What Should Christians Think of Nude Art?
This week on the podcast, we are going to talk about one of the most complex and controversial questions we’ve ever addressed. And that is, what should Christians think about nude art? Another way to ask the same question is, what’s the difference between nude art and pornography? It’s a complicated question because there is some really clear Bible teaching about what Christians should believe about nudity and modesty. The very first demonstration of the sinfulness of humanity after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit is in Genesis 3. In verse 7, it says, “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” We read just a little bit later in the chapter, in verse 21, that the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them. The very first manifestation of sinfulness and a newly created sinful world is that we have lost our ability to be naked and unashamed. Adam and Eve knew they were naked, and they knew in this new sinful experience there was something wrong about that. That’s a clear biblical teaching. It is wrong to be naked in front of people unless you’re talking about marriage or unless you’re talking about a medical exam. It is right to maintain modesty, and it is wrong to remove modesty. And so that’s just one very clear biblical principle that we have to think about and remember all the time.
But the reason that conversation is complex and controversial is because we still know, even though that biblical principle remains untrue, that there is a difference between pornography and nude art. We feel some sort of difference. I’ve had an informal poll, going for weeks, with people at First Baptist that I bumped into, and had an occasion to talk to, pastors on the staff, women who go to church here. These are faithful, pure, godly individuals. And my question is this, if you found out that I was secretly indulging in pornography, would you think that is different than if you discovered that I loved the works of Michelangelo? And every single person I asked without fail, 100% of people said yes. Everybody knows it’s different to admire the works of Michelangelo than it is to admire, if you will, pornography. That’s what makes the question complicated. What should Christians think about it? Modesty is a demand. It is wrong. It’s impossible to be naked and unashamed in this fallen world. And so, how are we supposed to think about this? I want to answer the question very clearly in a moment or two. But before I answer the question, I want to explain why that’s complicated. Everybody can say yes, of course, pornography is different than the works of Michelangelo. But you ask, okay, why? And now, all of a sudden, even thoughtful, careful Christians find it difficult to give an answer.
Let me explain what is the same about pornography and Michelangelo. The same that is true of works of nude art and works of pornography. And then let me talk about what’s different.
Here’s the things that are the same. The reason these are hard questions for us to answer is because we just feel some things, we see some things that are similar but different. We don’t know the difference. Let me tell you some of the differences. Along the way, let me tell you some of the things that are the same. So, the creation of nude art and pornography is the same in that it is always wrong to uncover our nakedness in order to show it to people. Apart from marriage or a medical exam, it’s always wrong to uncover our nakedness in order to show it to people. So, whether that’s happening in things called nude art or in things called pornography, that’s wrong. The dissemination is also the same. It’s equally wrong. It’s because we live in a world where God demands modesty. It is wrong to spread images of people that God intended only for marriage. A vision of someone’s nude body is intended to be enjoyed by themselves and their spouse in marriage and no place else. When you spread those images, it’s always wrong, regardless of what you call it. The consumption is also the same and is wrong. It’s always wrong, regardless of motivation, to seek out images of naked people. We’re just not designed, we’re not supposed to be the kinds of people who go looking around for images of naked people. That is always wrong to do. You can call it nude art. You can call it pornography. But it’s always wrong for anybody to do that.
I think those things are clear. And yet, there are some things that are different between nude artwork and pornography. Let me mention a few of those. First of all, the age is different. I think this is important. It is one thing to celebrate a classic work of art that has stood the test of time to embrace and appreciate ancient art that has been prized by millions of people over centuries and various locations. I think all of that is very, very different than a new and contemporary desire to appeal to the sexual interests of the degraded public just to get more hits, more views more money. So, there is a difference when we look at the age of these ancient pieces of art versus the newness of pornographic material. There’s also a different intention. Pornography intends to create sexual arousal; whereas artwork intends to celebrate the human form, celebrate the artist, it is it’s an intention to celebrate, not to degrade through sexual arousal. The medium is also different. Pornography is just a raw depiction of sex and graphic images. But the emphasis of art is on the talent and giftedness of the artist, and the brushstrokes and all of the rest. The end result is also different. Pornography always degrades, it always corrupts, but art can be uplifting. Porn isn’t going to make anything better. But art can be and has been for many a delightful experience.
Those similarities and those differences confuse us. I think what we need to be really clear to say is that ultimately, and people, who were actually scholars in this room, will be honest with you, that there ultimately is no firm line between pornography and nude artwork. There are differences of degree, but there is no difference in kind. That’s why it’s complicated. But now I promised you I was going to answer it clearly. I’m going to do that now that we understand the complexity. Let me answer clearly; I don’t believe that Christians should create nude art. I don’t believe Christians should model for nude artwork. I don’t believe Christians should display nude artwork. And I don’t believe Christians should buy nude artwork. When it comes to viewing it, if you’re in a museum where nude artwork is going to be on display. People who are sexually tempted should always fight to avoid it the same way you would seek to avoid any temptation. Jesus says you’re supposed to gouge out your eye and cut off your hand. I don’t think Christians should seek it out for its own sake. I think anybody who comes upon it in a museum, I think you need to be very careful to guard your heart. To view it in passing and not linger over these things. I think you should protect your kids from it. It really is risky stuff. The line between admiring the brushstrokes and admiring the work of the author and admiring the forms. There is a very, very faint line between that and sinful sexual delight that you must fight to avoid. And so I think this is very risky, and Christians are better off without doing it and certainly not seeking it out. Certainly not creating it, modeling it, displaying it, or buying it.
I’ll tell you one story. When I was in the third grade, there was in the back of our third-grade class bookshelves, and filling those bookshelves was the Encyclopedia Britannica. I remember going back to that bookshelf where the Encyclopedia Britannica was, and one of my friends in the third grade introduced me, as best I can remember to the first image I had ever seen of a nude woman. It was a piece of classic nude artwork. I don’t know the name of the author; I couldn’t tell you the name of the painting. But my friend opened up the Encyclopedia Britannica, and he showed me an image of a piece of nude art. It wasn’t just him and me; there were other boys who were back there looking at it. And let me tell you about the page in the Encyclopedia Britannica where that picture was. All the other pages in the Encyclopedia Britannica were crisp and clear, and clean. This page was well worn, it was dog-eared, it was gray and black with thumbprints from many, many, many, many years of third-grade boys turning to that page and showing their friends. I’ll tell you, none of us were back there admiring the color. None of us were back there admiring the excellent talent of the artist or the brushstrokes. We were learning to lust. I don’t care how talented someone is; I don’t care what a model it is of the celebration of the human form. We really, really are in a world where God demands modesty, talking about something very, very dangerous, and I think Christians will be wise to be incredibly careful.