Yesterday I wrote a review of Aimee Byrd’s book, “Why can’t we be friends” (it’s great, by the way – you should read it). At the end of that review I said “As I got to the end of the book, it struck me that there are many more angles on this which weren’t covered. I don’t say that as a negative – just that I have realised this topic is so much bigger than I thought it was a few months ago.”
One of the things which I have been thinking about is about the body – a topic I wrote about fairly recently but I think is worth exploring in more detail. There is something of a ‘modesty’ culture in Christian circles – it’s probably more pronounced in America, from what I hear, but certainly Christian women in the UK know about it. Women are supposed to cover up, not to expose too much, lest their bodies might cause a brother to stumble.
The problem is, of course, that women start to see their bodies as a source of temptation and shame and men start to see women’s bodies as a source of temptation and something to avoid. This kind of modesty culture seems to me to actually encourage seeing one another sexually. The irony – something which is designed to avoid temptation actually ends up causing more of it! But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Trying to deal with a situation through the Law rather than Grace. It can’t be done – the Spirit is the only way.
If we truly believe that bodies are good, and that Christ came in the body to redeem us – body and soul – and that our whole bodies should be used as instruments of righteousness – shouldn’t Christians be known for our love of all things physical? Shouldn’t Christians be known to demonstrate our affection physically (“Greet each other with a holy kiss”, as Paul says in no less than four of his epistles!). What right does the church have to be so concerned with the pharisaic appearance of righteousness that it overlooks these things?
A few months ago I was at a youth event with some of our church teenagers. The speaker was from another local church, and he talked from Psalm 139 about how God made us and how God loves us. One of the things he said which really hit home to our teenage girls was about loving ourselves and our bodies, because God made us. These girls are so often given negative messages about their bodies – they need to look a certain way to fit in, etc – that it was revolutionary for them to hear something positive about their bodies. And it’s made me think: what good news do Christians have to offer for people, women especially, who are struggling in this way?
I know one or two women who are blessed with breasts that are above average in size (the fact that I had to resist a huge temptation to use a euphemism there is probably in itself indicative that something is wrong!). I think they feel a little ashamed of themselves, like they have to disguise it – that maybe their bodies are a cause of sexual temptation. Obviously this isn’t the case for every woman in this situation, but in a culture where breasts are sexualised to the point they are in much of Western society, you can hardly blame Christian women for feeling a bit guilty.
What kind of good news is the church offering young women if it sends out a conflicted message – “your bodies are good, a temple of the holy spirit, made beautiful by God – BUT try and cover yourself up and stop men looking at you.” The more I think about it, the more I think that we as a church need to be working hard at this – we need to show people what it means to love one another, bodies included. Not just tell them. I often think of Glynn Harrison’s book “A Better Story” – we need to be showing the world a better story, not preaching one story from our lips but demonstrating something else with our actions.
We believe that God made bodies and made them good – let’s ask God to help us show that and not just proclaim it.
So… we should all become nudists, right?
Haha. Good try, No, that’s not what I’m saying. But we still deal with the effects of sin and the fall – modesty is of some value, even if we haven’t got everything right in the church. But we should challenge unhealthy attitudes wherever they are found, and I do feel that some of the attitudes in the church at the moment are unhealthy. Bodies are good – that doesn’t mean we need to be naked all the time! Grace doesn’t mean that we can throw all caution to the wind, especially with those outside the church. (Paul may have been alluding in 1 Corinthians 11 about long hair to temple prostitutes, who would signal their availability by waving their uncovered hair around. It’s important to be wise about how we engage with the world.)
The challenge is to present a right attitude to the world while at the same time acknowledge that the world has gone very wrong. How we do that is not an easy thing, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. Personally, I’m just beginning to think about this and start to get my head around it.
But some food for thought: many of the great artworks of previous generations contained nudity – think of Michelangelo’s David, for example. He, and many classical artists, could see the beauty and dignity of the human body. (I should say, so can many artists today). We, by contrast, live in a culture where women have to fight for the right to breastfeed their babies (I have two young daughters, both of whom were breastfed – I know a little of the struggle that goes on here). Breasts are so sexualised and seen as improper that it’s become difficult in public for a woman to do one of the most natural things in the world. What a messed up world we live in!
Perhaps we as a church need to recover something of the goodness of bodies, not reduce them (as society does) to sexual gratification but see the beauty inherent in what God made good. All of this is part and parcel of what it means to be friends – seeing each other holistically, as Aimee Byrd put it. I pray that God will enliven the church to meet the hour – that we may be driven further into the Scriptures to seek what the Spirit is saying at this time.