Friday, December 01, 2006

Christianity and Naturism

Naturism and Christianity
T.H. Pine

If you are a naturist and you are prepared to tell people about it, the chances are that you will have to deal with quite a bit of suspicion and ridicule. Generally speaking, contemporary attitudes to social nudism could be described as unenlightened, but it hasn’t always been this way.

In ancient Greece nudity was much more widely accepted than it is now. When people participated in sport for example, they did it without clothes. The words “gymnastics” and “gymnasium” come from the Greek word “gymnos” which means “naked”. In certain public situations in Ancient Greece, nudity was accepted and respected.

What has happened in intervening years, and why did modern western society, founded on Christianity, adopt and develop the prudish and prohibitive attitudes to social nudity that we experience today? In trying to find answers, the first and most obvious place to look is the holy Book itself. And what more obvious story than The Creation? Genesis says this of Adam and Eve, the first couple: “… they were both naked; the man and his wife were not ashamed.” ((KJV, Genesis 2:25)
So if Adam and Eve were naked and they weren’t ashamed – where did it all start to go wrong?

Looking at Genesis again, we are told that Eve was tempted by a serpent to eat an apple from the tree of knowledge, and that she gave in to that temptation. In turn she tempted Adam into eating this fruit which God had forbidden. At this point they start to experience problems with their nakedness: “…then the eyes of both Adam and Eve were opened and they realised that they were naked…”

This realisation seems to have prompted them into producing the world’s first clothes: “…so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” Now let’s stop here and ask ourselves what precipitated them into this action. It can’t have been the cold- they had been naked up until this point without problems. Some Christians argue that they did it to protect themselves from sin. According to the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS): “Adam knew shame because of his naked body…” It suggests further that:
“God gives clothes because of the shame that exists because of sin…”

This branch of Christianity is overtly suspicious of naturism, suggesting that rebellion against society and feelings of lust or sexual desire are primary reasons for people to want to go naked in the company of others. WELS cautions naturists about leading others into moral danger:
“You do not want to be confronted by God on the Day of Judgement with the accusation that your practice of social nudism tempted yourself or others into sin.”

We may well consider this to be a fairly bleak outlook and a damning attitude to naturism generally, there are other Christians who take a very different view, and who also justify their ideas from the Bible.

So don’t these other Christians look at the Adam and Eve story and equate nudity with shame and sin? Well no, they don’t. And as we’ll see, it’s all a matter of interpretation.

Biblical scholars point out that the Bible was not originally written in English. Much of it was translated from Hebrew into Latin, and then from Latin into English. The attitudes and prejudices of the translators often had a direct bearing on how people came to interpret the different texts. It has been said, for instance, that there are 104 references to the word ‘naked’ and its derivatives, in 87 verses of the King James Version, but the New International Version (favoured by conservative Christians) contains only 49 references in 47 verses.

Another example of the difficulties of translation can be seen when we read in Genesis that: “…they made coverings for themselves…” The Hebrew word translated here as “coverings” is “chaogowr” which means a girdle or belt. From this we can deduce that Eve’s original garment went only around her waist, and therefore that she was quite content to go topless. The translators of the King James and Revised Standard Versions of the Bible, however translated the word to mean ‘aprons’, as though they could never bring themselves to accept the idea of a bare-breasted Eve.

Through this and other examples, it becomes clear that the practice of appealing to the authority of the Bible to either condone or condemn social nudity is fraught with ambiguity and confusion. It also becomes clear that what first appears to be cut-and-dried is anything but. H.L Menken’s astute observation that : "There is always an easy solution to every human problem - neat, plausible, and wrong,” rings so true when one is talking about the Good Book.

Many Christians today are also committed naturists. For them, the most significant part of Genesis would probably be the bit where it says that God created man “in his own image and likeness”, and that God was pleased with what he created.
Jamie Cotton, a religious scholar, writer and nude model asks: “what is it in our religious history that has defined religion and body love as opposites?”

She finds it significant that in early Christian art, nudity is used to represent holiness in the form of the angels and saints and that nudity is also used to represent evil, in the form of Satan and his followers. Ordinary human beings, however, are never presented naked: “Anthropomorphic beings, whether from above or below were often depicted without clothing. Cherubs and Saints lounged around the heavens sans vetements while the devil and his brigade of fallen followers paraded around below. Halo or pitchfork was clothing enough…”

As Christian art develops from those early times, we witness saints starting to be clothed in billowing robes, whilst Satan and his cronies stay naked. The sinners are the nudists. And just as nudity and sin become entwined, so do nudity and sex.
In modern times, the naked body has become largely associated with sex alone. Almost all of today’s enormous proliferation of nude and semi-nude images propagated by the media are of a sexual nature. As Jamie Cotton puts it:
“The problem with pornography is not that it exists, but that it only exists.”

Thus it is that a significant number of Christians continue to look upon naturism with suspicion. John Kundert who produces a regular Christian Naturist web-based newsletter called Fig Leaf expresses outrage that so called Christians should criticise the naturist lifestyle: “I find it unthinkable that “image-bearers” of God should find themselves so ashamed of human nakedness that they would insist that it should always be covered.”

Kundert’s website is just one of many Christian naturists sites that have appeared in recent years. Their presence indicates that the Christian Naturist movement is strong and thriving.
One common theme that seems to emerge from just about all of them is the idea that naturism can give a sense of completeness- with the spiritual and physical aspects of the self uniting into a celebration of wholeness. As such, it is a striking echo of The International Naturist Federation’s own definition:
“Naturism is a way of life in harmony with nature, characterised by the practice of communal nudity with the intention of encouraging respect for others and the environment.”

It must also give us hope that we are on the cusp of a more enlightened era; one where naturism and Christianity can peacefully co-exist to the mutual benefit of all.


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