‘Charm is deceitful, and beauty empty’: a biblical jolt to our superficial age

Models on the catwalk in Paris (Getty Images)

Yesterday Catholics were treated to the Poem of the Perfect Wife from the Book of Proverbs as a first reading at Sunday Mass. The version read was slightly edited, but you can find the complete version here, starting at verse ten. Or you might prefer this translation at Bible Gateway, which also allows you to compare and contrast other translations.

The poem is tacked onto the end of the Book of Proverbs, presumably because some editor thought it was too good not to be included. Or perhaps it comes at the end of the book, not as an appendix, but as a triumphant conclusion, the vision of the good wife being the summit of divine wisdom manifest on earth. Whichever way, it is a great passage and one that deserves more attention than it gets.

The one phrase that struck me (from the Lectionary version) was this: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty empty; the woman who is wise is the one to praise.” These words have been part of our cultural heritage for two millennia, but their meaning has not really sunk in.

Despite the truth of these words, the fashion and beauty industries are among the largest on earth, second only to the arms industry, it is commonly thought. Our expectations are warped by this: we spend a lot of time discussing how women look, rather than appraising what they have achieved, or listening to what they say. Men, by contrast, can get away with looking as if they have been pulled through a hedge backwards. (Yes, Boris, it is you I mean.)

But it gets worse. Because we are obsessed with the superficial, we lose sight of the life of the mind and the life of the soul, and what really matters, things like hard work, honesty and truthfulness. Just as the ancient Romans were distracted by bread and circuses, so are we by the latest look of Kate or Naomi or Keira. The obsession with superficiality has a corrosive effect not just on the character, but on society as a whole, reflecting the collapse of values.

This is seen most clearly of all in the proliferation of pornography, now more widely available than ever before, and more hardcore than ever before. Society is becoming pornified, as people mistake the images of porn for the reality of the world. While we can suspend disbelief (and get it back again afterwards) when dealing with other fictions, the fiction of porn becomes our reality, and changes human behaviour in a disastrous way.

Porn raises a profound question: what are we for? Are we merely machines made for pleasure, or are we bodies with souls, made for serving each other and sharing in the glory of God? As such, porn presents a profound challenge to religion in general and Catholicism in particular. It should be deeply worrying that so many are now living as if porn were true, and the Gospel were not.

The author of the poem could not have known this when he wrote those lines: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty empty; the woman who is wise is the one to praise.” But what was true about human nature then, is true now. We have not changed very much over the years. We are susceptible to the attractions of false images. But “all that glisters is not gold”, as Shakespeare said. The fight against porn is surely one that the Church needs to take on with increasing vigour. After all, we are meant to be counter-cultural, and in this matter our culture, or what is left of it, is clearly at stake.