How culture makes idols out of image, commits adultery, and how most Christians join in

NB: I appreciate that this article is very long. Please don’t be put off: a) it is very important; b) some of it is an appendix; and c) you can read the start and still get a lot of the important stuff, quitting when you’ve had enough.

How culture makes idols out of image, commits adultery, and how most Christians join in

There is a current trend to post videos, blogs, and everything else bemoaning the treatment of women in the media. This mistreatment is often to do with the image of women. There was this Dove advert a few years ago, demonstrating the airbrushing that goes into most of the images of women we see in the media. Since then (and probably before, too), there have been lots of campaigns having at least something to do with the physical appearance of women. Motifs like “real women have curves” have become popular, taking aim at the norm of near-anorexic thinness among models and other girls praised for their physical beauty. Recently, this video gave a wider range of examples of misogyny in the media, while in this one, Jean Kilbourne helpfully explains some of the devastating effects of the obsession with women’s appearances in our society. And there is much to be commended in these videos: indeed, some of what I’ll discuss is the shallowness and objectification brought to our attention by videos like these.

More than that, I’d like to discuss the theology of physical beauty more generally. This has wide-ranging implications: it impacts on our relationships, how we choose and act with partners, how we dress and present ourselves, how we dress and present others (through social pressure), and how we judge others. It changes how we use our money, how we use our time, and how we use our words. It changes how we view each other, and which parts of each other we pay attention to. It calls us to recognise lust as adultery and, more challengingly, it calls us to recognise much of our behaviour as lustful. And it gives us more insight into Jesus himself, and into living like him. All these things – relationships, lust, adultery, shallowness, physical appearance, idolatry – are linked together.

But despite this importance, it is one of the most neglected areas of Christian theology. There are a few reasons for this: one reason is that a careful analysis shows that pretty much everyone falls short of God’s standard in this area, which is uncomfortable to admit. Another reason is that it hasn’t historically been part of a neat systematic theology, as doctrines like the incarnation have been. Another reason is that it is that it is difficult to see how an avoidance of shallowness is balanced with a healthy sexual attraction to marital partners. Another reason is that shallowness is often given a pseudo-Biblical justification (‘admiring God’s creation’, or something like that), sometimes in a joking way, but which is still usually sufficient to deflect any accountability or conviction. But none of this detracts from the importance of the topic and, if anything, it reinforces the need for a discussion of it. One of my recent posts called out the culture of drunkenness as one which is widespread among Christians, and yet very clearly condemned by Biblical standards. The culture of shallowness is perhaps even more insidious, being even more widespread and being very clearly condemned by Biblical standards, but usually presenting in much less obvious or much more normalised ways.

Some disclaimers about ‘real beauty’ campaigns

One of the points often made in these kinds of campaigns is that the media gives an inaccurate representation of what average women look like. But this seems to imply that, if the adverts were actually relatively accurate, this kind of shallowness and focus on image would be acceptable. But it wouldn’t be, and so the inaccuracy of the adverts is something of a red herring.

I’m not saying that everything in these videos is worthwhile, accurate, or a good example of misogyny. Some of it isn’t. But my aim here isn’t to discuss that. I want to focus mainly on what’s right about the videos, and I want to argue that they don’t go far enough, because almost all of us are responsible for the problems they discuss. Almost everyone is inexcusably shallow, commits adultery, and makes an idol out of image. And these kinds of protests about the shallowness of men and the media are very often entirely hypocritical.

Those remarks may, of course, seem outrageous. But there’s no point just telling people what they want to hear; the truth is more important, even if it sounds judgmental. Know that I am judging myself too.

What’s right about the videos

There’s a lot that’s right about the videos, and many of the general principles are absolutely correct. Those principles include the following:

– The media objectifies women.

– The media encourages a shallowness which involves a gross disordering of priorities and qualities of humans.

– This shallowness has negative consequences for those who do not fit the mould (because they are ostracised), and it has negative consequences for those who do (because they become objectified and used for their body – this is what we mean by “lust”, which is an assault on their dignity).

– This shallowness has negative consequences for those who think, rightly or not, that they don’t fit the mould. It becomes a false god for those who hold those expectations of their sexual targets, and it becomes an oppressive god for those who then do anything, to their own harm, to fit those expectations.

– This shallowness has negative consequences for the perpetrators – because their shallowness is an idol, and prioritises the wrong things, it is an affront to God and damages their relationship with him. It also leaves them vulnerable to everything associated with false gods: failing to be fulfilled, being fooled by vain things, and the indignity and self-punishment of sin in general.

The problem

The problem is this: most people (men and women) outside of the media do the same thing as the media. In fact, most people who complain about the media do the same thing as the media. I’ll talk about some of the more obvious ways first.

Quite obviously, most people put an emphasis on physical appearance. They decide who to date or be friends with at least partly on the basis of physical appearance, and by doing so they create an expectation of the opposite sex (or the same sex) looking good enough. They make comments about people looking good or looking bad. They make comments about people wearing nice or unimpressive clothes, or combinations of clothes. They spend obscene amounts on improving their appearance. They include physical criteria in their lists of what they look for in a partner. They reject people because they don’t match some physical criteria. They ogle at others, sometimes making comments to their friends while doing so.

Sometimes they do much of this non-verbally: they make faces to indicate disgust (or something less extreme, but of the same genus) if a suggestion of romantic or social interest is raised regarding someone who has an obvious deformity, or who is wearing something unsightly, or who is too short, or whatever else. Or they gesture to direct friends’ attention towards a good-looking person, it being incredibly important that such a person be noticed and lusted after.

Men and women both do this, and do so to enormous degrees. The fact that men have less resources to change how they look, or that some people go to further extremes in their shallowness, or that some people make these ratings and judgments quantitative, is not really the main problem. The main problem is these underlying attitudes and behaviours pervading society at a much deeper level. I know very few people of either sex who don’t make comments about others’ looks, height and clothes, and that includes champions of these recent campaigns which claim to challenge such shallowness.

The fact that this image seems so farcical is a testament to the fact that this shallowness is something propagated by both sides. The fact that many women will spend their time looking at topless men in magazines while men peruse infamous lads’ mags confirms this further. And really, I will controversially suggest, there is not much difference between the woman who fawns over the face and body of a male model with her friends, and the man who comments, “nice tits” to his. The latter may be more extreme, more sexually explicit, and more crude, but it is really the same kind of thing: an objectification of the other sex, and an instance of lust, which is an indulgence in sexual attraction and the use of another person’s body for self-gratification, without the context of a marital commitment and the promise of life-long self-sacrifice and mutual giving.

And the most hard-hitting part of all of this is that Christians do all of this too, in my experience to just as significant a degree. Christians reject people on their looks, they include stringent physical criteria when looking for partners, they lust regularly and verbalise their lust to their friends, and by doing all these things they create expectations which others feel obliged to fulfil, and which make others feel inadequate and excluded when they don’t fulfil them (either because they don’t spend extortionate amounts of time and money doing so, or because no realistic amount of time and money would suffice to fulfil them).

No doubt this will provoke much indignation from my Christian friends. How dare I say that these things count as lust? How dare I imply that most people are adulterers in the heart by doing these things? Rest assured that I take no pleasure in doing it, and I am calling myself to accountability too. But lust is not just indulging in thoughts of having sex with someone else. Lust is objectifying someone else –using them – as a means to sexual or pseudo-sexual self-gratification. And indulging in the physical attractiveness of other people, which is what most Christians do, almost always does this. Most Christians lust, and so most Christians commit adultery in their hearts, according to Jesus (Matthew 5).

Subtle shallowness

Shallowness is not always so obvious. It does not always come in a romantic context. Sometimes it will happen subconsciously and in other contexts, such as when deciding which empty seat to pick on a bus, or which people they will befriend or start a conversation with, or invite to join an activity, or approach in a public place. Sometimes it happens when the worship leaders at a church just conveniently happen to be very good-looking. And sometimes, even in a romantic or pseudo-romantic context, shallowness presents subtly. It can come in the form of asserting crushes on celebrities, for example; there might be no explicit comment on the celebrity’s looks, but since the celebrity is often an actor (for example) and virtually nothing is known about them other than what they look like, the assertion often amounts to either shallowness or lust, or often both. Of course, most Christians will say that they don’t really fancy the celebrity in question, and that they wouldn’t marry them, and that the celebrity’s personality would obviously be important. And no doubt this is true. But this is part of the point: there is an indulgence and an objectification of the celebrity without any intention of marriage or self-sacrifice for the celebrity. What is it, after all, that these kinds of comments, whether explicitly or implicitly lustful, achieve? What is it that people mean when they say they fancy someone, or when they talk about how good-looking someone is? How often is it really just a mild (or not so mild), though more unnoticeable, form of lust?

Again, what I have said here will be seen as extremist (to be pejorative) or radical (to be polite). But that only indicates how deeply rooted the problem is, and how malignant the deceptive attitudes underpinning it are. It is sometimes said that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. There is some truth here: the most insidious attitudes will be ones which become normalised, and which convince us that there is not really a problem at all, and that anyone who dissents from these cultural norms is an extremist. But I would challenge my readers: think about the instances of objectification, shallowness and lust (or even racism, since racism is really just a kind of shallowness) which really do upset you, and think really hard about what it is, exactly, that makes you upset. And then think about whether your own attitudes and behaviours, or those around you, are really just more mild or subtle instances which encourage that mentality, or whether they are edifying and counter-cultural ways of challenging it.

How the problems link together

I’ve indicated many of the problems in our culture, on many different levels. At the beginning, I spoke about shallowness, and how it causes desperateness for the favour of others, leading to the waste of time, money and effort, as well as extreme insecurities. Anorexia nervosa is a mental health problem almost entirely restricted to certain cultures, and it has one of the highest mortality rates out of any mental health condition. The slave trade is larger than ever, and lives continue to be ruined by the demand for sex trafficking and pornography which our obsession fuels. Our obsession with image kills. It kills through these means, and through ostracism, objectification, shame, inadequacy, oppression, indignity and punishment.

All sin starts with idolatry: putting something before God. This is complex when it comes to image, since different people put slightly different things before God. Some people put sexual gratification first. Others put acceptance by peers first. Others put their own image or reputation first. Others put others’ image first. But all of these idols, and others, contribute in making a grand idol out of image, and physical appearance. And this idol subjugates God and his children. It dominates teenage girls and grown men. It stamps on Godly qualities and replaces them with vain things. It suffocates human dignity and the selflessness of marriage, and replaces it with lust. And these, in turn, reap misery upon misery.

Jesus, the solution

Fortunately, this is not the end of the story. In the Biblical book of Hosea, Hosea is called by God to marry a “wife of whoredom”, Gomer, to illustrate Israel’s whoredom towards God. Israel, God’s chosen people, committed adultery by worshipping false gods, and Hosea was invited to share God’s experience of betrayal by marrying an unfaithful bride. But through this story, God made clear his plan to forgive and redeem his people from adultery (Hosea 14). This plan, Christians believe, reached its climax in Jesus. Jesus offers the solution for our adultery towards God and towards each other, but one of the striking things about the Early Church is their tradition of Jesus’ physical unattractiveness. In other words, Jesus was ugly.

This was based primarily on the prophecy of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52-53. In the middle of it all lies 53:2-3, reading: “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”

Many writers in the first few centuries AD, some more orthodox than others, commented on Jesus’ physical appearance in light of this prophecy. Tertullian sums it up by declaring that Jesus’ “worm-like” physical appearance was so abject as to invite spitting, while Origen entirely concedes to his pagan opponent that Jesus’ appearance was ill-favoured (see the Appendix for a fuller list):

“Thus spoke even they who despised His outward form. His body did not reach even to human beauty, to say nothing of heavenly glory. Had the prophets given us no information whatever concerning His ignoble appearance, His very sufferings and the very contumely He endured bespeak it all. The sufferings attested His human flesh, the contumely proved its abject condition. Would any mean have dared to touch even with his little finger, the body of Christ, if it had been of an unusual nature; or to smear His face with spitting, if it had not invited it (by its abjectness)?” Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ, 9.

“There are, indeed, admitted to be recorded some statements respecting the body of Jesus having been “ugly”… The language of Isaiah runs as follows; who prophesied regarding Him that He would come and visit the multitude, not in comeliness of form, nor in any surpassing beauty: “Lord, who has believed our report, and to whom was the arm of the Lord revealed? He made announcement before Him, as a child, as a root in a thirsty ground. He has no form nor glory, and we beheld Him, and He had no form nor beauty, but His form was without honour, and inferior to that of the sons of men.” Origen, Against Celsus, 6.75 (cf. 1.54; 4.16; 7.16; Commentary on Matthew, 12.29).

Kingdom living

The implications of all this are huge. If our Saviour and King had an appearance despised by men, and if outward appearance is really this unimportant, we should find some ways of speaking these secret but profound truths into our culture. We might also expect to find some further Biblical instruction on what to think of physical beauty, and which qualities to look for in people.

There is little in the Bible about fancying, or about crushes. When these things are mentioned, they are usually associated with disaster. David, admiring Bathsheba’s appearance, committed adultery and had her husband killed. Jacob idolised physical appearance and was taken for a fool when trying to marry Rachel on that basis (God then blessed Rachel’s sister, Leah, instead).

Heroes of the Bible tend never to have anything notable written about their appearance: nothing is known of Noah, Moses, David, Daniel, Peter, Paul, Hannah, Ruth or Mary’s physical appearance. Saul, on the other hand, was the most handsome of men, but ended up being one of the most famous Biblical villains. Similarly, the King of Tyre (who is often seen as a type of Satan) was described as being proud because of his beauty.

This pride is picked up on in several other contexts, and the implications are made clear:

“women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness – with good works.” 1 Timothy 2:9-10

“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.” 1 Peter 3:3-4

Rather, we are to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14). We are to be humble, as “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5), and “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).

While most people have the decorum not to boast verbally about their looks, an incredible amount of our concentration on our own looks is an attempt to boast in them, to impress others with them. But Paul is adamant that we are to boast not in the flesh, but only in Jesus:

“It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised… they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. But neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” Galatians 6:12-15

“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God… as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” 1 Corinthians 1:26-29, 31

“Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh – though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more… But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as shit, in order that I may gain Christ” Philippians 3:2-4, 7-8

Elsewhere, Biblical qualities, including the indifference towards physical appearance and the concentration on godliness are explicitly emphasised:

“When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the LORD’s anointed is before him.” But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:6-7

“Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.” Proverbs 31:30

“Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” 1 Timothy 4:7-8

Of course, the entire Bible is full of descriptions of godly qualities, and it would take far too much time to expand on all of them now. But there are some helpful lists in some places, e.g. the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control”. And the Bible even helpfully describes qualities of a marital partner. Again, it would take far too long to comment on all of these passages, but here are a select few examples:

“Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.” 1 Timothy 3:11

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” Ephesians 5:25

“But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” 1 Timothy 5:8

There are countless commentaries in the Bible of qualities we should encourage in people, and these are qualities we should look for in partners. But physical appearance is never put on a level with these qualities. Indeed, most Biblical marriages were arranged to at least some extent, and many of these were nevertheless good marriages where a healthy sexual attraction could flourish.

What I haven’t discussed

What I haven’t discussed is healthy sexual attraction, and how important physical attraction is in deciding to begin a relationship. In particular, some readers will think that most of what I have said is inconsistent with the lovers in Song of Songs rejoicing in each others’ bodies. Hopefully, at some point I will have time to tackle these questions – but rest assured that they have not been ignored in my own thinking on the subject, and that I think everything here is consistent with the existence of healthy sexual attraction, and the rejoicing of Song of Songs.

But for now, think about the challenge I’ve put forward. Think about your words, your attitudes, your judgments, your time, your money, your energy, your appearance, your criteria and your relationships. And think about whether your words and behaviour are life-giving and edifying to those around you, or whether they fall into the idolatry detailed here, which leads to the devastating shallowness and lust pervading our culture and, most sadly, our Church.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2

Appendix

Here is a fuller list of early sources indicating Jesus’ physical unattractiveness. As I said, they are based more on Isaiah 53 than on historical memory, but they are nevertheless the earliest tradition we have, they are consonant with other doctrines related to the incarnation, and they help to establish the early church’s view of beauty and physical attractiveness.

Justin Martyr:

“And when Jesus came to the Jordan, He was considered to be the son of Joseph the carpenter; and He appeared without comeliness; as the Scriptures declared.” Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 88 (cf. Apology, 50).

Irenaeus:

“The divine Scriptures … testify of him; also, that He was a man without comeliness, and liable to suffering” Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.19.2.

Clement of Alexandria, in an extended passage on true beauty:

“And that the Lord himself was uncomely in aspect, the Spirit testifies by Esaias: “And we saw Him, and He had no form nor comeliness but his Form was mean, inferior to men. Yet who was more admirable than the Lord? But it was not the beauty of the flesh visible to the eye, but the true beauty of both soul and body, which He exhibited, which in the former is beneficence; in the latter – that is, the flesh – immortality.” Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, 3.1.

And in explaining how a man may be just “even should they happen to be ugly in their persons”:

“And his appearance was inferior to all the Sons of men,” prophecy predicted.” Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies, 2.5.

Tertullian:

“they deny the lower nature of that Christ who declares Himself to be, “not a man, but a worm;” who also had “no form nor comeliness, but His form was ignoble, despised more than all men” Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ, 15.

“not even in His aspect comely. For “we have announced,” says the prophet, “concerning Him, (He is) as a little child, as a root in a thirsty land; and there was not in Him attractiveness or glory. And we saw Him, and He had not attractiveness or grace, but His mien was unhonoured, deficient in comparison of the sons of men” Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews, 14.

“For, says (the prophet), we have announced concerning Him: “He is like a tender plant, like a root out of a thirsty ground; He has no form nor comeliness; and we beheld Him, and He was without beauty: His form was disfigured” Tertullian, Against Marcion, 3.7.

“Whatever that poor despised body may be, because it was an object of touch and sight, it shall be my Christ, be He inglorious, be He ignoble, be He dishonoured; for such was it announced that He should be, both in bodily condition and aspect. Isaiah comes to our help again: “We have announced (His way) before Him,” says he; “He is like a servant, like a root in a dry ground; He has no form nor comeliness; we saw Him, and He had neither form nor beauty; but His form was despised, marred above all men.” Similarly the Father addressed the Son just before: “Inasmuch as many will be astonished at You, so also will Your beauty be without glory from men.” For although, in David’s words, He is fairer than the children of men, yet it is in that figurative state of spiritual grace, when He is girded with the sword of the Spirit, which is verily His form, and beauty, and glory. According to the same prophet, however, He is in bodily condition “a very worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and an outcast of the people.” But no internal quality of such a kind does He announce as belonging to Him.” Tertullian, Against Marcion, 17.

“That Lord walked in humility and obscurity, with no definite home: for “the Son of man,” said He, “has not where to lay His head;” unadorned in dress, for else He had not said, “Behond, they who are clad in soft raiment are in kings’ houses:” in short, inglorious in countenance and aspect, just as Isaiah withal had fore-announced.” Tertullian, On Idolatry, 18.

“Likewise, in the same prophet, He says to the Father respecting the Son: “Lord, who has believed our report, and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed? We brought a report concerning Him, as if He were a little child, as if He were a root in a dry ground, who had no form nor comeliness.” Tertullian, Against Praxeas, 11.

Lactantius:

“Now His humility emboldened them to this deed. For when they read with what great power and glory the Son of God was about to descend from heaven, but on the other hand saw Jesus humble, peaceful, of low condition, without comeliness, they did not believe that He was the Son of God… Isaiah also thus spoke: “Lord, who has believed our report? And to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed? We made proclamation before Him as children, and as a root in a thirsty land: He has no form nor glory; and we saw Him, and He had no form nor comeliness. But his form was without honour, and defective beyond the rest of men…” And in the same manner the Sibyl spoke: “Though an object of pity, dishonoured, without form, He will give hope to those who are objects of pity.” On account of this humility they did not recognise their God, and entered into the detestable design of depriving Him of life, who had come to give them life.”

In addition to these, Hippolytus (On Christ and Antichrist, 44), Cyprian (Treatises, 12.2.13), Novatian (On the Trinity, 9) and the apocryphal Acts of Peter all quote Isaiah on Jesus’ lack of beauty or comeliness, with Acts of Peter adding that Jesus was “beauteous, yet appearing among us as poor and ugly.”

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One thought on “How culture makes idols out of image, commits adultery, and how most Christians join in

  1. Nice post Calum!

    I would offer one possible caveat. For most of the Church Fathers were all influenced by both Neoplatonism and Stoicism in the culture, which always saw the body (the “flesh”) as evil. So some of that discourse *could* be from that view point…although Tertullian was pretty negative towards anything that had even a hint of platonic philosophy.

    Thank you for writing this. We all need to be awake to our prejudices: whether conscious or lurking under the surface.

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