The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—
deliberate, contrived and dishonest—
but the myth—persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.
— John F. Kennedy —
The Pornographic View of the Body
What is a “pornographic view of the body”?
It’s a viewpoint about our external physical anatomy that calls a person’s naked body “indecent” or “lustful,” if seen by anyone but his or her spouse. A few moments of calm reflection reveal that this idea is an entirely man-made notion, not one that came from our Creator, even though many good Christians have believed and preached it.
This pornographic conception of the human body is not one that comes with the equipment. Our society, and especially the church, have assumed and taught that it does, that it’s a natural, inborn response. But such an attitude about our bodies is a cultural invention, not truly a natural part of our humanity. If it were actually part of human nature itself, it could be universally identified both throughout the centuries and across cultures. It takes very little investigation to see that this is not the case. An honest study of history shows clear evidence that most ancient civilizations, which were “clothed societies” like ours, accepted and treated the unclad human body much more realistically, and therefore much more sanely, than we do today.
A few well known examples of this “body acceptance” come from the ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilizations. All of these cultures recognized sunlight as medicine and used sunbathing of the full body as a part of preventive healthcare. The Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton, with his children and beautiful wife Nefertiti, were often seen without a stitch of clothing during normal daily activities in their palace.
[see article by psychologist Aileen Goodson, Nudity in Ancient to Modern Cultures]
Clothing that left women’s breasts exposed, perhaps for health reasons, was part of the style in early Egyptian dress. Their workers and indoor servants often labored in the nude. And publicly bathing in the Nile River was a practice as familiar to common people as it was to royalty. Even a princess of Egypt bathed there in such an open and unconcerned manner that she did not become offended when she found that a stranger had been watching her do so (see Exodus 2:1-8).
In Greece, tunics that left one side of the male or female chest exposed were also a common style of dress. These ancient Greeks, who contributed to Western art the “idealized nude” form, sent their young men to schools called gymnasiums (from the root word “gymnos,” meaning “naked”), where students exercised and learned their lessons in the nude. Greek athletes stripped themselves entirely bare for all competitive events. Although in Greece this practice of athletic nudity was generally reserved for males, in Sparta, the public practice of naked exercise and competition included young women as well. Most people don’t know that the original Greek Olympic games required the full nudity of all competitors.
The Romans are famous for having built gigantic public baths in major cities all around the Mediterranean, some of which could hold up to 1,500 people at once. At first these public bathing structures were segregated by a schedule of bathing hours for men and women, but by the time of Christ, the general policy was “co-ed.” Even the open latrines, changing rooms, and saunas were used simultaneously by men and women.
[see NOVA’s very extensive and informative article about these baths at Roman Baths: A Day at the Baths]
Literary evidence shows that Christians attended these baths, including at least one early bishop. There is archaeological evidence that one of these bathing facilities had been built and dedicated by a Christian.
[see Of Sisinnius Bishop of the Novatians in Socrates and Sozomenus Ecclesiastical Histories]
By far the greatest reason that this common, mixed-gender exposure of the body was so ordinary to those in ancient civilizations is the universality of outdoor bathing. Everyone took their baths outside in rivers, streams, lakes, and man-made pools. This was the routine experienced by everyone from infancy to old age. In Palestine, this same familiarity with the common sight of full body nudity allowed the three-year naked ministry of the prophet Isaiah to arouse no moral outrage among his neighbors (Isaiah 20:2-4), as it would today in our modern Western culture. But back then, such undress accompanying prophetic preaching was culturally acceptable. Even the prophet Micah refers to it (Micah 1:8), and it might have been the criteria for which King Saul was popularly considered “also among the prophets” (1 Samuel 19:23-24).
Nude Christian Baptism
Since everyone throughout most of human history was accustomed to bathing outdoors, it should come as no shock that the early church’s practice of nude baptism, which lasted for over four hundred years, was never regarded as extraordinary or indecent.
Christian nude baptism followed the same pattern as the Jewish mikveh ritual which required a totally naked immersion. This was most likely the same mode of baptism used by John the Baptist, because it was already recognized by the Jews. But in the Christian explanation of the rite, nude baptism represented a special kind of bath. It symbolized that a believer was stripping off the clothing of a sinful life and finding unity with the naked death of Christ on the Cross. This was a new doctrinal meaning seen by the church in its adoption and continued use of the mikveh ritual. One early church father, Cyril of Jerusalem (313–386), put it this way:
“You put off your clothes, which is an emblem of putting off the old man with his deeds; and being thus divested, you stood naked, imitating Christ, that was naked upon the cross, who by his nakedness spoiled principalities and powers, publicly triumphing over them in the cross.”
Another church father, Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 400) said, “Adam was naked at the beginning, and unashamed. This is why your clothing must be taken off as baptism restores right relation to God.”
[Skeptical readers can investigate a detailed account of how nude baptisms were done in the first part of chapter 21 of The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome (written in 215). This fact of early church nude baptisms is what first convinced me personally that those in Bible times did not share our present-day “pornographic” conception of the body.]
Much more evidence exists to show how these ancient “clothed” civilizations, which gave rise to our own, exhibited a much healthier acceptance of the naked body than we now have. But an example closer to modern times is the wholesome attitude toward nudity that existed in Japan before it was infiltrated by Western values after WWII. Japanese culture was famous for its practice of communal bathing. In homes, the participants were usually relatives and close friends. But in public baths, men and women who were total strangers would bathe together with attendants of both genders serving them. This naked exposure of members of the opposite sex carried no connotation of indecency in the Japanese culture.
The effect of such a practical acceptance of the body was so profound that it poured over into other facets of social life. On visiting Japan before the war, one American traveler found it common to see Japanese women nude from the waist up as they worked outside hanging up laundry to dry. From his hotel window across the street from a factory he watched a daily scene of young women stripping naked to change between work uniforms and street attire, because their dressing lockers were on the wall outside the small factory. The girls had “complete indifference to passers-by” or to observers like himself, because neither they nor those walking by in the street saw anything obscene in the naked human body. It was a natural part of life.
[These and more examples of a normalized view of nakedness in Asian culture, before it was altered by Western concepts, are found scattered throughout John Patric’s interesting book, Yankee Hobo in the Orient, published in 1943.]
In exploring the fact that a pornographic view of the body is not a built-in human reflex but a cultural invention, we must not ignore the multitude of “naked people” groups that existed before Western expansion, or the few that still survive. Their seemingly primitive ways do not make them an inferior example of human behavior. In fact, despite our characteristic pride in Western ways, many of these people groups have an integrated cultural sophistication that dwarfs our own ability to “pass the baton” of traditional customs and values to the next generation.
In these cultures, most of which have now been devastated by Western ideals, there were no such things as body shame and the body taboo that accompanies it. Pornography, therefore, was nonexistent.
But, instead of learning from them, we brought them our “superior” knowledge about the body, and now body shame, the body taboo, and pornography have invaded all those cultures. Modern, cross-culturally intelligent missionaries have learned from this socially disastrous mistake. They now align their practice of “clothing the naked” to the actual meaning in Scripture, which is clearly about warming the needy who are cold, not about hiding the anatomy of the naked.
When I was discussing this and all of the above issues with a Christian lady studying for her doctorate of divinity, she told me about her friend’s visit to a missionary in South America. While her friend sat talking with him, a knock came at the door. When he answered it, two lovely young women stood there selling fruit. Both were entirely topless. The missionary picked among the fruit, paid for what he selected, and closed the door.
“How did you do that?” she asked, shocked by the scene.
“Do what? Buy fruit?”
“No…. I mean, those girls. They were both half naked!”
“That’s how they all dress here,” he replied. “I’m so used to it, I didn’t notice.”
On another occasion, during a similar discussion, a pastoral colleague of mine told me about his missionary friend’s answer to American visitors who see the nakedness of the native population and ask about “the nudity problem.” He tells them, “These people don’t have a problem with nudity. It’s we Americans who have the problem.”
Primarily an “American” Problem
Indeed, we really do have a problem with the naked body, and we won’t admit it, because we don’t think we have it. Sadly, we can live with a false idea for so long and get so used to it, that we can’t recognize its implications or notice its logical results. This is exactly the case with our pornographic perspective on the human anatomy and the resultant power of pornography in our culture. Thank God that this devastating viewpoint is not absolute.
Even though America’s obsessive preoccupation with sex grossly outstrips reality, elements of a rational view of the naked body still exist here. Some people still think little toddlers who toss their duds to romp in the sprinkler are a cute sight. As a nurse, I personally experience a more realistic, mundane view of nakedness. So do others working in healthcare areas where body exposure is common. Morticians, massage therapists, sculptors and painters working from nude models, and even some tattoo artists, all deal routinely with the utter normalness of naked bodies.
Some American tourists return from Europe having learned by personal experience that the lewdness they’d heard preached about there on clothing-optional beaches was a myth. The nudity they saw (or their own, if they decided to join those around them), after about five to ten minutes, seemed simply natural and normal. I consider all the above signs and symptoms of a healthier-than-usual “body acceptance” to be a blessing from God. By His overruling grace, a sound and wholesome way of thinking about the human body, discovered through these practical avenues, is raised up to confront this pornographic view. Once this more realistic view of nakedness is adopted, pornography is powerless in dislodging or extinguishing it. Truth can overcome falsehood, if we open our eyes to the light and let it dispel the darkness.
Sexual Imagery in Common Use
There is another way we manifest a more healthy conceptual acceptance of our bodies, especially their sexual anatomy. In our terminology, we have created words from visualizing the structure and function of our sex organs. One very common example is using the terms “male” and “female” to describe the ends of electrical devices where one plugs into another. Using such terminology, which explicitly refers to the obvious illustration portrayed by sexual intercourse, does not cause us embarrassment or mental defilement. We are merely accepting and using God’s design and purpose for our sexually differentiated body parts as an excellent way to understand something functionally similar to them.
While I was contemplating writing this article, another example stood out to me in a book where the author was trying to help the reader visualize part of the structure of the brain in these words: “. . . an extension of the subarachnoid space which tapers as it invaginates into the brain tissue. Thus the CSF circulation penetrates into the cerebral parenchyma . . .” If you search dictionary etymologies for words that include the roots “pen” (from penis) and “vag” (from vagina), you will see just how common this conceptual use of our sexual anatomy was when these words were being formed. If there is any mental tendency towards lustful thoughts when contemplating the realities from which these words derive their illustrating power, it is not those realities, but the person’s thinking that is defiled. But, praise God, the defiled mind, as well as misled thinking, can be renewed by truth.
The Prudish Twin
Before I conclude this article, I want to point out one more thing that you should know. The pornographic view of the body has a twin called “a prudish view.” They come from the same womb. They are two sides of the same coin, and when that coin is spent, whether it’s heads or tails, the purchase is a distorted portrait of our bodies. This is because both views promote an unholy, God-dishonoring treatment of the human body based on exactly the same vain imagination. Prudery hides the body, calling the Creator’s design a lustful indecency. Pornography flaunts it, using prudery’s definition to turn the beauty of God’s handiwork into a stimulus for impure sexual thoughts. Both these ways of treating the body are an unnatural, unrealistic abuse. Though they seem to be opposite, they are conceptually identical. Both are ungodly, and both are based on a dysfunctional view of humanity’s physical embodiment. Wherever a wholesome, godly view of the naked human body is rejected and a shameful, obscene view is embraced, the resultant religious zeal of prudery inevitably plunges a society into the hellish depravity of pornography.
Many self-help or buddy-accountable programs that promise to help break the power of porn addiction are miserably failing those who are struggling with this bondage. The reason for the failure is that this prudish view of the body is their foundation. Prudery is firmly rooted in the very first psychological result of humanity’s fall into sin: body shame. Pornography, and addiction to it, thrive on this body shame, which was a direct result of Satan’s opening the eyes of our first parents while simultaneously closing them to God’s viewpoint. Prudery scrupulously perpetuates this demonic scheme by maintaining vain and ridiculously dysfunctional imaginations about the body. The only way back to the sanity of truth is to rediscover that our human anatomy is “very good,” just as God originally pronounced it.
Although sin distracted our attention from God’s point of view about the body, God Himself has not changed, because the truth about our bodies has not changed. He still deems us “fearfully and wonderfully made.” When we sincerely acknowledge the goodness of the Designer’s creation of our bodies, we open ourselves up to find His simultaneous deliverance from both a prudish and a pornographic view of the body. Once they are cast out, healing begins. When you taste that healing, you will never want to go back to those defiled views of our awesomely created bodies.
— Pastor David
[If you desire a further explanation of how and why I have come to the conclusions expressed in this article, I invite you to read my website article: My View on Nakedness.]
Next up: Addiction to Pornography