Nostalgia is big right now. From Michael Pollan’s new panegyric on “traditional” food preparation, Cooked, to ModCloth.com, all things Mad Men (or previous) seem to be ‘in,’ down to hula hoops, bright red lipstick, ‘vintage’-style, well, everything, and grave suspicion of some of the best that modern science has had to offer, like vaccines and antibiotics.
While I love a beautiful mid-century style (dress, phone, desk) as much as the next twenty- or thirty-something, I really don’t love other aspects of nostalgic thinking.
Reading Michael Pollan’s latest—where he bemoans the overly sterile condition of the modern world, where our ‘guts’ are no longer properly ‘colonized’ by all sorts of ‘friendly bacteria’—I couldn’t help thinking that his was a longing that could only be experienced by someone with good health insurance in a developed country who gets to engage bacteria (friendly or otherwise) solely on his own terms. It’s a little harder to be starry-eyed about the benefits of the friendly bacteria and the evils of pasteurization when you are living in a place that still regularly sees outbreaks of typhoid and tuberculosis.
It’s equally difficult to see vaccine suspicion sympathetically when every time you go shopping you pass by people who’ve been permanently disabled by polio, only a few of whom have ‘luxuries’ like wheelchairs and crutches.
Recently I read and reviewed two very different books that deal with forms of popular nostalgia: Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound, about the “new domesticity,” and Valerie Weaver-Zercher’s Thrill of the Chaste, a study of the popularity of Amish romance novels. Each points out the ways in which consumers (of products and of ideas) pick and mix elements of a longed-for culture to create a kind of bricolage, a nostalgic quilt of comforting impressions to curl up under.
But, to do this, we have to ignore un-picturesque or unsavory aspects of the culture(s) from which we’re borrowing. One can wax nostalgic about the virtues and protective benefits of friendly bacteria when one hasn’t buried a child (or children) from a strain of unfriendly bacteria.
Really, doesn’t this happen all the time? John Piper seems terribly nostalgic for the time when, as Archie Bunker sang, “girls were girls and men were men,” and many evangelical values touted as ‘biblical’ are really just grounded in nostalgia for “how we think (certain) things were” in the 1950s (or the 1850s, as the case may be), all while seeming to forget—or at least, to compartmentalize—elements of culture that went right along with ‘traditional gender roles,’ like Victorian gentlemen’s tendency to keep wives ‘pure’ by visiting mistresses, child labor, and Jim Crow.
I do wonder if something similar is happening with the ‘modesty’ movement in evangelicalism these days, and I was particularly intrigued by the popular Q talk on the ‘evolution of the bikini,’ where the alternative to contemporary and ‘immodest’ bikinis is presented as…you guessed it…50s and 60s inspired vintage styles. You can check out my contribution to a her.meneutics group post here, but first, can someone tell me how Audrey Hepburn in a bikini is less modest than Marilyn Monroe in a one piece?
I mean, besides the fact that she’s wearing a coat over it.
(Kind of proves the point my friend Caryn makes in the post…)
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I have a new post up at Christianity Today:
“A North American evangelical woman walking the streets of Zomba, Malawi—where I live—might assume that women here are immodest. Spend any length of time talking to a woman with a baby of nursing age, and you’re almost certain to see her take her entire breast out of her shirt and offer it to her baby.
I’ve seen women walk along the street like that, a cloth snugly holding the baby in place while he sucks away. No one bats an eye. But when women wear shorts or skirts above the knee, everyone—men, women, even children—has a hard time not staring.
It’s not so hard to imagine how, in this context, knees became coded as more private than breasts. In a place where the birth rate is high, a single can of formula costs at least two week’s wages, and privacy is hard to come by, nursing in public is pretty much a necessity. Breasts can’t be regarded as for the bedroom only. The concept of modesty certainly exists, but it’s more often applied to women’s hemlines than their necklines.”
I have a piece up on “Rethinking Modesty” at Catapult magazine’s CLOTHE YOURSELF issue. Don’t worry, I’m not advocating showing off more skin…
Here’s the beginning:
When I was growing up, the only thing that could be said about clothing was that it should be “modest,” and ideally not too “worldly.” “Modesty” was proof-texted from 1 Timothy 2:9: “I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.”
Not looking “worldly” usually meant not being too fashionable — neither dressing in accordance with what was popular in the mainstream nor wearing anything with strong counterculture associations: no skater pants for boys, no ripped jeans for girls. This is what was meant, apparently, by 1 John 2:15-17: “Do not love the world, or anything in the world.”
While it seems that fewer churches are pushing the second issue — except, perhaps, to offer OMG-wear and other Christian versions of whatever is popular — modesty continues to be a topic of interest. Most American Christian definitions of modesty involve “not showing too much skin.” The question of male lust is often a part of the discussion. But in context, that doesn’t seem to be what Paul is talking about at all: modesty, in 1 Timothy 2:9, is about not flaunting your wealth, which is a surprisingly important thing in the Epistles as well as the Gospels. Braids and gold and pearls have nothing to do with not looking like the other, non-Christian, worldly women. The opposite of “modest” is not “sexually provocative,” but “flashy.”
Perhaps contemporary readers are tempted to regard 1 Timothy 2 as irrelevant anyway; that’s the place where Paul says he does not permit women to teach or have authority over men, and where he says, weirdly, that they will be “saved through childbearing,” a phrase no one has ever explained to my satisfaction. But what Paul says about modesty doesn’t seem particularly idiosyncratic or easily dismissed. What did John the Baptist call people to do in preparation for Jesus? Give away your extra clothes. What makes it hard to enter God’s kingdom? Wealth. What causes quarrels and fights in the various churches? People segregating themselves on the basis of social status and marginalizing those who are poor. Modesty in 1 Timothy 2 has more to do with dismantling social class divisions than keeping your skin covered.