Proverbs 31 woman or a Victoria’s Secret model?

NOTE: this is the hardest post I have written yet, it is a work in process, the overflow of my thoughts, it will no doubt be superseded by further, more enlightened words. I want to know what you think.

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There’s a line in the West Wing where President Bartlett says to Governor Ritchie in an election debate ’10 word answers can kill you in political campaigns’.

The context was that Ritchie had just pulled out a snappy answer to a tricky question about tax. The president’s staff had been working hard trying to craft such effortless remarks but had hit a brick wall. So before he responded with that little vignette Bartlett shifted into one of his trademark step backs and told his challenger and the audience that was what they’d been looking for all week. But then he moved on, to pose a question of his own, what are the 10 words after that, and the next 10?

CJ Cregg, the president’s press secretary, stepped into the post debate spin room to reinforce her bosses’ message that complexity was not a vice.

Why do I tell you all this? Because I think sometimes we do the same in the church. We like quick and clever answers, we like the aphorisms that role of the tongue and deftly communicate the message we want to convey. Sometimes 10 word answers can kill you in Christianity too.

If you’ll let me take 12 instead of 10 here’s a pretty current example: “I’d rather have a Proverbs 31 woman than a Victoria’s Secret model.”

From the live31movement, with its burgeoning facebook fan page, popular Youtube video and trending topics on twitter, this has championed the cause for women who want to be like this and men who pledge to prefer it. So my question echoes President Bartlett, what are your next 10 words? And the 10 after that?

Because that’s the challenge isn’t it? What does it actually mean to prefer a Proverbs 31 woman, and come to think of it, if you find one could you let me know? The passage is often used to demonstrate a wife who is entrepreneurial, compassionate and loving. But the actual lines in the text don’t take us very far, they are not a useful reference point as I look around and try and assess how many attributes noted in scripture the girls I meet possess.

A point picked up by Preston Yancey in his now redacted post was that a portrayal of women centred on these verses misses the witness of the wider narrative of scripture. It tries to sum up in a few words what a wife should look like. The danger of 10 word answers is not new, context is important when we try and interpret scripture: what came before and what comes after, what is the situation, the environment, the externalities, the things that made the words on the paper we read mean something more than just snappy labels for us to adopt and print on t-shirts.

It’s not just that the 10 word answer is incomplete and that it fails to really answer the question. My problem is that sometimes it is a lie.

It’s pretty easy to win some kudos in the Christian world as a guy if you stand up and say you prefer virtue to beauty. And a plethora of girls despairing at not looking like the scantly clad girls in festive commercials will fawn over your spiritual maturity and pursuit of righteousness. (I’ve very nearly deleted these two sentences every time I’ve read through this, but decided to keep them, they are not, absolutely not, directed at the guys behind this movement, they’re about me as much as anyone)

But this is where I call guys out for their crap and ask girls to bear with us a while.

The problem with this movement, and in fact in virtually everything that Christian guys write about relationships, is the tendency towards neutering romantic and sexual attraction to make a point about virtue and purity.

I actually want to be attracted to the woman I marry. That’s a shock isn’t it?

Of course it isn’t, it is what living and breathing guys want. There is certainly such a thing as lust, and there is such a thing on valuing someone for what you can get out of them, and these tendencies are ones we should not to indulge. There maybe guys out there not affected by physical beauty, and that’s great, I know most Christian guys go through phases when they would be desperate to swap places with you. For a day or two at least until they want to appreciate the wonders of God’s creation once again. And then they would probably like their inclination to physical attraction back.

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I wrote most of the above yesterday and I’ve been pondering it. What worries me is that I’m writing to excuse myself. Justifying why I don’t always value virtue, and why instead I prefer beauty. The answer is that I am frail, and I am weak, and maybe sometimes I do not always get my priorities right. But the answer is also that maybe we shun beauty too easily. Maybe we cut it out of our wish list because we think there is something wrong with it. I think there’s something wrong with that.

I think at its core this nascent movement gets something very important right, the call to value the depth of a person over a shallow verdict based on their looks. And that is good, but my problem is that I’m not really sure that’s what it conveys. I’ve chatted to a few guys and girls in the past two days about this, and one guy commented that just because something is simple doesn’t mean it is simplistic. I think I disagree, I think that in this case a quest for a catchy sound bite has made it overly simplistic.

Where this gets difficult is the segue between aspiration and acknowledgement of reality. I think it is crucial to hold up our ideals, to know that some things are better than others. But we tend to do that often enough. What I think we do far less well is accepting that we live in a messy world and we are broken beings who don’t always make the right choices. Too often we focus on the aspirational and miss out the ambiguity that for most of us is the norm. Calling on guys to declare their preference for something which they may only choose on certain days is not always helpful. It can lead to disenchantment when you realise it is not always what you want, and even deceit when you pretend it is what you want because you think it is what you ought to. Admitting to liking attractive women is not always approved of in the church.

This isn’t all I’ve got to say, but it’s about enough for now. These are very much unfinished thoughts, I want to know what you think, is the call for Proverbs 31 women any more than a pious catch phrase?