An Imperfect Beauty

Tim Challies:

Does a woman need to remain beautiful to her husband? Yes, she does! But this does not mean that she needs to remain beautiful in the way society understands beauty. She does not need to mimic the Hollywood starlets of years gone by who seek to look young and sexy even in their seventies. We cannot confuse beauty with sexiness. But she ought to seek to remain attractive to her husband, to allow the outer to reflect the inner. Her outer beauty, though it is diminishing by worldly standards, will be a reflection of her increasing inner beauty as she becomes increasingly conformed to the image of the Savior. Many a man will tell you that his wife is more beautiful on their 50th anniversary than on their 1st. And he is speaking the truth.

Rachel Held Evans, whose original post spurred Tim’s reflections, responds with lots of bold type:

At the root of the problem is the fact that we have grown accustomed to using the word “biblical” prescriptively (to mean, “what God wants”) rather than descriptively (to mean, “that which is found in the Bible”). We have forgotten that behind every claim to a biblical lifestyle or ideology lies a complex set of assumptions regarding interpretation and application.

When we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick in front of another loaded word (like “womanhood,” “politics,” “economics,” and “marriage”) more often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says.

Well yes, that does happen.  But to limit “Biblical” to “what is found in the Bible” is simply to assume a different sort of complex assumptions, and it’s not clear from Rachel’s post why the adjective leads to projection.  The “abusus” card is a handy one in this spot, I think.

But if that’s really the route that Rachel wants to take, then it seems to me Scripture’s moral guidance has been reduced to only those issues which are explicit in the text, once we unweave the cultural knot.  For everything else,  extra-biblical resources will have to do.  Therein lies Biblicism down the one path and an incipient secularism on the other.  And if you want to know why evangelicals are constantly oscillating between the two, look no further.  And just when evangelicals have been making progress on unpacking the term, too.

Of course, that avoids the substance of the dispute.  And there I find myself agreeing with the broad strokes of Rachel’s position.  These things are matters of degrees and tone, of the edges and the emphases.

The actual pastoral advice may be rather benign in itself.  But look to the backdrop in which it’s given:  we live in a world where the concept of (physical) beauty has been emptied and replaced by a standard of sexual perfection, and where the decline of marriage has exacerbated anxieties about infidelity.  When presented as a remedy to the latter, the counsel inevitably takes on the world of the former, and what might be offered as a bit of prudential  advice instead contributes to the already unreasonable burden on women.

The place to start, then, is where Challies ends.  While I’ve never been terribly satisfied with “inner beauty” language (though never quite sure why), he’s pointing in the right direction.   Rehabilitate “beauty” in such a way that it admits of imperfections and of the aged.  The softness of youth will always have its own charm, but the beauty of the body need not end once the wrinkles or the cellulite comes.

PS.  A not so subtle hint that the forthcoming book deals with this and more.  In fact, the “more” meant I dealt with beauty less than I had hoped.  Other books, perhaps.

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  • Matt

    Finally…someone who makes some sense about what I’ve been thinking. We as the Church can’t think and talk about beauty simply in terms of what society tells us. We need to think of it biblically, and yes, I think that can be done. Rehabilitate the term and that is what both men and women should strive towards.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Thanks, Matt. Totally agree. We need, above all, an aesthetic that starts at the cross.

  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    I think that both Rachel and Tim would do better to define the terms a bit more. I think that you are right that Rachel is not getting where she wants to go by looking for explicit instructions.

    The problem is that neither is saying out loud that scripture matters, but it matters within culture. So while I agree with many of the principles that Tim suggests, practically he doesn’t say much that is all that helpful to any particular person.

    I am not a complementarian in outlook, but I do think that in general, if they both want to really make difference, then they should encourage real mentoring within the church of women by women. Challies is right that beauty should be in large part about the heart and you cannot really get at the heart without a relationship.

    I made a bunch of comments on Challies blog yesterday. I said that I think that often the negative backlash against male pastors talking about beauty and dress is because they are male and that we would be better off encouraging women to speak directly to women more often. One male pastor replied back to me that he didn’t have any older women that would be able to do that and that it was not a small problem, but wide spread throughout all the women, old and young. This pastor then has put his own views on dress and beauty above every female in his congregation and raised them to the level of ‘biblical understanding’. He is exactly the pastor that Rachel is speaking against. But he totally missed the point of Challies post.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Thanks, Adam, and I agree about the “defining terms.” Especially “biblical.” That’s a term that needs a lot of clarification, but I’m not sure that simply pointing to abuses is helpful–especially when what constitutes “abuses” seems, right now, to be a difference of opinion about what the text actually says.

      Partly why I didn’t write more on this exact topic in my book is the problem you raised: I’m not a woman, and I wasn’t quite comfortable going too far out in that direction. So I tried to say just enough to be responsible without getting into trouble.

  • Barbara Hazelwood

    I appreciated Adam’s comment about the need for older women in the church to counsel younger women. That is always a blessing. But I also think that there may be another source for negative backlash against male pastors speaking on the subject of beauty and womanhood, other than the fact that they are simply male.

    Men and women both have the tendency to place expectations on the opposite sex that are based on their own biases. It’s more common for a man to be concerned about the beauty or sexual availability of his spouse, while it is more common for a woman to be concerned about the romanticism or emotional availability of her spouse. In both instances, the man and the woman may be frustrated that the other isn’t behaving as they themselves would behave. The Bible speaks of a husband and wife becoming one, and Paul writes that a husband and wife belong to each other and are no longer in charge of their own bodies. I think, then, we can safely say that husbands and wives *are* supposed to try to please each other. But it’s a two way street, and sometimes it’s a treacherous street, full of pot holes. I think that women sometimes feel that they are being told to walk across that street, alone, during rush hour, with a grocery cart in one hand and a crying baby in the other, while making sure to keep their dress clean. It can be a bit much, no matter who the message is coming from. I’m not claiming that men don’t also have reasons to feel overwhelmed at times, but I guess we all have different trigger points.

    I think Rachel’s concern is that the term “Biblical” is often used to give a commanding weight to ideals that are not doctrine. This doesn’t mean that we should never use the term, but we should use it very carefully and perhaps even sparingly, in order to avoid placing unnecessary burdens on each other.