Thursday, May 10, 2018


i) On Facebook I read a comment thread about swimwear. Some Christians think beachgoers should revert to Victorian swimwear. That raises some tricky issues regarding modesty. 

ii) Hopefully it's possible to strike a balance in-between nude beaches and burkas. Some of the Christian commenters had a position that's very similar to Muslim sensibilities regarding modesty. But surely we need to do better than that.

iii) Questions of modesty raise the sorites paradox. Because modesty ranges along a continuum, it isn't possible to draw an absolute line. It's a matter of degree. And ethics in general confronts us with borderline cases. In situations like this, our intuitions are firmer at the extremes. 

Unless you take an absolutist position (e.g. burkas), the question of where to draw the line is a challenge for both sides, the stricter as well as the more permissive. Changes of degree in either direction. 

iv) Modesty is culturebound. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's completely arbitrary. Many cultures are morally decedent, so the fact that scruples regarding modesty are culturebound doesn't entail that there can't be any right or wrong. That's a special case of moral relativism based on cultural relativism. But Christians reject that inference.

v) Conversely, social mores regarding modesty are often arbitrary. For instance, National Geographic style nudity was acceptable at the same time Playboy was pornographic. Images of native nudity in the jungle was uncontroversial, while images of nude white women were pornographic. 

And there's the long history of the nude in western art. Is that pornographic? Probably an issue on which Christians disagree. The artistic nude ranges along the same continuum as pornography, but do they overlap? 

vi) Much of this is bound up with the notion of "lust". A problem is that many Christians simply plug their popular notion of lust into biblical prohibitions. But that's not exegesis. That's beginning with an extrabiblical definition, which a reader plugs into the text of Scripture. 

vii) Is there something wrong with a teenager boy on the beach who admires the body of a teenage girl on the beach, or vice versa? Or is that healthy and innocuous? 

viii) Feminist sociologists often frame the debate in terms of the "objectification" of female bodies or treating women as "sexual objects". 

I rarely if ever see the same criticism in reverse. Is it wrong for a female viewer to objectify a handsome man? Do men feel demeaned if women view them as "sexual objects"?

ix) If we mean sexual "objectification" in a reductionistic sense where that's the only thing we care about in the opposite sex, then that's wrong. But it's hard to see how sex appeal as one component of the overall male/female dynamic is intrinsically wrong. 

x) In addition, examples of sexual "objectification" typically fixate on particular body parts, but that's arbitrarily restrictive. For instance, some women have beautiful eyes (e.g. Maureen O'Hara, Elizabeth Taylor). If I admire their eyes, that's "objectification", but is it sinful or degrading to admire their eyes? 

For that matter, it's my impression that many women admired the eyes of Paul Newman. By the same token, here's a woman describing Omar Shariff: "And there, in the flesh, were those eyes: warm, dark, liquid". Are they guilty of degrading sexual objectification? 

Some women have gorgeous hair. Is it misogynistic to admire their hair? Some women have a beautiful complexion. Anything can be objectified. 

xi) Sexual objectification is usually cast in visual terms, but some men and women find voices sexy. Consider women who relish the sound of operatic tenors (e.g. Corelli, Carreras, Pavarotti). Or men who relish the sound of operatic sopranos (e.g. Sutherland, Caballé, Price, Ponselle, Milanov).  

I can't speak for women, but it's my impression that women find men with deep voices sexy. Isn't that "objectification"? Is so, is that sinful? 

xii) Fact is, humans like to "objectify" beautiful things, such as flowers, sunsets, seascapes, mountain ranges, &c. Sexual objectification is just a special case of that general phenomena. 

Aesthetically, we're selective. We take things out of context. We single out appealing elements. Nothing necessarily wrong with that. 

xiii) A common argument is that since fornication is wrong, kissing is wrong because they lie on the same continuum. That relocates the fight from premarital sex to danger zones that might lead to fornication. The need to avoid gratuitous temptation. There's a legitimate issue there, but that's a prudential judgment about behavior that's not intrinsically wrong, but risky, as a potential pathway to actual immorality.  

xiv) One reason for modesty is that immodesty is distracting. There are situations in which it's okay to be distracted by beauty (e.g. in a park, at the beach). But we need to avoid an oversexualized culture in which viewers are constantly bombarded with sensual stimuli. We need to be able to think about other things. We need to avoid a social climate where the human imagination is sexually obsessed. The media promotes a culture that's all about sex all the time. 


  1. There's not enough bible in this post. What has the Lord already said about modesty? He hasn't been silent.

    Also, I don't see how you can try to get some universal out of your teenage boy on the beach example. The interplay of the boy and girl on the beach can't be separated from from the hearts of the boy and girl. There's no universal there.

    I think this was illustrated forcefully by Jesus when he told us that any man who looks on a woman to last after her has already committed adultery with her in this heart.

    1. I've quoted Carson on the traditional interpretation of Mt 5:28.

    2. That's well as may be and while Carson is not my touchstone, I stand by my comment: There isn't enough bible here.

    3. Mr. Fosi

      "That's well as may be and while Carson is not my touchstone, I stand by my comment: There isn't enough bible here."

      I'm not sure I understand the objection: how much Bible would make it "enough"? Do you have any Bible verses or passages in mind you'd like to see addressed?

      In any case, Mt 5:28 is a key verse in the debate. (Perhaps the key verse in the debate.) Carson's take would be quite relevant since he's a NT scholar, indeed a Matthean scholar, and much of the debate turns on what's meant by "lust".

    4. I discuss it under #5 of a recent post:

    5. Gentlemen, don't get your dander up about Carson. I like Carson. I generally trust Carson. I've listened to every lecture of his that I can get my hands on (thank you Gospel Coalition).

      That doesn't change the fact that there is precious little in this post parsing out what the Lord has already said about modesty. Has He said ANYTHING that is germaine to the subject of this post? Maybe 1 Tim 2 wouldn't be a bad thing to spend a little time on. Why go to lengths to parse out lust when you have a much more direct text elsewhere?

      And why am I commenting anyway, amirite? Because my wife and I have gone around this topic over and over again and her point is always that modesty starts in the heart and works is easy outward. Also that modesty entails more than just avoiding skimpy clothing.

      I came to this post expecting to see Steve wrestling with some texts but alas. Hence a short protest.

    6. i) It's appropriate to evaluate arguments other people use. I can respond to them on their own grounds without attempting to make a full-blown case for my own position.

      ii) You have certain passages in mind that you think are germane. The fact that I didn't wrestle with them is because I'm not automatically aware of what you consider to be prooftexts, and I don't view them the same way you do.

      But since you bring it up, I don't think 1 Tim 2:9 & 1 Pet 3:1-3 are directly or even indirectly germane to swimwear. In those passages, the kind of modesty/immodesty in view isn't sexually provocative attire but ostentatious attire. Not about sex appeal but social class.

  2. So on your view there's modesty and then there's modesty?