Christian Reflections on Lust, Modesty, and Beauty (Part 2): A Theology of Beauty

Modesty

(Read Part 1, here)

I fear that Evangelicals don’t know how to live with beauty. We simply don’t have a category for the act of appreciating beauty. Thus every act of admiration is automatically ruled lust, and all modesty becomes focused on concealing actual beauty. This lack of appropriate categorization is part of the reason that so many of us have such shallow concepts of lust and modesty. A theology of beauty, then, is necessary for rightly understanding the concepts of lust and modesty.

These dots were connected for me in a very helpful article by my friend Alan Noble in Christ and Pop Culture Magazine. Noble discusses the struggle with beauty in terms of possession. He writes:

Evangelicals like me are terrible about understanding and promoting “modesty,” and I think a major reason for this is that men don’t know how to live with beauty without owning it. Either it’s ours, or it shouldn’t exist. So, when we see a beautiful woman, it frustrates us.

I think Noble is on to something. Evangelicals tend to react to beauty that they don’t own by trying to hide it, cover it up, or ignore it. But, as Noble says, often beauty won’t let itself be ignored, hidden, or covered up. The beauty that God has made in the world demands our attention. In lieu of its persistence, then, modesty often becomes an attempt at hiding beauty, pretending like it’s not there. Noble continues:

We don’t want to covet, we don’t want to desire to have her, but what choice do we have except to ignore? And sometimes, probably all the time, beauty doesn’t let itself be ignored. There aren’t enough burkas in the world to hide the beauty of what God has made. On one hand we can’t have all the beauty around us. It’s not ours to richly and intimately know and delight in. But we want to. We desperately want to steal images of beauty that will validate our consumption of oxygen for eighty years on earth. And since we can’t do that righteously, then, to hell with beauty.

Only that never works. Whatever drastic measures we take to hide beauty from us, it asserts itself; that’s just what beauty does. We are stuck in a world filled with beauty that God has created for His glory and our options cannot be a frantic effort to capture and consume all that beauty or to damn and hide it.

There must be a third option between these two common choices. A fully developed protestant theology of beauty will help us to affirm, acknowledge, and appreciate beauty without automatically leading us towards inordinate desire.

We should also be honest at this moment. Developing a theology of beauty requires of us a level of thinking and hard work to which most Protestants are simply averse. We are much, much, more comfortable with a list of rules that keep us from having to think such ways. We want to be told what the proper length of skirt is so we don’t have to think and pray and carefully consider our many options. We want to be told that bikinis are “made by Satan,” so that we can just scratch them off the list and move on with our lives. My concern here is not with whether the conclusions we draw are right or wrong, but rather that the process that informs such decisions needs to be revisited. Whether you decide to forego or indulge in specific swimwear is not the heart of the issue. We must consider more carefully, however, how we come to those conclusions and how we interact with those who differ from us. A theology of beauty helps to better inform our ideas, motivations, and responses. Modesty must not be an attempt to simply hide beauty.

In relation to that we must be able to recognize and affirm beauty where we see it. When a friend told me that my wife was “gorgeous” I did not need to bristle or assume the worst of his words. For two reasons I can believe the innocence of this compliment: (1) because his compliment is true: my wife is gorgeous. Her beauty is evident to all and before all. I couldn’t hide it even if I tried. (2) Because he’s my friend. He loves our family and respects our family and we have a history together that evidences that sincerity and innocence. I don’t need to assume he is lusting, in fact 1 Corinthians 13 forbids me from automatically jumping to that conclusion. He is simply offering a kind complement to our family out of a place of honesty and admiration. Without a category of beauty all acts like this automatically become lustful. There can be no appreciation, love, and affirmation of beauty – there can only be sin.

Beauty exists and Evangelicals have got to figure out how to acknowledge that. In doing so we will be better prepared to promote modesty and to fight lust. Noble concludes:

It may be one of the hardest lessons that I have had to learn, that nearly all my purity efforts were built around denying and even condemning the beauty that God has created. And that’s really just the flipside of what the Voyeur was doing. There are powerful forces in our culture and flesh driving us to view one another as bodies to be owned and captured. And unfortunately, there are also powerful forces in evangelicalism and our own hearts driving us to condemn and resent beauty. The church does well to fight against the abusive vision of sexuality promoted and profited off of by the world, a vision which is fundamentally violent. But we also need a richer theology of beauty and bodies, one which will allow us to preserve the purity of our thoughts and to delight in the beauty of God’s world.

We must fight lust, there’s no use denying it. A theology of beauty, however, is desperately needed if we are going to do this with any success and or without automatically condemning all beauty in the world.

Comments

  1. Outstanding article! I could not agree with you more. As you mention, men and women we need to kill our lust, but at the same time enjoy the beauty that God has put on display in us and for us.

Trackbacks

  1. […] this series we have discussed a host of issues related to the concept of modesty. We’ve discussed beauty, lust, and responsibility. We’ve noted the sliding scale of human evaluation, the important roles […]

  2. […] 15. Christian Reflections on Lust, Modesty, and Beauty (Part 2): A Theology of Beauty […]

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