My Apologies For Not Being Flashy Enough, I Guess?

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Years ago, in the parking lot of the Mennonite church, one of the cool youth guys told one of the pretty teenage girls to do something.  I’m not sure the exact lead-in, he probably suggested it was impossible to do, but he instructed her to simultaneously grab her ankles and spell the word run three times.

To my horror, this young woman, my first real crush, in traditional Mennonite dress, voluntarily did exactly as he said.  She bent over, and with her dainty ankles in hand, actually spelled out “R-U-N, R-U-N, R-U-N!”

At the time I had regarded her as a completely innocent party and being exploited.  It has to do with this notion, especially popular in patriarchal purity cultures, that men are more sexually interested and women simply wanting emotional support.  Therefore it was not possible that she would consent to this sort of activity knowing what his actual intention was, right?

This heroic offense that, no doubt, my reserved conservative Mennonite male readers will likely take on her behalf is trust misplaced.

In retrospect, given the various activities that she would later quite willingly participate in, even after marriage, some that included the jokester from the story above, my own assessment of what was truly going on there has changed.  I mean, had he not been an athletic six-foot built, I’m pretty sure she would have decided to be a little more aware of his intentions.  But the reality is that she was enjoying the attention whether or not she knew exactly what game was being played.

Beauty and Godliness

Many men (and women) confuse feminine beauty for godly character.  One of those shattering realizations was that the virtue that I saw in conservative Mennonite women was one of mere outward appearance and not really an indication of their being truly different under the surface.  Sure, those of us raised in this culture are better trained, our lusts are hidden under more layers of religious garb, but this demure and righteous front conceals passions that are no different from those found in all people.

In ‘worldly’ hookup culture, it is all about the physical.  It is blatantly superficial and makes no attempt at hiding this.  Sure it is discriminatory, sayings like “must be 5′-10″ or over to ride” are common, only the hottest guys and girls are going to be especially successful, but it is also honest.  It is a meat market and that’s what you should expect going in.  

But, raised in the sub-culture that I was in, there was this idea that character mattered most and what was being sought after.  Some of us believed that.

My first crush, the girl in the account above, was someone that I had assumed was of impeccable character.  Compared to those high school girls, like those cheerleader friends who (while at McDonald’s sitting with this blushing Mennonite kid) had fun taking turns saying the word “penis” a little louder each time, she was a saint and basically sinless.  Or so I had thought.  However, as it turns out, those ‘bad’ girls went on to be faithful to their partners, and the girl that had left me feeling unworthy ended up being fondled by that R-U-N guy a few years down the road—despite both of them being married.

I had assumed that my crush was of better character because of my bias towards those who dressed and acted a particular way.  I had her, so pretty and pristine, high upon a pedestal.  She had no dirty thoughts like me.  She would love me for my heart rather than my stature or appearance.  And yet my doubts began to grow, she had become unapproachable to me, too good, too pure and too perfect, how could someone with my stumbling words, painfully awkward, ever add up compared to this angelic being?  It is easy to see why my effort was doomed from the start and especially since she was as horny and completely carnally minded as any other young person her age.

Men, at least those in traditional cultures, want to defend the damsel in distress.  So, women, in turn, will play that part.  They are agreeable, they will accentuate their vulnerability and it is all part of the game to attract a mate.  Maintaining an appearance of ‘godliness’ is a part of this trying to be desirable in cultures where such things are valued.

And that’s not to say it is knowingly a pretense either.  It is simply how we frame the experience.  We don’t need to admit to the sexual motivations like the crass (yet wonderfully truthful) young ‘worldly’ women—like those school mates who had delightfully, with giggles, defied my own teenage expectations as far as propriety and appropriateness.  Us born into religious subcultures, especially a purity culture, confuse our merely following the rules for actual righteousness.  It is virtue signaling.  We hang onto that wonderful image, because it is valuable, a social advantage, and yet are as superficial as our ‘worldly’ counterparts when it comes to the true motivation behind our choices.

I’ve learned since that I was lying to myself, this Mennonite girl was a complete knockout no matter how ‘modestly’ she dressed at that time.  That physical beautiy most definitely played a part in my attraction and the virtue that had been projected onto her physical frame.  And, while being genuinely horrified during the parking lot incident, there was also that fascination about what was happening, a curiosity like how we can’t take our eyes off of a trainwreck.  Yes, I might have even enjoyed it in a weird way, so was I actually any better than the instigator?

Seeing Through My Own Projections

The “R-U-N” crush was never a saint, to begin with.  I had projected my own ideas of her purity onto her, assumed that her inner composition matched her flawless exterior, and thus had turned her into more of an idol than a real person.  Not excusing her eventual infidelity and recent divorce, but would it really be any surprise if some do break under this pressure to perform and be her daddy’s perfect daughter?

My disappointment with things not being as they appeared to have long since worn off, I’ve come to accept that even the ‘good’ girls (even those who would never dare cheat on their husbands or even say anything out of turn) aren’t as spiritually oriented as their outward show would have many believe.  Their faith is often shallow and a means to stay relevant or appear as righteous to their religious peers.  I mean, it isn’t all for show either, we’re always a mixed bag of motivation in even our best moments, but ultimately they are as flawed as anyone else and as oriented towards that strapping physique as much as their hook-up culture counterparts.

Still, it was this realization that left me feeling betrayed by my idealism and needing to let go of this falsehood of their loftiness compared to my own shortcomings.  They were no different from me—not better, not worse. 

This sinless young woman myth is as harmful and as completely patriarchal as the idea that a woman being ‘undefiled’ is her only value.  Being beautiful, not being openly aggressive or disagreeable, does not make an outwardly well-behaved woman a better person.  And, truly, at this point, I would rather deal with the ‘slut’ that is real than the ‘saint’ that is only skin deep and fake.  It is much better to start with the baseline that all have sinned and fallen short of divine glory than to treat anyone as somehow above or beyond.  Religious women may not sin in the same ways or as openly as their male or secular counterparts, but they still do.

Man certainly looks at the outward appearance, but Jesus said this concerning the deception of those who kept up appearances:

You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

(Matthew 23:27b‭-‬28 NIV)

What I’ve found about myself and others raised in a culture with high expectations is that we tend to keep two sets of books.  One to keep up the prescribed cultural standard and impress our peers, and another hidden account book that contains our more carnal imaginations and base desires.  Pretty on the outside does not mean a pure heart.  It could simply be manipulation or a way to benefit from the protection provided to those who conform and not evidence of good character.

Character Is More Than Skin Deep

So, anyhow, once burned, twice shy, right?   And, having learned that exteriors do not always match interiors, when stumbled across Charlotte’s profile, saw this shy and adorable looking woman beautiful amongst the flowers, I asked:  “Are you as beautiful on the inside as you are on the outside?”

I know. 

Not much of a pick-up line, right?

Nevertheless, it was exactly the right question for someone struggling.  It signaled to her that I actually cared about more than her physical form and wanted to know about her as a whole person.  Of course, her beauty is indeed more than skin deep.  And, although she confesses that I’m a good person while she’s my “imperfect bhest,” she’s golden.  Her humility alone, in realizing that she is flawed and admitting it, is proof of her beautiful godly character.  And, as our relationship progressed, it was her soul that I wanted to protect and not merely some projected cultural ideal.

Charlotte, for her part, is also well aware that I’m not the epitome of manliness.  She knows that I show my emotions, sees me as a little soft compared to those stoic Igorot men and had to make some adjustments to my dress style in Taiwan so I didn’t look as much like a dweeb.  There’s very little pretense with her.  Maybe she’s more plainspoken being that English is a second language?  But it’s also cultural.  Or, rather, a lack of the cultural facade where people have learned to say the right things and yet lack actual substance.  She is refreshingly real and appreciates me for my character rather than care too much about my missing-in-action six-pack abs.  

I’m not flashy enough to attract the Tinder date nor the goody-two-shoes who conceals her carnal appetites under layers of sanctimonious bullshit.  And yet do have enough of something to keep from giving up on true love despite the painful distance and wait. I’m not her perfect bhest, but I do love that she is more concerned with my faith than my physical perfection.

Would Our Non-conformity Impress Jesus? (Matthew 23:25-28)

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One thing about Mennonites is that we are good at maintaining our niceness.  But this niceness, while “nice” by outward appearance, is not always truthful.  We can hide many evil thoughts behind a polite smile.  We know the “right” words to say and use them habitually… all the while harboring harsh judgments in our hearts.

Why do we hide our true feelings?

First off, to be the “quiet in the land” is part of our Mennonite-cultural-default setting; we play nice because we were taught to not cause a fuss.  Second, we want to avoid conflict; trying to resolve a conflict is difficult and one way to “keep the peace” is to bury our own feelings behind a smile.  The third reason (and most insidious) is so we can appear better than the other person.

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with this cultural niceness.  It seems to be far better than the alternative of direct confrontation, open disagreement or being too honest about unpleasant things.  But beneath this veil of serenity can be a toxic mess of unresolved conflict, secretly held enmity, and hostility that leaks out as passive-aggressive behavior.

Yes, Mennonites may be good at appearing nice on the outside.  However, we are also good at gossip, backbiting, anonymous letters, slander and giving the cold-shoulder treatment.  A pretty face and pleasant words can hide many less-than-desirable attitudes.  These hidden sins of the heart are not often addressed, and likely because they are far more difficult to detect and define.  Nevertheless, there can be a rotten core underneath a righteous facade.

Some may call this kind of niceness “living peaceably” when in reality it is often nastier than the alternative of open rebuke and direct confrontation.  There is little chance of amicable resolution when a person refuses to openly state their grievances.  Worse, the person being whispered about often can sense the antagonism, yet is without a means to defend themselves.

Jesus had no problem directly rebuking those who were pretty on the outside and ugly inside:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.  Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (Matthew 23:25‭-‬28)

The religious elites Jesus confronted were focused on outward appearance.  Earlier he rebuked them for their distinctive clothing and titles, but this time he goes right to the heart of the issue: True change comes from a transformed heart change and not through conformity of outward appearance.

The hidden sins of religious elites rebuked directly by Jesus are probably different from our own.  That said, our Mennonite religious culture is similar to theirs in that we also emphasize looking right according to our standards and we like to believe that this outward conformity is an indication of a spiritual condition.  However, according to Jesus, compliance with a religious standard is not an indication of a heart change.

The Mennonite “doctrine of non-conformity” is often a distraction and disguise for a sinful heart.

Many use the exhortation “be not conformed to this world” out of context and as a justification for their rules.  Unfortunately, this misses the point entirely.  The alternative to being conformed to the world is *not* a long list of standards but a transformation of mind, and that is only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Mennonites need to focus less on their cherished doctrine of non-conformity (that is primarily concerned with maintaining an acceptable appearance) and more on change of heart.  As Jesus said, when the heart is changed then the behavior will follow—with or without rules.  But without spiritual transformation no amount of rules or conformity to them can change hearts.

I know plenty of Mennonites who wear the prescribed clothing, do the right Mennonite activities and are really nice people, but it seems they have no real faith.  It is possible to change on the outside through religious indoctrination while lacking in substance of faith and remaining spiritually dead.  So, if anything, Mennonite standards only serve to create a disguise for the faithless.

The focus on outward appearance and emphasis on rules in conservative Mennonite circles could itself be indication of a lack of heart change. It is a perspective that gets things completely in reverse and shows a lack of spiritual understanding so basic that it can hardly be anything but a sign of an untransformed mind.

True faith is not about cultural conformity and a pleasant facade.

People behave the way they do for many reasons.  We act in a particular manner or conform to the standards of our peer group in order to be accepted.  However, the faith that pleases God is not about fitting in or meeting religious expectations.  The faith that God seeks is about spiritual transformation that takes us well beyond anything that can be spelled out into code.

Sure, religious folks might be able to police themselves based on their rules (written or unwritten) and look down those who fall outside the lines.  Yet, without inner change, none of it matters; we are only succeeding at making people clean on the outside and neglecting what Jesus taught should come first.  Perhaps then we would be more accepting of those who don’t act right according to our favored ideas but have a heart for God?

King David didn’t always act right according to our standards.  He did some things that weren’t even allowed by God’s standard, was guilty of a terrible sin, and still was a man after God’s own heart.  David’s heart was right even though his behavior was not, and that is more important than meeting religious expectations or maintaining a nice appearance.

Are you truly transformed and changed spiritually from the inside out?

Or are you only a good Mennonite acting the part?