The Naked and the Nude

Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior
September 20, 2016

Facebook's decision to censor an iconic photo suggests our culture can't discern between nakedness that is innocent and nakedness that is lascivious.

September 20, 2016

What a fascinating little piece, Karen. Thanks for this.

One of the more interesting things I've ever read on this subject is a simple discussion of the matter in a small book by John Piper call "This Momentary Marriage." In that book, he argues that the reason Adam and Eve are said to be "naked and not ashamed" is that, before the Fall, nakedness wasn't a cause for shame. But, he goes on to say, after sin entered the world nakedness itself becomes cause for shame. The norm of the godly person becomes to cover oneself up and the shame of the ungodly person is a willingness to shamelessly flaunt one's nakedness as though it were no cause for shame whatsoever.

It's a fascinating anthropology. I'm not positive I agree with it...but it is interesting to imagine whether the pre-Fall idea of nakedness is ontologically different from the post-Fall idea. And especially since we only have access to the latter, it's equally interesting to consider the possibility that nudity/nakedness is INHERENTLY shameful (contra the world's mantra that natural is beautiful and thus no cause for shame).

Not coming down on one side or the other here, you understand. Your piece just revived an old "rabbit trail" of mine.

September 21, 2016

I would also like to say what a nice little article you've written. Plenty to think about in this well thought out piece.

September 21, 2016

Three points that I would contest, Karen.

First, while it certainly is thinking "Christian" to call God's clothing of Adam and Eve a "blood sacrifice," it is not thinking "Biblically" to call it that. Not one place in all of the scriptures is that event referred to as a sacrifice, nor is any blood mentioned. The *most likely* conclusion of why God clothed them was as a gracious act of protection from cold and harm outside the idyllic setting of the Garden... from which they had just been expelled.

Adam and Eve may have had their "eyes opened" about their nakedness when they ate the fruit, but it's quite clear that their response of covering themselves was NOT approved by God. Gen. 3:11 is a rebuke. Furthermore, God's question implies that it was a "WHO" that "told" them they were naked... and that "who" had to have been Satan. The point of God's question was not to discern how they came to realize they were naked, but to point out to them to whom they has been listening when they received that "revelation"! No, they did nothing right after they sinned, and the effort to cover their bodies rather than run naked to God seeking forgiveness was actually sinful in and of itself!

There is NO righteousness inherent in clothing or being clothed, for no covering of our flesh will ever cover our sin, and no amount of fabric will commend us to God.

Secondly, the attempt to draw a distinction between "naked" and "nude" (or "nudity" and "nakedness") is nothing more than semantics--Mr. Graves' poem notwithstanding. I've heard such attempts before, but when it comes to those words, there simply is no consistent distinction in their usage culturally, linguistically, or historically. Any attempt to define such a distinction as some sort of foundation for a moral stand on innocent vs. lascivious nudity is destined to fail.

Finally, you said, "A culture steeped in pornography can no longer discern between nakedness that is innocent and nakedness that is lascivious."

While that statement is true on its face, it should also be self-evident that the way to combat it and overcome the problem is to have MORE exposure to innocent nudity... NOT to abandon all exposure of the unclad human form to pornography and immorality. Only when we as individuals have a concrete classification for (and experience of) innocent nudity/nakedness will we ever be equipped to honor God's image in the human form--and the personhood of one in whom we see it--while at the same time standing against it's demeaning and dehumanizing portrayal in pornography.

Daniel Meacham
September 21, 2016

This discussion has been interesting, but one thing has been completely ignored so far: The almost complete absence of interest in the male nude, and the overwhelming interest and focus on the female figure. In classical statues both male and female are shown, and there was generally no outcry. But with the advent of photography, things began to change. Something about a photograph of the human form is able to somehow raise the outcry quotient greatly. Perhaps the offended people feel a photograph is somehow closer to life than is cold marble! Never mind that tremendously more effort is required to produce a great statue compared to the work a photograph requires.

September 21, 2016

Excellent discussion. The picture in question is undoubtedly one of the most powerful representations of the horror of war, and is worthy of reverent contemplation by all.
I am reminded of all the pictures of kids in bathtubs parents have taken, and grieve that society has made them potentially sexual rather than just cute snapshots of an instant in your child's life.

Daniel Howell
September 21, 2016

Isaiah 20 might be one of my favorite chapters in the Bible just because it is so anti-American Christian! Imagine a modern preacher doing a 3-year Naked Tour. Plus, there's the little known fact that it was not unusual for seers to prophecy naked (as evidenced by 1 Samuel 19:24).

One thing seems certain: nudity itself is not sin, even in public. For God cannot temp a man (e.g., Isaiah) to sin, even to make a point.

September 21, 2016

In Reply to Daniel Howell (comment #29209)

Spot on, Daniel. It's pretty easy to see that our culture has a pretty messed up view of the unclad human form--viewing it only in terms of its impact the libido--but most Christians don't realize that the typical church's teaching is JUST AS messed up... for it too views the unclad human form only in terms of its impact on the libido!

The church prides itself for saying "Flee!" in response to nudity while the world says "Indulge!"... but she is clueless to that fact that the world's definition of the human form and the church's are one and the same.

It is for this reason that the church does not really own up to the fact that the prophet Isaiah prophesied for 3 years completely naked, or that King Saul was thought to have changed his profession when he spent a full day prophesying naked.

... nevermind the historical fact that for the first 300-400 years of church history, ALL baptisms were performed completely nude... men, women, and children (anyone is welcome to look that up to verify its accuracy).

Alastair Roberts
September 21, 2016

Good stuff.

'[A] culture steeped in pornography can no longer discern between nakedness that is innocent and nakedness that is lascivious'

I wonder whether this is the key issue here. I suspect that the deeper problem in this instance is with the idea that our responsibility to exercise wisdom, discretion, and moral judgment can be outsourced to algorithms, universal protocols and procedures, or automated processes. A machine cannot truly discern the difference between nakedness and nudity. However, we are increasingly forgoing human judgment and depending upon automated, bureaucratized, or computerized processes to absolve us of our duty in these areas.

September 22, 2016

What is the problem with Facebook? Let us see now. Mark was born on May 14, 1984 and the Vietnam War finally ended in 1975, almost 11 years before he was born. Should we now be prepared to remove from Facebook the attack on Pearl Harbor or the 911 attack against the Twin Towers? Or maybe we should remove all the photos of the Holocaust because of the offensive nature of these photos as they show innocent women and girls stripped naked and executed while standing in a mass grave? This is a photo of a victim of war. A war that was simply wrong. This photo serves to remind us of the atrocity of war and the most vulnerable and affected are children. We need only look at the horrors of the second war with Germany, the Syrian war now ongoing and the brutal treatment of innocent children. So Mark, think of your children and pray that they never become victims of a future war simply because their father removed an iconic war photo showing the indiscriminate nature of war on innocent children. It serves as an effort to keep the remembrance of the horrors of war ever in our minds.

September 22, 2016

I'm reminded of a piece by G.K. Chesterton, writing at the end of the Victorian Era, when he comments that society so enshrines the innocence of the child because it has destroyed the innocence of the virgin (male and female). He saw it as the beginning of a tumble downhill that would end with nothing being innocent because of our voracious appetite for indulgence.

September 23, 2016

Steve, I agree with you that the photo should be shown but I doubt Mark Zuckerberg himself took the photo down. Facebook employ hundreds and it was probably the people that monitor reports that decided to take it down. Furthermore, it takes just one person to report an image to bring it to the attention of Facebook staff.

Add your comment to join the discussion!