By Christine Woolgar
So… the fabulous Sierra White asked me to share some thoughts on modesty as part of her vision for Ezer Rising as a platform committed to sharing content about women’s equality from a Christian perspective.
First thing I’ll say is that I’m going to approach modesty in a way that I haven’t seen done elsewhere. Not because other ways are necessarily wrong or flawed, but because different ways of looking at things work for different people. And sometimes a different perspective can help us appreciate things that we hadn’t seen before.
For the Christians reading this, this also means I’m not going to start with Bible passages to make my case. I love the Bible, but if we start with a question like “What does the Bible say about modesty?” then it’s very easy to look for the word “modesty” and find ourselves constrained to considering only a few passages. Instead of doing that, I’ll step back and ask “What is modesty?” You can then go away and weigh my ideas against what you find in the Bible. (Or not, if the Bible isn’t really your book.)
What modesty is not
Discussions about modesty and modesty culture often start with a false assumption. They assume that modesty is about the body. Well, I have something to tell you: modesty is not about the body.
Yes, I know that when evangelical purity culture (and other cultures) make a really big thing about modesty, it’s nearly always in relation to clothing, bodies and bare skin. And I know that it’s usually targeted at women. But. I don’t think that’s what modesty is really meant to be about.
Let me show you what I mean.
Gilderoy Lockhart has to be one of the most immodest people I have ever encountered in a story. When I first read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets he infuriated me: he was loaded with his own ego and self-aggrandised at every opportunity. And he was appallingly incompetent in ways that endangered other people. Later, when I mellowed a bit and knew how the book ended (along with the rest of Harry Potter), I realised that he was a beautifully crafted comedic character: the epitome of vanity and immodesty.
What makes him immodest? Well, it’s not revealing clothing, that’s for sure.
There are three things he does repeatedly that are immodest: (1) he brags about his magical accomplishments, (2) he brags about his popularity in the wizarding world, and (3) he dresses in a way that displays his wealth and status.
Now you might be thinking, “That’s not immodesty, that’s just vanity.” To be sure, Lockhart is totally in love with himself. But his vanity also expresses itself in immodesty. He could have been different. He could have been like Narcissus in the ancient Greek myth; the story goes he was so beautiful that he fell in love with his own reflection and died looking at himself. In this, I reckon Narcissus showed vanity, but not immodesty.
So what’s the difference? Simple: vanity is to do with how you relate yourself; immodesty is do with how you relate to your context.
So let’s look at Lockhart’s context.
Immodesty and context
He’s a wizard in the wizarding world. In this context, magical competence is a pretty big deal. Being known as a powerful wizard amongst other wizards is also a big deal. Being known as ultra-charming is a big deal for men who like to use that as a way to get women fawning all over them (well, it often is when you’re in a mainly hetero-normative context).
So Lockhart isn’t drawing random attention to himself. He’s doing it in very particular ways. He is drawing attention to the things about himself that mean he looks big and important when you consider him in his context.
Or to put it another way: Lockhart demonstrates immodesty in how he draws attention to his glory.
And I reckon modesty is all about glory.
Glory and context
Glory is not a word we often use in everyday language (though the Bible mentions it loads of times). And there’s something really important you have to understand about glory: glory is connected to context. (I owe this insight to Paula Gooder and her book Body, published by SPCK; it’s on page 56 where she’s discussing 1 Corinthians 15:39-41.)
For example: a bird’s glory is not usually to be seen whilst it is on the ground, but whilst it is in the air. But, if you take a kingfisher, its glory is seen as it dives into water and out again – not many birds can do that. Similarly, take a hummingbird: its glory is seen in how it hovers so precisely that it can drink the nectar from a flower.
Glory is connected to context.
This is what people are driving at in the following saying:
Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.
— Albert Einstein (probably didn’t say this)
Lockhart has an idea about how to be glorious in a wizarding context. Yes, he’s an incompetent fraud, but that’s not what makes him immodest. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that he could do all the things he claims. What makes him immodest is the fact that he puts his glory on display in ways that are inappropriate.
So what exactly makes it inappropriate?
Immodesty as exclusion
It would be easy to say that Lockhart’s immodesty is down to how he’s so self-absorbed and draws attention to himself all the time. But that definition doesn’t quite work. When you see a brilliant performer on stage they are drawing attention to themselves and indeed their glory (or one of their glories). But that performer is not necessarily being immodest.
This is not about self-esteem. No, as I said before, immodesty has to do with how someone relates to their context.
If we look at Lockhart’s context again, it’s not just that he’s a wizard, he’s also a teacher in a school. His context is one where he should focus his efforts on encouraging and empowering his students for their development – but he doesn’t. Instead, he repeatedly puts himself (not his students) at the centre of everything. And he does so in ways that put himself above others.
In other words, I reckon immodesty is about showing your glory in a way that is inherently excluding of others.
Chew on that for a minute.
This is why I wouldn’t describe Hermione as being immodest in her fabulous red dress. Her context was that she was at a wedding, where everyone gets to dress up. Yes, she is showing (part of) her glory, but it’s not in a way that excludes others. If she’d been out-dressing the bride, well, that would have been a different matter.
Is modesty simply lack of immodesty?
As human beings, we have many different glories. Some of our glories are deeply connected to our bodies and therefore our identity – our faces, the colour of our hair and even the colour of our skin. Thing is, we need these parts of ourselves to interact with other people, so it’s often unavoidable that they’re on display. Also, because many other people share in a similar glory (albeit with differences), this usually means (though not always) that to show these parts of our identity and glory isn’t exclusionary.
We also have other, less obvious, glories that are associated with skill – and these may be just as important to our identities, but they aren’t as obvious to the wider world. For example: how we are able to use words, how we are able use our voices and our bodies, how we can be creative, how we have knowledge of specialist subjects. Most people who have these glories don’t exhibit them all the time because they know to do so would be immodest. It would be alienating or excluding of others.
Added to all this we have other attributes, that aren’t glories so much as privileges – and life gets particularly complicated when an aspect of a person’s identity is also a privilege. When it comes to modesty though, an immodest person will flaunt their privileges as a means of exclusion, particularly when the wider context hypes up these privileges as glories. For the record, this happens more often with one particular form of privilege than perhaps any other: wealth. (Remember that next time you read 1 Timothy 2:9.)
So in my book, putting your glories and privileges on display is immodesty when doing so is inherently excluding of others.
But I don’t think that being discreet necessarily makes a person modest.
At its best, modesty is more than that.
Modesty as inclusion
I believe that modesty is about veiling your glory as a means of inclusion.
This might seem a weird definition, but one of the things you’ve got to understand about modesty is that it’s about hiding something. That means when modesty is done well, it’s easy to miss.
I would say a person is truly modest (rather than the double-negative “not immodest”) if they’re in a context where, actually, they have a right to put their glory on display.
For example: I was recently involved in an amateur musical. The whole thing had been written by a composer in my area and it was really rather good. He performed in it and directed the music and he deserved to have his name near the top, or even at the top, of the list of cast and crew. But it wasn’t. Instead, he’d listed everyone who’d been involved in alphabetical order. It was a choice that showed that everyone – from the youngest to the oldest, from the least experienced to the most experienced – everyone was valued equally, even if their contributions varied. I believe his was a choice that showed his modesty. (And humility. And willingness to serve others.)
I find it hard to name other clear examples from my experience or popular culture (which probably tells you something about the media). But there are two rather blatant examples in the Bible, so I’ll comment on them instead.
Modesty as seen in the Bible
In Exodus 34:29 we read the story about how Moses went up on Mount Sinai to speak with God and how when he came down, his face was shining with the glory of God.
(Random fact: the Hebrew word for “shine” or “radiant” has the same etymological root as the Hebrew word for “horn” so this verse used to be mistranslated; this is why some older depictions of Moses show him with horns on his head. I kid you not. Do an image search for “Moses horns”.)
To begin with, Moses didn’t realise his face was radiant. However, the people were terrified so Moses wore a veil to cover his face until it returned back to normal.
In other words, Moses veiled his glory as a means of inclusion.
Yup, Moses was modest. That isn’t to say he always covered his face. When he approached God in the tabernacle, he unveiled (v34). Presumably because God wasn’t intimidated by Moses’ glory or any notion that Moses was stealing God’s glory. (Interesting…)
Of course, what Christians believe Moses was doing (amongst other things) was to ‘act out’ in some way what Jesus would later do. As Paul explains in Philippians chapter 2:5-8, Jesus had equality with God – he had glory with God, but he put it to one side and entered the earth in human form.
Why? To include us.
Graham Kendrick hits the nail on the head in his song The Servant King (emphasis mine):
From heaven you came, helpless babe,
Entered our world, your glory veiled.
Not to be served but to serve
And give Your life that we might live.
Noel Richards does similar in another Christian worship song called You Laid Aside Your Majesty – and the title is enough to make my point here.
In other words, Jesus was modest.
But Jesus didn’t always veil his glory
There is of course, the one time when Jesus unashamedly unveils his glory. I’m not talking about in a particular miracle, or indeed in his endurance of suffering on the cross – though he does in a sense ‘show his glory’ at these times.
No, I’m talking about a display where Jesus shows he is made of awesome: the transfiguration (Matthew 17:1, Mark 9:2, Luke 9:28).
Jesus went up on a mountain and his face started shining like the sun and his clothes became bright. And Peter, James and John were with Jesus and they were beside themselves with fear.
But Jesus did it anyway.
And this brings up loads of questions.
When do we unveil our glory? For what purpose? How much do we have to weigh in the feelings of other people?
Plus there are a number other questions which you might now be asking:
What’s the difference between ‘being’ glorious and ‘displaying’ our glory? If modesty is about ‘veiling glory’, then why do so many people associate it with hiding shame? Is the body glorious or shameful? Are parts of our bodies ‘unpresentable’? What do we make of 1 Corinthians 12:23?
I’ll get onto that. Though I’m not quite sure how many posts it’ll take me. Watch this space.
Christine Woolgar is a theological thinker. Living in the UK with her husband, she loves to delve deeply into scripture. She entered marriage with an alarming ignorance of consent, sexuality and equality, but also an amazing husband who helped her overcome all this, and she now has a passion for shaping the church’s attitudes in these areas – as well as more widely. She is unafraid to tackle awkward questions, but aspires to do so with grace and understanding.
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