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An Imperfect Beauty

May 26th, 2011 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

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.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.