Don’t Get All Intellectual About It, For God’s Sake

Alert pigeon Kristen sent me a link to this very interesting blog post by Richard Beck of Experimental Theology, who gives us a philosophical take on jeans.

It’s great to think deeply on these matters, but at the end of the day I’m still going to send you to your bedroom without supper if you think plain old jeans and a button-down are acceptable for your work in ministry.

As I commented on the blog, there is also the matter of aesthetics. Beautiful is as beautiful does. That’s what Ma Ingalls used to say, right? That’s why Laura and Mary were supposed to keep their sunbonnets on at all times so they wouldn’t get as brown as a berry. We don’t have time to get into Ma Ingalls’ racism right now, but the point is, don’t wear jeans to work. Also, in case you haven’t realized it already, “Beautiful is as beautiful does” makes absolutely zero sense, and I’m pretty sure Ma Ingalls never said that. What she said was “There’s no great loss without some small gain.” She said that when Pa shot up some of the crows that were eating the corn harvest and she made a crow pie. Do you realize how many times that woman seriously almost starved to death?

I obviously need another coffee and a walk to clear my mind. Lenten reflections + blogging + reminiscing about Ma Ingalls + jeans = monkey mind.

16 Replies to “Don’t Get All Intellectual About It, For God’s Sake”

  1. Ma Ingalls’ comment wasn’t racist. In the 19th century especially for women pale skin was considered desireable. That’s why Scarlett Ohara carried a parasol. Not until the early part of this century was being tan considered stylish.

  2. Defining beauty in terms of pale skin over and against brown skinned people, whether tan white folk or black and brown people, is by definition racist. It is and was widespread, deeply entangled with notions of beauty and human dignity, particularly but not exclusively in the American South.

  3. A couple of weeks ago I walked into the office and saw that the church secretary was wearing…jeans. She laughed at my surprise and my comment that she was wearing them. She said that only I would even notice them. She is probably right. I would only wear jeans if it was my day off, and I was stopping at the church very briefly. Even then I would probably wear khakis and a sweater and change when I got home.

    IMHO…Ma Ingalls’ comment was racist as Rev. Dr Gafney so eloquently explained. [It certainly was. It’s not like she was worried that her girls would develop skin cancer. She didn’t want them having brown skin like the “Injuns.” – PB]

  4. Isn’t it POSSIBLE that Ma Ingalls was just trying to prevent the unsightly effects of premature aging caused by sun exposure on her daughter’s skin? “Brown as a berry” does lead to “wrinkly as a raisin” after all . . . C’mon! Leave me one of my s-heroes!

  5. According to what I’ve read the point of pale soft skin was to look like a lady in comparison to poor “common” women whose manual labor gave them coarse, ruddy skin. (Of course, the Ingalls ladies did plenty of hard work.)

    Remember how Rhett was initially fooled by the outfit Scarlett had made of Miss Ellen’s “poteers” but then saw her hands and was horrified to see that she had been WORKING!

    I think it was a desire to look “upper-class” rather than a racial issue.

  6. When I have told my intern minister and newbie (young) acting DRE how to dress on Sundays leading worship, I have put it in terms of the expectations of leaders in this church. Dress = professional = AUTHORITY. Basically, I say, I want everyone to take you seriously. I don’t want anything to get in the way of that.

  7. Thank you for remembering the Ingalls family. They almost starved and froze to death on the Dakota prairie. Ma told Laura to wear her bonnet or she would be brown as an Indian. Mary, who was a good little girl, always wore hers. So Ma had her issues. She did sew all the clothing, she turned the old dresses inside out and remade them, she added a little trim here and there, and they made do. Laura Ingalls describes in loving detail each of her mother’s dresses, the trims, the buttons, the cut, and once she was old enough to sew, all the dresses she made for herself, the lace she knitted, the hats she made. Dress mattered then, and it still matters.

  8. everyone has issues- obviously Ma Ingalls cared about clothes and how she and her girls looked the same motivation that is behind this blog. I care about how I & my girls look too.

    19th century women here and in Europe where there were no injuns wanted to have pasty white skin. A fashion icon was Empress Elizabeth of Austria-Hungary who had raven hair & very white skin. New England ladies felt this way & the injuns had long since gone west here. And yes the sunbonnets & parasols prevent wrinkles, premature aging and skin cancer. Those ladies were onto something.

    Asian ladies have thought it better to look pale for decades. My friend’s late mom who born & grew up in Shanghai but lived in NYC for decades never went out without a hat for this reason. Macys in Boston is selling Asian skin care products including paleing lotion right now. Ma Ingalls was just a little ahead of her time.

  9. I think that Ma’s “handsome is as handsome does” line was delivered when she talking to Laura about going out driving with Almanzo. Basically, it was a “you can be as pretty as Nellie Olson, but if you act badly, all the pretty in the world won’t matter.”

    But. Ma also said “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” So, there is that.

    Also also, I think the brown as an Indian warning/desire for pale skin was about class *and* race. Even in the 19th c. the two were pretty well linked in American society. Just the fact that Ma was saying “you’ll be as brown as a person whose only social contribution is to conveniently die” makes the link implicitly, even if Ma didn’t mean it straight out.

    Those blotting papers look rad. I usually find things with SPF in them so irritating to my skin as well as greasy, anything to combat those two problems is always a good thing.

  10. Hey, I get that we all love Ma Ingalls. Ma was a product of her time. She was a real woman. It’s a shame we don’t have a wonderful YA series of books written by a Native American girl from the same era so we could hear all about HER mom and her mom’s awesome strength and her memorably sayings.

    Thank you all for joining me on this panel, “Caroline Ingalls: Racist Pioneer Woman And Complicated, Admirable Human Being.” Join us next week for our panel, “Who Was Hotter? Almanzo Wilder Or Cap Garland?”

  11. I know what you’re getting at, Peacebang, and at some level I accept it as the current state of affairs. But what I wonder about is when does our idea about the way things should be so much reflect the way things used to be that we become anachronistic and out of touch. I mention this for two reasons. First, I grew up as part of Generation Y, and when left to my own devices I, and virtually all of my male friends, and plenty of female ones, wear jeans as a primary outfit. So in that way of thinking influenced by ideological critical readings of texts I want to situate myself as part of a generation that is less likely than any before it to attend church, and in many ways sees church as out of touch, or worse, simply irrelevant to our lives. Jeans are, for my generation, simply a given.
    More than that, though, I want to raise up the question of what kind of church has a minister who wears jeans. If you look here
    you will find the largest churches in the country. I know from having recently watched sermons from both Saddleback and Central, and suspect from the pastor’s pictures that Northpoint, Fellowship, Cavalry Chapel, Woodlands, Southeast, and Thomas Road, have a more casual style. Both Jud at Central and Rick at Saddleback wear jeans to preach in.
    Now, I know you could say “When you have 13,000 attendies you can make the rules, but until then, this is how we do church.” And there’s some truth in that. But I also believe that if we believe we must be the change we want to see in the world, we can’t just show up one day twenty years in, after having preached in a suit and tie for two decades and switch to jeans. And I would contend that one of the reasons, and there are a lot of them that are far more meaningful that apparel choices, that many of these churches are so successful, is because so many of them start out by meeting people where they are at, in a culture that feels familiar, before asking them to change their lives.
    If, as Chris Walton wrote about some years ago, the similarity between UU churches and evangelical megachurches is that both have low bars for entry (but megachurches ask people to transform their lives),
    how does the decision to dress the minister in clothing that is culturally elite affect the willingness of people to consider whether they belong? More simply put, if people come into a church and see people that look like they are part of a cultural elite, are they going to stick around long enough to know whether the church itself can save their lives?
    Obviously not all the largest churches in the country have jeans wearing ministers. TD Jakes wears a suit for everything he does. So I’m not arguing that you can’t ever be relevant and wear “professional” clothes. But I think, rather than making blanket statements about wearing jeans at all, we each have to consider the people we’re trying to reach with our ministry and how what we wear affects how they receive/perceive us? Sometimes that’s not jeans, and sometimes it is. If we just did what religious leaders before us had always done we’d all still be wearing ephods and breastplates made of linen of “gold, or blue, purple, and crimson yarns. (Ex 39:2/8)” And I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen an ephod on any clergy anywhere, ever. [Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Eric. I wish I had time for a longer reply, but I don’t right now. One of the things I would like to get into more deeply is the architectural space and aesthetics of the vast majority of Mainline Protestant and UU churches where we are preaching, which do not lend themselves to informal contemporary wear at all. To show up to preach in any one of these spaces wearing jeans doesn’t read as “trying to reach the people,” but as “Oh my God, this kid doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing or where he is.” More later, if I can! – PB]

  12. Well said Eric! I was waxing philosophical about the jeans issue just this morning as I was putting on my gorgeous, dark jeans with a snazzy belt, cute brown, mule pumps and a great top (respectable and professional). I thought I looked pretty good and professional for a youngish seminarian and also Director of Religious Education. Personally, I rather like to see a minister in well-dressed in jeans. Not all the time granted but once in while. I really appreciate your thoughtful argument about elitist dress and the message it might send. Food for thought and I often wonder to myself how to put together a snazzy outfit from Old Navy because while I ADORE the Rockport shoes in today’s post, they are $130, a bit beyond my budget raising two children and doing church work in LA! Thanks for your post.

  13. A fair point about matching clothing to space. Which, of course, can be extended to the question of “does the message fit the space?” Just this morning I was reading in local paper about another church closing its doors because it had dwindled beyond the point of return. While yesterday I was seeing a collection of photographs from Washington DC of a church that doesn’t even have a church, it has a theater, and a coffee house, and a few other locations that people meet at while hearing the message.
    The mere fact that I’m still in the church at all, much less planning on dedicating my life to its work, makes me an anomaly. So there’s a place in my heart for what has brought us this far. But if I also believe in the future of the church, and I do, and if I read the history of religious life around the world over the last 5,000 years, then what I see is that the forms are ephemeral. They change, and the churches that don’t change with them die away.
    Churches are institutions, and all institutions have an inherently conservative streak. There’s something powerful in knowing that the church is going to still be there when you need it. There’s something that comes through when a church is rooted in history and heritage and meaning making that’s more than just the flavor of the month extension of pop culture. And yes, being a casual minister in a building that is formal is jarring and disconcerting, all the more so when the membership has an average age that is older than the building.
    This year I go to church in jeans, as I have for most of my life. Next year I’ll be working at one, and a traditional one at that. I’ll put on a suit. You point, and I agree, is not that there is one single rule about what people wear, it’s that what you wear should be related to the context of your work. Don’t come to preside at a funeral in cargos, and don’t come to work at the Habitat project in heels. And that’s the truth, that our message and our work can’t be getting lost in distractions that don’t matter.

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