Saturday, February 25, 2012

Clothing Matters

February 20, 2012

Like everything else in creation, what we wear can either glorify—or dishonor—God and others.

Laura Ortberg Turner, guest blogger
My little brother is one of my favorite people. He is patient and gentle and considerate and funny. (Although I would never tell him that.) He is in his last year at Westmont College, my alma mater, and for the past few years has been putting his music composition major to use by playing in the band at a local church on Sunday mornings. He enters into worship with a grateful heart and works hard to cultivate a space where other people can do the same.

And he does all this without wearing shoes.
He just doesn’t care. He’s always been an incredibly casual dresser, wearing shorts and flip-flops all through the freezing months of winter in the Midwest. So showing up to church barefoot and in a T-shirt is not only normal for him, but to dress in anything nicer would, to him, be a violation of conscience in the eyes of the God who bids us come as we are.

Last month, Duane Litfin, former president of Wheaton College, wrote an interesting op-ed for Christianity Today called “Clothing Matters: What We Wear to Church.” In it, Litfin makes the case for a thoughtful approach to dressing for public worship services. Framing his argument in terms of offering God our best, our first fruits, that which is sacrificial, Litfin suggests that we display an attitude of awe and reverence when we enter into communal worship. He cites Scriptures like 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 and Romans 12:1, where we hear about our bodies being living sacrifices to God. The most convincing part of all of this, though, comes when Litfin says “I do wish to raise a question about the notion…that when it comes to public worship, our clothing doesn't matter.”

In a great post on the Cardus blog, Kyle Bennett calls fashion “an exercise on virtue.” Fashion is relevant here because, like our faith, it speaks to the soul. As Christians, we have not only a right but also a responsibility to attend to anything that claims such important territory, whether we agree with its place or not. How we respond to issues of clothing and dress can speak a great deal about our heart toward God. In the words of Abraham Kuyper, "There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, 'This is mine! This belongs to me!’”

On this point Litfin and I agree: Our clothing is not neutral. We dress ourselves every day (hopefully!) and in doing so, we make some kind of statement. The way we dress is frequently an external expression of an internal reality, a way for “the body, or even the self, to communicate itself to society,” in the words of theologian Tom Beaudoin. In his simple and austere dress, Shane Claiborne clearly communicates a concern for and solidarity with the poor. Businesspeople dress in dark-toned suits and sensible shoes in order to be taken seriously in their world. We can all think of singers and actresses and teenage girls who frequently dress with the sole purpose of attracting sexual attention. (This brings to mind my ill-fated run-in with a midriff-bearing halter top in eighth grade; I still shudder to think of the temporary blindness my porcelain stomach inflicted on innocent passersby.) Clothing matters because, as part of human culture, it either points to or obscures the glory of God in creation, and what we wear reveals our deep values and orientation toward the world.

With this issue especially, we see divides along class and generational lines. Would we ask people who can’t afford to buy new, nice clothing to do so anyways and consider it part of their sacrifice to God, the equivalent of the widow’s mite? This is Litfin’s argument, and one that I have a hard time with. Perhaps, though, we can chalk that up to the generation gap: As a 26-year-old (and a Californian at that), there is rarely a formal event to which I am invited where a pair of nice jeans would not stand up to the task. Weddings and funerals notwithstanding, I can actually run the risk of being overdressed while wearing jeans. As a commenter named Jon pointed out in response to Litfin’s article, “Dr. Liftin encourages us to give our ‘best’ to God. What he doesn't seem to realize is that for a younger generation, their ‘best’ includes their ‘best’ jeans and ‘best’ sandals.” How much does context apply here? Is the old guard mostly nostalgic for a bygone era of fedoras and peplum dresses, or can we give God our very best in shorts and T-shirts?

With all of that said, what do we make of what we wear to church? Is it important? Yes, absolutely. Is it everything? Certainly not. Can what we wear contribute to God’s redemptive action on this earth and in this moment? It feels a little silly to say, but yes. I believe it can. Regardless of your fashion history or background, we can all benefit from remembering that what we wear can help us to move closer to God and closer to others. As we prepare for worship, we can consider how our clothing might influence the community we are a part of, might bridge class divides or show honor even in jeans and flip-flops. When I dress in order to mask myself and my vulnerability, I create division within my community and hold my brothers and sisters at bay. When, however, I dress with awareness of God’s goodness and beauty in all of its manifestations, I am contributing to his kingdom.

Posted by Sarah Pulliam Bailey on February 20, 2012 9:59 AM


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