UPDATE: Whereas my post focuses largely on the Christian and exegetical problems at stake with this movement, Dianna Anderson has done an excellent job articulating a liberal feminist perspective on the same. I don't fully agree with Dianna, but her words are not only well woven but extremely important. My lack of agreement does not change the fact that there are women---Christian women---who see this as Dianna does and there needs to be room at the table for their voice to be heard and considered as well. Last week, I stumbled across a meme on Facebook. A young man reads Proverbs 31:10-31 on camera while Christian music plays in the background, followed by his explanation that after seeing so many young women posting Facebook statuses about watching the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show and needing to hit the gym afterward, he was moved to post: "I'd rather have a Proverbs 31 woman than a Victoria's Secret model."
What followed was what has now been identified by the supporters as a "movement." The Facebook page, "I'd rather have a Proverbs 31 woman than a Victoria's Secret model." explains: "This page is self-explanantory. If you look for virtue in a woman over surface beauty like the page. Ladies, like this page as a committment to living Proverbs 31. Invite your friends, but more importantly live the movement."
Nearly 10,000 people have "Liked" the page on Facebook. On the surface, this seems like a potential good, where Christian women can feel that they are being affirmed in the beauty of the virtue they have been given over their outward appearance. Whereas most men would say, I'd rather have a Victoria's Secret model than a Proverbs 31 woman, here are men who desire more.
However, several cracks and dangers exist in the direction this movement is heading, to the extent that there is risk for serious damage down the road.
Let me explain.
But beforehand, let me also put in a disclaimer.
The following is neither an attack nor a slight against the founders of this movement. I shall be critical of their ideas, for I think it wrong to hold those who follow purely accountable for actions instigated by those who lead. But none of what I am about to say is directed at any one person.
This also comes after two attempts were made to articulate concern and seek clarification. The first is here and the second here. You may note that in the case of the second post, the response I received did not address any of the concerns I raised. Furthermore, it raised new concerns that shall be examined below. I am also writing this on my own blog for two reasons: the first is that the movement in question initiated itself in a public forum, which justifies public response, especially after two attempts for clarification; the second is that my own post last Thursday, in which I initially responded to the movement with a spoken-word piece followed by a few thoughts on the issue, drew quite a lot of attention over the past few days. In light of the latter, I have moved all my specific concerns into this single post alone where I can better articulate the issue at hand.
Again, please keep in mind that what I am critiquing here is not the people in question but the ideas that are being promoted, as I strongly believe they pose serious ramifications for the future.
It's a poor reading of Scripture ...
The page implores women to “Live Proverbs 31.”
To begin, let's consider the structure of Proverbs 31. Verse 1 explains that these words come from Lemeul, whom Jewish and Christian scholars believe to be Solomon. Verses 2-9 specify the nature of a wise ruler: don't chase after women, don't drink to excess, and look after the poor and oppressed. Verses 10-31 then describe the character of a wife of excellence, moving in an acrostic form from the first to the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
So what's the problem?
The Proverbs 31 woman is a fiction. The opening of verse ten is clear: "An excellent wife, who can find?" The verses that follow describe what she is like. The wife has not been found. Rather, this ideal woman is being described in a poetic form of an acrostic, enumerating characteristics that are desirous. Ultimately, however, she is not an actual woman. Though she may have the qualities of an actual woman, she is not, as opposed to many other women in the Scripture, a flesh and blood example of holiness and grace.
Accordingly, to tell a woman to "Live 31" is essentially asking her to live the impossible. A point which I am not entirely opposed to, actually, but I am opposed to when the "impossible" in question is Proverbs 31. Why? Well, let's consider this further.
It's an incomplete reading of Scripture ...
The Proverbs 31 woman sounds ideal. Well, that's because she is. She is not a flesh and blood example of womanhood. Indeed, for all their grace and strength, none of the biblical heroines completely measure up to her. In the space of twenty-one verses, she has a number of children, makes business deals, runs her household, and manages to rise before everyone else and make breakfast. If this is the standard, our women of Faith start dropping like flies.
Perhaps this is because the Proverbs 31 woman was never supposed to be the standard by which a woman was measured. Perhaps a woman, just as a man, was made to be measured by the impossible standard of Christ.
Male and female were both made in the image of God. Both are held accountable to that image. If that's the standard, then we all fall short, but we all fall short equally. Our failure has nothing to do with whether or not we have had children or manage to get up in the dark to make breakfast, it has everything to do with the equitable distribution of original sin, which we have all shared in with perfectly equal portions.
Subsequently, Esther, Hannah, Ruth, Sarah, Miriam, Martha, Rahab, Tamar, and company all fall short of the righteousness of Christ, but their righteousness by faith is nonetheless praised. None of them perfectly conform to the Proverbs 31 woman, but that's because the Proverbs 31 woman isn't the model they're supposed to be pursuing.
The person we are all supposed to be, all of us, is Christ our Lord.
All of which sounds great, but you may be wondering why then take issue with the "Live 31" movement itself, since most people would probably agree to the above. Well, let's consider the dark side and the danger zone to this.
Slogan-based Faith can lead to dead faith ...
Perhaps there really is something to the words of the hymn: "My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness."
Anything less doesn't measure up.
It sounds nice to chant "Live 31!" It's catchy, it's cute. Ultimately, however, it produces little in return. Exactly what is a woman supposed to do in order to "Live 31?" And what is a man to do to pursue a woman like that? We have established above that the woman in question is a fiction, an ideal, an abstract that some women may be able to live in part but never in full.
Enter the problem of feeling-based faith.
Because it feels good to say "Live 31!" it seems that no one really questioned what was at stake by saying that. For instance, are we really as Christians called to live as the Proverbs 31 woman or are we called to live like Christ? Do we not see something wrong with taking one piece of Scripture out of context and claiming it as our justification for doing something? Do we not see that there could be a potential risk of not reading the context of Scripture well?
For after the glitter of a new endeavor fades, what is left in its wake is what we become responsible for. Sure, it's wonderful that nearly 10,000 people "Like" the idea of valuing virtue above beauty, but are we so convinced that these people have also understood that their beauty is found in Christ, not in the Proverbs 31 woman? Are we sure that they have understood that though the cry is "Live 31," the focus is on a particular verse in that passage? (I was told the focus was on Proverbs 31:30: "Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised.")
Because as I read through the comments on the Facebook page, that's not what I'm seeing. I have seen people say that we shouldn't use words like "hermeneutics" because what is happening in this movement is "nice."
Yes, the intention may have been "nice," but the result is a very poor reading of Scripture that encourages further poor readings of Scripture.
Scripture, the whole of Scripture, is more important than what we feel about it. If we're misusing the Text, we're dishonoring God.
Moreover, there are now guys on the page jumping to say which passage of Scripture is for men to follow. The end game here is a dangerous one: we pick and choose which parts of the Text we like and ignore the parts that challenge us, present paradox, or outright tell us that we are wrong. Ultimately, it is the presumption that because I feel something is from God, it must be.
On the Facebook page, post after post uses slogans like "A woman's heart should be so hid in God that a man has to seek Him to find it" and "Dance with God, He'll know when to let a man cut in" and, perhaps the worst thing I have ever read: "Trust God to hold your heart, He'll know when to give it to a man."
While the sentiment may make us feel good, the implications are problematic. What exactly is theologically sound about saying that God will give your heart to a man? God should never stop holding your heart. In addition to the ridiculousness of the image, it's theologically backward. Yet slogan-based faith can breed this kind of foolishness. Few ask hard questions that consider perhaps these cute sayings are actually nowhere to be found in Scripture. Instead, because they sound nice, they're picked up and paraded around.
But this sort of faith can also die quickly. Along with it, the thousands that committed to this movement are left without the discipleship to continue on toward a faithful relationship with Jesus Christ. Nowhere on the page is there a clear exposition of the place of Christ in the midst of our lives, let alone the life of a woman. And while it might be cute to say that a Proverbs 31 woman is a "Christian," we might do well to recall that she is profoundly culturally Jewish as much as she is fictitious.
It's irresponsible to allow a movement to grow this large without firmly rooting it in the cross of our Lord or in a holistic reading of the Text.
But, further, let's take a look into how this thinking can be dangerous.
It's a liminal space of quasi-morality ...
Take a look around the Facebook page and you'll notice pretty quickly that there's a lot of guys and girls mingling in their shared faith journey. Now, I firmly believe that those who started the group had no intention of doing this, but it is obvious that those who have since joined find no problem in exploring their dating options in the process of affirming their worth.
Why? Because most Christian girls who are willing to post ridiculous things about God and their heart that are not found in Scripture are also incredibly foolish when it comes to anything that sounds like it could come from a "Godly" man. A boy says he'd rather have Jesus than a beer and suddenly the Heaven's have opened and the trump has sounded. The emotional center goes into overdrive and the world looks afresh.
Essentially, you're dealing with all the emotional manipulation of a Twilight book in the guise of advancing a positive image of a Godly woman. I don't want to dwell on this too long, but do consider exactly what the purpose is for some of the posts being shared, especially those that are being heavily liked by members of the opposite sex. If you're fresh out of youth group, as many of my readers are, you know exactly what I'm talking about. For certain guys, there's nothing more attractive than a girl with a testimony.
Moreover, the "Live 31" movement is turned quickly into a brand. Already there is talk of products, another take on the WWJD. Brands are nice, but brands tend not to be biblical. A commercialization of the Gospel may lose the Gospel in the process. There's too good a chance that "Live 31" will become a forgotten expression on a clearance rack in an outlet mall. A real shame, as the intent was so good, but the execution can become meaningless.*
But that's not all, there's an even darker side to this movement, the final two prongs that make it so dangerous.
It's exclusionary to other Christians ...
We've already discussed that the Proverbs 31 woman is a fiction, but let's consider for a moment that she isn't. Since the movement supposes that she is an attainable form, given that the slogan is "Live 31!", what's the ramification of her being the ideal of a woman?
Well, that's great if you're married and a mother. It's not so great if you aren't.
Claiming a Proverbs 31 woman comes at the exclusion of those women who are called to be celibate or who do not have children---we should recall, if we advocate a full reading of Scripture, that St. Paul is strongly in favor of celibacy, so it can very well indeed be a noble spiritual calling of our Lord.
Again, it's a disservice to the Text to try to make it about all women, because the whole of Scripture has given us examples of real women who do not fit the woman of Proverbs 31: Sarah, Tamar, Leah, Esther, Deborah, Miriam, Lydia, Mary Magdaline, Martha, the Virgin Mary, and so on.
The Proverbs 31 woman is indeed to be praised, but she is not the only type. It's hurtful to a woman who is not married or who cannot have children to be made to feel that the standard she is judged by is set so hastily in a single portion of Scripture.
Moreover, if "Live 31!" is our thinking, where is the equivalent passage for what it means to be a man? Job? Then what of Paul's instructions? Be like Caleb? What about John the Beloved who reclined against the breast of Jesus? (A slightly more effeminate quality that I imagine many of the posters on the Facebook page would balk at.)
Ultimately, this encourages a marginal reading of the Scripture instead of a genuine consideration of the whole. A whole which tells us that the standard for all of us is the person of Jesus Christ.
And, finally, what about the Victoria's Secret models?
St. Peter reminds us that God is long suffering so that none would be lost. I would hope that those who "Like" this movement also keep in prayer those women who are frightfully beautiful but are not yet Believers. For I hope that we hope that they too would have their hearts turned.
I hope that a Victoria's Secret model never sees that Facebook page, because I fail to see how in any sense or in any way it would turn her to the cross of Christ. There is no grace for her in the midst of those posts, there is certainly no invitation for her to come and listen to mercy.
Indeed, we should be careful to never judge the merit of a woman who happened to be beautiful by presuming that she was not also indwelled by the power of Holy Ghost. (Yes, the page targets Victoria's Secret models, but as many of the posts on the page indicate, physical beauty is being marginalized for the sake of a spiritual beauty to the point that some might question the ability to have both.)
We would do well to ask ourselves if a Victoria's Secret model is a potential woman at the well? If so, though we may be right to condemn those choices she has made to display her body so as to objectify her sex, we have no business making those statements coupled with a desire to put her down for the sake of elevating ourselves.
Authority is always an issue ...
When you start a "movement," you are responsible for it. If you allow it to head a direction contrary to the whole of Scripture, you're accountable as essentially a teacher to that reality. Continuing to post "Live 31" and pith phrases about beauty are all part of a rhetoric of teaching to which you are going to be held to account. If they cannot measure to the whole of he Text, they aren't worthy of being taught or supported.
So, in the end ...
Proverbs 31:9 tells us, "Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and needy."
The call is to "Live 31!"
Well, if we are to "Live 31," have we truly considered the rights of the afflicted and the needy if we have supported such a careless regard for the whole of the Scripture and with the marginalization of those women who, according to a reading stripped of context, cannot measure up?
*Thanks to Natalie, in the comments below, I realized these lines needed serious qualification.