On Nakedness

[*Facepalm* disclaimer: in this post I identify William VanDoodeward's institutional affiliation as Protestant Reformed Seminary. This is incorrect, and purely my mistake. Though I'm tempted to blame it on the proliferation of Presbyterian Alphabet Soup, I'd rather just apologize. I am sorry for the error. It is Puritan Reformed Seminary. Conservative as it is, to my knowledge Puritan Seminary is not formally affiliated with the Protestant Reformed Churches of America (PRCA). That connection is important to my argument, so bear it in mind. The usefulness of my specific argument therefore rests on the extent to which VanDoodeward is critical of the doctrine of common grace. Which he clearly is.] 

Professor William VanDoodeward wrote a piece a couple of years back on art, nakedness, and redemption. I noted it at the time but never wrote anything about it. For some reason The Aquila Report  just re-posted it, renewing a longstanding debate about whether there is any legitimate use of nudity in art for Christians.  

So why write on it now if I ignored it before? Mostly because I find myself having a few things to say about it and because, having re-read it, I am again impressed by and appreciative of many of his thoughts. It is persuasive on the surface and I think sure to convince many. But, nevertheless, I remain unconvinced as ever, and it might prove helpful to somebody if I lay out precisely why.

First, the positive: VanDoodeward does a very nice job of laying out a "biblical theology" of nakedness and clothing, viewing redemption through this metaphorical lens whereby nakedness is manifest in the Fall, and being clothed is manifest in Redemption. Really good stuff, with which I have little argument. Moreover, I found the historical material on Greco-Roman art interesting and useful, even if I find the rather one-sided conclusion that its raison d'etre is purely homoeroticism unpersuasive.

So there is much in what he says that is to be commended.  With that said:

1. It is crucial to know that Professor VanDoodeward is associate faculty at  Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary. I am not making some kind of ad hominem  potshot at his institution or his credentials. It is crucial because one of the defining doctrinal distinctives of the Protestant Reformed Churches of America is the denial of the doctrine of common grace. In fact, that understates it. I would go so far as to say that  the fundamental defining feature of this sect of Reformed Christianity is the denial of common grace. The entire denomination was born from Herman Hoeksema's passionate repudiation of Abraham Kuyper's doctrine of common grace.

This is a monumentally relevant fact when one is reading an article ridiculing the notion that there is "good" in pagan art and culture that can be redeemed. The author, insofar as he shares the convictions of his institution (and I cannot fathom his employment there should he not), does not believe in common grace. Put starkly: according to this brand of Calvinism (I hesitate to even invoke Calvin's name in this context) God hates unbelievers and he  hates their works. God has no appreciation whatsoever for the works of unbelievers. Christians shouldn't either. Nature, corrupted by sin, is wholly corrupted and worthless. There is no "good" to be found among the fallen children of Adam and Eve. And seeking to find it is, for Hoeksema and his acolytes, pure compromise and worldliness, period.

And this casts quite a different light on Professor VanDoodeward's project. Is it true that he is just being driven by an open-minded examination of Scripture? Hardly. He has a very sharp axe to grind before he ever gets to what the Bible says. Do I have evidence of this? I believe so. In his opening anecdote, when he hears of some friends heading toward divorce (due to the husband's pornography addiction), his mind immediately and rather easily lays the blame on the college the couple went to . You see, their college way back in the day was run by Kuyperian Neo-Calvinists who believed that art, including nudity, can be redemptive. And that must be, he insinuates, the root of the husband's porn addiction. Forgive me for finding that some pretty strange mental gravity: couple divorcing.... it must be the Neo-Calvinist college to blame! 

That is so bizarre, in fact, that I don't think the author's mind actually went that direction at all. I think he's simply using this anecdote in service to his more basic agenda: it is ready, at-hand, and useful for impugning the institution teaching the "heresy" of common grace. (Yes, the PRCA describes common grace as "heresy.") This is the usual sort of accusation: teach common grace and pretty soon people will start appreciating philosophy, art, science, et cetera, and lose their faith in the Bible. That is the kind of innuendo I've come to expect, but this reaches a new low. Apparently, if you teach common grace then pretty soon husbands will develop porn addictions and abandon their wives.

So, point number one is that there's a lot of theological funny business going on underneath the surface of this essay, and a little fair disclosure about the underlying theological agenda would have been appropriate.

2. VanDoodeward's anecdotes are literally useless. He says that a girl in a "conservative, Reformed institution" of higher learning was forced to watch "pornographic clips from movies" in an ethics class. Really? No, Really? Without a definition of what he means by "pornographic clips" this tells us exactly nothing. Given the rest of the essay, in which he seems to contend that  all nudity is "pornographic," we might conclude that the girl saw a movie clip from  Schindler's List. You know, naked Jews waiting to be gassed. Pornographic filth, right?

Color me skeptical that a professor at a "conservative, Reformed" institution was showing porn movies to his class. Movies that don't meet with Professor VanDoodeward's approval? Surely. But he needs to be reminded at this point that this illustration begs the very question his essay is supposed to be proving: that the movies he doesn't approve of  are pornographic.

3. On the one hand, the author wants to make the case that nudity, in and of itself, should be off-limits to Christian art. On the other hand, he muddies the waters by critiquing the Greco-Roman  celebration of nudity and sexual immorality. The latter does nothing to advance his argument for the former. It is perfectly possible for a Christian to use nakedness for a purpose other than the  sinful  celebration  of it. He just assumes that any Christian advocacy for nudity in art means they have the same thing in mind as the ancient Greeks and Romans. This is just an assumption, and an uncharitable one, at that.

4. More substantively, the author doesn't seem to understand how language works, or at least hasn't reflected very deeply about it. In the course of his biblical theology of nakedness he mentions Ezekiel 16, probably the most sexually graphic passage in the Bible. In my view, he rightly draws the conclusion that nakedness is emblematic of wickedness and sin, something God is redeeming us from. But how does God actually tell  that story? Sometimes in movies the screen "goes dark" and leaves it to the imagination. But God  doesn't leave it to the imagination. He graphically describes Israel as a prostitute who repeatedly "spreads her legs" for every passerby. That's pretty graphic, and it involves nudity and sexual immorality.

A descriptive phrase like that is designed to do something for the reader: it presents a mental image. If it doesn't correspond to anything in the mind of the reader, then it is nonsense. It has no meaning. If God says "spreads her legs" and all you get is a blank, empty, abstract brain because you're blocking out such things then you're blocking out something God wants you to observe. You're acting holier than God himself, which is kind of a problem. 

The context and purpose of the image makes all the difference, of course. God is not celebrating this degraded sexual scene. He is condemning it in the strongest terms. But narrative text is designed to paint moving pictures in the mind. My six-year old once said when being read to, "I'm watching the movie in my mind." That's exactly  what narrative does. When Genesis tells us that Noah got drunk and lay "uncovered" and that Ham "saw his father's nakedness," there is no understanding the story without some kind of mental picture of Noah lying there. Naked. There is plenty to chew on theologically here, and I do not want to get too far afield. At very least, the argument that all portrayals of nakedness are sinful cannot hold, on the basis of Ezekiel 16 alone.  Perhaps somebody would like to draw some kind of sharp dichotomy between linguistic and visual depictions of nudity. But that would require an actual argument that VanDoodeward's article doesn't even begin to make.

5. The essay simply proves too much. I found it strange that the author never considered what his argument means for visual portrayals of other sins. Why single out nudity? Murder is just as much a result of the Fall as sexual impurity. May Christians no longer perform in Hamlet? Whodunit murder mysteries? And so on with any other sin. VanDoodeward's own biblical theology against portrayals of nakedness would argue against portrayals of any kind of sin from which God is rescuing us. This view tells us that the Christian gospel has the artistic effect of bracketing out the fall altogether. It cannot portray the fall. It must be otherworldly art, not depicting the "estate of sin and misery" in which we find ourselves. Christian art, in this view, is Thomas Kinkade: all rainbows, light, and polish, with no dirt and grime. This is Gnostic, not Christian art. 

Jesus bears the scars of his crucifixion. Bear that in mind: a visual reminder of the violence of the age when sin and death reigned will exist forever, in the hands, feet, and side of Jesus.

But VanDoodeward's Gnostic rendering is not a surprise. Because a theology built on the rejection of common grace (I told you this would be relevant) is one in which redemptive grace, in the nature of the case, has to displace, disregard, and/or supersede nature. Nature under sin (bodies, people, society, culture, values, beliefs, art, civilization) is  wholly  corrupt, remember. God  hates  it. God hates everything except a number of elect individuals. He's got no plans for anybody or anything else except hell fires. The Protestant Reformed have never been shy in saying this. But the view that nature is wholly corrupted and never an object of God's affection is not Calvinism, contrary to their misguided belief, but  Gnosticism

So I remain unpersuaded. I happen to notice that God himself wrote a hideous story of a prostitute spreading her legs to show the repulsiveness of sin and the glories of his longsuffering mercy and grace (Ezekiel 16). And that hideous prostitute scene in  the film The Lives of Others  is pretty effective in making a similar point: how the robotic nihilism of Communist atheism cannot possibly hope to counterfeit the fiery passion of the artist and his lover. Can I condemn the latter and not the former? VanDoodeward wants me to, but gives me no real rationale for doing so.

So the underlying denial of common grace isn't just some obscure red-herring I pulled out of a hat. I think it is the animating principle of VanDoodeward's entire argument.

Oh, and by the way: a holocaust movie without naked bodies would be a wicked sanitation of evil. Probably not intended, but that's where this argument takes us.


Brian Mattson