Helping Churches Get Naked
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
You think you’ve seen it all until you’ve seen the nudist church.
Apparently there’s a church in Virginia that advertises itself as being “clothing optional.” That’s right, kids. They’s nekkid.
When I first heard of this church, I had two thoughts. The first was, That’s really weird. The second was, Do they need a pastor? Yet somehow I suspect the probability that the congregation is composed primarily of lingerie models to be somewhat slim.
And, in reality, “slim” was not the word you’d apply to a congregation containing a disproportionate ratio of beards to underpants. News footage depicted numerous church activities, among which was volleyball. Now, mind you, reservations aside, I might be able to wrap my head around the idea of a nudist church, but when your congregation consists primarily of overweight, hairy men, I question the wisdom of endorsing activities that involve repeated jumping. By the time the news footage was over, I wasn’t sure if I’d witnessed a church service or the Burning Man Festival.
I’d love to tell you that this is the only news story I’ve seen in the last week involving nudity. Not so. In Sydney, Australia, over 5,000 people gathered together for a group nude photo, the appeal of which escapes me, not to mention the question of how you organize such an event (with an e-vite, perhaps?).
Cultural or not, public nudity is…weeeeiird.
IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN, HONEY (DON’T YOU KNOW THAT I’LL ALWAYS BE TRUE?)
Adam? Eve? Naked.
The Bible opens with a story about two people who fell quite deeply in love. It’s no accident that the first words of human speech that the Bible records take the form of a love poem composed for Eve, and Adam was the first man to discover that a naked lady is a really good thing to look at.
The key words? Relational intimacy. They were, Genesis says, “naked and unashamed.” The problem is that they were way too quick to go against their Creator’s goodness, and too willing to trade their innocence for a fancy suit of fig leaves. The Bible calls this “sin,” the primary consequences of which are found in shame and estrangement.
Fast forward to today, and what we have is a culture struggling with its own suit of fig leaves. We have, according to Derek Webb, “traded naked and unashamed for a better place to hide.” And ever since Eden we’ve gotten really good at making our fig leaves more and more fashionable.
GOOD NEWS FOR NEVERNUDES
On the Fox TV show “Arrested Development,” there was a character by the name of Tobias Funke, among whose quirks was an unwillingness to disrobe. “He’s a nevernude,” his wife explains, which, according to the show, “is exactly what it sounds like.” At no time does Tobias allow himself to be fully naked, clinging instead to a pair of denim cutoffs.
According to Wikipedia, the technical name for this is gymnophobia. I was at a Miranda Stone concert once, where before she began her next song she talked about how children often run around naked without shame or humiliation. It’s only as we age that we learn about the standards of propriety and the like.
In other words, we grow up to become nevernudes. While we were created in God’s image, the fig leaves we’ve grown up with have taught us that we must learn to manage our image. Jerry Seinfeld puts it this way:
“Why is it so difficult, uncomfortable, to be naked. It’s because when you have clothes on you can always kinda make those little adjustments that people like to do … you feel like you’re getting it together…But when you’re naked it’s like it’s so final you’re, Well that’s it. There’s nothing else I can do. That’s why I like to wear a belt when I’m naked. Cause I feel it gives me something, I know I’m naked, but you know [tugs and lifts belt]… I like to get pockets to hang off of the belt that would be, wouldn’t that be the ultimate? To be naked and still be able to do this [puts hand in pocket]… I think that would really help a lot.”
Nudity is the ultimate. That’s it. This is me.
But if you’re a nevernude, you flee exposure, and instead cling to your own pair of denim cutoffs. Do you avoid cameras? Is your Facebook picture recent, or is it one you’ve selected from five years (and 10 pounds) ago? Do you hide your bare ring finger?
What image do you want people to receive from you? Do you exaggerate your success? Do you make sure you tell all the right jokes? Do you buy the latest fashions, despite having a closet already full? Do you have to have the right car? The right music?
Cutoffs. All of it. When we seek to “manage” our own image, we’re putting on our cutoffs. We’re putting on Jerry’s belt with the optional side-pockets and trying to look like we have it together. We’ve traded relational intimacy for lies repackaged as fake, plastic smiles.
The solution? Stop hiding. Take off the cutoffs (ok…maybe not literally…).
Recovering relational intimacy demands both honesty and proximity. There’s a reason that confession is said to be good for the soul. Are you willing to be open with others about the job you lost? The pounds you’ve gained? The struggles you face?
Isn’t this dangerous? Yeah; it is. Being naked is…awkward. It’s easier to wear the cutoffs. It’s easier to hide behind the fig leaves and half-truths we use to varnish over the negative things we like about ourselves.
But it’s necessary. Relational intimacy is what makes us human. C. S. Lewis writes:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
NUDITY IN THE SANCTURARY
The word “sanctuary” refers to the main meeting place of a church, it is where (in some traditions) the “sacred objects” are kept. It’s also come to mean, on a broader social level, a safe place. A refuge.
Is the sanctuary a safe place? Often the church is a place that not only invites “nevernude” spirituality, but spiritualizes it. We’re taught that “good” Christians don’t have these struggles. Not if they really love Jesus. Shake hands. Smile. Be polite. And so we go through the motions, preferring denim cutoffs to the realities and rhythms of life. And in so doing, we profane the “sanctuary” by refusing authenticity and relational intimacy.
WHAT IF I SAY I’M NOT LIKE THE OTHERS?
The chorus of the Foo Fighters song “Pretender” repeats the phrase, “What if I say I’m not like the others?” What if we could be different? What would it take?
One of the reason shows like “Friends” and “The Office” are so successful is that they depict people in real relationships, going through the rhythms of life with one another. We need to cultivate relational connections like this. A pastor friend does this with a household policy in which guests are granted free reign of the fridge. Sounds strange, but there is something to be said for the intimacy such a gesture conveys. Sharing your home or just sharing a meal with someone can be an important way to connect with people and maintain those connections.
Because as much as nudist churches weird me out, the church could learn a thing or three about this level of openness. So let’s keep our pants on, but let’s keep our hearts out in the open.
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Chris is a writer and speaker. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship and as a research writer for Docent Research Group.