POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 14, 2011:
Dress It Up
The Gospel relies on the heart, not style trends
Victoria Weinstein is fashion blogger of a different ilk. You see, Weinstein is a Unitarian Universalist minister. Fashion and religion. That is not your typical pairing to say the least.
In 2007, Weinstein launched a blog to encourage the "defrumpification of the American clergy." Yes, defrumpification. The Boston Globe picked up on Weinstein's affinity and convinced her to come out from under her handle, "PeaceBang," and reveal to them who she really was and why she cares about religious fashion.
Weinstein's primary target audience are women ministers, so her suggestions include things like, "We live in a period where people are going under the knife to look attractive, so at the very least we can wear lip gloss" or "Thou shalt not leave the house without Altoids." Pithy but unfortunately, theologically anemic. What we wear matters. Not because of what it says on the outside -- if it is socially acceptable or not -- but rather what it expresses about the "inside" posture of our heart.
The thrust of her thoughts can be summed up when she says in the Globe interview: "The problem with frumpiness isn't so much aesthetic as it is a problem of looking as though you are not paying attention to the world and that you are not part of today's world. They will not be willing to hear us in the same way if we look like we walked out of 1972." I'm afraid Weinstein may be speaking out of both sides of her mouth.
To be fair, I guess it depends on how you define "frumpy." I'm sure Weinstein's aim is not to cause any overt controversy but it raises some interesting questions. What is the litmus test for how the clergy should dress? Should there even be a baseline?
I minister in the northeast quadrant of midtown Tulsa. This is home to the University of Tulsa, Circle Cinema, the Tulsa State Fairgrounds, and the Wonder Bread Factory. I spend the majority of my time in my neighborhood, White City, and on Cherry Street, as an urban missionary. Whether I'm on my front porch or at the park or the coffee shop, diversity is the rule of thumb. Blue collar, white collar, young professionals, "empty nesters," the creative class, bohemians -- it's all here. This all leaves me with a big inquiry: how does a minister go about making a decision on dress in a deeply divergent environment? Further, does it even matter?
On the one hand, the discussion of "how" one should dress can easily slide into something called overcontextualization. This concept rears its head when one overextends to make themselves look like the surrounding culture. The loss in this endeavor is that in doing so, they forfeit much, if not all, of their distinctiveness.
Philip Nation says, "Target and Macy's is making a mint off of ministerial professionals buying shirts with graphics emblazoned across the shoulders." He's right. Fitting into your culture doesn't mean you give up your identity and assenting to a new clergy "uniform." A graphic tee and skinny jeans does not a minister make.
But non-contextualizaiton is also an ever present danger. This takes place when one comes as an outsider and assumes new converts will join and imitate them. In our attempts to contextualize the Gospel, we must admit that the process of contextualization should not and cannot be acultural and ahistorial. This is the misguided approach to "colonial" mission we saw in most Protestant missions in the early 20th century.
The answer lies somewhere in the middle. To me, if there is a "test," it all comes down to context. Consider your context and dress appropriately (and modestly). This is what missionaries do. Lottie Moon, the well-known missionary to China, dressed like her Chinese friends, ate their foods, spoke their language. Why did she do this? She cared for the people she was trying to reach. Her desires for them to experience Jesus trumped her inclination to impose her culture on them.
Foremost in my concern is something the late missiologist, Paul Heibert talks about in a book he contributed to entitled, MissionShift: Global Mission Issues in the Third Millennium. Hiebert challenges how little we take the time to study "systematically and deeply the contexts" in which we serve. His concession is that Christians, many times, impose their culture onto a receptor culture and thus, truncate the Gospel message.
Until we yield to the truth of Heibert's statement here, we can't proceed in our attempts to contextualize the gospel in a culture that is unlike our own. We will continue to live as monocultural beings in a multi- or sub-cultural world. If you minister in an urban area with neo-hippies, you may need to dress like you stepped out of 1972. But not to the extent that you become something you are not.
My visceral reaction against Weinstein's "defrumpification" motif is that is implies that the "casual" look young people exhibit today is inappropriate. Look, I get it. No doubt, there is a spectrum where one moves from formal to preppy to casual to frumpy and finally, to disheveled. I'd like to give the benefit of the doubt rather than the assistance of accusation. I think many young people are actually paying very close attention to the world they live in. And their dress reflects that.
The problem with all of this is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In other words, who gets to define what is appropriate dress for worship or what isn't?
This is where the argument about style, particularly related to the church breaks down for me -- whether you are talking about dress, worship styles, and the like. We throw words like "traditional" or "contemporary" around like there is one universal meaning, but my questions is always this: which variant of "traditional" or "contemporary" are we going to go with? The tradition of the 1770s or the 1950s? Isn't what is considered contemporary always changing?
There seems to be an element of elitism related to the idea of one way to dress for worship. And frankly, for those that elevate it as a matter of contention, to me, it masks a deeper problem. It assumes a line of thinking that God cares immensely about our outer appearance -- and that that appearance can hinder our worship of Him.
Listen, the Bible does not forbid diversity in expression (again, with modesty as a grid); and I believe we have freedom to choose the best expression of it in our context as we honor the people in that context.
Dress matters -- but not as much as the gospel. God ultimately cares about the state of our hearts not the semblance of our habiliments.
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