Register now for "Tell Her Story: Women in Scripture and History!" Spots are still available! Click here to learn more!

Published Date: August 17, 2006

Published Date: August 17, 2006

Featured Articles

Like What You’re Reading?

Click to help create more!

Get CBE’s blog in your inbox!

CBE Abuse Resource

Cover of "Created to Thrive".

Featured Articles

Devil with the Blue Dress

Sometimes the simplest conversations can turn out to be the most complicated. Take for example, the insistence of a relative of mine that a woman should accept her husband’s last name in deference to his headship. Even though I pointed out that the idea of a surname is a relatively recent invention in human history—not even addressed by Scripture—the conversation meandered into several uncomfortable moments leaving him to resolve it by admitting he just preferred it. There was a certain quaintness and comfort in the tradition from which he wasn’t yet ready to part. Admittedly, I understood, even if I disagreed.

While egalitarians are often accused by patriarchalists of capitulating to culture and its demands, there is no doubt in my mind that this is a trap from which the patriarchal side cannot boast freedom. For example, after coming across a website that sold “modest clothing”—which as it turns out requires Victorian clothing patterns—I found that “virtuous” women wear bonnets or that godly women prefer floral prints. Of course, if one prefers ruffles and lace, then by all means, fill the dresser drawers. That is not a problem. The problem I found was an idolizing of a culture of the past, an infusion of the days-gone-by with images of virtue and the insinuation that only the clothing of a particular era or only those who looked a certain way were truly godly.

I was then reminded of a full-page ad I once saw for a conservative Christian boarding school in a leading conservative evangelical magazine. The image used stock photography of a smiling and pleasant looking blond-haired woman, sporting some smart black glasses and a black business suit. The tag line for the school was something like, “Do you want this woman to be your child’s advisor?” What seemed to be implied was that the kind of woman who wears a business suit and takes her career seriously is probably in some way evil, corrupted, or a feminist seeking to destroy your children’s morals.

There is a serious danger when one invests virtue in mere appearance. Whether it is long hair and dresses or power suits, virtue is not in the packaging. That is why I cringe when a perfume labeled “Virtuous Woman” is being sold at the Christian Retail Show. How can virtue be captured in a scent?

I’m reminded of Flannery O’ Connor’s classic short story, Good Country People, in which Manley Pointer, a used Bible salesman from “Willohobie, not even from a place, just near a place,” came knocking on Joy-Hulga Hopewell’s door selling Bibles. Joy-Hulga lost her leg in a hunting accident and spent her life mourning her displacement from society by burying herself in her schooling and earning her Ph.D. A Bible salesman didn’t really impress her, she long lost her belief in God and boasted a new “born-again” freedom in nihilism.

As a “good country” person, Pointer won the trust of Joy-Hulga’s mother, and found himself a guest at their dinner table for the evening. He also managed to win a taste of Joy-Hulga’s lips and maneuver her into a date in a hayloft. After his incessant begging, she gave in to Pointer’s request to see how her wooden leg attached. She took it off and put it back on. Then he took it off and put it back on. This happened repeatedly until he removed it and pushed it away from her.

Now somewhat frightened, Joy-Hulga watched as Manley pulled his Bible out of his briefcase. To her surprise it was hollow, containing a flask, a deck of playing cards, and an assortment of unsavory items. And then it hit her, “aren’t you just good country people?” she asked in shock.

“Come on now,” said Manley avoiding the question and moving uncomfortably closer, “we ain’t got to know one another good yet.” Joy-Hulga tried pushing away and demanding her leg back, but Manley thought she protested too much for a woman who “didn’t believe in nothing.”

“You’re a Christian!” she hissed. “You’re a fine Christian! You’re just like them all—say one thing and do another. You’re a perfect Christian, you’re…”

Manley tossed his Bible and her wooden leg back in the briefcase, and climbed out of the loft. “I’ve gotten a lot of interesting things,” he bragged, “one time I got a woman’s glass eye this way.”

O’Connor’s point is ultimately about Hulga’s nihilism and the wooden leg is an example of her usual literary tool representing the human condition known as “the grotesque.” With the theft of her leg, came the theft of her belief in nothing, for only something could hurt like that. Even more, as he disappeared for the last time, the Bible salesman turned to Joy-Hulga and said smirkingly, “you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born.” Her lesson came at the hands of one who looked and talked like “good country people” but on the inside his heart was as wooden as the leg.

Try as we may to define persons by our standards, the human heart is where we find the real person and it is a treacherous place. Christ came to save sinners, we would do well to remember that no amount of window dressing, whether by clothing or perfume, can do what only he can accomplish.

We aren’t always able to separate what we believe culturally from the actual truth. And at times, people intentionally use cultural identifiers to make a statement. But don’t be fooled, while the devil may have the blue dress on, there are both floral dresses and power suits in his closet as well.

—-
Flannery O’Connor, “Good Country People,” in Heritage of American Literature: Civil War to the Present, Vol. 2, ed. By James E. Miller, Jr. and Kathleen Farley (New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1991), 1917-1929. All quotations are to this edition.