Art, Nakedness, and Redemption

Article by   January 2011
A few weeks ago I learned the distressing news that a couple I know is divorcing; the husband has pursued pornography, and beyond, for a decade.  His sin has not only ravaged his wife's life, but in violating that covenant he orphaned four young children from a faithful fatherhood.  He stands as part of a devastating trend of infidelity leading to divorce in evangelical churches.  

Not long after hearing that, I learned, chatting with a friend and his college student daughter, that her Bible and ethics professor had recently shown her college (an ostensibly conservative, Reformed institution) class pornographic clips from movies to teach the class that we can find "redemptive value" in all art.

Hearing this made me think back to the divorcing couple. The husband was a graduate of a Christian college that set a high premium on "engaging and redeeming culture"; it downplayed any sort of antithetical approach to culture as backwards moralism at best, anti-cultural bigotry at worst.  Professors soberly and enthusiastically argued that "film is both messy and redemptive, we need to grapple with the complexities of life in this world, including sin."  The neo-Kuyperian project of "redeeming culture" (which itself raises some serious theological issues) is not confined to the halls of academia: David Taylor, an "arts pastor" recently featured at the Gospel Coalition, argues in Christianity Today that it is possible for mature Christians to "redemptively" portray and view nudity in film. [1]

These reflections connected to a lecture on art that I attended last spring. The speaker was a thoughtful Christian scholar. In her lecture she commented that Christian art should not be opposed to "nakedness" but rather to "nudity". She argued that there was a distinction between tasteful nakedness in art and an objectifying nudity, referencing several examples of classical and Renaissance art in relation to the former, and pornography to the latter--a stance similar to H.R. Rookmaker's. [2]  This fine distinction left me and many of my college students dubious; I remembered all too well my own teenage struggles with lust, and the fact that classical and Renaissance art of naked women had not been helpful in the pursuit of purity. But was that just me? Was I overly sensitive, or perverse beyond the ancients and my contemporaries?  Was I somehow missing a "redemptive understanding" of nakedness or nudity in art or film? These questions forced me to examine what Scripture has to say on nakedness and redemption and what a history of nakedness in art might reveal.

God created man and woman in his own image.  He created them beautiful in their whole being, including physical form. He declared this aspect of man's being, "good, very good", along with the rest of creation. Adam and Eve were naked, without sin.  Yet in the Garden, after their sinful rebellion, Adam and Eve realized their nakedness, creating fig leaf coverings for themselves.  This awareness is unique to the humans, as animals continued in their "naked" state unperturbed. God declared the fig leaves insufficient, and in an act which theologians see as a picture of redemptive history, killed animals, providing Adam and Eve with adequate coverings of skin through a bloody act. After this point, Scripture's testimony over and over again is that nakedness in contexts outside of marriage and necessity is shameful, spiritually destructive, a denial of the reality of sin and God's holiness.

Where God displays His redemptive activity in contexts of extra-marital nakedness He clothes His people. Ezekiel 16 exemplifies this pattern in Scripture: God graciously redeems and clothes His bride, covering her nakedness and making her beautiful.  Her God-given covering is not a denial of beauty, but rather a redemptive rescue and restoration to appropriate, glorious, public beauty, after she had been an object of abandoned, uncovered shame. The bride, however, turns to play the whore, prostituting herself, taking off her beautiful clothes, giving her naked beauty, now rebel, distorted and cheap, to any passer-by. Her disrobing outside of marriage is an outward expression of her inner rejection of God's redemption. She calls men to join her in violating God's perfect law. 

The disrobing, redemption-rejecting woman of Ezekiel stands in stark contrast to the bride of the Song of Solomon, whose nakedness is truly beautiful. It is reserved for her husband, given to him alone--a "step that does not establish deep intimacy, but one which presupposes it." [3]  Even in the literary description of the marital sweetness and joy of the inspired Song a poetic modesty remains. [4]  There is also a glorious foreshadowing here of the relationship of Christ and His Bride, the church, who is clothed as well--by His redemption.

When we come to the New Testament, we see our Incarnate Lord ministering to prostitutes, freely offering His all-sufficient grace for their redemption and restoration to true, covered, clothed, and ordered beauty.  When Christ, as the King of glory, takes His bride, the church, to Himself, even in the heavenly glory of paradise restored (Rev. 19), we see the saints clothed in the white robes of His righteousness, their clothing illustrative of the necessary covering for redeemed mortals.

In contrast to both the positive testimony of Scripture to being clothed and its warnings against nakedness, ancient near eastern literature, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, reveals a promiscuous culture which often moved in the direction of celebrating an increasingly naked display of the human form. In the midst of, and in response to the surrounding near eastern cultures, God repeatedly warns His covenant people against intermarrying with surrounding unbelievers. But, why would they? Why would young Hebrew men be drawn to the fertility cults?  What was going on in the sacred groves, and around the pole statues of the naked goddess Asherah?  Why were the sons of God drawn to the daughters of men at these cultural festivities?  

The more I study ancient near eastern art and culture, the more it appears the cultural and artistic ethos tied to nakedness was very similar to the neighboring Greek culture which produced all that fine naked sculpture. Andrew Stewart, Chancellor's Research Professor of Greek Art and Archaeology at the University of California, Berkeley, explains the aims of Greek nude sculpture:

...if one had asked a Greek sculptor what he really aimed at, he would probably have replied beauty... perfect beauty can only come about through the exact commensurability (symmetria) of every limb and feature to every other... They served his own and his immediate client's fantasy of "the most beautiful."
This fantasy was no disinterested Apolline affair.  Projected upon the naked male body, the canon represented the first step towards the sculptor's ultimate goal: to seduce the eye of the normative spectator, the citizen male.  Winckelmann was right: this art was fundamentally homoerotic...  The Greek sculptor's dedication to naturalism, his obsessive investigation of the male body's minutae, exploited this unrestricted climate.
[Praxiteles created] the first monumental naked Aphrodite, caught unawares as if by a voyeur, her sex appeal enhanced by devices ranging from the modesty of her posture and gesture to Praxiteles' use of the finest crystalline marble for her body and the subtlest polychromy for her skin... the female nude [sculpture] soon became second only to the male in popularity. [5]

Stewart describes an "unrestricted climate", a description which correlates well with the literature of the period and is certainly also congruent with earlier, still influential, Homeric epic.  This unrestricted climate bears striking parallels to the ancient near eastern cultures celebrating fertility via free sex around naked goddesses.  While Praxiteles created his artwork some three centuries prior to the New Testament, the "climate" was substantially the same when Paul, led by the Spirit, preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Greeks.  Many of the temples were flourishing centers of prostitution; their ads and billboards were semi-naked/naked statuary of gods, goddesses, and demi-gods whose tales flaunted promiscuity. God's redemptive response revealed in the New Testament stands in harmony with the Old. Knowing man's heart and sin, God inspires the gospels and epistles to substantially include the message of salvation from sexual sin, and sanctification in sexual morality. It is the reordering and transformation of promiscuous sex and nakedness to true beauty and holy intimacy.  

As a result, perhaps we should not be surprised that the pastors and theologians of the patristic age opposed nudity in art; it was not a cultural element open for "redemption" by Christians. Clement, critiquing the popular acceptance of nudity in the Greco-Roman art of cosmopolitan Alexandria in the late 2nd century, states:

...of what are your other pictures?  Small Pans, naked girls, drunken satyrs, and phallic symbols - all painted naked in pictures disgraceful for filthiness.  And more than this: you are not ashamed in the eyes of all to look at representations of all forms of licentiousness that are portrayed in public places.  Rather, you set them up and guard them with scrupulous care. [6]

Chronicling and reflecting on the immodesties of theatre, public festivities, and art in his day (considered redemptive by the pagans) Augustine wryly observes: "if this is purification, what is pollution?" [7]   

In terms of broad acceptance within the life of the church, nakedness in art first blossomed as a result of the Italian Renaissance--a movement that drew heavily on the revival of Greco-Roman paganism, flaunting this syncretism. The movement developed with the aid of powerful families, like the Medici of Florence, who functioned as patrons (and suppliers of wine and women) for gifted artists like Michelangelo. The artists, in large part through Medici influence and an enthusiastic upper class, brought nudity in art boldly into public life, including the life of the Roman church; the art both reflected and contributed to a promiscuous culture. Savonarola's moral thunderings against a pornographic culture deeply irritated the bohemian Medici.  Martin Luther was disheartened and disillusioned a generation later by Rome's rampant immorality. Italian church culture was by this point awash with the unabashed nudity of new, stunning, works of art in good part due to the patronage of the Medici pope, Leo X.

In contrast to Italy, the Northern Renaissance showed restraint in art, particularly in regions dominated by Protestantism; even the art of the substantially tolerant early Dutch Republic had a vastly greater inclination to modesty than exposure-tolerant Italy, France and Poland. The Northern cultural modesty, largely concurrent with post-Reformation Protestantism, dissipated in time through the growth of Enlightenment culture which drew heavily from the Renaissance and ancient Greece and Rome. In contrast to the Enlightenment acceptance and promotion of public, naked art, the legacy of European and North America Puritanism, reflecting Scripture's tenor, celebrated private nakedness reserved to marriage and sought to defend and promote public modesty, understanding that both need to be rooted in and reflective of the gospel of grace in Christ.  

21st century, Europe and North America have an increasingly pornographic art, film and pop culture. But this is as old as pagan fertility cults, technology added. The new twist comes from the church where some argue that wherever there is a glimmer of created order or common grace, there is potential for finding "redemptive value". This is rationale for not only engagement, but also participation. People, of course, qualify such a break from Scripture and church history: "these are complex issues, this is the domain of the mature and wise."  They seem to fail to notice, however, that their argument is ironically similar to that of the "adult" billboards along our freeways.

Scripture and history indicate that nudity in art (and now film) is not actually the domain of the mature, the wise, or those engaged in "redemptive activity."  Rather: "we dress because we sin... [it is] a reminder that man is an unholy fugitive, in hiding from God and from his own fellows" [8] and a picture of the need for bloody atonement for sin, and clothing by the righteousness of Christ.  As such, "whether it be in a nudist colony, at an orgy, in primitive society, or in the nursery, public nudity is only possible for those unconscious or aggressively heedless of their sinfulness." [9]  It is far more likely that the attitude of the acceptability of nudity for "the mature" in art, film, and pop culture is contributing to the rising tide of infidelity and divorce in the church.  

This latter analysis coheres far better both with the teaching of Scripture and the reality of human existence. Rather than redemptive, promotion of nudity in art and film by Christian educators and leaders is destructive; it is folly, not wisdom. Wisdom says "And now, O sons, listen to me, and be attentive to the words of my mouth.  Let not your heart turn aside to her ways; do not stray into her paths, for many a victim has she laid low, and all her slain are a mighty throng.  Her house is the way to hell, going down to the chambers of death." (Proverbs 7:24-27)  Jesus says, "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea." (Matthew 18:6)

To reject nudity in art and film is no denial of artistic ability, nor of created beauty. It is a realistic, careful, humble acknowledgment of God's redemptive work in Christ and His precepts for a grace transformed, holy, happy life in a fallen world. This includes the need for covering nakedness.  Real redemptive activity seeks to preserve and rescue from sin by pointing men and women to Christ and His Word.  Knowing this redemption, Paul, by the Holy Spirit, declares:

"Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?  Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality... will inherit the kingdom of God.  And such were some of you.  But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God... you were bought at a price, therefore glorify God in your body and your spirit, which are God's."  (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)


William VanDoodewaard is Associate Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.  

Notes

[1] W. David O. Taylor, "Violence, Profanity, and Nudity: A Dialogue" in Christianity Today (posted online 8/03/2004 at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/movies/commentaries/2004/violenceprofanitynudity.html?start=1
  
[2] H.R. Rookmaker argued similarly in his Modern Art and the Death of A Culture, stating that the "erotic and sexual have a place in art, as they have in life... we cannot simply say that the nude in art is impure."  Rookmaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (London: IVP, 1970), 239-240.  Rookmaker does not seem to understand that Scripture's precept is that the positive, celebrated, and normative place of nudity in life is a private intimacy within the covenant and commitment of marriage; art by contrast is an intrinsically public venture. This is why I believe recourse to arguments for necessity of nudity for scientific or medical purposes, or forensic evidence cannot apply to art/film. In medical and forensic situations there remains an awareness of the value and propriety of privacy, whether in the physician's office, the anatomy class, the courtroom, or legal archives.  

[3] Mike Mason, The Mystery of Marriage (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1985), 117.

[4] I would recommend Ian Hamilton's (Cambridge Presbyterian Church, Cambridge, UK) and Ian Campbell's sermon series on the Song of Songs (PRTS Conference 2010) for a balanced exposition of the Song: both avoid the twin errors of spiritual allegorizing on the one hand, and sexual allegorizing on the other. 

[5] Andrew Stewart, "Greek Sculpture" in The Oxford History of Western Art, ed. Martin Kemp (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 15.

[6]  Clement of Alexandria in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 2 (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994), 189.
  
[7] Augustine, City of God, 43.
  
[8] Mason, 116.

[9] Mason, 117.
 



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