain in print, and are readily available in paperback. I consider them to be indispensable children’s classics that should be part of everyone’s library.  

Note on another McCloskey book:

I didn’t discover Blueberries for Sal until I already had a wife and a kid. However, my eldest daughter looked just like Sal when she was one year old. She also loved blueberries, and would have done exactly what Sal does…

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Modesty Culture Part 10: Social Signaling

Social Signaling

When you see a man in a turban walking down the street, what do you think?

Many would think “Muslim.” Those of us who live in cities with a high (Asian) Indian population would tend to think “Sikh” - particularly if that style of turban was sighted.

This is a Sikh turban (a Dastar). Note that it is peaked in the middle, although there are other styles.
Also, Muslim turbans are not usually blue or orange.
This is actor Saif Ali Khan.

That is a great example of social signaling. The clothing indicates membership in a particular group.

Similarly, if you see a family with lots of kids dressed in matching outfits with the girls in denim jumpers, you would tend to think “homeschoolers of a certain sort.” (The Duggars, perhaps?)

Or how about this one? Do you recognize the look?

These are the dresses worn by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly known as the polygamist Mormon sect formerly run by the now incarcerated Warren Jeffs. During our recent trip to Utah, I saw a woman in one of these dresses - except it was navy blue. She was out in the 105 degree heat in it - and these are heavy wool, not light cotton.

Again: social signalling.

We are part of a particular group with particular beliefs.

“Modesty culture” is all about the same thing. Signalling to other members of the group - and to outsiders - membership in the group.

To dress like those in society at large is to identify with that society to some degree. To dress counter to that society is to signal that one is not part of that society, but rather part of a counterculture. This was done by hippies and goths in the past as well. It was a way of signalling disdain for mainstream culture and for those who chose to participate in it.

Likewise, Modesty Culture is, in part, a way to signal disdain for modern culture and for those who are part of it. 

This is one reason why I believe that it is so important to understand the origin of “modesty culture.” Reconstructionists like Bill Gothard and Douglas Phillips are expressly about the establishment of an alternative culture that will eventually take political power over the mainstream.

Social signaling is crucial to this. The members of the Reconstructionist army must recognize each other, and must differentiate themselves from the “evil” society. They must also not associate with the “enemies of God,” those “sinners,” any more than is absolutely necessary.

The so-called “enemies of God” are to be defeated, destroyed, not fraternized with.

This is attractive to much of conservative Christianity as well. We are the “godly” ones. They are the “sinners.” We must be able to tell the difference, and the social signalling of clothing is an easy way to do it.

Because it is SO IMPORTANT that we know who it is okay for our children to associate with, of course.

We can’t have them contaminated by “sinners.”

What kind of sinners? Well, we aren’t all that worried about greedy people or gluttonous people, and we seem to buy a lot of books by liars. Arrogant or greedy people seem to be fine: we even love them as preachers.

As I have worked to write this series, it has come to me that there is one sin that we feel we need to socially signal our opposition:

Premarital sex, particularly by females.

What finally caused this epiphany is hearing otherwise decent people refer to “young girls who dress like hookers.”

Since the percentage of women who are actual prostitutes in the United States is about as low as any time in history, and very, very few of the women who supposedly “dress like hookers” actually are hookers; it seems as if this might be a bit rich of a claim.

But then I thought about it in the context of social signaling.

We believe that any sex outside of wedlock (by a female) is whoredom. Any woman who puts out before marriage is a whore. Anyone who does not believe in strict celibacy before marriage - meaning pretty much all non-religious folk - is a whore. Ergo, to dress like a normal person in the culture is to send the social signal that one is not making (female) celibacy a priority. That’s how one dismisses a huge portion of the younger population as “sluts.”  

It also leads us to think of ourselves as superior to everyone else. We can be self righteous about this, and never address the deeper issues of rape culture and misogyny. We can go to the mall and decide who is good and bad by their clothing, and pat ourselves on our backs.

“Thank GOD we are not like other men.”

This sounds like the Pharisees

Yes. Yes it does. Focusing on the outward appearance. Making rules to separate the truly “godly” from the “sinners.”

And it also does this: it communicates some specific ideas.

First, it communicates that one adheres to a specific philosophy of responsibility for sexual sin. As another fellow blogger put it, “These clothing choices are not so much a fashion statement as they are an ethical and moral statement about the perceived responsibility women have for a man’s thoughts.”

It also communicates this idea:

“We few understand what it means to be godly. All women who fail to meet our standards are evil sluts. We are the ones God loves more.”

To paraphrase Matthew 23:5-7 (NIV):

"Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their dresses phylacteries wide and their skirts the tassels on their garments long, they love the place of honor on reality shows at banquets and the reputation as the most godly family most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the home school conferences marketplaces and to be called “Godly example” 'Rabbi' by others.”

As Peter Enns puts it, this view of ourselves as superior and the only “true” believers reflects our view of God as “fundamentally hacked off, retributive, touchy, demanding of theological precision, uncompromising, takes-no-prisoners-and-gives-no-quarter, whose wrath needs to be appeased so watch your step.”

“Whether or not we are even aware of it, how we act reflects what we deeply believe. In fact, as Christians, there is no truer measure of what we really believe God is like, deep down, the God that really drives us and energizes us, our life source, than how quickly we feel the need to erect walls and continually narrow the borders of who is in and who is out.”

This is never more true than within Modesty Culture. We are truly energized by the need to erect walls and keep unacceptable people out.

I am also reminded of an amazing anonymous poem that my pastor has quoted on numerous occasions:

Believe what I believe - no more, no less,
That I am right, and no one else confess,
Feel as I feel, think only as I think,
Eat what I eat and drink what I drink;
Look as I look, do only as I do,
Then, and only then, will I fellowship with you.


And, it goes without saying, “dress as I dress.”

Social signalling. Who do we fellowship with, and who are the “sinners” who are too unclean for us to be around?

We shall know them by the clothes they wear…


In the next installment, I will continue this train of thought as I demonstrate that the statement common within Christian Fundamentalism, “Others may, we cannot,” is a bald-faced lie.

Modesty Culture Part 10: Social Signalling
Modesty Culture Part 11: "Others May, We Cannot" is a Lie
Modesty Culture Part 12: Amanda's Story

Note on Social Signalling and Gender Roles:

Beyond the simple “we are the ones that don’t have sex before marriage” signal, clothing sends others.

For the typical home school “Modesty Culture” look: denim jumpers, dresses only on girls, no jeans, and other tenets of Gothardism and Vision Forum, this also sends some other cultural signals. That family also will believe in “courtship” or “betrothal” rather than dating. Typically, they will believe in extremely limited physical contact before marriage - and often no falling in love either. 

A lesser standard of dress, but still combined with an obsession with clothing typically indicates some freedom within the courtship or dating relationship, but still set lines about physical contact, and perhaps an aspiration that the wedding kiss be the first one.

There is more, though. The most strict dress codes within Christian culture - like those in Islamic countries - are linked to specific views about the subjugation, congenital inferiority, and rigid retrograde roles for women. More relaxed, but still strict standards indicate a strong belief that women should stay home when they have children, that women should marry if possible, and that women should be submissive. These are obviously just guidelines, and tend to apply more to families than to the individuals within them, but they definitely can serve as useful signals as to what a family believes.

Particularly as I have observed it within the home school movement, the signalling functions as a way that parents can identify “likeminded” families that subscribe to most or all of the same basic cultural beliefs. This is particularly important for families looking for spouses for their young men and women.

You want a daughter-in-law that will stay home with the kids, have a huge family, not kiss until the wedding, and be properly submissive to your son? Look for the girl with the long hair, denim jumper, and one of her baby siblings always attached. In theory, one should be able to avoid the girl who might want a career, or be assertive, or not home school the grandkids, and so on. And you should be able to avoid the girl that might not absolutely clamp her knees together until “man and wife.”

Not that it exactly works out this way in practice…

Note on clothing eras and social signaling:

I noted in my previous post that clothes that show the same amount of skin are viewed differently depending on the era invoked. This fits well with the concept of social signalling.

If one dresses to look like the 1920s, say, or the 1950s, one could (arguably) be making a statement that one agrees with the values of those eras. To dress like a 1950s housewife could signal that one believes in the suburban dream: a stay at home mom, washing the dishes in heels and lipstick and all that. One could say “I am Donna Reed.”

I am less sure about the 1920s, but tend to assume that most people think “my grandmother looked like that” without actually knowing what the Roaring ‘20s were actually like. 

It is a bit disconcerting that there is this strong push to return to the past. More than that, really, to return to the culture of the past, the attitudes and trappings of the past. We just wink and nod at the racism, the misogyny, the child labor, the disease, the neglect of the poor and disabled, the far higher violent crime rates, the acceptance and embrace of spousal and child abuse, the evils done in the name of colonialism and Manifest Destiny, and so much else the characterized these past eras. Why? Well, because women weren't as likely to have sex before marriage, and they were punished brutally if they did. (And women knew their place. And more people called themselves Christians.) If we could just go back in time to the glory days by recreating the cultural trappings of that era, we could create a new golden age. I recommend my review of Frank Kermode's excellent book, The Sense of An Ending for more on this.

The past has become an idol, the source of cultural "salvation," which is why Evangelicalism is currently propping up its rotting, worm-eaten carcass, while the next generation turns away in embarrassment. 

Christianity and isolationism:

I am a bit concerned with a trend within Evangelicalism and conservative Christianity over the last several decades toward isolationism. It is particularly strong within the homeschool movement, but it seems to be creeping into the mainstream. It is very much an “us versus them” mindset, with “secularism” - meaning in practice all people who are not doctrinaire Evangelicals - as the enemy.

I have been shocked to find out how many people I know have zero friends that do not share their religious and political beliefs - particularly among women. Many people only read “Christian” books, only listen to “Christian” music, only talk to other Christians (and only Republicans), and often only Christians of the same flavor. (Say, only Calvinists or Young Earth Creationists, for example.)

For Gothardism and its relatives, this is intentional. We were encouraged to only associate with “likeminded” people, because we would otherwise have our morals contaminated. These ideas are continuing to spread within the larger church, however.

One of the reasons that I am concerned about this is that isolation leads to extremism. One of the great books I read earlier this year was Why Societies Need Dissent by Cass Sunstein.  It turns out that when any group contains only “likeminded” people, the group becomes more extreme in its positions than any of the individuals were before joining the group. This tendency hold true for all likeminded groups, from terrorist cells to appellate judge panels. It applies on the left and the right, and to non-religious as well as religious groups.

Thus, isolationism causes extremism. Modesty Culture actually serves as a pretty good demonstration of this. Take a look (if you haven’t already) at part 3 of this series, where I show just how far the rules have gone: to the point where ordinary breast movement during exercise is considered to be “immodest” to a majority. If all you ever are exposed to are people who think this way, the rules get stricter and stricter - and the obsession more and more extreme. 

Note on exclusion:

One of the worst effects of this exclusion is that it sends the message to the vast majority of non-religious people that in order to be part of Christianity, they must first change their manner of dress to a form of protest against mainstream culture.

It is very much similar to requiring circumcision or adherence to Old Testament ceremonial law. First, change yourself to match our cultural preferences, and then - and only then - can you be part of the Kingdom.

Again, why are we so surprised that we are losing young people, and why we don’t seem to be making converts outside of church culture?

Note on Purity Culture...for girls:

I already mentioned this in part 8, but a key part of Modesty and Purity Culture is the assumption, the fundamental belief, that, for women, “Your virginity is the best gift you can ever give to your future husband.”

As should be obvious by this point, this is a no-win situation for girls. It’s hardly unique to Christianity, however. We have simply put a new name and a new face on the same old double standard that has existed for millennia and across religious, cultural, and geographical lines.

For your consideration, a study on “sexting.” Columnist Amanda Marcotte’s analysis is spot on:

“In addition, girls who didn't sext were also described as ‘goody girls’ or ‘stuck up.’ So while the technology is new, the ancient sense of male entitlement to demand sexual favors and then mock those who provide them is the real issue at stake here.”

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Modesty Culture Part 9: Inconsistent Application of Rules

Anyone who has experienced - or seen - slut shaming can attest that modesty rules are applied very inconsistently. The exact same outfit will be considered fine on one girl or woman, but not on another.

In my experience, there are several characteristics which will lead to a girl being targeted for slut shaming. I would note that most of these are physical characteristics which are not in the control of the female, and that the final one is one that has nothing to do with sex, but has everything to do with gender roles.

My goal for this installment is to show that, rather than reject society’s obsession with female bodies and the insistence that women fulfil cultural expectations of “beauty,” Modesty Culture is just more of the same, punishing women for failing to meet a particular expectation of body type - or conformity to certain gendered expectations.


So, without further ado, here are the things that cause a woman or young girl to be singled out for slut shaming:

1. Large Breasts (and curviness in general)

This one is pretty much non-debatable. Anyone who is paying any attention can tell that curvy girls get the brunt of the slut shaming. For a girl with big enough breasts, she probably cannot wear actual summer clothing without someone throwing a fit. For that matter, she probably cannot wear exercise clothing - or a swimsuit. (See part 3 of this series…)

With the exception of those who get plastic surgery, women do not get to choose their breast size. It has nothing to do with their morality or alleged lack thereof. It is the body they have. Period. But that never stopped anyone from trying to make sure that no cleavage shows on anyone, ever. And, as I pointed out in a previous post, buxom girls should never exercise - and probably shouldn’t walk either.

The same goes for curvy hips. A “sexy” walking style is attributed to a curvy girl. Again, her body is her body. She doesn’t get to pick it.

Within “Modesty Culture,” then, the most “Godly” girls are typically the rail thin ones. Wait a minute! Isn’t that the same body type that is glorified on the catwalk? I believe it is.

This makes sense, of course, if the measure for “modesty” is what a man feels. Since modern American culture glorifies big breasts, but also supermodel figures, it is unsurprising that both of these play into “Modesty Culture.” One is feared, while the other is embraced, because it is easier to hide sexual characteristics.

Again, this betrays a fear of female sexuality. Things that signify in our minds the “female,” particularly in the raw physical, animalistic sense - not the cultural “femininity” sense - are to be feared.

To be truly “godly,” it is best that a female have a “boyish,” that is, non-adult-female, body, while having a “feminine” presentation. Obviously sexually mature female bodies need not apply.

Oh, and one more thing: I mentioned this previously in a footnote, but it bears repeating. Big breasts and big butts are associated in our minds (and to a degree in reality) with African Americans and Hispanics. Flat, cylindrical figures are associated more with northern Europeans and Asians. Hmm. Harder to be "Modest" when one is a person of color, methinks. Our theology reflects our racism.

2. Early puberty

It is sad, but girls who go through puberty early are at increased risk for a number of detrimental psychological outcomes.

At least some of this comes from an inappropriate sexualization by others. Our culture does this, and “Modesty Culture” is no exception. Girls who develop early are considered to be a particular threat to the young boys their age.

Again, I am surprised that I have to say this, but girls don’t get to chose when they undergo puberty. It has nothing to do with their morality or lack thereof.

But it leads to slut shaming within “Modesty Culture.”

Again, this makes sense when a man’s attraction is the standard for “modesty.” It is really uncomfortable when a man finds a child attractive. Since “Modesty Culture” shifts responsibility to the female, this result is unavoidable.

3. General societally determined attractiveness

This one should come as no surprise. When the entire definition of “modesty” depends on the male gaze, conventionally attractive women will take the brunt of the shaming. If they weren’t attractive, then men wouldn’t sin.

Again, girls get the bodies they get. They can’t control whether they are conventionally attractive or not. And it definitely has nothing to do with their morality or alleged lack thereof.

4. General societally determined unattractiveness - particularly obesity

Yes, the flip side applies as well. “With her figure, she shouldn’t be wearing that.” “Cover up! Nobody wants to see that!” Girls deemed unattractive are considered to be aesthetically offensive.

Again, no surprise, when the male gaze is the standard. A man should only have to see bodies that are aesthetically pleasing, but not to the degree that he experiences arousal.

5. Age

Did I go there? Absolutely I did!

There are a few things to unpack here, so let me start with the obvious:

Younger women or teen girls are much more likely to be punished for being “immodest.

Some of this, obviously, as to do with point 3 above. Because our culture values youth, and young is considered more attractive, younger people will naturally fall afoul of the prohibition on being “too attractive.”

I believe there are other factors too.

One, I discussed in a footnote in part 2 of this series. The “Snow White Syndrome.” The younger generation is despised for displacing the older, and therefore must be punished. Likewise, the belief that the fashions of the past are - by definition - more “godly” than those of the present.

I have one more theory too, though. It doesn’t take much to find a never ending cascade of articles (secular and Christian) whining about the young folk. Usually, this is about “millennials,” but Gen X (my generation) and Gen Y (my wife’s generation) are also implicated. We are all entitled, selfish, oversexed brats, and if we would just be as good as the old folks (Boomers and especially the WWII generation), every ill in society would disappear.

The contempt is unmistakable.

I remember a discussion with my wife wherein she opined that a significant reason why people of our generations and younger have little or no interest in socializing with - or being "instructed" by prior generations is that all we are doing is setting ourselves up to be judged.

(I will resist for the time being a longer discussion of the many economic and social changes that have privileged Boomers and earlier generations at the expense of later generations - or how millennials have shown longer sexual self control than any generation in recorded history - but I will just say that all of us - Gen X, Gen Y, and Millennials - feel your contempt, and feel it strongly.)

This is pretty predictable. In our society, the group with the power gets to wield it. If one ignores the most obvious power differential (which is racial, and thus only tangential to Modesty Culture), the next most obvious differentials are those of age and gender.

This goes double or even 100 times within Conservative Christianity and patriarchal culture.

Females are subject to males. The young are subject to the old. Thus, teen girls and younger women are at the bottom of the structure.

This isn’t flattering to those in power, but it is totally predictable. Place the burden on those at the bottom, because they can’t and won’t push back. (Except by leaving - which we have, in droves.)

The perceived sexual disfunction of our society is (naturally) blamed on those with the least power - those most easily imposed upon and dominated: young women.

Rather than confront the sins of older males, let’s just bitch about what the teen girls are wearing…


So far, these all have to do with what Bill Gothard would call the “unchangeables.” No woman ever got to choose her breast or hip size, when she went through puberty, how attractive she was, or what age she was at a given time.

There is one more, however, which IS “changeable.” Throughout history, this particular facet of Modesty Culture has been used to crush those women who dare to defy gender norms and challenge the power of patriarchy.

Let me explain.

6. Lack of conformity to gender expectations

I feel a need to discuss this one further, because it has a long history.

Let me start with a concept called the “Madonna / Whore Dichotomy.” You can read about the Freudian version of it here, but it has existed throughout the history of Western Civilization.

In a nutshell, women are divided (in men’s and even women’s minds) into two categories: the Madonna, and the Whore.

The Madonna is the quintessential nurturing, loving, mothering, pure female. The one who knows her place, and is happy there. Dickens tended to write about this sort of imaginary female, which is why his female characters are either humorous caricatures or angelic “Divine Creatures,” as Dorothy Sayers put it

In contrast, the Whore is the sexually depraved, insatiable nymphomaniac out to seduce and destroy men.

The problem for women is that if they cease to be one, they are assumed, indeed known, to be the other.

When a woman refuses or fails to conform to traditional gender roles, she is placed in the category of “whore,” and ascribed negative sexuality.

A great example of this is the story of Anne Hutchinson, who dared to debate certain Puritans on theological matters (and kicked their butts, if truth be told). Sure enough, she was accused of using her Bible study groups as a cover for orgies. (See my post on The Scarlet Letter for more on this true story.)

It wasn’t just Hutchinson. Rather, when women have dared to step outside of the “traditional” roles of housework and childcare and asserted themselves in the intellectual realm, they have near universally been accused of sexual misconduct.

Drawing by James Thurber. One of my favorite authors.

Argula von Grumbach made waves in 16th Century Germany when she wrote a letter defending a student who was charged with heresy (for accepting some of Luther’s teachings). Her husband lost his job as a result, and the family was banned from the town.

But guess what? She was also accused of sexual misconduct. She was obviously a “shameless whore,” and defended the student because she was in heat and lusting for him. Luther’s teachings resulted in “fornication and lechery/ of brazen, gross adultery” on the part of women who believed him - as shown by Grumbach’s letter.

Likewise, Katharina Schutz Zell wrote an open letter calling on the clergyman who succeeded Zell’s husband at a post to explain why he left it without properly resigning. Her letter contained theological arguments, which were not taken well. Not content to call her a heretic and a liar, he accused her of being her husband’s mere concubine, and not paying the tax for an illicit relationship.

Marie Dentière was a figure in the Swiss Reformation who openly preached the gospel and made the bold claim that women were free to do so. This ran afoul of the men, particularly John Calvin, who called her an “unruly woman.”

England’s Anne Askew called a “coy dame, and of very evil fame for wantonness.” Why, you ask? Because she kept her maiden name after marriage.

(For more on these people, and the citations for the quotations, see this excellent link.

The crazy thing is, these women were ALL upstanding people, chaste and beyond reproach - as far as any actual evidence would indicate. However, they didn’t “know their place,” so they were slut shamed.

The equation is simple:

Refusal to conform to gender roles = whoredom

It isn’t a mystery.

And it is still being taught today.

Kevin Swanson (no relation, thank God!), best known recently for his claim that Disney’s Frozen will turn your children homosexual or introduce them to bestiality, his outrageous claims about the supposed malevolent intentions of all Democrats, and his ludicrous claim that birth control results in dead implanted embryos in the womb; also, no surprise, believes that women should not go to college or work outside of the home.

Women who go to college “will have two abortions by the time they are thirty” and will “sell their flesh cheap in the marketplace.”

And this:

“Now remember, the goal is that these women have to be independent. The goal is lots and lots of birth control. The goal is lots and lots and lots of fornication. The goal is abortion. The day-after pill will help. And it will help a lot. Remember, the goal is to get that girl a job because she needs no stinkin’ husband, she’s got the fascist corporation and government-mandated insurance programs and socialist welfare that will take care of her womb to tomb. Who needs a cotton-pickin’ husband? Who needs a family? That’s pretty much the worldview that’s dominating, my friends. That’s what the college is all about.”

Yes indeed, women who want an education and jobs are whores. And this guy is a frequent speaker at home school conferences.

(In case this wasn’t obvious: my wife went to college and works outside the home. She has never had an abortion, never “sold her flesh” anywhere, has been married for 13 freaking years to one man, and has five children by him. Kevin seems to have missed a data point or sixteen million…)

(Swanson is bad enough, so I won’t do more than mention the Pearls, who have said that a woman with a job and a bank account is one step away from becoming a lesbian.)

The madonna / whore dichotomy. 

Remember it, because you will see it in action if you pay attention.

Why does this exist? Well, two reasons combine. First, the promoters of patriarchy, past and present, have well known that they had plenty to lose if women stopped focusing on serving men, and instead insisted on being equals. This was and is terrifying to many.

Second, even in our secular and feminist-influenced culture, the most powerful weapon that men or women have against a woman is that of slut shaming. Even now, a reputation as a whore is crippling in the social sense, and can cause problems with employment too. Is it any wonder that those who have the most to lose from female equality employ it?

How about some quotes from some writers of the past on the purpose of women? (I’ll be brief. I promise.)

Pope Gregory I:

"Woman is slow in understanding and her unstable and naive mind renders her by way of natural weakness to the necessity of a strong hand in her husband. Her 'use' is two fold; sex and motherhood."

John Knox, from his tract The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Hilariously, this tract, intended in part as an anti-Catholic screed, backfired when the protestant Queen Elizabeth I took the throne of England. Good Queen Bess never forgave Knox, and they remained bitter enemies.

First, I say, that woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man, not to rule and command him…[I]t is plain that the apostle means, that woman in her greatest perfection should have known that man was lord above her; and therefore that she should never have pretended any kind of superiority above him, no more than do the angels above God the Creator, or above Christ their head. So I say, that in her greatest perfection, woman was created to be subject to man.

Rousseau (hardly a proponent of religion):

“The whole education of women ought to be relative to men. To please them, to be useful to them ... to make life sweet and agreeable to them.”

And, Martin Luther. (Women couldn’t win…)

"No gown worse becomes a woman than the desire to be wise."

Yes, the very foundations of society will crumble if women stop knowing and keeping to their place! Or at least maybe male privilege will crumble, but same difference, right?

I’ve taken time to go over this issue because I see it in action within the home school movement, the Church at large, and in my own relationships. The home school movement has many that oppose higher education and careers for women. These are usually the most vocal and strident factions too, getting top billing at conferences. Likewise, there is a significant (though smaller) faction within the Church that consider stay-at-home moms to be more “godly” than those who work. There is also a fad of books - and indeed a whole freaking organization - trying to assert “Biblical” manhood and womanhood - also known as patriarchal gender roles. These books tend to denigrate men who do housework and women who work outside the home or engage in anything resembling leadership. Even in personal relationships, my wife and I have both heard the disdainful, “Ohhhh.” when people hear she works outside the home. (Even anonymous commenters on my blog have felt the need to call me out on my “failure” and “sin” because my wife works. Yes, I delete these comments. It’s my blog.)

On a very personal note, I believe that this equation of female assertiveness with wanton sexuality is at the root of why she was publicly slut shamed during her time in a patriarchist group. That story will eventually be told as part of this series.

Hey wait! This sounds like our own secular society!

Yes, body shaming for those women who don’t meet impossible standards, dress codes that are applied differently to different shapes, fear of strong assertive women - these all mirror our society at large.

As to the last, a man who is assertive, strong, and forceful is told he sounds like a leader. A woman who does the exact same thing is “shrill.” She is considered threatening and abrasive, rather than strong and competent. Women, know your place!

I agree that our society imposes impossible standards, thanks to the magic of anorexia, photoshop, and celebrity culture. Normal, fit women fall into the “fat” category all too easily, and we think far too much about our weight. We expect women to avoid natural aging, and sell products, dyes, and surgery to “help” them meet that standard.

That is the point, though. All Modesty Culture does is substitute one impossible, inconsistent standard for another.

And, it adds something even more pernicious.

It’s bad enough to be called fat or ugly because of the shape of one’s body. That hurts.

It is entirely something else altogether to be called evil, immoral and the source of sin because of the shape of one’s body.

If you want to be “godly,” best to have the figure of a young boy, not a sexually mature woman.

Because the sex characteristics of a grown woman are evil and dangerous.

And likewise, for that matter, it is evil if one is unable to conform to partriarchal gender roles.


I’ve talked about the roots of Modesty Culture in Rape Culture and in the pernicious misogyny of the past.

However, most proponents of Modesty Culture do not consciously adhere to these vile roots. Rather, their intentions are largely good. The problem is that they have erroneously conflated a particular culture (in time and place) with “godliness” and seek to establish said “godliness” through the imposition of that culture. Key to that goal is the need for what I call “social signalling.”

For the next installment, I want to talk about “social signalling” and how it relates to Modesty Culture.

Modesty Culture Part 9: Inconsistent Applications of Rules
Modesty Culture Part 10: Social Signaling
Modesty Culture Part 11: "Others May, We Cannot" is a Lie
Modesty Culture Part 12: Amanda's Story 

A bit more on the “age” issue:

I noted that the age of the female is a factor in whether to slut shame her. There is a (sort of) related factor that is interesting, and also speaks to the “social signalling” factor.

My wife has a love for vintage fashions, and has more knowledge of them than the vast majority even of those who wear vintage styles. One of her favorite looks is that of the “flapper.” 1920s style. It’s a look that works well for her, and is a bit out of the ordinary.

However, she wears other stuff too, and people react very differently to her clothing depending on the era.

As a great example, she has an outfit that is “modern” in looks. If anything, it might be 1990s, maybe later. The skirt falls above the knee, but not by that much. In contrast, one of her “flapper” outfits is significantly shorter. By a few inches.

Yet guess the reaction people have to the two outfits. The very same people have complimented her on the flapper outfit while clucking about how short the modern skirt is.

See, it isn’t really about the absolute length, is it? It’s about the era invoked. “What my grandmother wore” = good. “What women these days wear” = evil. 

I'll discuss this more in my next post on Social Signalling. 

Note on Kevin Swanson:

Just thought I might quote this one, for fun.

“This is the vision of the Democrats, get children abused, kill them in the womb as much as possible, be sure there are as many dysfunctional families as possible, as many homosexual families as possible and children abused as much as possible, so government can grow their child welfare services even more, so that they can kill more kids, so that more adults can commit adultery, so that more kids would be murdered, so that more kids would be abused, so more government would tax and regulate and tax and regulate to produce the worst possible hellhole on planet earth.”

Um, Kevin, unlike you apparently, I actually have friends who vote Democrat. Maybe you should get out more.

Some good links on the inconsistent application of the rules:

This one, entitled “The Only Thing my Double D’s Ever Got Me Was Kicked Out of Church” is heartbreaking - and all too typical.  

A great Upworthy comic about the impossibility women face in meeting the standard of “attractive, but not too attractive.”

Some more fun on inconsistent applications:

My older two daughters are as unlike as possible in many ways.

Physically, the contrast is unmistakable. My older daughter is rail thin (and always has been). It isn’t that she doesn’t eat - she does. She just has a certain shape she was born with.

My second daughter (born just 15 months after the first) takes after me. She has large thighs and calves. She is shorter than her older sister, but has weighed more since around age 2. She is not fat by any stretch. Rather, she is strong and vigorous. Fortunately, her personality (so far) has led her to be proud of her strength and even her relative size. She is fiercely competitive, utterly fearless, and has an amazing tolerance of pain.

My third daughter largely takes after my second in all respects.

I know that our society will reward my elder daughter and punish my younger ones for their figures and their personalities. It is my sincere hope that the Church will not double down on this. But I’m not holding my breath.

All this to say that it has been “interesting” finding clothes for my girls.

My eldest, because of her really small waist, cannot find shorts that are long on her unless she shops in the 5 year old boy section. She will always end up with shorts that are considered “too short” by many. On the other hand, my other girls will probably find that pants are a bit “tight” in the butt and legs. In neither case will they conform to the “modest” ideal.

So anyway, as a (hopefully) humorous counterpart to this, let me explain how the infamous “finger tip rule” might look as applied to my own body.

I have a long torso, combined with really short legs.

And really short arms.

I thought of this when at the gym, when I realized that I had a hard time gripping some of the machines, because my arms were so doggone short.

So...for your viewing proof that I could wear John Stockton shorts - and even less - and still pass the “finger tip rule.” Let's just say that if I were wearing a skirt this length, I could probably be arrested.

Note on “bright eyes”:

Bill Gothard place a huge emphasis on “bright eyes” as a sign of spiritual goodness. The eyes were supposedly a window to the soul, and could reveal the spiritual state of the one who had them.

First of all, let me note the racism inherent in this. “Bright eyes” tended - at least in practice - to be blue or green, not brown. Just saying.

Let me also make a confession.

I am not physically attractive in the conventional sense. I am 5’ 7”, 160 pounds. I am not athletic in the least, and am what I would call “potato shaped.” My wife loves me and finds me attractive, but I don’t generally have women hitting on me. Like ever.

The one physical feature that I have been complimented on is my eyes.

One of the weird things that has happened to me is that one day, when my wife was working, an attractive young woman, employed in the door-to-door marketing profession, rang my doorbell, and, upon looking at me, said, OMG, you have beautiful green eyes. This isn’t the only time I have heard this. It happens reasonably regularly. Yep, that is the only thing I have going for me, physically speaking. 

There seems to be a pattern to when I hear this. In fact, I have noted exactly when I have have been complimented on my bright and beautiful eyes.

It is always during allergy season. I have hay fever, and certain times of the year, my nose runs...and my eyes water.

Nothing like itchy pollen to make one look spiritual, apparently…

One more article:

After I posted this, a friend sent me an interesting article with another example of my point.

Jessica Simpson has unfortunately become the butt of too many unkind jokes, but her story is interesting. She attempted to sign on as a Christian recording artist at the beginning of her career. She was turned down. Why?

Her breasts were too big.

She didn’t fit the “good Christian girl” look.

As the writer puts it, she eventually found a niche in Country Music, “a place where Christians will still listen and you can keep your boobs.”