Not Ashamed of Modesty

Feminism constantly tells women we have no reason to be ashamed of our bodies, our desires, our gender, our career goals – of anything really. We can do and be whatever we want and nothing should hold us back. It sounds good in theory, but like many things humans do it can be taken to extremes.

Take the Women’s March from a few weeks ago as an example. If you want to march around with what one blogger I follow delicately called a pink taco on your head I won’t stop you. But those of us who don’t do things like that aren’t any less “women” than you are, nor are we less interested in being treated with dignity, respect, and equality. In fact, that’s a big reason we express our notions of feminism (and femininity) in different ways.

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Photo credit: “Day 68” by Quinn Dombrowski, CC BY-SA via Flickr

Today, I’m going to take society’s claim that there’s no need to feel shame about the kind of woman you are to heart and say I’m not ashamed of modesty. Depending on your background this word may have provoked a strong reaction. Perhaps you think modesty is a repressive, old-fashioned list of rules telling women how not to dress and act. Or maybe you think modesty sounds safe – a way to hide from attention you don’t want any more. But modestly is about so much more than a set of rules for covering yourself up. It’s more powerful and – dare I say it? – sexy than we often think.

Let’s start with a working definition of modesty: Modesty is concealing what you do not want everyone to know or see so that you can reveal yourself only to someone you trust. It’s typically associated with the idea of sex and how much skin you show, but it has to do with other things as well. For example, you might also exercise modesty by not calling undue attention to yourself or by reserving certain parts of your personality for people you know well. Continue reading

Yoga, Meditation, and Christianity

I do yoga. I am a Christian.

This doesn’t bother me or seem like a contradition — I avoid yoga teachers that give me “the creeps,” I’m so much healthier than I was before I started yoga (physically and in terms of dealing with anxiety), and far as I can tell it hasn’t had any sort of negative effect on my walk with God. But it bothers other Christians, so I don’t post about yoga on Facebook and rarely talk about it except with friends who I know also practice yoga.

Yoga, Meditation, and Christianity: Thoughts from a Christian who was questioned about her yoga practice | marissabaker.wordpress.com

photo credit: “Beach Inversions” by Lauren Nelson, CC BY via Flickr

Last week, a friend posted a link to this article: New Age, Occultism, and Our Children in Public Schools, which is an excerpt about yoga and meditation from the book How to Protect Your Child From the New Age and Spiritual Deception by Berit Kjos. In general, I tend to think writers like this are over-reacting in how they talk about yoga — proponents of natural healing don’t refuse to use a medicinal herb because it was once linked with a religious healing ritual, so why should I worry that the asanas (physical movements of yoga) have roots in Eastern religions?

And yet, my research on the background of yoga has been cursory until very recently. I knew there were aspects of yoga that I was comfortable with (e.g. the movements and focused breathing) and aspects I was not (e.g. transcendental mediation), but I hadn’t done much study of the history and all the practices involved if you fully embrace all levels of yoga. Before I really responded to my fellow, genuinely concerned, Christians, I had to know more.

Yoga

The history of yoga is long, pre-dating written records, and my own research so far is limited to what I’ve found online, rather than seeking out history of yoga books (which would be more reliable, but I’m not sure I want to deepen my understanding quite that much). This “History of Yoga” article by Timothy Burgin seems to provide a concise overview that agrees with other sources I’ve come across.

Yoga went through several phases, but what we think of as modern yoga really started with Patanjali’s Yoga-Sûtras, outlining the 8 limbs of yoga. After that, yoga started to get farther away from a single religion and became more of a lifestyle focused on connecting mind, body, and spirit. The movements that most Westerns think of as yoga also emerged around this time, and is now called Hatha Yoga.

The Sûtras, or limbs, of Classical Yoga are still highly influential to modern yoga practices, and studying them is where I started to clarify what aspects of yoga I’m okay with and which ones are not in line with my Christian faith. Click here to read an article with a detailed description of each, or stay here for a quick overview:

  1. Yama — focuses on how we conduct ourselves and holds the practitioner to an ethical standard of nonviolence, truthfulness, not stealing, self-control and noncovetousness.
  2. Niyama — has to do with self-discipline and spirituality. It involves cleanliness, contentment, the study of sacred scriptures, knowing oneself, and surrender to the divine.
  3. Asana — the postures and movements that come to mind when most people talk about “yoga.”
  4. Pranayama — uses breath control to rejuvenate and connect breath, mind, and emotions. Literally translates as “life force extension.”
  5. Pratyahara — withdrawal or “sensory transcendence” designed to detach from the outward senses and draw awareness inward. Used to recognize things in the self that are unhealthy or holding one back.
  6. Dharana — concentration on a “single mental object” to slow down the thinking process. It moves beyond being aware of the self to removing distractions inside the mind.
  7. Dhyana — meditation as an “uninterrupted flow of concentration.” It involves awareness without focus.
  8. Samadhi — described by Patanjali as “a state of ecstasy” where “the meditator merges with his or her point of focus and transcends the Self altogether.”

I’m on-board with the first 4 limbs, but not with the final 4. It’s pretty hard to argue against 1 and 2 as general rules for conduct, there’s nothing wrong with exercise, and the tools of breath control are useful for things like reducing anxiety, singing, and focus. 5 through 8, though, are focused on a spiritual experience that is not compatible with Christianity.

Meditation

Eastern meditation practices focus on emptying the mind and disconnecting from the body to transcend Self and get in touch with the spiritual. Christianity, on the other hand, has never advocated a practice of disconnecting spirit from the physical body. Though we teach that what makes you “you” is the spirit inside rather than the fleshly temple you reside in, there is no Biblical evidence that Christians should try to separate the two or transcend the body while here on earth.

As Christians, we must learn to live “in the spirit” so our fleshly desires are ruled by our spirits as guided by God’s Spirit, but what we do with our bodies is still important (Gal.5:16-17). The key is “as guided by God’s Spirit” — our spirits communicate with His, and we’re ultimately accountable for exercising self-control and obedience to Him in all aspects of our lives. We must “cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).

Another way Eastern mediation practices clash with Christianity is in looking somewhere other than God for answers. Whether it’s getting in touch with the Self or becoming one with the universe, the goal of meditation is something outside God. Jesus Himself said, “I can of mine own self do nothing” (John 5:30), so what makes us think that we could find answers within our own selves?

Biblical meditation

There is something called “meditation” in the Bible that Christians should practice. I think that if Satan can’t draw Christians toward something evil, he’ll try to find a way to push them away from something good. We need to be careful that fear of Eastern meditation and New Age spirituality doesn’t keep us from practicing the right kind of meditation.

Christian meditation opens the mind to the purposes of God by reflection upon Scripture, simply resting in his presence, and dwelling with him in the goodness of his creation. We grow as loving, holy, faithful beings by dwelling in the presence of God. Christian meditation, thus, attempts to fill the mind with the Person, attributes, and purposes of God. Eastern meditation, on the other hand, attempts to empty the mind. – Gailyn Van Rheenen, “Christian Prayer and Eastern Meditation

We have plenty of examples of meditation in the Bible. Isaac first met Rebekah on his way to meditate alone in the field at evening (Gen. 24:63), David meditated in his heart about the works and precepts of God (Ps. 49:3; 77:12; 119:15, 23, 97), and Paul counsels Timothy to meditate on things having to do with God’s word, love, the Spirit, faith,  exhortation, and doctrine (1 Tim. 4:12-16). Christian meditation doesn’t involve emptying your mind — it involves filling it with God’s word in search of deeper understanding and a closer relationship with Him.

Yoga, Meditation, and Christianity: Thoughts from a Christian who was questioned about her yoga practice | marissabaker.wordpress.com

photo credit: “Yoga Pose” by Tim Cigelske, CC BY-SA via Flickr

Some Answers

I do not believe Eastern meditation is compatible with Christianity. It’s goals are not in line with drawing nearer to God, and it is connected with a different religious model of spirituality. This brings it under the heading of idolatry, and we all know how God feels about that. Should Christians meditate? yes, but in the Biblical sense, not in ways connected with Eastern spiritualism.

Yoga (in terms of the movements, breathing, and basic tenets) is more of a gray area because it’s not something forbidden, yet some Christians still believe it is wrong. In this case, I think Romans 14:22-23 applies. If you feel convicted that yoga is wrong, then don’t do it. If you can practice yoga exercises while strong in the faith, it’s okay. Should Christians practice yoga? that’s a personal choice.

Some Thoughts on Feminism and Modesty

I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I recently read a book called A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue by Wendy Shalit. One of the first things she tackles in this book is the “polarized debate about sex,” particularly between the conservatives and the feminists.

She challenges conservatives to “take the claims of feminists seriously,” because you can dismiss however many studies and stories you like as “exaggeration” but the fact remains that “a lot of young women are very unhappy …. I want conservatives to really listen to these women, to stop saying boys will be boys, and to take what these women are saying seriously.”

To the feminists, Shalit writes, “I want to invite them to consider whether the cause of all this unhappiness might be something other than the patriarchy.” We’ve gotten rid of that just about as much as possible, and things have gotten worse rather than better. Perhaps men aren’t the enemy.

This book was published in 1999. That was almost 16 years ago, and we are still dealing with the exact same issues. We see conservative Rush Limbaugh respond to a street harassment video by describing it as not a big deal because the men were just being polite, and there are still rants about patriarchy on Jezebel.com (language/content warning).

But just a little over two months ago Emma Watson, British actress and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, gave a speech about feminism where her vision for gender equality sounded remarkably similar to ideas Wendy Shalit arrives at while defending the power of modesty. Are we starting to find common ground, and is there hope for a peaceful resolution to “the war between the sexes”?

A Trip to the 18th Century

It might seem odd to take a 3-century detour when talking about issues in modern culture. But when I started reading Francis Burney’s novels Cecelia (1782) and Camilla (1796) as part of an independent study my junior year of college, I was struck by how the gender issues facing those heroines were so remarkably like what women in my church regularly complain about. Where are the “real men?” we ask, looking around and seeing adult men who act like overgrown boys and have little interest in committing to marriage. We typically blame feminism, for telling boys that it was wrong to be “masculine” and to stop oppressing girls by taking care of them.

Portrait of Francis Burney by her relative Edward Burney

A contemporary of Burney, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a book called A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), which is often considered one of the first feminist writings. When you actually read her book, however, it becomes clear that she is arguing for arguing for a reexamination, not a dismissal, of the traditional roles between men and women. She believes men and women are equal in God’s eyes, but that argument doesn’t mean they don’t both have distinct roles to fill.

Both these writers were responding to a moment called “sentimentality,” which encouraged men to indulge their emotions and abandon their traditional roles of protectors and providers. The result was something like what we see today — when men are no longer encouraged to protect or respect women, more and more women are victimized. That’s where we made our mistake, both in the 18th and the 20th/21st centuries. We thought men would treat women better if we told them to stop being manly, when in fact the opposite is true.

HeForShe

When Emma Watson introduced her talk about gender equality and the #HeForShe campaign, she first addressed issues people have with the word “feminism.”

the more I spoke about feminism, the more I realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop. For the record, feminism by definition is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of political, economic and social equality of the sexes.

Tom Hiddleston

One of the key points of Watson’s speech is that both men and women must be working together if we are ever to achieve a gender equality that benefits and protects both men and women.

How can we effect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation? Men, I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too. Because to date, I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society, despite my need of his presence as a child, as much as my mother’s. I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness, unable to ask for help for fear it would make them less of a man. …

If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled. Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong.

When we turn issues of gender into a “battle of the sexes” instead of a friendly discussion or a cause to work on together, both men and women lose the battle. You can’t build peaceful relations on a foundation of strife.

Courteous Men

Wendy Shalit discusses essentially the same issue, though she comes from the perspective of restoring part of the traditional gender roles (I suspect Burney and Wollstonecraft would both approve). Rather than pushing for an increasingly “nonsexist” approach to raising boys (in this example), she argues for “a good dose of sexist upbringing: how to relate as a man to a woman.”

Today we want to pretend there are no differences between the sexes …. We try to cure them of what is distinctive instead of cherishing these differences and directing them towards each other in a meaningful way. We can never succeed in curing men and women of being men and women, however, and so these differences emerge anyway — only when they do, the emerge in their crudest, most untutored form (p.153).

Frontispeice for The English Gentlewoman

She also goes back to a previous century to illustrate her arguments, all the way to 1630 and 1631 — the years Richard Brathwait’s The English Gentleman and The English Gentlewoman were published. Shalit’s reading of these texts is that  there was a “link between male obligation and female modesty” where men attained “perfection” by treating women with respect (p.99-102). In this century, men were not compelled to respect women by an outside authority — they were taught that this  was the only way for real men to behave.

The argument from external authority labels a man as evil if he date-rapes or sexually harasses a woman. From the standpoint of modesty, he is behaving abominably, but more crucially, he is really missing the whole point. He hasn’t understood what it means to be a man (p.104).

The feminists who see patriarchy as oppressive balk at this idea, but Shalit assures them, “I doubt that if men are taught to relate courteously to women, women would be suddenly thrown out of all the professions, as some contend. Maybe, on the contrary, it would be much easier for the sexes to work together.” Isn’t this, at its core, what Emma Watson’s brand of feminism is asking for? men and women who can work together toward common goals with mutual respect. Isn’t that something we all want?

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

You might have noticed a lack of blog post last Monday. I’d been planning to write something about a book I recently read called A Return to Modesty by Wendy Shalit, but came down with pneumonia. The only reason there were posts on the past two Saturdays is that they were already written (it seems like whenever a Bible study comes together really well so I have an extra Sabbath post ready “just in case,” something comes up that gives me a reason to use it).

It’s been nearly two weeks now and I still don’t feel fully recovered (much better, though!). So instead of a thoughtful book review, I want to talk to you about a song that’s been stuck in my head. Or rather, a specific version of the song.

You’re no doubt familiar with the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” You might even have heard Idina Menzel and Michael Bublé’s new cover already, but if you haven’t seen the video yet please take a few seconds to at least glance at it, since that’s a big part of what I want to talk about.

Apparently they’ve tried to turn this song into a cute family-friendly version for the holidays. If you close  your eyes, though, it still sounds like a man trying to seduce a woman. But then you open your eyes and see a cute little pre-adolescent kids acting out the roles. In the words of Jubal Early, does that seem right to you?

In the original score, written in 1944 by Frank Loesser, the two singing parts are called “wolf” and “mouse,” with a male voice usually singing “wolf” and a female voice usually singing “mouse” (thought not always — did you know Joseph Gordon Levit could sing?). Actually, it turns out we can talk about Wendy Shalit’s book after all, since she mentions “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in her modesty book.

Now this song is very stereotypical because certainly not all men are hungry wolves and not all women reticent mice. Indeed, I’ve known quite a few hungry woman and mousey men. However, the simple fact remains that a young woman in 1948 had a hundred and one reasons to say no to sex, if she wanted to say no, and those reasons were credible. The story we are told today is that all these reasons, such as a father waiting up for you, were oppressive to women. And yet in their absense we can appreciate how an earlier generation of girls was made powerful by them. (A Return to Modestly, p.55)

If she’d seen this music video, though, I’m not sure Miss Shalit would have put her discussion of it under the heading “Girls Who Can’t Say No” as a contrast between today’s culture and that of 1948 (the year Loesser sold the rights to MGM). I think she might have moved the discussion to one of the many passages in her book where she talks how much we as a culture sexualize our children. For one thing, she draws a parallel between assigning sex-education classes to younger and younger students and increasing levels of student-on-student sexual violence in schools.

The associative link between the disenchanting of sex and increased sexual brutality among children works like this: if our children are raised to believe, in the words of the New Jersey kindergarten teacher, that talking about the most private things is “no different from talking about an elbow,” they they are that much more likely to see nothing wrong in a certain kind of sexual violence. (A Return to Modestly, p.19)

Now, I’m not saying this cute little music video is going to lead to increased levels of sexual assault among children. Rather, it bothers me as part of a trend that portrays young children in more and more sexualized ways. Most people I know would hope their 10- or 11-year-olds didn’t understand what’s going on in this song — they wouldn’t be encouraging them to sing it. And if this little boy was older, I’m not sure which interpretation of the song this performance would make me lean towards. Does “mouse” want to stay but feels she should leave, and “wolf” is persuading her to do what she wants? Or is “mouse” really trying to get away, and “wolf” is blocking her escape? Depends on how you sing the song, and how you feel about the line “What’s in this drink?” that was cut from the video, but not the version on Idina Menzel’s CD.

Am I over-thinking this? Perhaps. But it saddens me how many people think this is just a cute little video and don’t seem to see the potential implications of two children singing what is a rather adult song. Sure they’re adorable and talented, but was it a good idea for the adults who were in charge of creating this music video to use them like this? I really don’t think so.

Robin Hood Meeteth the Lord of Time

I knew I would love the latest Doctor Who episode, “The Robots of Sherwood.” I’ve been curious about it since the first set photo of Clara in a Medieval dress was released, and giddy with anticipation when the title let me know it had something to do with Robin Hood. I can’t remember not being fascinated by Robin Hood. The first time I met him was in the animated Disney film, which my Mom says we brought home from the library so often that the librarians teased her, “Aren’t you ever going to buy that movie?” I vaguely recall finding a copy of Howard Pyle’s “The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood” in a little back corner of the library, then buying my own copy and wearing it out (quite literally — the cover fell off).

“There’s no such thing as Robin Hood”

“The Robots of Sherwood” begins with Clara making a request I can easily identify with: take me to meet Robin Hood. The Doctor obliges by setting course for 1190-ish, though he maintains that Robin Hood is merely a legend even after the TARDIS is shot by the famous bowman. The episode progresses in a lighthearted story that covers classic elements of both Doctor Who and Robbin Hood, and culminates with a conversation between the Doctor and Robin about how history lost sight of Robin the man and turned him into stories, much like the stories Clara tells Robin about the Doctor.

Doctor: “I’m not a hero.”

Robin: “Neither am I. But if we both keep pretending to be, perhaps others will be heroes in our name. Perhaps, we will both be stories.”

Are They Heroes?

As a child-fan of Robin Hood, I saw him as an heroic figure — the good in a good-verses-evil conflict. But even the versions of the legends specifically written for children have a complicated definition of morality. Robin Hood steals and kills people (typically in defending himself or others) to fight against a government which commits worse crimes. But does he really have the right to take justice into his own hands when his country’s law dictates that justice belongs to appointed authority figures and his God says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay”? (Robin is presented as Catholic in most legends.) I want to root for him and justify his every action, but I can’t always do that.

Errol Flynn (who the Doctor has apparently fenced with) as Robin Hood

It’s much the same with the Doctor. He flies around the universe saving people, but there’s often a lot of things that go wrong. As a show, Doctor Who has a surprisingly high casualty rate. In the tenth episode of “new-Who,” the 9th Doctor joyfully shouts, “Everybody lives, Rose! Just this once — everybody lives!” And as far as I can remember, it really was “just this once” that everyone makes it to the end credits alive. And the Doctor has a thoroughly dark side which complicates defining him as a hero (if you need convincing, here’s an article discussing the Doctor’s 13 Darkest Moments).

So, are they heroes? Depends on your definition.

A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself. — Joseph Campbell

A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles. — Christopher Reeve

A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

These sound like rather good descriptions of the Doctor and Robin Hood. I couldn’t find the quote (even with Google’s help!), but I read once that heroes are simply people who’ve been observed doing what good men do as a matter of course. There’s some question of whether or not the Doctor qualifies as a “good man,” but he has been seen doing good and heroic things. As for Robin, all but the earliest legends present him as someone who does more good than harm. Even if they’re not “heroes,” they want to be.

The “Real” Robin Hood

Robin Hood by Louis Rhead

Speaking of the earliest legends, I’m going to digress for a moment and talk about my one peeve with how this episode portrays Robin Hood. I’ve done no little research into the history of the Robin Hood legends, and know that the earliest tales set him during the reign of Edward III (1327-1377), not during the time of King Richard and Prince John. The earliest version of his character that we can track down presents him as a “famous cutthroat” and “forest outlaw” who was both intriguingly mysterious and alarmingly unknowable (Stephen Knight; Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography).

Now, for Doctor Who’s version we could say that the Robin legends took on a sinister aspect in the 100-some years following Clara and the Doctor’s meeting with the “real” Robin, before shifting back to something closer to “reality” in the 1590s, when stories of Robin Hood as a displaced earl begin showing up. But it would have been much more in keeping with the records we have of Robin Hood legends, to present Robin Hood in Doctor Who as a clever, outlawed yeoman. Someone could have at least done enough research to know that the legend of Robin Hood splitting his opponent’s arrows at an archery tournament didn’t show up at all until the 1820 publication of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (though it did make for a humorous scene with the Doctor).

Perhaps Mark Gatiss, who wrote this episode, agrees with his version of Robin Hood that,  “History is a burden; stories can make us fly.” And I’m inclined to cut him some slack, in terms of how “authentic” Robin Hood has to be for Doctor Who. Most viewers just want to see the typical aspects of Robin Hood — the fight on a bridge between Robin Hood and a stranger, the archery competition for a golden arrow, the battle between Robin and the Sheriff of Nottingham — with the familiar Earl of Locksley back-story. At this point, trying to bring Robin back to something the Doctor and Clara might actually have discovered in history would have been more confusing than anything else. Gatiss made up for ignoring the oldest Robin Hood source material by including references to multiple version of Robin Hood in film, an almost-quote from Shakespeare, and several nods to both classic and new-Who. All-in-all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable, though fairly typical, episode of Doctor Who.

Clearing Out Books

Clearning Out Books marissabaker.wordpress.com

one of my bookshelves, complete with a dusty dinosaur

Our local library system has a book sale once a month, where they sell books, CDs, and other items pulled from the library collection or donated to the Friends of the Library. When I was there last Thursday, the room normally filled with VHS tapes and a couple DVDs had been taken over by history books. Not only that, but the shelves regularly allotted to history books were full, as was a shelf near the front of the building for new 900s books. It was as if they had gutted their history collection.

I managed to restrain myself and only brought home a few Medieval books that will be useful for research, but even through they are sitting on the floor for lack of shelf space I don’t feel good about that decision. I wish I could have given more of them a home. I’m not a bibliophile who refuses to destroy an old moldy paperback because it deserves respect as a book, but I don’t like to see perfectly good history books sitting unwanted on the shelves.

At least our library can sell them. Other libraries are chucking books in the trash when they pull them off the shelves. Not just the old moldy books either, these include new hardcovers. It makes me sad, and I want to bring them home and give them a nice comfortable spot on my shelves. The irony is, to make room for all these books I want to “rescue,” I’ll have to get rid of some books currently in my home library. Maybe I’ll donate them to the library book sale.