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.

The Patriarchal Protection Paradox

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The order and protection of patriarchalism and purity culture could appear to be the alternative to the chaos, confusion, risk and hurt of sexual liberation.  We know that women are taken advantage of all the time by men who have no intentions of making a commitment, they do naturally bear the higher cost of sexual promiscuity and therefore it does make sense to offer them some special protection, right?

Men should be protectors.  This is a role that men are well suited for and, in correct form, actually enables women to thrive and be the best version of themselves.  Does this mean that women can’t do what men do?  No.  But it is simply optimal, in a trade relationship, that both parties specialize and do what they are better suited to do.  For the betterment of the whole and ultimately for themselves.  My grandma kept the books for the farm while my grandpa ran the equipment and did the field work.  Why?  Well, it’s simply what worked for them. 

The patriarch, the elder man of a household or a community, should indeed protect those who are under his care.  That’s what he is there for.  He can provide food, shelter, shepherding and defense for the vulnerable.  His age and experience, his humbly knowing his own place under God, can give him perspective valuable to his children and appreciated by the woman that he has committed to love.  This may be patriarchy, I’m not sure, but the good kind.

Unfortunately, patriarchalism, like that often found in religious purity cultures, tends to be the wrong kind of protection.  It elevates women while simultaneously not treating them as equals.  It protects some women, but not all.  And, while framed as a male advantage, because it does privilege some men, actually hurts men.  It may prevent some promiscuity, but it doesn’t protect people or truly show Christian mercy to anyone.  Worse, since it never gets to the heart of the matter, it often only covers for abuse.  That’s the paradoxical part: Below the surface it is not really any different from the degrading and demeaning alternative. 

1) Paradox: Both Elevates And Demeans Women

Patriarchalism is often framed in terms of dominant men who think women should follow two steps behind, which is certainly one part of it.  But it can also be much more subtle than those notions of women remaining barefoot in the kitchen, pregnant, submissively waiting on their husbands. 

In fact, many men who identify with feminism are very often unwittingly patriarchal in their overzealous protective and preferential treatment of women.  Coddling or patronizing women, assuming their motives are always pure, is ultimately another form of patriarchal protection.  This is, incidentally, the reason why some feminist women resent having the door held for them.  Is it a kind gesture or is it an assumption of her inferiority and need for male help?

What I’m talking about is this idea that a woman can do no wrong, that assumes that she is always a hapless victim of male abuses and basically lacking any agency or discerning capacity equal to a man.  

I know women like this, who look adoringly at their husband as he compliments her (patronizingly) for her being able to pick the drapes.  He gets to make all of the real decisions and she can live comfortably without the stresses of adulthood. 

And, not surprisingly, some women are completely fine with this arrangement.   Why not stay on the gravy train if you can?

However, many more women are uncomfortable with this protection.  They sense this treats them as if they’re not fully formed humans and, in the end, will stifle their God-given potential. 

Of these backhanded insults that intelligent and capable women face constantly in this current social paradigm is that they are either a) in need of some crusty politician to help them or b) they are some sort of faultless Mary Sue, with no need of character development, who only had to show up to dominate men.  Nobody truly wants to be treated as special simply because they have a certain type of genitals.  Putting women on a pedestal (even if called feminism) is patriarchalism.

The protection of patriarchalism is the wrong kind of protection.  It treats women sacred objects, idols, faultless and not real people with complexity or depth.  It protects the female body, at least in theory, yet neglects her soul.  It objectifies.

2) Paradox: Protects Some Women, But Not All

In purity cultures (both secular/political or traditional/religious) only those who meet a certain standard or subscribe to a particular ideological agenda are actually protected.  Those who do not conform the cultural expectation are not valued or respected.

In the religious culture which I was born into, the woman who follows the rules (kept up outward appearances and acted the part of innocent) is always treated as pure-minded and virtually incapable of evil.  A young woman, who outwardly obeys, is her daddy’s little angel, practically divinity, and subject to unceasing praise.  Women are protected, but not as equal to a man, and only so long as they represent the ideal.

Perhaps this ‘protection’ is motivated by guilt and a way to make up for the extra pressure put on women to conform and submit?  Or simply a way for some men to advantage themselves over other men by playing the hero?  Maybe it is just a bias of those in a culture where everything is judged by outward appearances and men can’t imagine their female counterparts as being anything but porcelain dolls, where it is unimaginable that a beautiful young woman, from a good home, wearing the prescribed attire, could be anything but sinless and a saint.  Whatever the case, it is real and is a privilege (albeit perverse) that women enjoy in patriarchal purity cultures.  

This privilege, and pedestal, of course, does not apply to ‘worldly’ women.  No, only the girl who meets the patriarchal religious standard is sort of viewed as some kind of unattainable perfection.  A woman is either a paradigm of virtue, a Madonna, or she is a Jezebel, a Potiphar’s wife and temptress, with very little room in between.  An too often, the woman who stands up for herself a bit or defies their cultural expectations, to the patriarchal men, are comparable to a prostitute and totally debased.  They need women to be weak so they can feel strong by comparison.

The patriarchal paradox is that it does elevate and protect women, but not in a way that humanizes or allows women to have the same fullness of character as a man. Patriarchalism doesn’t protect women as people, but rather as they represent an image of femininity and cultural ideal.  This is revealed or exposed, in the reality that patriarchal men do not protect all women.  No, they only protect their women and only so long as they fit the cultural prescription. 

Furthermore, the protection patriarchal purity culture is mostly focused on defending the physical body of a woman, managing her outward behavior, rather than her actual spiritual well-being.  She is the trophy on a man’s shelf, a conquest, but not recognized as a fully formed person.  Women are valued for their virginity and only protected if deemed pure by some cultural standard. A woman is only worthy of protection if his purity fantasies can be projected onto her feminine frame.

This ‘protection’ (or at least as it is combined with purity culture) labels those who fall short as “defiled” and treats them like damaged goods rather than broken people to be loved. The paradox is that patriarchalism protects a cultural ideal for women rather than protect women.  It offers condemnation, not care, for those who fall short.

3) Paradox: Hurts Rather Than Helps Most Men

Patriarchal treatment of women also leaves many men feeling inadequate amongst women who are truly their equals and not perfect as imagined.  In my own life, I’ve put Mennonite women so high on a pedestal that their rejection felt like a judgment from God.  That is unfair to the men, it is unfair to the women, and yet is very common in patriarchal religious purity cultures.

Again, in patriarchal purity culture, so long as a woman dressed and acted in a particular manner she was basically immune from criticism.  I’ve seen very patriarchal pastors side with a wife against her husband, when she was as much at fault, and suspect it was a matter of sexual preference.  And I do mean “sexual preference” in the crassest and literal manner, in that they were protecting women to preserve their own sexual status with her.  Somewhere, in their reptile brain, they needed to impress the woman, play savior to the damsel in distress, and did a terrible disservice to both sides with their prejudice.

Young conservative Mennonite men, unlike the females within the culture who are treated as blameless, are frequently called out for their more open expression of their lusts and pornography addictions.  It is as if it never registered to them that Jesus called out those who appeared to be righteous more harshly than those caught in their sin.  Mennonite women sin.  They have their vices, even if less obvious.  Anyhow, when some are left feeling dirty and irredeemable rather than sinners in need of God’s grace like anyone else, this is patriarchal purity culture and unChristian.

Men in patriarchal purity culture, rather than love other men, enjoy eliminating competition.  By highlighting and haranguing about the more visible weaknesses or inadequacies of other men they hope to increase their own social stature.  This is even more pronounced in purity cultures where polygamy allowed.  The “lost boys” of fundamentalist Mormonism, where young men are accused and run off, a clear example. 

Other men are a far bigger threat to abusive patriarchal men than women.  And this is why Biblical fundamentalist (Protestant) men demand submission to themselves and yet absolutely refuse to fall under any authority other than their own.  It is not so much about women or purity as it is about protecting the overblown ego of some men and comes at the expense of all.  It is actually about power not protection.

4) Paradox: Patriarchal Protection Often Covers For Abuse

The great irony of patriarchal purity cultures are that they are as focused on sex as the ‘worldly’ whom they condemn.  Even in their condemnations of promiscuity there is this “methinks thou dost protest too much” feeling and sense that this constant bluster is for their titillation or pleasure.

But, more than that, this display doesn’t mean these moralizers are free from sexual sin themselves. 

No, they are as obsessed with the physical bodies as anybody in the world outside their cults. 

And, while they consider themselves to be moral authorities, they often blame-shift responsibility for their own lust onto women.  From pulpit pounding sermons about “immodesty” (in front of an audience of women wearing  long dresses) to men who literally blame the young girls they molested for the abuse. 

However, the worst part is when those in these cultures are more concerned about the victims remaining silent than they are about the abuse.  This is probably not so much about keeping individual abusers from justice so much as it is about protecting the culture.  To feel good about themselves, to keep up the “holier than thou” show, they must conceal the impurities.  It is about protecting image not people.

Purity cultures are about preserving an outward image of purity and avoid looking inward at all costs.  They need to externalize blame, keep the focus on the sins of those outside of the group, or it would be impossible to sustain the system.  So deny the extent of their own problems, to try to keep their sins secret, is a means to protect their special identity and culture. 

The Wrong Kind Of Protection

In the end, patriarchalism protects the cultural ideal of purity rather than actually loving people.  It is concerned primarily with a woman’s body, or outward behavior, not her being.  It is centered on the physical rather than the spiritual.  It stifles women who don’t fit the cultural mold, does not protect their dreams or ambitions, and also gives cover to bad behavior that flies beneath the radar of dress standards and superficial obedience.  It protects the power of a few men at the top, but does not serve many (or most) of the males within the culture very well. 

It does not follow the example of Jesus, who did associate with prostitutes and others who did not keep up their righteous image according to the standards of the religious paradigm of that time.  He intervened on behalf of a woman accused of adultery and condemned the sanctimonious elites.  They Pharisees were obsessed with maintaining an outward image, creating physical separation between themselves and those deemed impure, yet knew nothing of spiritual transformation or even their own need of an inner change.  They loved status and outward image, they protected a religious ideal, but not real people.

The problem with the patriarchal purity culture protection is that it protects women like property, as sex objects, and not as people.  It is dehumanizing in the way that it puts women on a pedestal.  The problem is not male leadership.  The problem is any leadership that does not protect other than for it’s own benefit.  Despite what it claims, patriarchalism is about defending the status of some men, keeping their lust satiated, rather than Christian love.  It is ‘protection’ of the wrong spiritual source. 

And, thus unlike what popular mythology would suggest, this is not a problem that would be solved by replacing men in leadership with equally domineering women.  That is the one big absurdity of our time, we are told that women would be better more empathetic leaders than men and then given purple-haired Vice-Admiral Amilyn Holdo berating a subordinate man as an example.  That’s not an empowered woman, that’s a woman that is dangerously entitled or so uncertain of her own command that she needs to make an example of anyone who dares to question.

It is the spirit of patriarchalism that’s wrong and why it creates such resentment.  Most of us would fall willingly behind a fatherly figure that we trusted was not in it for himself and had our best interests in mind.  If we knew that our unique personhood was being protected rather than how we fit into their own cultural ideal and scheme then we would be less skeptical.  More would fall into place as God intended if we would all start here, with humility and a truly serving spirit:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

Philippians 2:5‭-‬7 NIV)