Sunday, March 26, 2023

why nude art can be good for children

Nude Christ by Melanie Cooper Pennington

Recently, the principal of Tallahassee Classical School in Florida resigned in response to complaints submitted to the school board by at least one parent after a sixth-grade class was shown a picture of Michelangelo’s David sculpture as part of their curriculum. Apparently, the parent said the sculpture was “pornographic.”

Setting aside the fact that one would expect students at a classical academy to learn about classic art such as this, I am dumbstruck by the fact that so many Christians would applaud the school board’s discipline.

As an ordained minister who has studied childhood spiritual development by working with children and partnering with church-going families over several years, I would like to explain why I think it is GOOD for children to see (and have the chance to reflect upon) nude forms in art. My rationale is rooted in a variety of theological distinctives inherent in the Christian tradition.

First, Christian teaching holds that the human body is intrinsically good. This idea is rooted in the creation account itself and reaffirmed in Scriptures like Psalm 139:14, which declares that human beings are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Significantly, shame about the human body only enters the picture when the first human beings begin to doubt the goodness of God and the goodness of God’s creation. Prior to questioning such goodness, it is telling that (according to Genesis 2:25) the first human beings were “naked, and they felt no shame.” It is only after they gave in to the doubts sown by the serpent (who represents evil in the story) that they made coverings for themselves. (see Gen. 3:7)

Far from corrupting children, when we help children celebrate the human form appropriately, we are, in effect, cooperating with God in celebrating what God intended for our good.

Let us keep in mind that children do, indeed, reflect upon the mystery of the human body from a very early age. And it is better to help children wonder about the body in the open than to push it into the darkness where fear and shame tend to take over. Of course, the key is to do this appropriately.

You may well ask, then: what is appropriate and what is inappropriate?

Certainly, portrayals that are intended to objectify, degrade, victimize, and oppress human beings are to be rejected. Since the idea of “being made in God’s image” involves the act of exercising real autonomy over one’s own body, I hasten to add that any portrayals which violate the agency of the subject in question constitute one of the gravest evils (if not the greatest evil) in our society today. Here I refer to the preponderance of child pornography. This is a great evil, to be sure, because it preys upon the vulnerability of those who have little or no power to stand up for themselves when their agency has been violated.

This is precisely where the Christian story speaks so powerfully to this question, for Christianity teaches that God became one of us (a human being) in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Theologically speaking, this is referred to as “the incarnation.” Briefly, the incarnation says that God took on human flesh to redeem what God intended for good in the very beginning and to reassert the goodness of it all. For the Christian, the embodiment of the Divine in the incarnation proves to be the decisive moment that dignifies humanity, even as Christ takes upon himself the shame and humiliations we inflict upon ourselves.

In this light, it is noteworthy that the two key events in the Christ story (birth and death) are events in which God’s only Son identifies with us in our stripped form, completely naked, willing to be exposed and vulnerable before the religious powerbrokers (who had developed the habit of objectifying God) and the political overlords (who could degrade and victimize whomever they wished to oppress).

Indeed, it is striking to me that most portrayals of the birth and death of Christ take pains to cover up his nakedness. This is tragic because it is through the very self-exposure of God that we may behold the depth of God’s love for us by identifying with us in our own vulnerable exposures. Far from evil, it is through the nakedness of God in these key salvific moments that we return to the light of grace.

Let us remember that the Gospels affirm this portrait as the writers recorded the fact that the very last piece of Jesus' clothing was a loincloth which the soldiers removed from his body in a degrading game of chance. And it was this very ugliness and humiliation that the apostle Paul celebrated as a kind of subversive victory. Jesus went right to our deepest, darkest places of shame and ushered us into the light of affirming love by the very act of exposure.

For these reasons, I encourage parents and educators to be thoughtful about helping children reflect upon the human body through various art forms, including visual depictions of nudity. Far from being an anti-Christian phenomenon, I suggest such thoughtful engagement can help us more fully embody an intrinsically Christian ethic and mediate an encounter with the Divine through a celebration of all that is good and beautiful in the human form itself.


why nude art can be good for children
reflections by troy cady
*Photo: Nude Christ by Melanie Cooper Pennington

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