It’s a bubble wrap life: thoughts on modesty

Heart of Tuscany July 2013 054 ModestyLast night I ate at Nando’s. I went for a half chicken marinated in mango and lime dressing and it tasted good. I could have gone for it naked (or plain as they prefer to put it), but we all know that chicken tastes better when dressed. It made a good thing great. And it’s the same with people and clothes.

No it’s not.

I can’t do it. I can’t write an important piece about modesty, attraction, responsibility and liberty premised on an extremely tenuous food metaphor. I’m not going to suggest it’s like putting meat on the BBQ and then telling someone they can’t eat it, or anything about chocolate cake, sweets, or any other edible. I’m not going to say it’s like taking an alcoholic into a bar.

I’m not going to use any of those examples because they are about consumption. We eat food, we drink beer, we do not consume another person. And too often that is the problem when we talk about modesty and attraction: we do so from the mindset of a consumer. We think of other people as an it, as something that we either consumer or do not consume. And in doing so we deprive other people of agency. Continue reading

Affection, ambiguity and Anna Karenina

I had planned to read much of Anna Karenina over Christmas. That didn’t happen: between being ill, cooking food, playing with my nieces and defending the ending to Downton Abbey’s Christmas special, I managed a scant 60 pages. However in those early pages of this Russian masterpiece I came across a line that struck me with considerable force.

“But Levin was in love, and therefore Kitty seemed to him so perfect in every respect, so transcending everything earthly, and he seemed to himself so very earthly and insignificant a creature, that the possibility of his being considered worthy of her by others or by herself was to him unimaginable.”

Anna-Karenina-Poster-–-Pure-Love-460x650Two things immediately strike me from this passage, firstly, the early throws of affection limit our ability to think clearly. And secondly, sometimes when we like someone so much we find it hard to conceive that they might feel the same way.

It’s that moment when you meet someone and suddenly they become everything that matters. All else fades away. Except it doesn’t, it just retreats into a corner of your self which you allow to go untended for a while. They capture your imagination with an unreal sense of importance, you are for a short period of time infatuated. You see only their positives, only the things about them you want to be true. As Levin did with Kitty you see them as perfect. If you know the story of Anna Karenina you’ll know it’s not quite as simple as this, in fact, if you know anything about the interaction between any two people you will know it is never as simple as this. Continue reading

Beauty, attraction and modesty – a five act thought process

 I

A couple of weeks ago I went to Scotland and it was beautiful.

It is as easy and natural as that. The description of beauty was done without any further thought or consideration.

Last night I went out and met a beautiful girl.

Well actually I didn’t, I stayed in on my own and watched a couple of episodes of The Pacific. If I had used a real life scenario it would have suddenly become awkward. And that’s my point. When we talk about beauty and it relates to some feature of nature or a work of art it does not provoke the same array of inquiries as to its meaning or subtle squinting of the eye to work out where the statement in question originated.

If I say a girl is beautiful it is taken to mean something more than just a factual observation. In short you’d probably assume I was interested in her romantically. And I might be: because I’m a guy and have been known to be interested in that sort of way.

But it’s also far too reductionist and it takes a whole swathe of compliments out of use. While I am sometimes attracted to a particular girl because of her beauty, that does not mean I am attracted and seeking to romantically pursue any girl I consider to be beautiful. Continue reading

The faded certainty of attraction

I thought that I would know. I thought that the moment the right person walked into my life all would become clear. Sirens would scream, lights would flare, passions would ignite and all doubt would be banished.

I thought that one day I’d be mature enough to move past the waves of attraction that fade in and out like the intermittent reception on the battered transistor radio placed between the paint and tins of nails in the garden shed. I hope in some recess of my mind that certainty is still only the right person away. But that hope recedes into the realms of fantasy.

Because what I learn each moment that I pass through life is that affection and attraction are fickle friends. And knowledge and certainty are elusive ideas that once found only present more dilemmas. Following yesterday’s post on Vaughan Roberts’ interview, I thought I’d ponder a little more. This is a tad more theological that I originally intended, maybe all a smokescreen to protect my fragile emotional state!

In response I, and you, and anyone else, could take either of two divergent paths. Either we see the doubt that lies before us and turn and run away. We could opt for what we know, what is safe and what is comfortable. In the most relativistic sense we rely on where we are to authenticate our ability to decide truth. We either allow comfort to lead to inertia or dissatisfaction to prompt change.

The second option is to live in the light of what Francis Spufford in his new book apparently labels with the acronym HPtFtU. I haven’t read the book – it’s on my ever expanding list – and for the sake of modesty I won’t unravel the abbreviation, but it’s what we in more biblically literate times might label as sin. Stuff goes wrong, and we do not see clearly how things can work themselves out. We live in chaos and confusion, and in the most enlightened of moments only have hazy clarity and even then we might be kidding ourselves.

So the gaze of attraction I cast toward a lady in my midst might be motivated by lust, or it might be the beginning of a love that she is due. And in most cases it is probably a little bit of both. Because even if I get married I will not be free from lust – I’m told that enough by my married friends – I will at times lust after my wife, and other women I encounter.

But all this talk of lust scares me off. It makes me worry that any attraction is motivated by my nefarious desires. Somehow this needs to be redeemed. Beauty is not bad, attraction is not bad.

Beauty must be appreciated for what it represents. It represents God’s creation and his love for us. It is not just the physical but it is the physical. We are not to get so spiritual that we deny what is literally right in front of us. Something I have to repeatedly remind myself is that finding someone attractive is not a bad thing.

It leaves me embracing uncertainty, and learning that as much as I might like things ordered and classified, colour coded and project managed, that’s not the way life works. There is ambiguity around every corner, there is discernment over what needs discernment and what needs a shunt of courage to spur us to take risks when we will never know all we wish we did.

Doubt lurks around every corner waiting to cripple me and hold me back. Whether it is my worth, my value to others, my abilities, or the prospects of love, doubt undermines your security and tries to tell you your identity is in whether you overcome these frailties, and if you don’t then your identity is as a failure.

But doubt is the door through which redemption arrives. We learn that we cannot do it on our own, we are weak and we are frail, and we are broken and lost, and these will not be cast aside any time soon. But when we learn that we cannot overcome all that might try to drag us down we look up. We see that in the mystery and confusion, and the uncertainty and unsettled resolve there is a place we can be secure. And from the place of security we can go on adventures unshackled by doubts and fears.

Appropriate attraction

Vaughan Roberts has won plaudits for the incredible honesty and bravery he has shown in his interview with Evangelicals Now. Those I share and add to: I think the words of a man highly respected for his commitment to biblical truth and Christian ministry describing his struggle with same sex attraction could potentially be a game changing moment for the way such issues are understood and handled in the church.

What Vaughan Roberts says, and the way that he says it, is a mark of maturity. It has and will continue to attract attention because of the subject matter and the highly volatile current political debates around same sex marriage. I encourage you to read the interview in full, but to summarise he outlines that while he has struggled with same sex attraction this has not diminished his commitment to living a life that upholds the orthodox Christian understanding of sex as reserved for a man and a wife. For him, this means he lives a celibate life.

Each of us have things in our life which pull us away from the type of life God would prefer us to lead. For each of us these are different in their specifics, but hallmarks ring loud and clear. Sexual attraction of one sort or another ranks high, as does a desire for power and authority, a propensity for self interest and greed dominates too many of our lives. We put ourselves above God and choose to let that which is not God take priority in the ordering of our lives.

In the interview Vaughan Roberts studiously avoids describing himself as gay, a demarcation that has already generated discussion. This is interesting because it raises the question for all of us of how we define ourselves and what identifies us from the crowd. I recall a quote which I’m failing to attribute, whoever it was he was asked whether he was homosexual or heterosexual, to which he responded neither. He said that he’s not attracted to men or women but to one woman, his wife.

What struck me as I pondered Vaughan Roberts’ words is that it’s not as simple as same sex attraction is something which we should flee from. I think there are good and bad forms of attraction, the good form, when we indulge it we are actually becoming more human in the giving of ourselves to another. But there are other forms of attraction that we choose to spurn because we believe them not to be in tune with a way of life that honours God.

The most refreshing part of the interview was the implicit acknowledgement, and if I am reading too much into it then I apologise, of the present continuous nature of his struggles. It’s something I’ve been toying with for a few months, how we handle the fact that we don’t just move past our struggles, that they often continue to walk with us. Roberts puts it like this:

While homosexual sin must always be resisted, the circumstances which often accompany same-sex attraction should be accepted as a context in which God can work. There is, without doubt, a difficult aspect to those circumstances, such as, for example, the frustration of not being able to experience the intimacy of a sexual relationship or a feeling of isolation because of the sense of being different.”

He goes on to say: “This perspective should transform how we view all the difficult circumstances in our lives. We’re not called to a super-positivity which denies the frustration and pain; nor are we to embrace a passivity which spurns any opportunity to change our situation. But we are to recognise the loving hand of God in all we experience and see it as an opportunity for service, growth and fruitfulness.”

Because we are not defined by whatever brokenness exists in our lives we are defined by who we are in Christ. Dallas Willard writes in similar terms about our lostness, not something that we resolve as soon as we trust in Christ but a path we will frequently find ourselves on once again.

In a bonus track on the new Mumford and Sons album they sing: “Wanting change but loving her just as she lies, it’s the burden of man who’s built his life on love.” I could take that as how God views us.

So to me. If the only appropriate attraction we are to indulge sexually is between a man and a wife where does that leave me, a single man attracted to women. I hope that for one of those I find my heart stirred towards, that might one day be what we are to each other. But for now I find myself attracted in different ways, at various times, in degrees of intensity to different women. And not all of that can be wholesome. Not least when confusingly they overlap.

There is a goodness in some of my attraction that needs to be discerned. There is prospect for an intimacy where that attraction will be fully indulged. But for now it is as much a temptress as a guide.

And then there is this other thing. The damage we do with only associating beauty with sexual intimacy. A friend recently suggested guys need to do a better job of complimenting girls for how they looked, regardless of whether they were interested in them. And in theory I agree. But first of all I might need to get better at doing it for girls who I am interested in.

From one to another

Dear guys,

Last week I wrote a letter to the female race, you may have read it. If you didn’t, it might be a good place to start.

This is quite a different letter, to the ladies I was trying to give a glimpse of insight into the way one particular guy thought, felt and acted. To you I’ve got a few words of advice.

Decide if you like a girl, find a way to let her know, and explore if that liking turns to love.

I told you I only had a few. Because, who am I to try and tell you much else?

You have walked a road that I have not travelled. The chances for love may have been punctuated with disappointment. I do not think I can write for every situation that you will have experienced.

It is not my place to opine about you longing after a girl who has walked away.

Can I with any credibility chastise the philanderer who leads each girl on and into his arms, but finds that there is another more pleasing to his eyes?

When you tell me that you have asked out one woman and then the next, and this has happened time and time again and they continue to turn you down: because my rejection count does not compare, I cannot advise.

And when you meet the one who you love, when she takes a step into the church and you turn and gaze up the aisle, the joy that overwhelms must be contained.

Because I have not been there. I have not lived the life you live.

But in fact, we need to help each other. We need to be honest about the challenges we face, share the hopes that we have and the dreams that one day might be our reality.

We need to cry when sadness darkens our day, confide when we’ve nowhere left to turn. Tell each other when we are being idiots, encourage us in our pursuit, or caution against heartache that might lurk ahead.

We do not know the life that each other leads unless we let each other in. We cannot help each other until first we welcome help. We are not ready to love a lady, with all our heart, with all our strength, if we have not first learnt who we are.

We cannot use the exceptionalness of our lives as a shroud to permit secrecy. Of course we all have experiences that others have not shared, and we will sometimes struggle to comprehend what greets each others’ day. The words of advice may be idiotic, the comfort we bring ineffectual, but that is not an excuse to close our lives off. And how will we ever get better at helping one another if we do not give it a go.

I talked to a few girls before writing this letter, and basically, they want to know if we like them. I recounted a story, maybe because it’s quirkiness hid my true vulnerability. That there was a girl who I liked, and I chose to spend time around her, and as my affection grew I realised that my actions could be construed as evidence of my interest so I backed off. I was worried that the girl to whom I was expressing an interest might actually realise how I felt. I also didn’t want anyone else getting onto the idea that I liked her. That might puncture my charade.

That’s how crazy I can be, I can tie myself in knots. And the ladies I told struggled to comprehend this ludicrous behaviour.

And I know that in other ways, you too can act a little crazy. Sometimes we purport ourselves as content on our own that we ignore the interest of the fairer sex. Sometimes we are so desperate for attention that we take the easy chances, find the girls that will have us. Sometimes we stay with someone long after our interest has waned because our fear of conflict takes over.

We have also emasculated our emotions in an attempt to conform to the cultural caste of gender.

We think that guys should be manly, concerned only with adventures, hand-wrestling grizzly bears and we have turned Jesus into that man. We have tried too hard to make God masculine. We have forgotten how to cry.

As Joe Carter put it: “Young men don’t need a Jesus who strolls like the Duke, squints like Clint Eastwood, and snarls like dick Cheney. They don’t need Jesus the cagefighter, they just need Jesus the Savior”.

Until we are comfortable with Jesus as a paragon of vulnerable masculinity we will try to live a life that isn’t reflecting Him. And I think for a start this means countering our pride. I’ve made it clear before that I’m open to girls giving a relationship a kick start. This can be a hard thing for us, it seems like we’ve been pre-empted, had our role taken. But we get things so very wrong so very often, whether it is about misplaced attraction, about ignorance of how other feel, about how we may have led a girl to think we were interested. About how we may shy away from facing that spectre of rejection, and if a girl gives a guy a helping hand we should welcome it and not resent it.

Finally, a word on singleness and marriage. We have got to esteem marriage more highly, and stop just thinking one day it will come to us, at a time when it is convenient, at a moment when we are less busy, less lustful for the next beautiful girl, at a time when we are ready to settle down.

But it’s also a problem when we are too desperate for marriage, I could pretty much quote all of what Max Dubinsky has written over at the Good Women Project, but this will suffice: “The enemy loves that you so desperately want to be married, that you’re crying on your bedroom floor begging God for a boyfriend or girlfriend because you can’t handle being alone. That your attention is focused on finding someone to marry. He loves that you don’t think you will be happy until you find ‘the one’”. We have to learn to be single well.

If this all sounds a bit too emotional, that’s okay, we’re all made differently. But if it does sound like I’m trying to get you to open up, think about your feelings, then I am. I think there is nothing worse that the facade that we perpetuate that we men do not have feelings. That we are unemotional beings with a lustful intent that we conquer by brute force as Ulysses chained himself to the mast to avoid the charms of the Sirens.

There’s much more I could say, but for now let’s end it here, and let us also remember to talk. So maybe my words were not as few as I made out, or my advice as limited as I suggested, but we shouldn’t shy away from taking time to grapple with complexity.

Your brother.

Girls, if you’ve been reading I guess that’s okay. Give us a chance, and help us where you can.

Games of attraction

In the film ‘A Beautiful Mind’ Russell Crowe’s character applies game theory to asking girls out. He explains why it is the best bet to ask out the second best looking girls. Because the best girls will be swamped with offers: guys will be fighting between themselves for a precious commodity and this will leave the way clear for him to go for the next best option.

This all makes sense in a world where beauty and attraction are objective facts, and rational choice prevails. But that is rarely the world we live in. Instead we live in the midst of confusion and uncertainty, of stunning beauty and waning attraction. We are designed to love beauty, and it comes naturally to seek it out.

So just how much weight should be given to our physical attraction to someone?

It has been said that true beauty exists on the edge of chaos, where something magnificent emerges from something that so nearly doesn’t work. The solar system finely tuned to sustain life, works of art that bring together styles, materials and forms.

It was Gustav Klimt that got me thinking about this. As I looked at ‘The Kiss’ I tried to wonder why this was such a magnificent piece. It is one of his most famous, and from the case in which it was housed most expensive paintings. But it shouldn’t be any good, it does not provide a likeness, the colours are all wrong; I don’t even think it holds any deep symbolic value: yet somehow this chaotic collage of gold leaf, silver and oil creates something quite incredible.

Some time ago Portsmouth University advertised its courses with the slogan, ‘What Comes After The Internet?’ Unfortunately the answer does not lie in any of their courses; innovation cannot be taught, only inspired. Likewise beauty is not located on a map, there is no guidebook, no ‘x’ marks the spot. Beauty may be captured, but it cannot be controlled. Something that is truly brilliant and beautiful, that exists on the very brink of chaos, has an equilibrium, it is so finely tuned that the faintest shift can lead to disruption and failure.

So when I find a girl attractive, what cue should I take from it? Is it the indication of a deep soul connection, or a momentary infatuation?

That’s why attraction alone is never enough. Because beauty does not always win the day. The search for physical perfection leaves us hollow, it suggests that we can attain something which will not last. I have no idea who first said it but, ‘Real girls aren’t perfect and perfect girls aren’t real’.

It also lets lust win us over. If we are guided by what we find attractive we will find ourselves liking something new. Novelty too often attracts us. We grow bored by what we have and want something new. I remember hearing Pete Greig talk about materialism, and how in fact materialism as we understand it deeply rejects material goods, because it always wants to move onto the next thing. To really value something is to commit to it, to stay with it, and not be sidetracked when the big new thing comes along.

It is preposterous to think that if we are married we will never be attracted to another person. That doesn’t mean that the person is not beautiful, but this thought should change the way we respond to attraction.

So we should also be wary of our attraction if we are single. The options are more open, but if we are only ever guided by what we find beautiful we will be drawn in countless directions.

But physical attraction does play a role. I might like to think that I am only attracted to someone because of their godly character, virtuous actions or biblical wisdom. It might be more convenient to sideline my thoughts of who is good looking and who is not, and instead choose a girl based on more holy criteria.

Except, God created all of me. He created my emotions and my mind, he created my brain and my heart, he created my spirit and my body. The task is not to be ruled by our body, and this is not done by ignoring it. If we shut off our desires we are letting them win.

There’s one other interesting thing in play here: avoiding complementing someone on their looks because you don’t want to appear superficial, or just interested in them because of their physical attributes. But then what are we trying to achieve by side-lining these feelings? Are we trying to deny something that is intrinsic to who we are, or are we appropriately managing a desire within us that needs to be checked?