Friday, September 7, 2012

Created to Be His Help Meet: Part 2 (Discretion and Chastity)

Two things: I'm really liking this more frequent update schedule I've got going right now. Writing really is fun. Also, merciful heavens can I not spot the typos? I've got an English degree, so you'd think I'd be better at this. Problem is that I can find them easily in standard blog view and have a hard time tracking them down in the editor view. Can someone in blogger work on this? Maybe a highlight function in preview mode? Or am I the only one with this problem? That aside....

I'm combining the next two chapters into one review because they're short and thematically go together pretty well. They also happen to be my most favorite and least favorite chapters respectively. Let's start with discretion shall we?

I love that Mrs. Pearl draws a parallel between discretion and good taste. I don't think I'd ever heard it put quite that way, but it makes so much sense. I tend to think of discretion in terms of not gossiping or being obnoxiously loud or wearing flashy, probably immodest, clothing, but really all that really comes down to taste or, to use another term, good judgement. On the flip side we've all seen women who lack taste, modesty, or good sense. It doesn't matter how pretty they are or how nice their clothes, it can't hide their silly, irresponsible, unattractive disposition. Mrs. Pearl goes on to equate discretion with a general propensity to consider and be mindful of other people's needs, abilities, and possessions.

I also love that she got into heart motives and how some things (in her example which stove to buy) can be lovingly and considerately discussed in one marriage when they couldn't be in another based on the larger relational context in which this discussion is taking place. This is one of the few cases (in my recollection) where Mrs. Pearl directs women to consider their needs and variants of their own marriage instead of applying a universal rule (ie never discuss monetary decisions) regardless of specifics. Naturally I really wish she'd hung out here a while because Mrs. Pearl is best when she's sitting around the kitchen table with you, so to speak, dispensing practical, pragmatic advice.

I also think her list of "Twelve Questions a Wife Can Ask That Will Tear Down Her House" is pretty good - with a couple caveats (193). I'll give you a couple examples and then explain the caveats.

1. Do you feel comfortable spending that much money buying ___?

3. Doesn't this activity you are engaging in grieve your spirit?

6. Why don't you spend more time with the boys?

8. Why, why will you not lead?

It's an incomplete, slightly abridged list, but you can get the flavor. It doesn't take a genius to see that these are mostly trick questions. When a spouse asks "Do you feel comfortable spending __" there's really only two possible interpretations, and actually only one primary interpretation. Although it could mean "I'm genuinely curious why you feel strongly enough about that laptop to spend that much money on it," the most likely interpretation is "I think it's a really stupid idea to spend that much money on a silly computer, and I'm testing you to see if you agree with me." If you have a great relationship (and you genuinely mean it) then you might be able to ask the first question in those words, but if it's a test then he's trapped. If he says "Yes" then you get to mutter to yourself about how husbands spend money on the most ridiculous things, but if he says "no" then he's still just submitted to a trick question. Not fun; not fair, and the second question I listed is even worse. There's nothing implied about the moral judgement incurred for answering wrong. The fourth question, easy to sound like an accusation. As for the last question: never, ever, as you value your marriage, ask any version of this question at any time. If he doesn't lead he's a loser, but if he does lead he's following his wife. There's no good way out of that question.

That said, I wish Mrs. Pearl had spent a little time addressing how women can address the fears and desires behind the questions. Consider the difference if a wife said "I don't feel comfortable spending this money" or "This activity grieves my spirit." The husband then can step in and address your concerns without submitting to accusations or trick questions. For the third question consider saying something like "I've noticed how much the boys enjoy spending time with you" or "It's not good for them to spend all their time with Mamma - can I help make time for them to play/work with you?" Give the man a space to step into instead of driving him away with accusations. Ditto for the last question. Ask his opinion about the sermon. Tell him the kids want to hear about David and Goliath at bedtime. Even ask him Sunday morning which dress he prefers. Find an opinion you can get behind instead of stage whispering directions to him about where and how he's supposed to be in front. The point is that, even though the questions are really, really bad, there's no reason why a wife can't address the emotions, concerns, and curiosity behind the questions. Instead of getting help reframing our words and emotions (so we can talk about the stove) we get a list of things to not say. It's less helpful than it could be.

The chapter on Chastity is where things really get scary. I actually had Allen read it just to make sure I wasn't having an inappropriate "well chastity isn't just girls you know!" knee jerk emotional reaction. I wasn't. It's honestly pretty bad. The best way I can describe the problem is that she conflates lust issues with chastity issues. Although the two have overlapping ground, they are not the same problem. The guys who write in or whom Mrs. Pearl describes are all whiny little lust buckets who consistently are bitter and blame women for their problems. Consider the fellow who had an "accident" after seeing a women bend over to pick up her child (205). Allen confirmed my instinct that this isn't typical even for teenage males. A guy who reacts that quickly and violently to visual stimuli has either physical or mental issues. In this case we know that "Bob" had unrestrained issues with lust that apparently never resolved themselves, so we have a winner with mental issues. Think about it, when you want to convince women of the need to dress modestly, are you going to talk about ordinary men with ordinary physical desires that occasionally stray into nuisance lust but don't fill them with bitterness, or are you going to describe a man who seems to have no handle on his sex drive and is consumed by bitterness and lust? This is Mrs. Pearl, so she chose the latter. It add absolutely nothing to the conversation. While a normal guy may be grateful when women dress in ways that signal their sexual unavailability, the lustful man will be driven more and more to feed his desires on whatever is available - exposed legs or an attractive collar bone. Lust is a heart matter than cannot be fenced off by dictating skirt lengths.

Mrs. Pearl's position of clothing goes beyond skirt lengths though. She writes, "A woman's body, moving within visual range of a man, unless it is modestly covered in a way that says to the man that you have no interest in him taking pleasure in your appearance, can be as stimulating to him as disrobing completely" (201). As Allen said "that dog won't hunt." There are a couple problems, but the main one is that she assumes pleasure has a purely sexual meaning. If this is true I wonder how she'd react to a bride walking down the aisle. If there's a ever a time in her life where a woman compels the world to honor and acknowledge her beauty it's then, and likewise there is no other time when a woman is so sexually unattainable. To the world watching she is sexually dedicated and to the one man waiting she is still unknown. Obviously there are those women who dishonor their position by tarting it up even then, but that's not generally true and especially not of the church. So does a chaste bride in her adornments not give pleasure when we see her enter the church? If so what kind of pleasure? I'm going to put a definition out there.

noun \ˈbyü-tē\
plural beauties
Definition of BEAUTY
1: the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit : loveliness

There's nothing new here. Beauty is pleasurable and attractive. We all know this. What Mrs. Pearl is indirectly saying is that beautiful women (dressed chastely or not) cause men to sin. So a beautiful woman might as well put a bag over her head and stay home. But then why do men get married? Because they love a woman, enjoy her company, and...find her sexually attractive. St. Paul is pretty darn clear on this one. People marry for various reasons, but sexual attractiveness and the desire for sexual union is right up at the top of the list just under "be not unequally yoked." Women now have an impossible position to maintain. They must be attractive enough that somewhere at some time a godly young man will want to bed them but not so attractive that men in general are tempted to lust after them. Say what?

I'm not tiptoeing up to an opinion that women should be able to dress however they please and let the guys deal with the consequences. Mrs. Pearl is dead to rights that women are commanded to be chaste and modest. She even gets the whole pants or no pants issue right. (Short version, the Bible is against cross dressing, but since the whole ancient world wore uni-bifurcated garments it's silly to turn around and say that only men can wear pants now.) This is an immensely important point. But what I really wish she'd done is make a distinction between attractiveness and sexual availability. Your mom getting ready for church on Easter Sunday is attractive. The girl on her third cosmo wearing a red mini skirt and five inch heels is sexually available (or at least thinking about it). It's the latter that we're supposed to avoid. When Paul wrote about chastity he was writing in an era of temple prostitutes, and he was telling Christians those girls might be hot but Christian women don't dress that way. Consider also those men's mags. You don't see "Really Hot Girl In a Nice Dress" splashed across the front. Nope. She might be in a dress on the cover (if we're all lucky), but that dress is long gone by the time you reach page 10. Undressing is titillating. Being dressed in a manner that suggests you could be undressed by the next lucky man to pay for your manhattan is also titillating. Being a nice looking girl wearing attractive clothes makes you a pleasant part of the social landscape.

This post has gotten longer than I thought it would, but I want to add this aside. There's more to modesty than sex. Paul talks about arranging one's hair as part of modesty, but I can't say I've ever seen a sexually immodest hair style. There's an aspect of modesty that goes with the tasteful aspect of discretion. A woman of good taste doesn't dress herself ostentatiously or pile on gobs of makeup or wear an outrageous hairstyle to church. These things are done with taste and good aesthetics in mind. A woman can be covered head to toe and still be guilty of not following Paul's directions.

I'll close with a few words about Bathsheba. As part of giving men an absolute free past in this area Mrs. Pearl goes on to completely mis-characterize David and Bathsheba. Whereas Nathan went straight to David with his sin, Mrs. Pearl directly blames Bathsheba for causing her husband's death and a king's downfall by her "indiscretion." And yet David was on the roof of his palace whiling away his time when he should have been at war. David was out of place not Bathsheba. It's likely that Bathsheba assumed the king was busy elsewhere and not roaming around on the roof ogling her. In the story Nathan tells David, Bathsheba is the lamb who was stolen, and David is the thief. Bathsheba's son, King Solomon gave us Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. God, Nathan, and David all agreed that the sin was his. But Mrs. Pearl disagrees. For reasons that have little to do with Biblical exegesis. You can't get something this basic this wrong without raising lots of eyebrows. I only have two, but they are fully raised at this point.

Just four more chapters here. Then maybe I start on a more interesting book :)


  1. Thanks for yet another insightful post, Natalie. I really appreciate your thoughts on attractiveness, modesty, etc. How as women are we to think of the external beauty we have been given without shame for being created beautifully by a good God? Even asking that question seems somehow unChristian and prideful, but it's a fact that God has gifted women with external beauty for His glory, each of us in different measure.

  2. Thanks for the kind words.

    As for your question, that's why I tried to frame the discussion around signaling sexual availability rather than beauty. A sinfully minded man can lust over just about anything, but how a woman dresses can indicate whether she's inviting/welcoming that sort of attention. I don't think it's a hard distinction to make. Guys looking for a quick fling at a bar make these kinds of evaluations. I'm guessing there's not a direct correlation between how objectively attractive a woman is and how easy they think she'd be to pick up.