Over the past week or two I’ve started working my way through Revelation with Ian Paul’s new Tyndale Commentary. I’ve very much enjoyed reading it so far – Revelation is a book I’ve always been a bit scared of, so getting to grips with it has been on my list for a long time.
The other day I came across an interesting comment on Revelation 3:18 (from the letter to the church in Laodicea). That verse says: “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so that you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so that you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so that you can see.”
In Greek culture, nakedness served to show off the glory of the human body, and participants in the games competed naked – hence our word ‘gymnast’ derives from the Greek for ‘naked’. The associated shame is in line with Jewish rejection of public nakedness (and hence their objection to the games), but here relates to the Laodiceans’ failure to ‘put on’ the way of living that is true to their faith (cf. Col. 3:9-14).
It’s hard to imagine participants in the Olympic Games participating naked! But the ancients certainly had a different view of the body and nudity than we do today in 21st Century Britain. Looking back through history and across the world, many different cultures have had different views of the body. Even cultures which are fairly close to home – for example, my wife was telling me the other day about her experience going swimming in France. It was the norm there (at least where she was) for the women to swim topless – even those who had one-piece costumes would roll them down. Everyone did it, it was just normal – no-one batted an eyelid! (For the record, she couldn’t bring herself to do the same…)
Societies throughout the ages have had different views about what is and is not permissible. However, I don’t think the church has always responded in the best way – I talked about this previously in my Christian Modesty post. The other day I saw this tweet:
Tongan student in my class: ~100 years ago, British missionaries came to our naked people, told us to believe in Jesus & get dressed. We did. Today British tourists come to our island, get naked on our beaches & now we tell them to believe in Jesus & get dressed.
— David M. Shaw (@shaw_davidm) August 23, 2018
I think this is a pretty fair representation of many British Christians: believing in Jesus entails modesty which means (amongst other things) always being clothed in public. Now there are, of course, many good reasons for clothes to be worn! But I wonder if there isn’t something deeper going on: do many Christians think nakedness is lewd and improper because the body itself is lewd and improper? In other words, the issue isn’t to do with nudity per se but rather what leads to that particular view.
Why does it matter?
The other day I was thinking about how things are so different for teenagers now broadband internet is widely available in the UK. Teenagers have access to pornographic material which is almost beyond imagination. Martin Daubney, ex-editor of lads’ mag Loaded, shortly after quitting as editor filmed a documentary called Porn on the Brain. He wrote about some of his research here:
I’d been invited to sit in on a forward-thinking class led by sex education consultant Jonny Hunt, who is regularly asked into schools to discuss sex and relationships. To establish what these kids knew about sex – including pornography – he had asked the children to write an A-Z list of the sexual terms they knew, no matter how extreme.
… when Jonny pinned their lists on the board, it turned out that the children’s extensive knowledge of porn terms was not only startling, it superseded that of every adult in the room – including the sex education consultant himself.
… When questioned, they had all – every child in a class of 20 – seen sodomy acted out in porn videos. I was stunned they even knew about it – I certainly hadn’t heard of it at that age – let alone had watched it and as a result may even have wanted to try it.
Pornography is changing the landscape of young adults – has already changed it beyond recognition in the time since I was a teenager. Teenagers now have access to just about anything, for free, on their smartphones. All of this has consequences – and we are seeing some of those consequences now (I talked about a few of them on this site). The key question is: what is access to porn at such a young age doing to these teenagers? In particular – is it affecting not just their view of sex, but their wider view of the body? If the only nudity you are exposed to is in the context of pornography, isn’t that going to colour your understanding of the body?
What can / should we be doing?
In my previous post about modesty I suggested that modesty actually exacerbates the problem. The message it sends out is, “the body is something sexual – therefore it needs to be covered up.” I remember as a child going to the National Gallery in London and looking at beautiful works of art and feeling a bit uneasy seeing pictures e.g. of naked breasts or a penis – why should this be the case? As I explained in that post – the human body is not something shameful. We, the church, have the theology, we have the Holy Spirit – how then should we tackle this problem?
Here I have to say that I’m not sure the best way forward. How should we help young people to have a healthy self-image? There are a few steps in this regard, but I’m not sure that we’ve really cracked this one yet. Answers on a postcard (or comment below, or drop us an email).
Lest I be misunderstood, please understand that I am not recommending some kind of Christian naturism! I don’t think this is the right solution – not least because it locates the solution in nudity rather than in Christ. Calling the church to have a healthy view of the body doesn’t mean that we should go to the opposite extreme!
But I do think what Friend Zone is about has something to offer, and I think it is to do with seeing each other in the context of a non-sexual relationship. When men and women can see each other as genuine friends, part of that means appreciating what is beautiful without the corruption of sexual desire. That’s why I entitled this post, “Losing our ability to see beauty” – because one of the things I’ve realised about our society is that it’s virtually impossible now to see someone as beautiful without reading a sexual connotation into that. (Or at least, I think this is more true for younger folk – millennials and younger).
One of the things I’ve learned over the last few years is that it is not sinful for me as a man to acknowledge that a woman is beautiful. Partly this has been caused by watching my wife breastfeeding our children – which is a beautiful and natural thing for her to have done. It made me realise the extent of the way our society’s view of the female body has become distorted! And as I’ve thought about the body from a theological perspective, it has come back to me repeatedly that the body is not an insignificant or trivial detail in God’s plans: Men and women should see each other holistically – we are not disembodied souls floating around, but embodied. Count up the number of references in the New Testament for using our whole bodies for God – for example, 1 Corinthians 6:18-20:
Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.
It is not our disembodied souls that God lives in – but our bodies. And as Christians we are to honour God with our bodies – not just in the negative (avoiding doing what is wrong) but positively doing what is right. How we see each other’s bodies is a part of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit – we should not rest content with what society says, or with some kind of legalistic ‘modesty’, but rather the inner transforming work of the Spirit.
Let me draw a few conclusions. I appreciate this is not a short post and I just want to make as clear as possible what I am and am not saying.
I am not arguing for nudity to be part of the church – rather, I think the British church’s attitudes to nudity demonstrate that we need to think more carefully about the body. Especially given our current cultural context.
The big question, to my mind, is this: how are we broadcasting the ‘better story’ compared with our society? Do teenagers receive a positive message about themselves and their bodies from the church – not just from what they hear in teaching, but from what we do? Are men and women, with the help of the Spirit, seeking to see each other holistically – with God-given beauty rather than a sinful distortion of it?
I don’t have the answers, not right now. But all I know is, unless we are prepared to ask some tough questions, we won’t get any answers.