A theology of fashion? Why bother with such a trivial subject you ask?
Perhaps its not all that trivial.
Perhaps, if your response is similar to the one above, we do well to consider why it is seen as trivial.
During my trip down to Iowa in October to speak at Dordt's Christian Evasion of Popular Culture conference, I bumped into Bob Covolo who is doing work at Fuller Seminary on the topic of fashion. Unfortunately I was so exhausted after my paper I did not have an opportunity to hear his paper. After reading an article someone posted on the new black dandies in higher education, I decided to look Bob up on the interwebs and found this great article on Cardus.
Bob's article surveys a variety of approaches toward fashion and encourages the church to engage in thicker readings and engagements with fashion.
Fashion has always been a sort of guilty pleasure for me. As an artist, clothing has always been another form of expression for me, but has always been subverted by the typical sorts of critiques that Bob alludes to coming from the church. I suspect that fashion, like the visuals arts, are often seen as trivial, and utilitarian in nature (one for covering the body, the other for Evangelism).
I think Bob is on track with the breadth of questions that fashion raises for church. But, I keep coming back to...what seems to me is a avoidance and escapist sense of materiality (including the human body itself). Perhaps its just remnants of my own Dordt paper coming out, but the whole Gnostic escapism thing really could resonate with why the church devalues things like fashion and the arts....they are fleeting, of this world, and distract us from our spiritual duties, until we can leave this place behind. If we dont take bodies seriously, how much less of an emphasis do we place on those things we put on our bodies and around us in our homes and such? But that being said, there are resonances (at least in my mind) between our fields. However, I suspect that Bob is up against even tougher critics that rely upon biblical prooftexting
Well, here is the first post on the new site.
Here it goes...
Its interesting to me how often a certain ideas or discussion occur in bunches...as in when different people, of different groups bring up similar ideas and you laugh internally thinking, "didn't I just have this conversation with so and so?" Well this post is kind of like that for me.
I wouldn't say that I was necessarily a fan of all that thegospelcoalition.com folk put out, but this article was pretty well done and fair. What are Evangelicals to do with the creeds and councils? I grew up in an evangelical Reformed church where the Apostles Creed was said regularly and we were certainly aware of other the other creeds, like the Nicene, which was said perhaps once a year. So in someways, the title and and even the necessity of the statement would for much of my life seem absurd..."What do you mean, 'what do we do with the creeds and councils'?" We use them as a guide and rule for our faith. But it was on a plane somewhere over the US when a devout Southern Baptist stranger in the seat next to me asked what I was reading. It was Alister McGrath's scant volume on the Apostle's Creed. He was my age, which then was about 30, and he had never heard of the Apostles Creed. I was dumbstruck. I know that Baptists are non-creedal folk, except for the very creedal statement "No creed but the bible." I had assumed that while it may not be prefigured into their lives of faith, that it was still known.
I appreciate the writers attempt to connect the Evangelical tradition with the larger history of the church and many of the points he makes does counter prevailing assumptions about Evangelicals and tradition. I am still skittish about how he might be referring to the authority of scripture and its inspiration in a culture of individualism, where we say we place the authority upon scripture as the norm, but authority is still tied to our interpretations of that, and thus the authority we confirm upon scripture is really rooted in the individual prone to distortions of all kinds and claims of truth. It is exactly for this reason the Evangelical church is in such desperate need of the catholicity of faith, across the ages, and around the world, which necessarily includes the Creeds and Councils.
Having summarized several aspects of Robert Bellah's Habits of the Heart last October, I want to turn briefly to Nathan Hatch’s work in Democratization of American Christianity which should help to create a better vista of how our current doctrines and practice are be compromised by individualism.
Hatch attempts to show how the democratic spirit of early America set the tone for the American church as it took on the spirit of the age. This democratic spirit emerged in three profound ways. First, American’s rejected the traditional separation between clergy and laity where power and virtue was transferred from the educated elite to larger body of individuals.1 Apart from the well educated elite and tradition, individuals were free to explore their “spiritual impulses” thus defining faith for themselves. Filled with democratic hope, Christianity was to become a liberating force for all people from authoritarian structures. From these beginnings, Hatch says that three tendencies emerged for American Christianity: 1) mingling of diverse and contradictory sources, 2) fragmentation, and finally inversion of authority. American religious experience mirrors what was taking place in the name of equality and freedom both at a national level and within its constituents by the systematic and simultaneous raising of the common individual by casting off oppressive authority and placing that authority into the hands of each person. A largely untrained people became the prime interpreters of scripture, now taken from the oppressive hands of educated clergy revealing a populist common-sense or self-evident hermeneutic.
 Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 9.
 Ibid., 10.
 Ibid., 11.
 Ibid., 35.
The lifestyle enclave becomes a means of self-expression where the self has been divided between the working public life and private and intimate sphere of the home. Once the self is separated from family, religion, and work, individuals can express their “unique identity” by joining lifestyle enclaves. Rooted in private leisure and consumption, enclaves gather those who are “socially, economically, or culturally similar” to enjoy like-minded individuals. In contrast to a community which seeks to be inclusive, celebrating the interdependence of public and private life, the lifestyle enclave is exclusive. Marriages and church affiliation reduced to the affinity of lifestyle enclaves.
If we have separated the self from family, religion, work, and tradition, what is left to constitute the self? The simple answer is our preferences. But, what are these choices really based upon? If selves are simply defined by their preferences which are arbitrary, “each self constitutes its own moral universe, and there is finally no way to reconcile conflicting claims about what is good in itself.” Without any larger objective framework for right and wrong, good and evil, the self and its feelings become the moral guide. The self is constantly in progress but without fixed moral end and is able to adapt behavior to various social roles. Self-awareness and self-knowledge leading to personal happiness become the keys forming ones personal moral convictions.
Finding oneself also means finding the story in which our life seems to make sense. Yet they seek to do this as individuals without reference or perceived shared experience with a “larger generational, historical religious context” Each life stage becomes a crisis of further individuation. Public work and the private lifestyle enclave become the means of orienting or filling ones divergent selves.
The individual, while striving for self-reliance still seeks out social interaction in the lifestyle enclave. He is afraid to admit the need to such interaction at the expense of his independence and identity. Rather than an empty, unencumbered, consuming self, what would the interactions of a encumbered self look like? The authors suggest Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue to describe communities of memory. Communities are in many ways constituted by their past and re-telling those stories as its central narrative, and by doing so, “offers examples of men and women who have embodied and exemplified the meaning of the community.” Traditions are built upon the stories and lives the community and “contain conceptions of character, what a good person is like, and of the virtues that define such a character.” These stories tell of health and sickness, success and failure bind the community to the past and turn to the future in hope. We see our part in the story being woven into the greater whole. This takes place at the family level as we pass on stories, heirlooms, and practice family rituals. Communities of memory are also practiced at the national level seen in our holidays and monuments. But powerfully we see the potential for this in the church. Each Sunday and liturgical year, our journey to the church building and worship services re-enact and re-constitute the Christian narrative and community. History and memory become the key to constituting ones future. These communities are enacted in special ways called “practices of commitment.” Memories, hopes, and fears are not only passed on orally but are also practices that define the “patterns of loyalty and obligation that keep the community alive.” Yet, where history is forgotten, community “degenerates into life-style enclaves.”
America has had a varied past of established and disestablished religion. However, once it is disestablished it becomes a private matter to be practiced within the church walls and at home. For many in America, religion is a private and optional matter not to enter the public domain. As a private matter, the autonomous individual, apart from the constraints of any religious system is free to concoct a spirituality as they choose. The authors highlight a woman named Sheila Larson who has named her religion or faith after herself. “Sheilaism” is based on “her little voice” to “love yourself and be gentle with yourself” and “take care of each other.” Since religion is a private matter, diversity or plurality is not only acceptable but encouraged.
 Bellah, 72.
 Ibid., 76.
 Ibid., 76-77.
 Ibid., 82.
 Ibid., 153.
 Ibid., 154.
 Ibid., 221.
For Americans, freedom is likely the most deeply resonant and shared value of American society. Yet this freedom, is conceived in the libertarian sense (as we have commented often this semester) as freedom from others values, ideas, lifestyles in both private and public life. Commonality is shared only in the right of the individual to pursue ones own ideals. Justice, based individual rights, becomes the only means to effect and ensure such equal opportunity. In so far as success, justice, and freedom all are common American themes, they provide little help in talking about anything beyond the individual.
The authors suggest that cultural traditions are conversations or arguments about the meaning of the groups shared destiny. Americans have often used a biblical and/or republican mode of discourse to speak of the country’s shared destiny and meaning. The Puritans become the prime exemplar in their desire to create a community where one could live a truly spiritual life. A libertarian sense of freedom is rejected in favor of a “moral” freedom of what is “good, just, and honest” in the context of the covenant between God and humanity. In contrast, the republican ideal casts Thomas Jefferson as the exemplar of public participation for the larger good of society. Equality is conceived as a universal principle defined in primarily political terms to allow equal citizen participation in a self-governing society.
The authors describe individualism in two particular forms: utilitarian and expressive. Benjamin Franklin is the epitome of the utilitarian expression of individualism where the individual rises to success through hard work and personal initiative. Many believed that if each individual vigorously pursued his or her own interest, the social good would also automatically emerge. Societal participation becomes contractual where individuals enter merely to advance ones self-interests.
Expressive individualism, a form of Romanticism and best exemplified by Walt Whitman, arose in reaction to the materialistic pursuits of utilitarian individualism. Expressive individualism sought to cultivate the self and self-expression where each person has a “unique core of feeling and intuition that must unfold if individuality is to be expressed.” These sentiments are easily identifiable in Whitman’s writings, as well as, Emerson, Thoreau, Melville and others. For the expressivists, “the ultimate use of the American’s independence was to cultivate and express the self and explore its vast social and cosmic identities.”
 Ibid., 27. See Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, (South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 206-207.
 Ibid., 30-31,
 Ibid., 33.
 Ibid., 333-4.
“How ought we to live? How do we think about how to live? Who are we, as Americans? What is our character?” So begins Habits of the Heart. Its authors, delving into the life and values of “white, middle-class Americans” explore the pervasiveness of individualism. Their study and title gives homage to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America by returning to his “admiration and anxiety” over the great strength of American individuals, as well as, the potentially isolating tendency of individualism. Tocqueville described these American mores or “habits of the heart” not only as “ideas and opinions but habitual practices with respect to such things as religion, political participation, and economic life.” He described it as the disposition of “each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraws into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself”…where individuals “imagine their whole destiny is in their hands”…finally forgetting their ancestors and descendents.
This sociological study explores the nature of the individual’s participation in both public life through local politics, activism, and voluntary associations and ones private life in terms of love, marriage, and therapy. The first chapter highlights four very distinct individuals which serve to illumine their points through out the text. Even though they betray sharp contrasts in many ways they all share a common individualistic vocabulary in conversations about morality, society, and politics which they call the “first language of American individualism.” Their differences often come in a variety of second languages.
These four individuals give us a broad look at cultural values and the difficulty of reconciling them. The authors claim that our “American cultural traditions define personality, achievement and the purpose of human life in ways that leave the individual suspended in glorious, but terrifying, isolation” because ones selected “values and priorities” are merely a personal choice, as long as it does not interfere with the choices of others, and not justified by a “wider framework of purpose or belief.” The good is then defined by one finds rewarding however, as ones preferences change, so does the good.
Where there is no shared standard value system, individuals all exist on equal ground where tolerance becomes the virtue of plurality. As a private matter, one cannot impose upon another’s chosen values. In such a world, conflicts are resolved by “honesty and communication” of ones “needs and desires” as matters of “technical problem solving, not moral decision.” Morality then is based on the highly subjective nature of personal preferences. Values are arbitrarily chosen. As a result, successful self-reliance and self-fulfillment become the standards for choosing those preferences and yet, that self-fulfillment is done in radical isolation without means of affecting that same fulfillment for others. The only, and very ironic, fragile unity that such a strident diversity is able to bring about is in the language of individual rights.
 Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), xli.
 Ibid., xliii
 Ibid., xlii
 Ibid., 37.
 Ibid., 37.
 Ibid., 20.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 16.
 Ibid., 7.
 Ibid., 16.