The following is a review of the booklet “Naturism and Christianity: Are They Compatible?” by Karen Gorham and Dave Leal. The authors start with a great question which is simply, “Can Christians be naturists?” I’m glad they asked this question and had the courage to do so, especially since they are biblical scholars. I have not seen many touch the topic even with the proverbial ten foot pole. Gorham and Leal approach the topic from a scholarly point of view, lending, I suppose, an extra dose of credence to their findings.
I like the second question even better when they ask, “Might it even be the case that Christians ought to be naturists?” They go on to say, “Our primary purpose in writing this booklet has been to investigate the extent to which naturism is consistent with Christian faith. However, in the course of the investigation we will see reasons why Christians might be more than just tolerant of naturism, but might actually see something of positive value in it.” I would unapologetically place myself within the confines of that claim. I don’t need to read the rest of the booklet to investigate it any further, but most of Christendom should. The claim would sound insane to many friends of mine within the faith.
The second section is a brief history of naturism because, as stated, it’s largely unknown in Christian circles. While not exhaustive, it’s a welcome addition to this “investigation.” It then goes into a brief but fair treatment of the meaning of “nakedness” in Scripture and in Christian tradition. There are several great nuggets in these sections, such as these:
“Christian historian Roy Bowen Ward notes that ‘Christian morality did not originally preclude nudity… There is a tendency to read history backward and assume that early Christians thought the same way mainstream Christians do today. We attribute the present to the past.’” (page 11)
“For the first several centuries of Christianity, it was the custom to baptize men, women and children together nude… the accounts are numerous and detailed.” (page 11)
“The negative attitude to physical nakedness grew out of a mixture of Christinity and a legalistic tendency within traditional Judaism.” (page 11)
“In 4th century Antioch, as in many late classical cities, nudity had remained a fact of life.” (page 12)
“The new sensibility to the body and to nudity demonstrates a change in the collective imagination of the ancient world. Late Roman codes of upper-class dress made the social status of their wearers more blatant than ever before. In doing so, they carefully sheathed the body itself. Emperors no longer showed their power by posing in the nude… high born or low, emperor or beggar, all were formed from the self-same stuff.” (pages 12-13)
We see how things were, and how they slowly began to change.
“Nudity was fairly common in medieval and renaissance society, especially in the public baths and within the family setting. Lawrence Wright observes that ‘The communal tub had…one good reason; the good reason was the physical difficulty of providing hot water. The whole family and their guests would bathe together while the water was hot…Ideas of property were different from ours, the whole household and the guests shared the one and only sleeping apartment and wore no night clothes until the sixteenth century. It was not necessarily rude to be nude.’” (page 14)
A myriad of sources are quoted as careful research paints a picture of the realities of history. Then the booklet transitions into an examination of Naturism. It espouses that, “It is a way of life in which shame and fear of nakedness have no part, but also one in which clothing has a clear function (for protecting against cold, to give just one obvious example).” (page 15)
“The non-naturist sees nudity as almost pornographic, where the naturist sees it as an integrated element of a natural lifestyle.” (page 15)
“…the connection of nakedness and sex, though it may seem inescapable, need not necessarily be so.” (page 17)
“Naturism is clearly very different from the nudity portrayed in magazines, newspapers, video and television. It is not for titillation. Mass nudity is far from erotic. Uncovered genitalia do not lead to an inability to control sexual urges. Nor does clothing prevent rape or assault, or hinder amorous advances. As a naturist once described, ‘There are no orgies, men have no trouble keeping their penises under control, women don’t have to fight off hoards of assailants… Boring isn’t it? But what you find is a greater sense of freedom, more willingness to converse, more willingness to help those in trouble and a greater sense of fun.’” (pages 18-19)
I really identified with certain parts of this section.
“…many naturists have no problem being open about their Christianity with other naturists. However, they cannot be as open about their naturism with other Christians without experiencing or fearing hostility and ostracism.” (page 19)
“Naturists present a kind of acceptance of their bodies not much in evidence in today’s society, but something which is compatible with the Christian faith. A Christian naturist writes, ‘God certainly asks us to accept ourselves and our bodies as he made them. He must wonder at the sense of guilt in his creation turning good into bad, a source of joy into a source of misery.’ Another remarks: ‘It certainly isn’t naturism that I find incompatible with Chrstianity, but shame about our bodies to me sits uneasy with knowing the God whose creation is good beyond measure. God gave us our bodies to live in and to enjoy. He gave us our sexuality too to take delight in. He gave us our intelligence so that we might know how to enjoy and not to abuse both.’” (page 19)
Some other issues like the acceptability of these ideals and body taboo inconsistencies, standards of beauty and others are discussed in the final pages. The mental health benefits are weighed against the neurotic behavior that we call normal today. To that end, I love this quote from Dr G B Barker, consultant psychiatrist at a large London hospital, “I would state dogmatically that if nudity was accepted completely from the earliest age, there would be far less neurotic unhappiness, and less need for vicarious enjoyments of alternatives to sexuality (such as pornography). It is likely also that there would be less promiscuity, because promiscuity is based upon the neurotic inability to find or to form an adult relationship.” (pages 21-22)
In conclusion the authors state that, “There appears, firstly, to be no biblical grounds either for a promotion of social nudity or for placing a complete ban on it. Clearly, though, there is an important distinction to be drawn between physical nakedness and sexual impurity.” (page 23)
“Some naturists say that it is more fitting for a Christian than a non-Christian to be a naturist, given that Christians are new creations living before God, who need not know that shame which gives nakedness such symbolic potency.” (page 24)
“We conclude from this review of the different aspects of nakedness that there is no essential conflict between Christianity and naturism, that there is nothing inherently sinful about the naked body, and that the realization of this is part of what it means to be at ease with oneself, to be healed, to be made whole.” (page 24)
To that I say a big, amen!
About the authors:
Revd Karen Gorham is Priest-in-Charge of St. Paul’s Maidston, having trained at Trinity College, Bristol. Although not herself a naturist, Karen knows and supports many involved in naturism.
Dr Dave Leal is lecturer in Philosophy and Moral Theology at Regent’s Park College, Oxford, and writes on aspects of sexual ethics and Christianity.
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