It’s hard to see your own cultural idols when you’ve grown up with them. Sometimes you have to take a step back historically to see who you’ve become.
I have really enjoyed the PBS Masterpiece series Mr. Selfridge. It chronicles the entrepreneurial activity of Harry Gordon Selfridge, who opened a new kind of store in London in 1909. Selfridge, an American with uniquely American ideas, challenged the culture of his day – an example being the marketing of makeup. You see, in early-20th century England, if you wouldn’t wear makeup unless you were a stage actress or a prostitute. “Respectable” people didn’t use greasepaint to make themselves more attractive.
Selfridge challenged the notion, and bet on the idea that most all women would, if it were acceptable, would use makeup. And he would sell it! So, rather than keep those goods hidden in the back of the store, he put them right out front, where everyone could see them. By doing so, he publicly hollered, “makeup is okay!” (and I’d be happy to sell it to you!). Well, since then, the tide has turned so far that, not only is makeup front-and-center in almost every major department store, but many “respectable” women today wouldn’t be seen without it. The culture has completely changed – not only with makeup, but with all the external trappings of fashion.
Culture drifts. The Word of God doesn’t. What gives? Does the Word of God get re-evaluated by cultural change? Or should it be the other way around?
“Wives … do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves.” (1 Pet. 3:3-5).
“Do not let your adorning be external.” That’s what it says. But, culturally, we can’t even hear this. Paraphrases abound … “what matters is not” (still, if it doesn’t matter, why the time and expense?) … “don’t be concerned about” … “don’t depend on things like” … but what it says is “let it not be”, present, imperative. “Don’t let it be.” Take a look at that Greek phrase in any other Biblical passage, and it will be translated as an absolute. But not here. Our culture won’t allow it.
Martin Luther…a little help? After all, you’re speaking from the 16th century! “Possibly one may ask whether that which Peter here says of ornaments is commanded or not (right!)… We say a wife should be so disposed as not to care for this adorning … a Christian wife should despise them … Christ does not want you to adorn yourself to please others, to be called a handsome prostitute (literally, pretty mistress). It is good evidence that there is little of the spirit, where so much is expended on ornaments … Gold and fine stones are precious in the world’s esteem, but before God they are an ill-savor … the husband should draw and dissuade the wife from ornaments, so long as she is inclined to them.”
And that was Luther’s day. Today, it’s just crazy. The multi-billion-dollar fashion industry (U.S. women spend over $400 billion a year in beauty products alone) is based on lust, envy, and pride. And it is economically and emotionally oppressive. Can you imagine how much money, time and energy the first world puts into fashion that could be channeled elsewhere? How can anyone in their right mind spin this as “okay”?
Back to Advent: How do we prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus? Needless to say, external decorations, whether they be in our homes or on our bodies, are of little consequence. Instead, Peter calls us to “respectful and pure conduct” in “the hidden person of the heart”, and “a gentle and quiet spirit.” These should be central to our preparation. (All of these go for men, too, of course. )
But, honestly, I know … a little blog like this can’t compete with a powerful cultural wave like this. I believe our addiction to external adornment is idolatry. But it’s an idol that doesn’t appear to be coming down anytime soon. And it won’t go well for me to speak up about this issue. But, I pray that this very-real idol can be pulverized in my own heart, and that no traces of it will be found when Jesus comes again.
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