As an artist, theologian and social worker, I sometimes feel like a bad joke about three men walking into a bar. The values found within each of these professions can be dizzying for me to reconcile. For instance, I can find myself editing my college experience of nude figure-drawing in art classes when speaking to other Christians while in other settings having to defend to my art colleagues why I still participate in institutionalized religion. This makes me sad, because I know both worlds could deeply benefit from the insights of the other.
A colleague forwarded to me an opinion article by Mark Wingfield, a minister at a Baptist church in Dallas, entitled “A pastoral dilemma about art and nudity: embodied faith and raising children in the church.” Wingfield deftly explored utilizing art as an educational tool in a Christian context. I was immediately intrigued and grateful someone in Baptist life had addressed this subject. As a theology school student and a trained artist with a deep love for art history and theory, I wrestle with this topic frequently.
American culture has inherited an attraction-repulsion to sex and the body from our Puritan roots (deepened, in my view, by the Great Awakening’s sensibilities about tackling sin). Today Christians deal with the impact of these movements in the modern iteration of purity culture.
“Our only way out is in. It’s embodiment.”
Purity culture, alive and thriving in church youth groups, goes to great lengths to make the argument that Christians should shut down their sex drives and minimize the relationships to their bodies. The touch of sexism – expressed in purity culture’s emphasis on the responsibility of the woman to guard men’s minds and maintain sexual boundaries – certainly doesn’t help. This puritanical ethic teaches us to be naked and ashamed.
For Christians, much of the fundamentally complicated relationship to the body is attributable to the Apostle Paul’s neoplatonic influence with its similarities to gnostic and Hellenistic philosophy. Broadly, this is apparent in Paul’s conceptualization of the physical world as simply a shadow in contrast to heaven, the true reality (he might as well have called it Plato’s “Forms”). This is distinct from the Jewish sensibility of the union of body and spirit and even from John’s revelation about a new heaven and a new earth.
Paul’s hope in a brief timeline before Christ’s return (a marked tenet of primitive Christianity) leads him to value singleness above all. It seems that as pastoral as Paul was, if he had better understood our timeline for the length of Christian history, he may have had more positive reflections on the body, sex and romantic relationships.
I’ve been reflecting recently on the saying that “the only way out is through and the only way through is in.” In the ongoing salvation of our spirits and healing of our souls, the way through often requires moving into our bodies.
This zeitgeist can be seen in several professions. In psychology, it is found in the shift away from the idolization of the cerebral cortex. The emphasis on talk therapy and “right” thinking as a way to healing meant that clients were traditionally treated as floating talking heads. Today, through emerging research, we understand that trauma is stored on a molecular level in the body. Mental health professionals now understand trauma to be a major factor in most mental illness (everything from depression to psychosis to addiction).
While talk therapy is still an effective tool, body work is increasingly being incorporated into the treatment of individuals with depression, anxiety and trauma-related disorders. Somatic therapies and experiential therapies such as dance or art have seen an increased value in the field as the body is reconnected to the healing of the mind. It’s in the body; so the way out is in.
Most of Christian thought utilizes Paul’s spiritual anthropology of the triune human – i.e., body, soul and spirit. Unlike the Divine Trinity, there is an inherent hierarchy within the human trinity that places the body distinctly at the bottom. It is important to note that this was a Hellenization of the Jewish concept of unified body and spirit. This makes sense when we consider Paul’s love for the “secular” Gentiles. His sermon at Mars Hill recorded in Acts, in which he incorporates a Greek poet and philosopher, is comparable to a contemporary pastor’s reference to the poet Mary Oliver in order to better reach the listening congregation.
“This puritanical ethic teaches us to be naked and ashamed.”
Christians today inherit an ancient worldview meant to lead pagan Romans into a reality different from their perspective that humanity is not only alienated from the created world around us but from our own bodies. What Paul meant to inspire is now a violent mindset, resulting in the severing of the whole person.
One way we correct this is by engaging in theological work that starts at the beginning – the creation poems of Genesis. The Jewish creation myths depart greatly from other Near Eastern myths due to the celebration of order in creation; the intentional and positive role Elohim/Yahweh plays in creating; and the assertion that the created world is good, very good. Our starting assumption, therefore, is that our bodies are good. Inherently. Full stop.
This is truth deepened by the miracle of the immaculate conception and the incarnation. God chooses to bring about the salvation of our souls through a bodily miracle. Mary’s body becomes the site of the greatest miracle of all time by hosting Emmanuel. Her genitalia function as the gate between heaven and earth in the breathless moment God is birthed into the world. All of her sexual organs are in use here (which holds a satisfying vengeance as women’s bodies were frequently declared unclean). God is radically unashamed of this fact.
Additionally, Jesus himself has a body and it is his body that bears the weight of suffering. In a glorious crescendo, Jesus is bodily resurrected and ascends into heaven fully embodied. Finally, we are promised a similar experience through bodily resurrection at the parousia.
Wingfield’s insight that perhaps our discomfort with bodies is our own displeasure with admitting our humanity is spot on. We don’t like to be in our bodies and would much rather focus on our spirit being elevated above all. The inherited subconscious belief that our bodies are dirty and sex is dangerous causes a disconnect in our spiritual health. It causes a distinct split between our psyches and our bodies, the unity of which is a vital component of spiritual growth and healing.
Findings of research on the effects of purity culture are damning. Sexual dysfunction (such as vaginismus and erectile dysfunction), eating disorders, self-harm, depression, marital struggles and existential crisis are just some of the side effects of the ethic and way of thinking promoted by purity culture. Essentially, research shows us that purity culture capitalizes on our fear, distrust and internalized shame about our bodies and about sex. Then, this purity ethic spiritually bypasses any objections we may have concerning our imposed disembodied experience by referencing the supposed Christian battle with the “flesh.”
Again, this sensibility is inherited, this time from Augustine who suffered from a sex addiction and took Paul’s neoplatonism and added his personal experience to create a theological ethic rooted in a deep-seated fear of the body and sex. It is no wonder that such a brilliant man felt trapped and threatened by his own flesh.
Our only way out is in. It’s embodiment. So, to answer Wingfield’s question, yes, art can facilitate a conversation that the Church needs to have about the body and sex. With that comes good, age-appropriate conversations with children about their bodies, consent and pleasure.
“Findings of research on the effects of purity culture are damning.”
A great way to start is by displaying the human body through classical art where the historical reference has the potential to dull the Puritan alarm bells embedded in our collective psyche. Embodiment is a distinct shift in paradigm which includes the spiritual practice of loving your body through gentle awareness and radical acceptance. Body prayers can be a helpful tool as well as conversations in our congregations about the inherent goodness of creation.
This work begins with our own growing awareness of our history and inherited biases and an active imagination for how to better approach our bodies in the future.