We live in a hyper-sexualized and semi-pornographic culture. The problem dominates popular advertising, pervades our entertainment choices, and even weasels its way into our churches. The concept of modesty is no longer a legitimate standard for censure, but an object of censure. We’ve come to the point that modesty is sincerely regarded as a vice and not a virtue. To advocate for modesty is to advocate for legalism, intrusiveness, outdated traditions, and overbearing patriarchy: don’t tell me what to wear and don’t tell me what to do.
Stunning as it has been, though, the triumph of immodesty and hyper-sexuality is not itself the root problem. Instead, these problems are symptomatic of a more serious one: the problem of celebrity. The English word celebrity derives from the Latin word celebrer, “to frequent” and more remotely from the Latin celer, “to hasten.” The desire for celebrity is, at its heart, the desire of a person to be “frequented”—to turn heads and command the notice of others. To become a celebrity is simply to succeed in being noticed regularly.
The bestowal of esteem or “notice” is a ubiquitous practice among humans, and is intrinsically unobjectionable. What makes the bestowal of esteem good or bad is the basis upon which it is awarded. Traditionally, one earns the right to be noticed, heard, and otherwise esteemed through modest means (a carefully constructed, holistic montage of age, experience, education, wisdom, gravity, industry, skill, refined rhetoric, etc.). In our electronic age, however, it is possible to turn heads apart from any of these. One can be noticed without any sort of success at all. I can become an instant e-celebrity (or is it an iCelebrity?) almost by accident. The modest path to earning notice is no longer honored; indeed, those who take this route are fools. There is a shorter way.
Perhaps nowhere is the desire to be noticed more evident than in social media, where a single question infects us all: Will anyone notice? Every regular user of social media, no matter how virtuous, has asked this question at some point. This guiding question can be subdivided into sub-questions such as “How many friends do I have?” “How many ‘likes’ have I received?” and the gold standard, “How many comments (positive or negative, it really doesn’t matter) have I generated?” And it doesn’t take long to discover that the most reliable way to be noticed is by shocking others through immodesty.
We tend to associate immodesty with the quest for celebrity through the inordinate visual exploitation of that which should remain secret. And when all other means of celebrity fail, this particular form of immodesty remains the best way to generate celebrity (ref. Miley Cyrus). But immodesty is not limited to the exploitation of one’s visual qualities; it really encompasses in its scope every inordinate exploitation of self designed to accelerate personal celebrity. And it is a virus that infects us more deeply than any of us imagine.
So what are we to do?
- First, we must confess our pride—this is, after all, what immodesty and the desire for celebrity truly are. Life is not all about me; I have a larger purpose.
- Second, we must identify and purge immodesty in all of its forms from our lives, not only from what we wear (though it may include this), but also from what we do, what we say, what we tweet, and even how we worship and evangelize.
- Third, we must self-consciously divert our own attention away from that which is immodest and instead value what legitimately earns our notice through sober and dignified means.
- Finally, we must make room in our lives for seasons of withdrawal from public discourse to cultivate chaste thoughts, affections, and good works that are entirely secret. We need to break away from the debilitating need to be seen by men and instead practice living without distraction for the God who sees the heart.
The world sees the call to modesty as a call to counter-culturalism, to traditionalism, to introversion, or worse. And we must admit that sometimes modesty can take on these illicit forms. But at its heart, the call to modesty is nothing more than a call to humility—a call to take the attention that has unduly accrued to me and redirect it to that (and ultimately to That) which truly deserves our attention.
(first published THEOLOGICALLY DRIVEN on September 17, 2013)