Flip-Flops in the House of God

Flip-Flops in the House of God

In an article in the Chicago Tribune this week, Jodi Cohen and Maegan Carberry discussed the case of Kate Darmody, a winning member of the National Championship Women's Lacrosse team from Northwestern University. She, along with her fellow players had been invited to the White House to meet the President and, as is customary at these events, an official photograph was taken which subsequently appeared in the news-media (a quick search showed that in addition to the Chicago Tribune, USA Today and CNN also carried the photograph).

The problem? Kate Darmody was wearing flip-flops!

True, she had purchased a special dress and put on a string of pearls, but she had reasoned on comfort being the most essential requirement and chosen flip-flops with heels. The article went on to describe the dismay of her mother when the photograph was published as well as an equally telling e-mail sent by her brother, saying in capital letters (in e-mail this is tantamount to shouting): "YOU WORE FLIP-FLOPS TO THE WHITE-HOUSE????!!!!"

The article then went on to discuss today's twenty- and thirty-something's attitude to dress, arguing in a mild defense that there are flip-flops and then there are flip-flops! Apparently, there are "high-fashion" flip-flops which could set you back several hundred dollars and then there are Wal-Mart  varieties which could give you change from a ten dollar note.

In today's laid-back society, the Chicago Tribune asked, whether there is a distinction between ratty old flip-flops and ones from Neiman Marcus? And is there any circumstance where flip-flops may be worn at the White House, perhaps the most formal setting in the United States? Meghan Cleary, co-author of this article and herself a "shoe-expert," author of The Perfect Fit: What Your Shoes Say About You, answered in a decided "no." There is apparently a chapter in this riveting summer read entitled "to flip-flop, or not to flip-flop" in which a White House visit is in the "not" category.

What, you may ask, has any of this to do with us? Simply this, that it raises the issue of whether or not clothes have the least relevance when it comes to defining who we are or what it is we are saying in specific settings and occasions.

Was the mayor of this city correct in suggesting that young men should "pull up their pants and hand over their ear-rings to their sisters"? Why do certain young men wear T-shirts tucked in at the front but not at the back? Or young girls (and not so young women) who wear very little! Why does the Bible have legislation forbidding cross-dressing--a prohibition interpreted in one location where I have ministered to mean that women should not wear trousers (pants)! And what of tattoos, especially ones that are visible to the public?

To suggest that none of this has the least relevance is to fly in the face of a multi-billion dollar industry designed to ensure that fashion changes according to regular cycles to justify further expenditure--all, that is, except tattoos which carry a life-time's regret.

We are all children of fashion. An intern (who was dangerously stepping on the edge) suggested to me this week that a shirt and tie I was wearing was "very British" and he wouldn't be "seen dead in it." Even the Minister of Teaching succumbs to changing fashion! Style and group identity are important in contemporary life and postmodern society is fashion-conscious, pre-occupied with what's "in" and what's "out." The obsessional need to be "cutting edge" shapes our lives and for many, there is nothing worse than the feeling of being left out of the pack.

Gene Edward Veith suggests that the modern era defined its identity by achievement (property, money, athletic prowess), and the postmodern era defines its status in terms of style (wearing the right clothes, striking the right attitude).

"Thus, contemporary teenagers define themselves by the music they listen to and the clothes they wear, which in turn makes them part of a group. One teenager told me that in her high school, people are identified and sorted out into cliques according to the radio station they listen to. Head-bangers listen to heavy metal; blacks and "wanna be's" listen to rap; the popular crowd listens to pop; the FFA [Future Farmers of America] subculture listens to country." (Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemorary Thought and Culture, [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994], 85).

Two issues are worthy of some reflection from a Christian point of view:

First, even though it would be of interest to ask, should Christians be enslaved to fashion and the advertising industry as most of us to some degree are, a more pertinent question is the extent to which we are prepared to allow Madison Avenue to define us. Modesty is hardly a concern for the cat walks but it is a concern of every Christian. Many fashions placard sexual availability and Christians who deny it live in a dangerous fantasy world. A recent visitor to this church, a minister from New Jersey, was horrified by the scantily attired females. True, it is wretchedly hot in Mississippi, but a line must be drawn that safeguards basic definitions of modesty. It is not insignificant that the cost of enslavement to today's fashions is eating disorders and sexual promiscuity.

Second, it might be reasonable to ask whether a certain dress-code is appropriate to public worship. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, they say, and to suggest that there is comes about as close to a definition of heresy that today's postmodern generation is capable of making!

Two considerations seem worth contemplating. One is the issue of immanence. In the New Covenant, the middle wall of partition has been torn down allowing us to come into God's presence apart from the intimidating complexity of priests and ritual that hampered our Old Testament brothers and sisters. A measure of informality accompanies that ease of access, and it is not insignificant that the primary name for God in the New Testament is not Yahweh but "Father." Equally, there remains an issue of transcendence. God is on his throne still. In the one New Testament letter that signals the new access we have as New Covenant Christians, Hebrews, a warning is given that could well be lodged in time of Moses, "God is a consuming fire" (Heb. 12:29, Deut. 4:24; 9:3).

Approachability and formality seem appropriate then. And what does that say about appropriate dress in gathered worship? Though we must avoid legalism, it seems to me at least that some effort in recognizing these is appropriate. Our Christian forebears universally recognized something called "Sunday best." True, it has been associated with empty formalism and hypocrisy, but future Christian historians will note, I think, its demise in our time, bringing in its place something less durable, less substantial, less memorable.