A Fashionable Faith

One very good way to seem holier-than-thou is to be unattractive.

You may be one of the few individuals who have had the misfortune of being born beautiful, and have to take deliberate steps to be homely. I recommend wearing thick, heavy glasses, tangling up your hair, eating poorly, adopting a sedentary lifestyle, and replacing your wardrobe with frumpy, out-dated and mismatched apparel. Combined with a strict code of morals and a Bible college degree, these simple steps can make the most naturally attractive person seem quite holy.

OK, enough of that.

The truth is that I believe every person is beautiful. Not just on the inside, either. Granted, this belief is buried deep in my soul, and my eyes and mind will spend my entire life trying to live up to it. I have no doubt that God has a sense of physical, visual beauty, and that he literally “sees” every individual as beautiful, despite any asymmetry, malformation, handicap, skin disease or cultural disadvantage. It is not creation, but culture that causes some to rise above the rest, and to be crowned sexy.

Religion has responded to this cultural tendency in very severe ways at times. Both Peter (in I Peter) and Paul (in I Timothy) give warnings to the women of the Church not to decorate themselves, and to dress with modesty. And then there’s the verse in Proverbs that says how “beauty is vain”. This is all the fuel that the legalistic set needs to develop a counter-culture with attitudes like the one I expressed in the first paragraph. “The world has sinfully exalted attractiveness, so we will exalt homeliness! The less you do to develop your physical appearance, the better!”

So here we are… caught between two mistakes: pride in beauty, and pride in rejecting beauty.

It’s obvious that physical beauty has a role to play in God’s plan… At least 10 major Old Testament figures are identified for their beauty, and not just women. Sarah is so beautiful that her husband Abraham tries to pass her off as his sister so he won’t be killed. Rebecca draws the immediate attention of Isaac’s wife-searching servant. Rachel’s beauty instantly inspires 7 years of hard labor from Jacob. Bathsheba pulls the “man after God’s own heart” way off course. Esther wins an empire-wide beauty pageant to become Queen of Susa and save her entire race. As for the men… Saul’s beauty is defined by his extraordinary height. David, although considerably shorter, is described as handsome. And his wicked son Absalom was the Fabio of his day… with long, luxurious locks and “not a blemish on him”. It is a poetic justice that he dies by hanging… his hair caught in a tree. And who can forget Solomon and the Shulammite Woman, his first wife, who praise each other’s beauty over and over in the Song of Solomon?

Beauty is a powerful thing in scripture. Sometimes it leads to disaster (as with Bathsheba) and other times to salvation (as with Esther.) Is it possible that physical, cultural beauty is a gift with a purpose, just like so many other things? Perhaps God knows the power of attraction and desires to use it to his advantage.

The Art of Fashion is not highly respected in Christian circles, for reasons I’ve already mentioned. It smacks as narcissistic on the one side, and voyeuristic on the other. And in many, many cases I believe this is probably true… not only do its excesses and misuses lead to selfishness, they lead to lust, rape, adultery and even idolatry. So it can be hard for devoted Christians to justify the mountains of money spent on textiles and cosmetics. But maybe, just maybe, there is a baby somewhere in this bathwater. I’ve had to think about this a lot lately, with our Benefit Fashion Show (called “Hit the Lights“) coming up on December 8.

We have no doubt that God gives certain people a beautiful voice. Would you rebuke a talented young woman for spending lots of time and money on voice lessons, or even a voice degree, and dedicating her life to singing and teaching others to do the same? What about those who seem born to paint, or calculate, or invent, or build, or advise?

I’m going to use a word that I don’t think I’ve ever heard applied to beauty or fashion… STEWARDSHIP. Is it possible that those born with pleasant features might actually be held accountable to God for their stewardship of this gift?

Yes, it’s extremely easy for an attractive person to become arrogant, like The Fonz with his comb, or Marsha Brady with her hairbrush. But isn’t that the case with every gift? God has given us all the freedom to ignore his call, and assume that we are gifted simply because we deserve it… we’re better than others.

In our approach to every gift of God, we should seek him desperately to know his purpose in all of it. Why am I such a great quarterback? Why do I love drawing so much? Why do people always come to me with their problems? Why have you made me so attractive to others? How do you want to use me?

I’ll finish with a story. When I was in high school, I belonged to a youth group with a few stereotypical “valley girls” who cared deeply about their clothes, their hair, their tans, etc. One of them always had extremely fancy nails, painted with different designs and patterns. Most of us assumed these girls were pretty shallow and didn’t have much interest in the things of God. And in all reality, they probably did go overboard with their appearance, and were likely guilty of some degree of vanity.

To everyone’s surprise, three of these girls decided to go on a mission trip to Lithuania, I think. I wasn’t there, but I heard afterwards about how the little girls they met there reacted to the American girl with the extreme fingernails. They absolutely flocked around her, and flooded her with questions. And when they had learned all they could about her nails, they wanted to know everything else about her as well… including her faith. Because of her fingernails, she had instant respect, and dozens of little listening ears.

Not only did this have a spiritual impact on the Lithuanians, but the three American girls were never the same. Because others had labeled them as shallow, they had come to believe it themselves. But to see what kind of influence they can have on others, they started to understand that God really did intend to use them, just like those who had other, more “spiritual” gifts.

And that’s a beautiful thing.

12 thoughts on “A Fashionable Faith

  1. Great post on a little discussed yet intriguing subject. I would say that in “Christian culture” today, there’s barely a hint of temptation to downplay beauty in favor of extreme “humility”. Maybe in some fundamentalist circles, but you and I know that fundamentalism is a small and dying sector of evangelicalism.I like to think I walk down the middle of the road on this one. On the one hand, I think it’s absurd to go out of one’s way to be extra “common”, because people assume just what you said–“holier than thou”. Or else just plain weird or uninteresting. On the other hand, there are people who err on the opposite extreme of spending ungodly amounts of money on keeping in style, having to have the latest and greatest thing right when it hits the market. They obsess about how they look, and this communicates a message to others just as blatant as the Amish-esque person–that their image is an idol. And you undoubtedly would share my caution. But then again, there is a lot to say for cultural context. People in certain work environments have to maintain a certain standard of living to be viable. And someone working in the fashion industry needs to be on the cutting edge themselves to remain credible. Then you have the biblical concept of identifying with others in order to effectively be and speak the Gospel to them.On balance, I would caution using biblical stories to justify embellishing oneself physically. There are many stories which, if taken prototypically, could be disasterous. In the NT we see people–most prominently, Jesus and Paul–whose kingdom impact is magnified because of the humility of their appearance. Also, if you were to take your argument to the furthest degree, one could justify accentuating certain features because they have been “well endowed” by God to be enjoyed (or envied) by others. This goes for body-builders the same as female provocateurs. Ultimately, you could argue that if God has blessed you with a sexy body, you ought to put it on display to the world in the nude. Some people actually do make that argument–particularly some Europeans as well as many artists.So there has to be a line. And there is: “Do not cause your brother (or sister) to stumble”. And do not make your body an idol. Those boundaries considered, great post!

  2. Great post on a little discussed yet intriguing subject. I would say that in “Christian culture” today, there’s barely a hint of temptation to downplay beauty in favor of extreme “humility”. Maybe in some fundamentalist circles, but you and I know that fundamentalism is a small and dying sector of evangelicalism.I like to think I walk down the middle of the road on this one. On the one hand, I think it’s absurd to go out of one’s way to be extra “common”, because people assume just what you said–“holier than thou”. Or else just plain weird or uninteresting. On the other hand, there are people who err on the opposite extreme of spending ungodly amounts of money on keeping in style, having to have the latest and greatest thing right when it hits the market. They obsess about how they look, and this communicates a message to others just as blatant as the Amish-esque person–that their image is an idol. And you undoubtedly would share my caution. But then again, there is a lot to say for cultural context. People in certain work environments have to maintain a certain standard of living to be viable. And someone working in the fashion industry needs to be on the cutting edge themselves to remain credible. Then you have the biblical concept of identifying with others in order to effectively be and speak the Gospel to them.On balance, I would caution using biblical stories to justify embellishing oneself physically. There are many stories which, if taken prototypically, could be disasterous. In the NT we see people–most prominently, Jesus and Paul–whose kingdom impact is magnified because of the humility of their appearance. Also, if you were to take your argument to the furthest degree, one could justify accentuating certain features because they have been “well endowed” by God to be enjoyed (or envied) by others. This goes for body-builders the same as female provocateurs. Ultimately, you could argue that if God has blessed you with a sexy body, you ought to put it on display to the world in the nude. Some people actually do make that argument–particularly some Europeans as well as many artists.So there has to be a line. And there is: “Do not cause your brother (or sister) to stumble”. And do not make your body an idol. Those boundaries considered, great post!

  3. Thanks for embellishing and adorning my post with your lovely input. 😉-You’re right that the sin of exalting beauty is much more common than the opposite sin. But both exist, and it’s important to bring both to light to understand the tension experienced by those who are seeking righteousness.-I don’t think I used the Old Testament stories in an irresponsible way. I was simply saying that God uses beauty where it is found, for His glory, if we surrender it to him. God also uses unattractiveness, in the cases of Jesus and Paul. But humility is not in thinking poorly of yourself, it’s in thinking rightly, and it’s important to make an accurate assessment of your appearance, and how God may want to use it.-And in that vein, I think we can rule out the argument of putting one’s body on display, since that glorifies the self, not the Lord.There are several corners of this issue that I wanted to address, but didn’t want to lengthen the post any further. One thing is that making some effort to fit in to the culture around you might be considered “community”. That you are choosing to share cultural identifiers with others, and are including yourself, rather than excluding yourself, which is crucial for purposes of relational ministry. Two other issues are modesty vs. too much skin, and artistic nudity vs. pornography. But I feel those topics deserve their own posts.

  4. Thanks for embellishing and adorning my post with your lovely input. 😉-You’re right that the sin of exalting beauty is much more common than the opposite sin. But both exist, and it’s important to bring both to light to understand the tension experienced by those who are seeking righteousness.-I don’t think I used the Old Testament stories in an irresponsible way. I was simply saying that God uses beauty where it is found, for His glory, if we surrender it to him. God also uses unattractiveness, in the cases of Jesus and Paul. But humility is not in thinking poorly of yourself, it’s in thinking rightly, and it’s important to make an accurate assessment of your appearance, and how God may want to use it.-And in that vein, I think we can rule out the argument of putting one’s body on display, since that glorifies the self, not the Lord.There are several corners of this issue that I wanted to address, but didn’t want to lengthen the post any further. One thing is that making some effort to fit in to the culture around you might be considered “community”. That you are choosing to share cultural identifiers with others, and are including yourself, rather than excluding yourself, which is crucial for purposes of relational ministry. Two other issues are modesty vs. too much skin, and artistic nudity vs. pornography. But I feel those topics deserve their own posts.

  5. Right on, brother.Could you elaborate on your statement, “in that vein, I think we can rule out the argument of putting one’s body on display, since that glorifies the self, not the Lord”? I’m not quite making the connection. Are you saying that seeing one’s physical beauty rightly includes seeing how it could also be used as a tool for the Enemy, and committing not to let this gift fall into his hands?I briefly touched on the “community identification” issue, which I think is huge. And the art one seems to be a slippery slope, particularly because of the evasiveness of a clearly defined and universally accepted definition of “art” (or, at best, because of its broadness, in modern terms).

  6. Right on, brother.Could you elaborate on your statement, “in that vein, I think we can rule out the argument of putting one’s body on display, since that glorifies the self, not the Lord”? I’m not quite making the connection. Are you saying that seeing one’s physical beauty rightly includes seeing how it could also be used as a tool for the Enemy, and committing not to let this gift fall into his hands?I briefly touched on the “community identification” issue, which I think is huge. And the art one seems to be a slippery slope, particularly because of the evasiveness of a clearly defined and universally accepted definition of “art” (or, at best, because of its broadness, in modern terms).

  7. Sorry I was unclear.I was responding to your statement that it might be easy to argue that bodybuilders or provocateurs have a right to put their bodies on display with the “If you’ve got it, flaunt it” attitude.But if our premise is to glorify God, not ourselves, then these arguments would be easy to refute.

  8. Sorry I was unclear.I was responding to your statement that it might be easy to argue that bodybuilders or provocateurs have a right to put their bodies on display with the “If you’ve got it, flaunt it” attitude.But if our premise is to glorify God, not ourselves, then these arguments would be easy to refute.

  9. Really like this post. My wife, Melissa and I have been acutely aware of our own weakness of preferring attractive people. We often talk to eachother about it, trying to justify ourselves a bit. It really is not voyeurism either. We often talk to each other about someone’s face, or height/weight ratios of persons we encounter. It’s more like we intuitively interpret beauty as blessedness. Maybe it even puts us in mind of how eternal life might look. And there must be something to the blessedness idea, because wouldn’t years and even generations of clean living and joy start to have an effect on the face and body of blessed persons? And the converse question: wouldn’t years and generations of hard-driving, smoking, drinking, anxious, sarcastic, lecherous living have a dis-effect on the face and body of the un-blessed? Whether it does or not, we are hopelessly enchanted by the attractive. I really like Peter and Paul’s advise though, about the adornments, and hair questions, and clothes. Are they saying “try not to be beautiful”? I don’t think so at all. I always want to say something similar, especially to women, because those anxieties generally make natural beauty seem hollow and fake. The most attractive people I see are generally just walking down the street, with mussed hair blowing in the wind, and plain clothes obediently fixed onto a symmetrical body. When you get down to it, beauty is in the construction of the face, how far the shoulders extend, and at what angle. It is the relationship of some parts to others. Even hair color is either good or bad in the context of skin color, personality, what time of day it is. In fact, I have always wondered if in real life I am actually a pretty attractive person, but just don’t know it becuase I only see myself when I am looking into a mirror. I have a theory that at the very instant I look at my reflection, my face contorts and my body crumples, exactly because my focus has centered on myself, and the things that I cannot change: hieght, nose length, etc. So the face I see is always the anxious face. And that is what I think Peter and Paul are saying: when you’re anxious about your appearance it makes you ugly. Jesus too talked about the anxiety to change your hair color and height, maybe because he wanted his disciples to be good looking. My theory about the mirror has been substantiated by certain photos I have seen that were taken of myself unawares.Finally, Melissa has been stressed a bit lately because she just opened her own hair salon booth. Her job is effectively to sell beauty (you could never make a living on just cutting hair alone, it’s the dyeing and highlights that make it a business). Generally she enjoys it, and even makes up little portfolios of haircuts from all fashion magazines. Occasionally though she sort of hitches mentally in a way similar to your first-paragraph description of holiness through non-beauty. Usually she has an issue because of the flamboyance of some other salon or stylist. Altogether though it is difficult for her to feel entirely righteous about selling beauty, especially when it comes to being an intentionally beautiful salesperson of beauty.

  10. Really like this post. My wife, Melissa and I have been acutely aware of our own weakness of preferring attractive people. We often talk to eachother about it, trying to justify ourselves a bit. It really is not voyeurism either. We often talk to each other about someone’s face, or height/weight ratios of persons we encounter. It’s more like we intuitively interpret beauty as blessedness. Maybe it even puts us in mind of how eternal life might look. And there must be something to the blessedness idea, because wouldn’t years and even generations of clean living and joy start to have an effect on the face and body of blessed persons? And the converse question: wouldn’t years and generations of hard-driving, smoking, drinking, anxious, sarcastic, lecherous living have a dis-effect on the face and body of the un-blessed? Whether it does or not, we are hopelessly enchanted by the attractive. I really like Peter and Paul’s advise though, about the adornments, and hair questions, and clothes. Are they saying “try not to be beautiful”? I don’t think so at all. I always want to say something similar, especially to women, because those anxieties generally make natural beauty seem hollow and fake. The most attractive people I see are generally just walking down the street, with mussed hair blowing in the wind, and plain clothes obediently fixed onto a symmetrical body. When you get down to it, beauty is in the construction of the face, how far the shoulders extend, and at what angle. It is the relationship of some parts to others. Even hair color is either good or bad in the context of skin color, personality, what time of day it is. In fact, I have always wondered if in real life I am actually a pretty attractive person, but just don’t know it becuase I only see myself when I am looking into a mirror. I have a theory that at the very instant I look at my reflection, my face contorts and my body crumples, exactly because my focus has centered on myself, and the things that I cannot change: hieght, nose length, etc. So the face I see is always the anxious face. And that is what I think Peter and Paul are saying: when you’re anxious about your appearance it makes you ugly. Jesus too talked about the anxiety to change your hair color and height, maybe because he wanted his disciples to be good looking. My theory about the mirror has been substantiated by certain photos I have seen that were taken of myself unawares.Finally, Melissa has been stressed a bit lately because she just opened her own hair salon booth. Her job is effectively to sell beauty (you could never make a living on just cutting hair alone, it’s the dyeing and highlights that make it a business). Generally she enjoys it, and even makes up little portfolios of haircuts from all fashion magazines. Occasionally though she sort of hitches mentally in a way similar to your first-paragraph description of holiness through non-beauty. Usually she has an issue because of the flamboyance of some other salon or stylist. Altogether though it is difficult for her to feel entirely righteous about selling beauty, especially when it comes to being an intentionally beautiful salesperson of beauty.

  11. Wow, those are really great thoughts!I think the blessedness is a really interesting concept. Nevertheless, it’s obvious that there are some very “ugly” people living well, and some very “beautiful” people living poorly.It’s like everything else in life… Proverbs tries to teach us principles in which good things result from good decisions, and vice-versa, but Solomon was too wise to not be aware that these are not without tons of exceptions. Our job is not to try to steer the results of our lives… it is to make the right decisions, being faithful with what we are given, no matter how much the world seems to value it, or de-value it.So I’ll say it again… beauty is like everything else.

  12. Wow, those are really great thoughts!I think the blessedness is a really interesting concept. Nevertheless, it’s obvious that there are some very “ugly” people living well, and some very “beautiful” people living poorly.It’s like everything else in life… Proverbs tries to teach us principles in which good things result from good decisions, and vice-versa, but Solomon was too wise to not be aware that these are not without tons of exceptions. Our job is not to try to steer the results of our lives… it is to make the right decisions, being faithful with what we are given, no matter how much the world seems to value it, or de-value it.So I’ll say it again… beauty is like everything else.

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