Thursday, August 17, 2006

And Then He Wrote Back... (Part V Of A Series)

[In the next exchange with young Rev. Bluejeans, he sez to me:]

"OK, I lied. I couldn't concentrate on anything else until I responded for real, so I got myself a diet coke, and here we go:Again our views of human nature diverge.

It's fascinating to frame this debate in the mythology of Eden; the fig leaf as the first fashion move is brilliant. You and I should co-author a book on this, seriously. We could title it "Spiritually Glamorous." Anyway, you point to A&E's first fig-leaf-accessorizing as the moment when humans had been "made aware of who we are and Whose we are," and that this caused them to decide," "we'd better get dressed up."

This is, I would think, a very optimistic picture of the Garden, and one that I am not at all inclined to imagine. Perhaps it's the weight of 30 centuries of Judeo-Christian interpretation, but I'm much more inclined to see the fig leaf as an implicit rejection of body and self in favor of a facade, a veneer, which takes the reality of human existence and hides it behind prettiness. I wholeheartedly agree that the fig leaf is a seminal moment in human fashion history. I just don't think it was a good thing. And that's why we should co-author a book.

You're moving into more familiar ground with your "this is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it" motivation for dressing up. Here in the South, this is the express argument for dressing nicely 98% of the time. We once had a dress-down day at the church, because we were having a picnic outside right after the service. A man in the church wore a tie, and was getting a fair amount of teasing about it (not from me). He said, with a great deal of dignity, "it's a sad day when you can't wear a tie in the house of the Lord." His point, and yours I think, is that church is a place which is worthy of our respect, and that respect is effectively shown through proper dress and decorum.

I don't buy it.

The entire thrust of the life and teachings of Jesus--the entire thrust--is away from religiosity and toward an interior life of faith. That is, Jesus shunned external displays of piety: praying out loud, being obvious with your gifts to the temple, bragging about your lawkeeping. He embraced a certain humility. I don't know how accurate the movies are about his clothing, but I do know he wore sandals (it's in the bible, of course), and whatever he wore was low-key enough that fit in just fine with lepers, prostitutes, and a ragtag bunch of fishermen from the Galilee. And then there's that whole "life is more than food, the body more than clothes...consider the lilies of the field" thing.

So I don't see a tie as a sign of respect for God. But I also don't see God as the sort of God who goes around needing signs of our respect, either. At the end of John, Jesus doesn't say "if you love me, wear Armani." It's all about feeding the sheep.

Alas...I'm out of time."


Here's PeaceBang again, ladies and gentlemen.

Let me respond with a few more words to him and to you.

First of all, it's so funny that I was going to use the overly-pious thing with HIM but then I didn't, and he went ahead and used it on ME! Because to me, dressing all humble when you have the means to afford perfectly swell clothes is an expression of false piety -- but my correspondent there is saying that dressing UP is an expression of false piety.

There you have it: perfect evidence of how two smart ministers interpret the same exact teachings of our Master.

The other thing I want to say is that my faithful correspondent and I have two absolutely differing ideas about veneers and prettiness. To him, hiding behind the fig leaf was an original act of falsifying reality (i.e., laying a pretty exterior over a sinful, disobedient, suffering interior).

But to me, that fig leaf says, "Well, damn, we got thrown out of Paradise but honey, we can still look FABULOUS. I mean, we lost Paradise but we got the planet! Let's work it!" In other words, it's not so much a rejection of body and self to me (although my correspondent gets the traditional Christian interpretation points there, certainly) as it is a brave little move to adorn the self out of recognition of blessing within the midst of existential loss. That is so Matthew Fox of me, now that I think about it.

I thank my correspondent again for this really terrific exchange -- he and I probably should co-author a book -- a sort of North-meets-South exchange on religion and fashion -- just because I like him so much, he gets to be the Rev. JeansBang!

As for the rest of you, you big smartypants heads, you've gone ahead and contributed more provocative and important insights to this conversation, proving once again that Beauty Tips For Ministers just seems to be mere fluff, when we all know that we can get all brilliant and deep at the drop of a fig leaf.

Which is why I love ya'll.


Blogger Rev. Sean said...

Well, well, well. I am so NOT into fashion. But I do respect PB's attempts to get clergy to *think* about our look and what our clothes say to those around us.

I don't like fashion because I find it to be just another pressure to consume. Oh, and it seems to be another way people exercise our not-so-nice tendency to be judgemental of one another. I find fashion magazines offensive and shallow.

That said, I like being reminded to look my best and to express joy, respect, love, and my gratitude for being granted a ministry among these amazing people. And I *love* the show "What Not to Wear" because its premise is that we can all find a way to look like ourselves, beautifully.

Of course all this is regional. Here in Salt Lake City, where the dominant culture literally enforces a dress code (read "uniform) for church members, the way we dress actually does help us live the part of our mission statement that says we "celebrate religious freedom."

For some that means shorts and sandals. As the minister, I try to wear clothes that I feel good in. Feeling good is not necessarily the same as being comfortable, but feeling like my clothes are appropriate and communicate my respect and joy at being in church.

I hope this is some kind of middle way between PB and JB.

6:58 PM  
Blogger LisaBe said...

(being a different lisa from the one who commented before) you said it best in part iv: care and intention. if your dress shows that, the rest is all completely and utterly irrelevant. whether it's expensive, fitting, beautiful, comfortable, all of those questions will be answered adequately, simply by your care and intention. for ministers just as they are for us layfolk. if you have genuine care and intent--for yourself, for your spiritual guide, and for those around you--then the rest will follow. there is no right or wrong uniform or clothing choice if it demonstrates that care and intent to all of those things. the key, i think, is that often, it does not--to at least one of them.

9:35 PM  
Blogger LT said...

There are some regional and subcultural differences that may be at work here. I know PB's background, to some extent, and Rev. Bluejeans announces his Appalachian roots, which I would think means that his people come from Scotch-Irish or Border region Protestants. That culture has a long standing cultural motif of under-dressing, and playing poor, as a sign of authenticity. Listen to country music -- "I've Got Friends in Low Places". Men wear cowboy boots (work footwear) with suits, etc. Read David Hackett Fisher's Albion's Seed for some of this cultural history.

9:42 PM  
Blogger PeaceBang said...

Oh please, let this not become a big pile-on like that thing about Rev. Jack!! I think JeansBang said that his people really *were* poor, not just dressing po'.

9:50 PM  
Anonymous weezie said...

I love this conversation!

Having spent the first years of my ministry in poor communities, I am in peacebang's camp on this one. I went to work in the domestic violence shelter one day in nice jeans and a simple blouse, only to greet a new guest who said: "if you're in charge here, why don't you LOOK like you're in charge?" I was suspect as someone who because of my role and station ought to look the part (at least a bit) and because I didn't, it was a sign of disrespect to her. I ran into this repeatedly -- any time I dressed more casually and was introduced to someone new as a minister, they were (often visibly) downright offended. In their churches, ministers dressed professionally and looked the part.

While I don't strive to emulate ministers of traditions other than my own in most respects, I came to realize that dressing nicely was the best way to connect with folks. I'm not a fashion maven and don't spend gads of money on clothes because I ain't got it to spend. I grew up lower middle-class, with not a lot of extra money and little attention to clothes. I'm white, so I didn't have to worry too much about what the world thought of me at first glance. So I didn't.

Among the folks I served, I came to learn that dressing well is a sign of self-respect when the rest of the world doesn't respect you -- it's its own form of resistance, and solidarity means dressing in a way that respects the fact that the people you serve deserve a minister who dresses well too.

10:43 PM  
Blogger Chelle said...

Oh my! What a conversation.

How much of this is cultural, I wonder.

As I am one who is more likely to wear a hat to church(and lament the sloppiness of most UUs), my initial reaction to Rev. BlueJeans was horror. I'm still horrified, but if he is listening, I have one question for Rev. BlueJeans:
when you're in that pulpit in blue jeans and sandals, do you feel that you are giving and showing God your best? or that a first time visitor will understand why you are dressed the way you are?

I also would like to point out that in many cases, those in the lower socio-economic classes look better when they go to church (and give more to their churches) than those in the higher ones. So Rev. BlueJean's argument doesn't wash with me.

10:51 PM  
Blogger LaReinaCobre said...

Why have several people said that Rev. BlueJeans wears blue jeans and shorts in the pulpit? I don't think he said that.

I think this whole discussion is HILARIOUS. First of all, Muslims don't have ministers, and the imams and religious leaders they do have don't dress "fashionably" at all. The idea is that a religious leader should be unconcerned with these things and not spend money on these kinds of frivolities. Now sometimes you got the old school Pakistani or Indian or Arab guys who wore plain brown and black suits to everything (including potlucks), but most of the time it's just pretty much an attitude of "who cares?"

At the same time, feeling good about oneself and not looking foolish is important, too, if one is going out in public and meeting with people who are not from your community.

But I hardly think khakis at the pulpit on Sundays or at the hospital is sloppy, slobbish or disrespectful.

Then again, people have so many different expectations. A minister in tie-dye might make me roll my eyes (inside), but a minister in a polo shirt going about his/her day to day business isn't going to make me think twice.

Very interesting, these values.

I think we should each dress in the way that we feel most reflects our own values and lifestyle. For PB to dress "down" would be PB not being herself. She's probably known as a fabulous dresser. And if Rev BJ walked around in suits he'd probably look uncomfortable and wouldn't really be authentic, either.

On another note; I don't like to "slum" it ... I don't want to ever be seen in public in sweats or things like that. I love shoes and beautiful bags and hairstyles, etc. But the God-I-don't-believe-in doesn't care about those things AT ALL. Those are human concerns, like the type of car one drives, expensive antique furniture, and perfectly manicured gardens.

1:30 AM  
Blogger PeaceBang said...

Hafidha, Muslim clerics aren't serving a rapidly dying religious institution, so they can afford to be chill about external appearance. I think we've had more than enough rampant individualism among our clergy ("Hey, whatever I FEEL LIKE") to last several generations; and I refer not just to dress but to behaviors of all kinds.
Of course none of this is about God or spirituality, so I'm not arguing what God cares about.
This blog is trying to critique, and correct, the way clergy project an out-of-it, sloppy, unaware image to those who we believe would greatly benefit from religious community (or, in my language, brought into a relationship with God through community).

1:37 AM  
Anonymous Sarah said...

I'm surprised that gender, age, race, and sexual orientation haven't come up more in this discussion. I believe that each of these things is intimately related to the clothes we choose in ministry because each of these things is intimately related to the kind of power that people assign to us as ministers.

As a white straight woman who got started in ministry in her 20s, I don't believe I would've have been taken seriously in jeans. A 50-something white straight male minister might have a different experience. A 40-something Latina lesbian minister might also have a different experience. I don't think we can all "dress down" equally.

I grew up middle class with parents who came from two different classes. My father, the upper-middle-class professor's son, is much more likely to "dress down" and not care about clothes, while my mother, the working-class daughter of a drycleaners manager, is much more likely to be anxious about clothes and want to dress in a "proper" way for the occasion. Me, I've got a little of both, and I bring that with me into the ministry.

I've met well-off people who "dress down" in inauthentic ways (we called them Trustafarians in college) and ones who "dress down" in ways that have complete integrity. Rev. JeansBang sounds like he's got lots of integrity and has made very thoughtful, intentional choices. I respect JeansBang and PeaceBang for their intentionality, though they come to different conclusions.

1:44 AM  
Blogger LaReinaCobre said...

I'm not responding to the idea of your blog at all, but just to this discussion, which did make me laugh several times out loud. It's funny to me the different experiences and expectations we bring with us. I wouldn't feel put out by Rev Jeans' attire at all. But the older ladies in his congregation do!

I would never have thought that khakis could be considered slumming it, but there it is!

1:48 AM  
Anonymous HL said...

Great discussion! But in the midst of your wonderful analyses of the Genesis fig leaf moment, you failed to mention what follows...God finds Adam and Eve in their fig leaf-covered state and makes them new clothes Himself. What do you make of this?

3:24 AM  
Blogger jean said...

Being south of the M-D and with a little of that Stone-Campbell heritage myself, I stand with Rev. Bluejeans. I am going back to my blue denim jumpers as soon as the weather cools off.

Leadership and authority come from true love and authenticity, not from clothing.

5:29 AM  
Blogger juniper68 said...

Right on to Sarah's comment!

AS a mid-30's white woman, who is new to ministry, I have often been dismayed by my older, white colleagues who claim to have no power, and who dress and present that way.

The fact is that as clergy we DO have power, and to pretend we don't is just false.

I've been studying this blog closely for several months and I have changed some of my look because of the ideas here. And, yes, I have gotten more respect now that I wear lipstick all the time. But the main message I get from it (which is, I think, not your message, dear PB, but each of us must interpret PeaceBang, like The Word, in our own way) is to be clear about your sense of personal power, no matter what you wear. Some few people can be clear that way in jeans and a tshirt, but I tend to think that for most people I know, that whole look is a way of trying to say "hey, I dont really have any say, I'm just one of the guys" - which is simply not true.

11:39 AM  
Blogger Padre G said...

I just can't let this go without chiming in. PeaceBang, keep up the good work. You may be a little East coast conservative for me, but I like your style. Let me share with you some SoCal [that's Los Angeles to you tourists] wisdom I've recently been made aware of.

For several years I have serverd in my church, wearing the same attire I wear to work in the music industry: Waist-length hair, saggy jeans, expensive untied shoes and any number of black t-shirts. Dressing up for me has been in Mexican manta. Don't get me wrong. I own expensive, custom tailored suits, multiple ties, Italian shoes, etc. These I wear to meetings with "the suits", award banquets or even on stage. Never at church. Since I have to change into 5 layers of fabric to serve, what I wear before and after Mass has seemed irrelevant to me. In some ways I thought it was a part of my ministry to look like I did. My church was in the bowels of Hollywood, on the Boulevard, for decades. Few would believe some of the things that have come through the door. I used to think that looking 'down to earth' helped when greeting the goth chick with her boyfriend on a leash.

I don't think that way now.

I recently came to the realization that it is the Sprit of the Lord that draws men unto Him. Not my cool hair or trendy jeans. Finding your blog was synchronistic for me as I was already on a path to improve the way I look at church. I feel that as a representative of my faith I shouldn't be dressing like I do for a DJ set. "To every thing, there is a season..."

I have begun the major task of improving my looks, which I am documenting on my blog, TransmuTable. As I prepare for my ordination into the Priesthood, I feel that it behooves me to represent myself and my faith in a manner that is respectful of the responsibility I'm being given. That doesn't mean I won't be wearing expensive jeans and just the right funky shirt to my gig tonight, but I won't wear that to church anymore. Who knows, I might even wear one of those Fred Segal ties there someday...

12:02 PM  
Blogger BaptizedPagan said...

So I'm going to jump ecumenically into the fray, as one of the Roman Catholic Powder Pigeons...
Some of the issues you've raised (not all of them, of course), are precisely why my church and some of the other liturgical churches still insist on distinctive liturgical dress. It's not only because we men get so little chance to wear sparkly dresses. It's also precisely because of the distancing effect that ritual clothing has. At its worst, it has the same effect as the suit and tie in the situation our anonymous reverend described before -- creating an impassable distance between the minister and the congregation. But it also has the, sometimes good, effect of distancing the minister from herself, that is, from the particularities of economic background, fashion choices, etc.; not to remove them (which would be impossible anyway), but to express that in this particular function the minister is trying, however hamfistedly, to be transparent to the presence of Christ through her words and actions. She's trying to preach, not her own word, but God's Word; she's trying to celebrate, not her own table, but Christ's table.
It's not a panacea, of course, and this distancing raises as many questions as it might answer, but it does help explain why liturgical churches don't have this argument as often (also because we in the R.C. church spend so muich time arguing about who gets to wear the shiny dress in the first place).

1:36 PM  
Blogger PeaceBang said...

I love these comments and thank you all for them.
Juniper, you took the words outta my mouth by saying that dressing like we don't have power when we do is just disingenuous.
Padre G, I can't WAIT to see your before and after photos! I am so excited to know how this transformation will affect you and inform your ministry! You made me cry!

5:52 PM  
Blogger Padre G said...

awww pshaw...

4:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a member of a congregation in an economically stressed community, I have to agree with PeaceBang's arguments. Our congregation dresses up for services, out of respect for the sacred and celebratory nature of the service. And if poor people are dressing up for services, for the minister to appear in jeans would be insulting to the congregation. That sort of thing smacks of patronizing middle-class guilt, rather than solidarity.

I appreciate the thought that the dressing down minister has put into his choice of apparel, but I think he's dead wrong. Worse, I think it's highly likely that he is subtly alienating the very people he is trying to reach out to via his choice of dress.


8:56 AM  

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