From Cairo to Christ by Abu Atallah, Free for CAPC Members
Simply put, From Cairo to Christ is an uplifting, illuminating, and convicting read.
My wife spent this last Saturday morning ministering to and mentoring young women in foster care. As part of a larger program, she spent focused one-on-one time with a number of six teenage girls, listening to their stories, talking to them, and giving them a gift that she has cultivated with care and grace over a number of years: proper skin care and a knowledge of how to apply makeup that works with their facial features.
The application of makeup, or the styling and cutting of hair, can be undertaken with vanity, it is true, but it can also be approached with a sense of play, and a desire to honor the God of creation.A number of these young women have grown up in difficult and abusive homes. Some don’t have mothers. Others had never had a stitch of makeup on in their lives and wouldn’t know where to start. And so, my wife, expert that she is, taught them how to wash their faces, massaged them, and then helped them understand how to use makeup in a way that amplifies and accentuates their natural features–eyes, cheeks, lashes, and lips–instead of drowning them out in a wash of paint.
I see this as a service and not simply a misguided encouragement to vanity, and to make my case, I’d like to call to the stand a witness: Genevan Reformer John Calvin’s theology of the body.
Calvin, Defender of the Body
Calvin might seem like an odd source to appeal to. He certainly wasn’t known for his expertise in mascara, nor the proper application of blush. (Though he did seem to have a fabulous beard that probably required some grooming.) What’s more, he makes no bones about the fact that he considers the soul, and indeed, the intellect, as the chief seat of God’s Image in humanity.
And yet, Calvin and the Reformed tradition that followed after him clearly rejected the Platonic error that totally divorced body from soul. Indeed, he says that the glory of the Image also suffuses the body (Institutes, 1.15.3). Elsewhere, though emphasizing its corruptibility apart from redemption, Calvin says “the human body shows itself to be a composition so ingenious that its Artificer is rightly judged a wonder worker” (1.5.2), and that in its wholeness, human nature as body and soul is “the most illustrious ornament and glory of the earth” (Comment on Ps. 24:1, quoted in Calvin on the Christian Life by Michael Horton, pg. 63).
In this, he simply follows the biblical narrative that pictures God as a workman, rolling up his sleeves in creative delight, forming humanity from the dust (Gen. 2:7). It is in this body that man is called to work and play, to go be fruitful and multiply, and take the earth in hand to shape it and tend it as a reflection of his dirt-shaping God. And this is the same body included in the redemption of the curse through Christ, who took on flesh, so that he might redeem us, soul and body as a whole, in his own resurrection (Rom. 8; 1 Cor. 6; 15).
In other words, God made your smile to glorify him as well as your soul.
Overcoming Gnostic Fears
I fear that many in the Church, especially in Evangelicalism of a somewhat fundamentalist pedigree, while publicly affirming the good of creation, have given into a subtle gnosticism when it comes to the cultivation of physical beauty. Though there are still some problems with them, I’ll be honest, I’m grateful for things like Dove ads noting the real danger that women face in a world that bombards them with advertisement after advertisement, teaching them to conform to a particular standard of beauty.
Still, given our tendency to quickly share every article Jesus-juking makeup, it appears that some of us seem to think the only reason a woman might care to put on makeup, or take the time to do her hair, or read up on the latest skin-care treatments is some deep-seated insecurity. With a quick appeal to 1 Peter 3:3-4 (” Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry…”), in this picture, the only thing worth cultivating with respect to human dignity is the soul, and more specifically, the intellect. There is no place for the body, or physical appearances, as an object of care. My wife embracing, taking care of these girls, and teaching them to take care of themselves was an act of love, especially for girls who’ve received little care in their lives. A friend said it reminded her of washing Jesus’ feet with perfume–an extravagance that was criticized but was a beautiful act of care and love.
As Calvin notes, Peter doesn’t actually “forbid neatness and elegance in clothing. If the material is said to be too sumptuous, the Lord has created it; and we know that skill in art has proceeded from him. Then Peter did not intend to condemn every sort of ornament, but the evil of vanity” (Comment on 1 Peter 3:3). Though speaking of clothing here, the point can be applied across to the application of makeup and, yes, surprisingly enough, probably even for Calvin, the braiding of hair. We often forget that warnings like these aren’t the only references in scripture to the cultivation of beauty. Song of Solomon praises the physical beauty of the lovers (Song 3-4), and the New Jerusalem’s beauty is praised as that of a Bride, adorned for her husband (Rev. 21:2). It’s hard to imagine either of those images without a little blush, or a hair-pin or two involved.
Yes, women are not to find their ultimate value in their looks (nor are men for that matter), nor ought they derive their deep spiritual assurance in the attention they get for their looks. These things, as Scripture says, are “perishable,” and certainly not enough to sustain the weight of the human soul–only Christ is strong enough for that. And yet that doesn’t forbid them from cultivating their appearance altogether.
The application of makeup, or the styling and cutting of hair, can be undertaken with vanity, it is true, but it can also be approached with a sense of play, and a desire to honor the God of creation. We can approach nature with an attitude of destructive, selfish control, or, with a humble intent cultivate a garden that artistically highlights the potentialities God placed within creation for us to develop. Much in the same way, the application of makeup, or the styling of hair can be performed along the grain of creation. There is a difference between art and mere artifice.
What’s more, anything can be turned into an object of false assurance, including our intellects. Scripture has far more injunctions against being puffed up through false wisdom (for instance, 1 Cor. 1-4), and yet most Christians see learning to read as a cultivation of the mind that reflects God’s glory. Wouldn’t it be sad, if in encouraging our young women to shun the idolatry of beauty, we ended up encouraging them to take up the idolatry of intellectualism or competitive achievement? No, just as there is a creative dignity in learning to read, there is a special dignity in learning to care for and develop the physical gifts God has given us.
Once more, God made smiles to glorify him too, and there’s nothing wrong with keeping them white, or learning to highlight them with a little lip gloss.
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