Modesty, Flames, and Fitness Culture
These days, writing a blog post on modesty is like wandering into a room full of flaming candles while holding a gasoline can. One step in the wrong direction, one splash too big, and the entire room, including the author, is completely engulfed in flames.
My intention is not to burn anything here. I write to the Christian guy, and I’m holding a can of water. Water is true, nourishing, refreshing, and life-giving to those who find it.
If at any point you have been interested in fitness, it doesn’t take you long to realize that fitness culture is marked by a lack of clothing. Wander into any gym, scroll through popular fitness influencers’ profiles, or even type “fitness” into a Google search, and there’s just not a lot of clothes.
I think I’m stating the obvious here. And as a Christian man who loves fitness, this problem is tragic and saddening for me.
But this marketing sells, and fitness culture continues on without a lot of clothes. And any dissenters on modesty in the Christian camp are quickly labelled as old-fashioned and cultural-luddites at best, and legalistic, condescending, Puritanical-haters at worst.
So why write about it then? By making this obvious observation, I hope to echo another obvious observation made by a small voice who watched something immodest happen in his day.
The Emperor Has No Clothes
Hans Christian Anderson, a prolific Danish author, wrote a story that spawned our modern-day idiom the emperor has no clothes from his story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes“.
As the story goes, there’s an emperor who loves his clothing. When two devious weavers show up to town, they promise the emperor they can make the finest of fabric into a marvelous garment. In fact, their fabrics and products were so wonderful, that they claim the fabric would turn invisible to anyone who was “unfit for his office, or unusually stupid”.
The emperor commissions the swindling weavers to make him this magnificent garment. He sends a minister to check on their progress. The minister walked into the weaving chamber, but while the weavers were busy and skillfully working, the minister couldn’t see any material or fabric on the looms.
Confused, but unwilling to admit he was unfit to be a minister or unusually stupid, the minister comments how beautiful and wonderful the fabric is, and then gives this positive report to the emperor.
The emperor then sends a high ranking official to check in on the weavers. He too does not see anything, but unwilling to admit he was unfit to be in his position or unusually stupid, the official praises the work of the weavers, and reports back to the emperor with the good news.
Soon the whole town was a buzz with how magnificent this fabric was. The emperor, wanting to see the fabric for himself, visits with his minister, his official, and a band of other attendees. The minister and official start cooing once they see the nearly finished work and praise the beauty of the garment.
But the emperor is confused; he doesn’t see anything. But, also unwilling to admit he was unfit to be an emperor or unusually stupid, he declares the work as beautiful. The rest of his men catch on and also praise the garment.
The weavers finish their work. They present the finished garment to the emperor and his noblemen, and they help the emperor dress into his new clothing. His noblemen gawk at the magnificence of the new clothes, stoop down to pick up his emperor’s “mantle” and join the emperor to walk around town.
The entire town praise the emperor’s fine and perfect clothes, as they also did not want to admit they were unfit for their positions or unusually stupid. The emperor had never received such recognition before.
The charade parade continued through town, until a small child piped up: “but he hasn’t got anything on.”
This comment spreads through the town, and the townspeople start admitting that the emperor doesn’t have anything on. But the emperor, though suspecting they might be right, is unwilling to admit he is unfit for his position or unusually stupid, and followed by his noblemen, continue with the naked procession.
Modesty: Fitness Culture Has No Clothes
The pressure the emperor, minister, official, noblemen and townspeople felt to be perceived a certain way by others was stronger than their instinct to tell the truth. The Bible calls this the fear of man, which has been laying snares for centuries (Proverbs 29:25).
But the lone voice of the small child stated the absolute obvious that the other characters chose to ignore – there wasn’t any clothing on the emperor. He didn’t look magnificent in his new wardrobe. He looked naked.
Similarly, the values, beliefs, systems, and artifacts (i.e. culture) of the fitness industry has long accepted and celebrated the lack of clothing. In a sense, fitness culture props up a form of nakedness on public display. The charade parade flows down any fitness media channel, through effective fitness marketing, and into the streets where we all live. But, to state the absolute obvious, fitness culture isn’t really wearing any clothes.
And the emperor could have actually worn something beautiful and magnificent. He could have worn something real, valuable, and glorious. That’s the tragedy of the story, and the true tragedy of fitness culture having no clothes.
The True and the Beautiful Water
In Proverbs 5, Solomon is writing to his sons to listen up and be attentive to his wisdom (Proverbs 5:1-2). And the subject of this wise discourse is on what he calls “the forbidden woman” (Proverbs 5:2).
He goes to great lengths to describe her. She is tantalizing at first but bitter in the end (Proverbs 5:3-4). She is ignorant of the true paths to life and thus finds her way to death (Proverbs 5:5-6). She is introduced again in chapter 6, and in chapter 7 he describes a young man’s encounter with her.
Solomon gives his sons two essential instructions concerning her. The first is to stay far away (Proverbs 5:7-14), and the second is to drink true, nourishing, and refreshing water (Proverbs 5:15-23).
This water is the true and the beautiful. It’s a deep cistern and well (Proverbs 5:15) and entirely exclusive (Proverbs 5:17). This water is a flowing fountain, and it’s the wife of your youth (Proverbs 5:18).
And when Solomon starts to describe what it’s like to drink this water, he poetically places nakedness within its right context; the exclusive fountain of the marital bed. He tells his son to enjoy the wife of his youth in naked detail, and to be intoxicated always in that love (Proverbs 5:19). Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well (Proverbs 5:15).
This is the tragedy of fitness culture having no clothes. The charade parade goes through the streets, putting a form of nakedness on display, but instead of bringing refreshment and nourishment, it just scatters water in the streets (Proverbs 5:17). Fitness culture misplaces nakedness away from the private context it’s meant to thrive in and instead publicizes a form of it for any and all.
For the Christian guy, reclaim the true and the beautiful. State the absolute obvious, stay away from the charade parade, and enjoy the wife of your youth. Drink from what is gloriously true and beautiful.
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