A Modest Book

Modest, R. W. Glenn and Tim Challies (Adelphi, MD: CruciformPress, 2012) Funny. Earlier this month I was commenting on all the kerfuffle about modesty on the internet. I wrote an article about how I think we use the word way too narrowly. And then I open my mailbox to receive Cruciform’s latest book on… drum roll…modesty. It must be the vibe of the month. I was happy to see the subtitle: Men and Women Clothed in the Gospel. R. W. Glenn and Tim Challies begin their book with the important point that modesty is about more than what we wear. They want to focus on the gospel and its implications, rather than give us a list of modesty dos and don’ts. Check plus. First of all, it’s helpful to define modesty. We keep hearing it looks like this, or it’s not that, but what does it really mean? After showing the three main entries from the dictionary, Glenn and Challies refer to C.S. Lewis to demonstrate how we mistakenly confuse modesty and chastity. I found this part helpful. The quote they use is one that has always stuck with me after I read it. He refers to modesty as a cultural propriety or decency. The rule of chastity is always the same for a Christian, but modesty changes in accordance with cultural context. The authors make the point that even if we all could agree on what a modest bathing suit looks like, it would still be extremely immodest to wear it to church. In other contexts, you may be abiding by the “codes” of modesty, but are certainly still unchaste--or vise versa. Here is their definition of modesty:
Modesty is that virtue which is respectful of a culture’s rules for appropriate and inappropriate dress, speech, and behavior in a given situation (23).
I wrestled with this definition a little bit. I think that it is true. But, if we are interested in “gospel modesty” as they reiterate, I would maybe have liked them to add two more elements. One is adding our thoughts first in that appropriate/inappropriate given situation. I know that culture cannot see this part of modesty, but as the authors show, the heart is where the virtue or sin begins. I think adding the word “thoughts” to the definition would keep the core teaching of their book at the forefront of our “thinking” on modesty. Also, such a big part of modesty is humility. If you sum up all three parts of the definition the authors supplied from the dictionary, and others that I have found in my own search, you see that it all adds up to a humble spirit. As Christians, our thoughts, behavior, speech, and dress should all flow from the intimate knowledge we have or our Creator and Redeemer. My favorite part of this short little 85 page book was Chapter 5, Why We’re Not Modest. This chapter is about idolatry. After a mini-lesson on what idolatry is along with its ramifications, the authors give us some helpful alliteration to help us apply the effects of idolatry to our topic of modesty. Sometimes I find alliteration as a teaching tool to be a little forced and cheesy. But I think that Glenn and Challies pulled it off well in this chapter. Idolatry, they say, is vain, violent, vile, and vindictive. I found this to be the most convicting part of the book. They teach us that “the idolatrous heart believes a lie that idols can actually do something—that they can deliver what we want from them…How vain is our pursuit of idols! They are utterly impotent” (61-62).  Your behavior is an indicator of what you are seeking for satisfaction. Is it attention? Approval? Accolades? (Did you notice my clever use of alliteration there?...Dang, I’m so immodest!) Of course, these idols can’t satisfy us; only Christ can. This is where the violence comes in. We become disillusioned as we indulge our idols, and they leave us hungry. Instead of enjoying God’s blessings in proper stewardship, we begin to dehumanize ourselves and others. “When something or someone becomes more precious to you than Jesus Christ, you begin to become less than human” (64). The authors give us a good reminder: “This idol does not want to bless me—it wants to hurt me and keep me as its slave” (65). Worse still, idolatry is “vile, in that it utterly offends the Lord” (65). This is the ugliest part—our idolatry exposes our rebellious heart and crass ingratitude to our Creator and Savior. Do you ever think about yourself as vindictive? That is what our idolatrous thoughts and behavior are to our loving God. Ouch. Let’s face it—when people talk about modesty these days they are usually referring to clothes. But really that is only one dimension of how this virtue is expressed. That bothers me, and it bothers the authors of Modesty. But while they did a healthy job of steering clear of legalism or antinomianism, they mostly talked about the application in clothes. I also think it would have been helpful, especially for younger readers, for them to add a chapter on chastity. Since they distinguished between the two virtues, it would have been beneficial to bring up some issues such as flirting. This is something that our culture may view as harmless, but as Christians we know it can be completely unchaste—no matter how covered up you are. Also, with Challies’ technological expertise, I expected to read about the implications of this virtue in your cyber-behavior. Although modesty and chastity are distinct virtues, they are also very much related when you get to the heart issue. I would have liked to read more about that. I think the authors steered clear of giving too many examples because they didn’t want to create a legalistic list. But you can still throw in some relevant applications. One way of doing this would be to have questions for reflection at the end of each chapter. With a few modifications, this book could be turned into a good little small group study.