Thursday, March 26, 2009

My Milkshakes Bring the Boys to the Church

As a progressive pastor, I struggle mightily with how to respond to the incursion of certain cultural expectations of appearance and dress into the life of a congregation. I tend to believe that church should be an informal place, in which we do not strive and struggle with one another to "dress right." This is partly theological, and partly because I have apparently inherited the fashion sense of my British forebears. Recently, for instance, I wore a tan shirt and khaki pants, meaning I'd disappear completely in some desert settings. My fashion sensibility is painful to behold.

But my complete lack of fashion sense is not at issue here. The question I've been mulling over for a bit was stirred by a recent post over at FreeThinker777: Is there even such a thing as inappropriate attire for women in the church?

Men..even Christian men..have trouble not thinking with Mr. Johnson. An attractive woman will still draw the attention of a man's little brain even if she dresses like an Amishwoman.

If you're a Christian man, and a woman's appearance inspires you to violate Matthew 5:28 in surprisingly creative ways, you've just got to look past it. Get over it. Do not judge her, and see past that halter top...past, not through, the child of God that she is. It takes some effort, but if you're going to claim to be a Jesus follower, the responsibility lies entirely with you, my friend.

Then again, what is culturally expected of young women in our [begin bad Russian accent] decadent capitalist society [end bad Russian accent] is that...well...they need to be "hawtt." Or perhaps that's "sexii." I can never keep up with the lingo these days.

Wearing clothes that are specifically intended to draw physical interest is something deeply and intensely socialized into most females of the species. I'm convinced that the relentless media bombardment of gyrating pop tarts, airbrushed celebrities, and product spokesmodels has taken that deeper, to a point at which "casual" for many American women and girls doesn't mean "casual" at all, unless casual means uncomfortable. Many will then dress into that societal expectation, which is reinforced by their peers and by those of us with XY chromosomes.

I'm never sure how to respond to that when it manifests itself in a congregational context. On the one hand, I uncategorically refuse to be judgmental. What you wear does not make you more or less loved by God, and if God is omniscient and omnipresent, we're all nekkid before the Lord all the time anyway.

On the other, I've already told my praise team I'd rather they not sing Hillsong's "My Milkshakes Bring the Boys to the Church." Yeah, I know it's catchy. I don't care. When someone shows up at church showing a whole bunch of leg...and by that I don't mean me, because the psychological trauma that would inflict on my congregation would be deep and lasting...I do struggle with how to respond. Can I even mention it without coming across as somehow belittling them or singling them out for condemnation?

That our consumer culture has hypersexualized women don't make it ok, and at a pretty deep level, I want church to counterculturally resist the relentless marketization of womanflesh. The answer to that is not some Christian version of the hijab. The era of gendered oppression within the Body of Christ needs to be put well behind us.

The answer is also not the peculiar embrace of consumer sexualization that comes from some corners of the progressive movement. Those academic feminists who view aggressive sexuality (for women) as a means of empowerment seem, at some pretty fundamental level, to be articulating a sexuality that is fundamentally at odds with the agape love ethic articulated in the Gospels.

I would suggest that the goal for Christians is not to be judgmental towards individuals who are simply reflecting their culture...but rather, to ask the community as a whole to consider the depth to which our society has driven women to carefully, assiduously present themselves as having primarily surface-level value.

How individuals respond to that realization is entirely up to them.