In 2006 Justin Timberlake’s “I’m bringing sexy back” topped the charts for seven weeks. I’m not sure where sexy had gone, but its back with a vengeance and the church seems to have embraced it wholesale. The past several years, and this year especially, sex has moved from a taboo subject in the church to one of our most talked about issues (and we are talking about it in some strange ways). The problem is, we don’t always seem to take our cues from the Bible.
Our views of sex, and what is sexy, is my third complaint regarding how some complementarians have missed the mark and revealed that we are failing to love women the way we should. If you need to get caught up, read the first post in the series, “For the Love of Women.” Remember, I am a complementarian, at the same I time I believe that many of us have allowed our thoughts on sex, and on our wives, to be informed by our culture, rather than Scripture. We have told our wives that it is their duty to be sexy and we have allowed our culture to tell us what sexy is. In so doing, we have failed to love women rightly.
Let me give an example. I recently purchased Mark Driscoll’s new book “Real Marriage.” Mark Driscoll is a complementarian who reminds us that sex is an important part of marriage and Biblical manhood and womanhood. However, I think there are times where he unintentionally reveals that, as complementarians, many of us have wrongly imported the world’s view of sexiness into the Christian view of sexuality. For instance, in the first chapter he says:
In this season we shifted into ministry-and-family mode, neglecting our intimacy and failing to work through our issues. This became apparent to me when my pregnant wife came home from a hair appointment with her previously long hair (that I loved) chopped off and replaced with a short, mommish haircut. She asked what I thought, and could tell from the look on my face. She had put a mom’s need for convenience before being a wife. She wept.
This paragraph seems to suggest that both Mark and Grace Driscoll thought she had a duty to look a certain way. That is, she had a responsibility to keep her hair, and presumably the rest of her, in a condition that would sexually attract him. Unfortunately, she didn’t fulfill her duty. One bad haircut and he was disappointed, and she wept.
My concern is that this responsibility was never legitimate in the first place. We (men) have traded what should attract us for a cheap substitute. Even worse, rather than putting the burden on ourselves to lift our eyes to true beauty, we have shifted the responsibility asking women to mimic the cheap substitute. And then, when the cheap substitute fails to satisfy, we somehow convince ourselves, and the women we claim to love, that its their fault. If we have any desire to love women well, and secure satisfaction for both them and us, we must raise our standards of beauty.
Bringing Beauty Back
When Justin Timberlake brought sexy back, everyone lost. The reason is that sexy is only a cheap imitation of the real thing. Sexy takes what is beautiful and diminishes and distorts it, leaving only a hollow shell behind. However, this is not to say that we simply need the opposite of sexy. Too many Christians have tried to swing the pendulum in the other direction but have far outswung their target. Mark Liederbach explains:
In the quiet moments of honesty even the most Christian men will confess that these commercials are a “turn on.” Why is this? Could it be that these commercials have tapped into something that is actually “sexy?” Or have men in our culture been trained to buy these ideas through massive exposure, shifting moral values and the sad reality that the church is offering no better ideas about what is truly sexy?
I believe the answer is “both.”
… The unfortunate thing is that instead of building on a biblical theology that embraces the goodness of the body and sex when expressed correctly, Christians try to define “sexy” with impotent ideas that deny physicality and emphasize only the “spiritual nature” or the “heart” of the person. (“What is Sexy? It’s Not Miller Time!”, article found in Marriage and Family class notes, Fall 2004)
Liederbach, in that article, tries to salvage the term “sexy.” While the task is noble, I think it is easier to simply bring beauty back. The question that follows then is; what is beauty? The answer has to do with somethings known as form. Thomas Aquinas explains:
Beauty and goodness in a thing are identical fundamentally; for they are based upon the same thing, namely, the form; and consequently goodness is praised as beauty.
By form, he doesn’t mean womanly dimensions, instead, form is the universal pattern by which God designed women to bear his image. Form is what God created women to be. Form is what sets women apart from anything else in God’s creation. The woman form is the way God specially designed her to bear his image (Gen 1:27). Form is good because it is a very specific reflection of the God who made women. Beauty is what demonstrates that good for the world to see, and thereby draws us back to the creator, who is perfectly good.
There is no reason to doubt that a woman’s body is a very important part of how God designed her. That is why Liederbach rightly observes that sexy commercials which highlight a woman’s body, and even her sexual nature, have “tapped into something that is actually sexy.” The problem is that they only show a diminished and distorted version, bidding us to be satisfied with way less than true beauty. They diminish the woman’s beauty by suggesting that it is only physical and only sexual. They distort it by providing a picture that isn’t really feminine at all. Using tools such as Photoshop and models who have shaped their bodies in unnatural and unhealthy ways they paint a picture that is no longer realistic. Further, they have women act in sexually aggressive, promiscuous, and perverse ways that further distort our understanding of womanhood. All along we sit, passively allowing our culture to redefine our view beauty to something that it was never meant to be.
It becomes clear that we have fallen prey to our culture’s exchange of beauty for sexy when we criticize a woman for being “mommish.” At this point there is no discernible difference between our understanding of beauty and a SNL skit that proclaims, “Your not a woman anymore, you’re a mom.” But motherhood is an important part of womanhood. Motherhood is one of the distinctions that sets women apart from all of the rest of creation. Motherhood is one of the ways that women reflect the image of God. When we suggest that “mommish” isn’t beautiful, we suggest that the way God made women isn’t beautiful, good, or able to satisfy. It’s equivalent to suggesting that the forbidden fruit would be more satisfying that the one God gave us.
It is important to realize that our acceptance of our culture’s definition of sexy is sin. We are encouraging women to accept a diminished and distorted form of what they were created to be. Additionally, we are falling for the lie that what God has given us won’t be as satisfying as this diminished and distorted form. We are, in essence, saying that the forbidden fruit would be more satisfying than the fruit that God has provided. Rather than finding attraction in true beauty, sexy bids us toward the “forbidden woman” full of “smooth words” described Proverbs 2:16-19. And like fools, confusing sexy for beautiful, we encourage our wife to look less like a beautiful woman created in the image of God and more like a forbidden, sexy woman as defined by our culture. And though we believe this will bring satisfaction, “in the end she is as bitter as wormwood” (Proverbs 5:3-4)
A Beauty that Endures
The other problem with sexy is that it has no staying power. If our desire for our wives is based primarily on their physical appearance, it’s no wonder they cry. One bad haircut could catapult them toward undesirableness. Even if she finds the best stylist in the world, time will forever be her enemy. It will always be in her mind that soon her hair will start falling out, and her teeth may soon follow. Physical beauty is fleeting (Proverbs 31:30). Sexy offers no hope for aging and dying. Men that expect their wives to continually meet that standard are condemning her to live in fear of the future.
This is why the Bible encourages women to seek a more full understanding of beauty, and not to invest heavily in the perishable beauty but the imperishable. 1st Peter 3:3-4 reminds women, “Do not let your adorning be external – the braiding of hair, the wearing of gold, the putting on of clothing – but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.”
Aquinas understood beauty to be the things that make us long to know and apprehend the good. Every part of a woman is designed to make us desire her, and by extension to desire her creator. A woman’s physical beauty is a part of that and is not to be overlooked. However, it is just a part of how women point us to their creator. And though physical beauty may diminish over time, other characteristics of women can continue to point us toward the ultimate good throughout their entire lives.
By exchanging beauty for sexiness, we have diminished and distorted the way God seeks to communicate himself to us through women. By asking women to embrace a charade, we not only diminish their beauty, but we also prevent them from developing the kind of beauty that the Bible describes as imperishable. The crime is great and causes long term damage. We must be careful to make sure that though we celebrate the beauty of the woman’s body, we do not elevate the perishing beauty over the imperishing.
In Defense of Driscoll, In Attack of Men
I used Mark Driscoll as an illustration because I believe he made a mistake that many guys make when they think about women. He seems to have suggested that his wife’s attractiveness to him was based in large part on her physical appeal. I do not think that Driscoll is alone in this. In fact, I would guess that most guys struggle with this on some level because we are a product of a culture that sells sexy, not beauty.
Further, I do not think Driscoll’s book, Real Marriage, as a whole seeks to portray this type of thinking. I have not finished the book, but I have been encouraged by his desire to encourage friendship between husband and wife. This seems to be an effort to move away from the objectification of women that is so common in our culture.
At the same time, we must take every thought captive (2 Corinthians 10:5). This means analyzing everything we say to determine if it is contrary to a proper knowledge of God and His creation. I believe that our culture’s view of sexy is very damaging both to men and women. It fuels doubt and insecurity in women. Further, it diminishes the nature of womanhood, preventing women and men from seeing God’s image in the way he designed. For these reasons we must be diligent to neither hold women to the world’s standard of sexy nor communicate in a way to suggest that they should hold themselves to that standard.