Ruminations on Nudity in Art

Let me begin by summarizing the questions regarding modesty and artistic nudity with which I am grappling.

  1. In U.S. culture we generally associate certain kinds of nudity with sexuality; hence these kinds can be a temptation (Matthew 5:28). Are these things as they should be; is our culture correct?
  2. Is this connection of sexuality to nudity natural, right, or merely a product of culture?
  3. Why would some artistic depictions of nudity be tempting while others would not be?
  4. Why does U.S. culture find nudity acceptable in certain mixed gender situations (e.g. a female doctor examining a male patient) but not in others; should it be accepted in these situations?
  5. What do we do when, as is happening now, a culture’s definition of decency and modesty are rapidly changing?
  6. How do we respond when several different cultural definitions coexist in the same nation, state, or campus?
  7. Does the burden to be modest fall disproportionately on young women, or should men make at least an equal effort to see them as people regardless of their clothing or lack thereof?
  8. In Genesis, nudity was state of humanity in Eden before sin entered the world; should we attempt to approach that state again?
  9. Other cultures, (e.g. Switzerland) seem to have fewer cultural constraints on nudity in public mixed gender settings, but why is this; should the US change to be the same way?

A friend of mine sent me the articles below.

June 28, 2006
Protocol 06-9

The Pious Pastors of
the Holy Metropolis of Denver

Wow! I did not realize Denver was so holy!

Contemporary mores seems to reflect both a neglect for propriety of dress as well as a disregard for modesty, both of which were common expectations not so many years ago.

The usage of the phrase “not so many years ago” indicate a level of nostalgia that the author never justifies. “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?'” (Ecclesiastes 7:10, NIV).

Nowhere, however, does neglect and disregard for modesty seem to be so rampant as in the styles worn by contemporary young men and young women. I encourage you to help the youth of the Church placed in your pastoral care to become more aware of what their appearance and style communicate about themselves and what these reveal about their person and their perspective in the eyes of others.

The author here mentions modesty in young men, but the article below does not. He also does not elaborate on how a young man like me should be modest; see Question 7. Modesty seems to be required when immodesty would present a visual temptation to sexual lust. I seriously doubt that any exposed parts of my body would be such a temptation. Do you think we young men should be modest? If so, what does that mean for my wardrobe?

Persons or Parts:
Some Modest Thoughts on Girls’ Clothing
By Celeste Thomas

A truly beautiful woman is lovely both inside and out – and its the outer part that should cause parents some concern regarding the wonderful young women in our culture.

What exactly does “beautiful” mean? Is it in any part superficial? To put it more bluntly, if a woman were to suffer severe burns to her face or gain 300 pounds, would she still be beautiful?

The popular fashions many young women wear suggest that they’re being guided by a lie, which says: “Girls should be able to show whatever body parts they want to show, and no male person should admit being affected by this display.”

In a nudist resort or in cultures where clothing is not normally worn, girls show all parts of their bodies and the men are not affected. This is easy to tell when they are not wearing clothes. So, why is this statement a lie?

If one spends just a short while observing girls wherever they may be – at the mall, in school hallways or at sporting events – it’s obvious that many of them are wearing fashions that send out a provocative “use me” message.

Today, many young women struggle with their parents for their “right” to dress in troubling styles, some of which, not that long ago, would have been seen only on women in prostitution. Sometimes these styles seem to be the only ones available – even for 4-year-olds! Sadly, many of these fashions degrade God’s crowning creation – women – and the real Madonna – the Virgin Mary – and put our beautiful young girls in harm’s way spiritually, morally and physically.

First, I assign a penalty for excessive use of hyphens! Second, I refer back to my remarks about nostalgia above. Regarding Question 1, why should we consider our past culture more or less correct than or present one?

Evil is real, and the devil enjoys nothing better than disfiguring the human person as an image of God any way he can – and what better way than to attack chastity through a lack of modesty? Even girls who have no intention of having pre-marital sex, but who dress as though their bodies were somehow disconnected from their good moral convictions, are sending a confused message: “Don’t get excited by the body parts I’m showing because they are only for my future husband.” But why, then, display them? A boy has no right to use a girl’s body for sexual gratification, and a girl has no right to use a boy’s fantasies and natural circuitry as a means to get male approval.

The claim that these body parts are “only for my future husband” leads to an interesting aside. I presume that medical personnel are exempt from this, since they must often examine nude patients of both genders. I have had more than one experience with a young female doctor in this situation. Believe me when I say that no evil or sexual excitement was involved.

Referring to Question 7, is my natural circuitry so weakly wired that young women must sweat miserably though the summer to keep me from becoming sexually excited? At this point in my life, I am still far too easily tempted. However, God has made great improvements in this area of my life, and I look forward to his continued transformational work. If young women expect male doctors to examine them (or a classical sculptor to study a nude model) without temptation, why does Ms. Thomas have such low expectations of all other young men?

Throughout these two messages, one common theme has been a insulting lack of exhortation to young men to follow Matthew 5:28 and treat their Christian sisters with respect and compassion regardless of their clothing. In other words, Ms. Thomas is correct to say that “a boy has no right to use a girl’s body for sexual gratification,” but she recommends no effort to teach this to boys and men. I find this personally insulting because it portrays my gender as impotent and incapable of improvement; it also allows us to be lazy and blame all of our lust on women. More importantly, it insults God by implying that he is incapable of improving us.

In effect, many girls harass their male peers by wearing fashions that invite the wrong kind of attention. Such girls are saying, “Look, but don’t touch!” Which leaves boys to wonder: “Why do you want me to look then? Cover yourself up and help me to think about you as a person, rather than as an object.” To misuse one’s body and then act surprised at the response such behavior generates is dishonest.

If a girl’s or woman’s intent is to harass or tempt their male peers, then they are clearly wrong. It is also wrong for me to force them to wear something uncomfortable or that impairs their athletic ability simply because I do not make the effort to let God sanctify my sexuality.

To put this simply, I believe that if someone is trying to tempt me, she should change her wardrobe. If she is not, the burden of change lies upon me. If men and boys are not actively accessing God’s transformational power, they will lust after women even in a burqa.

Too many girls have learned too well the message of false feminism: “It’s my body and I can do what I want with it.” But Jesus said, “This is my body and I give it up for you.” He came to show us the right order of things, which is self-donation. In self-donation I sacrifice what I want – a boy’s approving looks and comments – for his greater good: the invitation to communicate with me as a whole (from “holy,” meaning “deserving reverence”) person, not just a part (or parts) of me.

Ms. Thomas seems to take for grated that boys and men will give their “approving looks and comments” to girls and women who dress in an immodest way. I believe the boys need to change their behavior so that they will not give approval to tempting behavior. Perhaps that is how we can reciprocate the self-donation that Ms. Thomas encourages.

Young women need to hear about the impact fashions have and the language fashions speak. They need to be encouraged to think about the role that fashion plays in expressing who they are and what they stand for. They need help to weed out the “use me” fashions from their wardrobes. And they need to be affirmed in the truth – that they are daughters of the King, and as such are whole persons meant for holiness and respect, not parts to be misused for pleasure and ridicule.

I agree that women and girls need to behave in accordance with the truth “that they are daughters of the King.” Men and boys need to behave in accordance that they are sons of the King and brothers to those women and girls.

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One Response to Ruminations on Nudity in Art

  1. Paul Rimmer says:

    Luke,

    I liked your portrayal of Thomas’s article. Any chastisement or even advice to males is absent, suggesting actually that males are the sole source of the problem. This seems to be a problem in most Christian media, to the point where it would be wonderful to see an honest account of what modesty means for men, in the spirit of “Real Sex”. I don’t know much about what modesty really means for men (in terms of how we should dress, etc.), and it would be wonderful to learn and grow in modesty.

    I did think Thomas does have a point in that sex cannot be defined qua nature, but rather qua mystery. Sex is more like taking communion than it is like eating lunch. And the mysterious is represented by hiding something away, by leaving for the imagination.

    One of the best statements I have been able to find about sexual modesty, and what real sex is, was told to me, in a “cosmopolitan-like” format, by a good Colorado friend:

    “Question: Does the thought of praying before, during, and after an act of sexual intercourse…?
    a) Kill the mood
    b) Seem wrong
    c) make perfect sense

    If you answer a or b, you don’t know beans about sex.”

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