An email correspondent asked me to comment on the ethics of artistic nudity.
(For purposes of this discussion, I’ll be assuming a male viewpoint since that’s the viewpoint which comes naturally to me.)
The putative objection is that artistic nudity is lustful. It’s a form of virtual fornication or virtual adultery. Is that the case?
We can approach this issue from a number of different angles.
1. At one extreme is pornography. Say, and X-rated film in which nude actors are having sex.
2. At the opposite extreme is Islam. Women are only allowed to show their hands and face in public. Even their face may be veiled.
And this also applies to men. Your not supposed to go shirtless or wear shorts in public.
Likewise, Islam disapproves of locker rooms where men disrobe in front of other men.
And it goes beyond that. There are serious debates among Muslim clerics about the propriety of a married couples making love in the nude.
3. From our standpoint, this is bizarre. Since most men are straight, male nudity doesn’t arouse lustful feelings in another man.
And where marriage is concerned, husbands and wives are supposed to enjoy the physical aspects of intimacy, be it visual, tactile, &c.
4. In addition, Muslim prudery is self-defeating. It fails to cultivate any sense of internal self-restraint. It’s all about externals. Simply repressing one’s feelings doesn’t make them go away. Indeed, it tends to exacerbate those feelings.
5. Let’s take another example. Is it appropriate for Christians to see movies? Let say, movies from the 30s and 40s, where there was no nudity or profanity.
It is appropriate for a Christian to see a movie with a beautiful actress? Or is it only appropriate if the movie has a plain or homely actress?
Assuming that it’s okay for a Christian to see a movie with a beautiful actress, how should she dress? Should she dress like an Amish woman?
Or is it okay for her to dress in a way that accentuates her feminine features?
I don’t mean, should she dress like a streetwalker. I mean, should she dress in a way that’s tasteful, but takes full advantage of the fact that she’s a beautiful woman?
6. Let’s take another example: is it okay for men and women to go to the beach? Should the beach be coed or segregated by gender?
How should people dress on the beach? We’ve all seen historical photographs of Victorians who dress for a day at the beach as if they were bundled for a Siberian winter.
I’m not saying that anything goes at the beach. But is it appropriate to wear less when it’s hot outside? To expose a certain amount of skin between the head and the feet?
Or say you’re a carpenter who’s building a house on a hot day. Is it okay to take your shirt off? Or would that incite lustful glances from female passers-by?
My point is not to belittle the issue. There are some serious issues. Unbridled lust is socially destructive.
Sex appeal, like truth, is one of those paradoxical things that can both unite and divide. It needs to be controlled.
But I am pointing out that this question ranges along a continuum, with many borderline cases.
7. Let’s take one more example before we discuss the Scriptural data:
Suppose we’re in high school. Some of the boys are watching the cheerleaders practice out on the field. Now, boys have been known to mentally undress girls. But suppose it doesn’t go that far.
Suppose the boys in question are simply looking at the cheerleaders work out. They simply enjoy looking at women, as is (in their shorts and halter tops). They like to sit there, in the bleachers, and take pleasure in female form.
Is that wrong? Is it wrong for a teenage boy to enjoy looking at a teenage girl? To admire her figure?
8. What about the Bible? Not surprisingly, the Bible’s view of nudity or near-nudity is complex. And that’s because the propriety of nudity depends on the setting.
i) I think some Christians are misled by the negative references to nudity in Lev 18 & 20. But, there, nudity is a euphemism for incest.
ii) In Jn 21:7, we have fishermen who strip down to their loincloths to work in hot weather.
iii) There’s a celebration of nudity (both male and female) in Canticles.
What is the relationship of the lovers in Canticles? On the one hand, they’re not a married couple. On the other hand, it’s not an affair.
As Duane Garrett explains in his commentary, they are bride and bridegroom rather than husband and wife. They are engaged to be married.
So what we have in Canticles is sexual anticipation. Sexual fantasies involving a man and a woman who are unmarried, but engaged to be married.
If we didn’t have this canonical book, we might view that as the virtual equivalent of premarital sex. But that’s not where this book draws the line.
iv) And beyond the characters in the story is the reader. There is a voyeuristic aspect to the book. The book appeals to the sexual imagination of the reader. The female character isn’t his wife or fiancée.
Once again, if we didn’t have this canonical book, we might view that as the virtual equivalent of premarital or extramarital sex for the reader. But that’s not where this book draws the line.
v) Or take Prov 7. This is a bit paradoxical. Solomon is warning the male reader to avoid sexual immorality. But, in order to do so, he draws a very provocative picture for the reader. It’s not a literal picture, like a painting or photograph. But it’s a picture in words. He leaves it to the imagination of the reader to mentally depict what he’s describing.
So this is using the sexual imagination to restrain sexual practice.
vi) Because the Bible is set in the same culture as the original audience, it takes a lot of things for granted. But our modern notions of privacy were unheard of in ancient times.
That’s implicit in Lk 11:7, where the whole family slept on a common bed mat.
The cultural presupposition here is a one-room hut. Now how much privacy would anyone have in a setting like that?
Family members don’t have separate bedrooms. Or bathrooms. They would have to go down to the river to bath (e.g. Exod 2). Public nudity. I’m sure they tried to be as discreet as possible, but how much could you do in that situation?
The mother would often have occasion to breastfeed her baby in the presence of older children.
The couple wouldn’t have much privacy when making love. I’m sure they tried to be as discreet as possible, but once again, how much could you do in that situation?
9. I’m not trying to trivialize the issue. Lust is a sin, although we need to define lust in Biblical terms.
And pornography is destroying the lives of many men, including a fair number of Christians.
We need to be prudent. We need to draw lines. But we need to draw them where Scripture draws them.
If a Christian is going to say that Botticelli’s Birth of Venus or some of Renoir’s artwork is inherently sinful, then I need to see more of an argument.