When I was still at my fundamentalist college, one of my girlfriends wanted me to go the library with her, because she wanted to “show me something.” I agreed to go with her, all the while wondering what in the world she found so fascinating in the library. She pulled me into the art history section, and pulled out a coffee-table-sized tome on Michelangelo. She flipped it open to what was obviously not a particular page and pointed to the picture of David.
I looked. “What?”
Her facial expression was priceless. Her mouth dropped open, and her eyebrows disappeared into her corkscrew-curly hairline. “What do you mean, what?!” She pointed again, more vigorously, to his privates, which had been very carefully marked over with a black sharpie. Someone had drawn boxer-briefs on David.
I shrugged. “They do that to all the art books.”
She flipped a few pages over, to a rendering of the Sistine Chapel– all the men wore boxers, and all the women had been covered over with what looked like knee-length wetsuits. “Why would they do this to art? It’s Michelangelo, for Pete’s sake!”
“I dunno, I guess the administration thinks some guys could look at it like it’s soft porn.”
She almost started sputtering in what I’m sure a writer would call righteous indignation. “This is not porn, Samantha. Whoever looks at this and sees “porn” has got something wrong in the head.”
“Well, let me ask you this: after Adam and Eve sinned, what was the first thing that happened? They hid because they were naked– and God made coats for them. [like every good KJV-only girl, I used the proper "coats" term, and not "aprons" or "garments." Coats are obviously more modest than aprons, and "garments" is ambiguous, silly translators, trying to cloud meaning everywhere] So, don’t you think that means that we’re not supposed to go around looking at nakedness all the time?”
She looked at me cross-ways, frowning slightly. “I don’t think that’s what that means.”
I think I patted her on the shoulder, quite consoling, at this point. “What else could it?”
There have been an abundance of fantastic articles connecting the dots in fundamentalism’s and Christian Patriarchy’s emphasis on modesty. Writers have talked about how an over-emphasis on feminine modesty can lead to the “she was asking for it” mentality of rape culture, and how this emphasis can be equally damaging to men, as it paints them as base animals. There have even been articles suggesting that an over-emphasis on modesty is, in itself, a form of “soft porn.” One of my close friends once commented that her pastor constantly focusing on “modesty” only made it harder for the boys to not think about sex.
All of that is true, and all of that is a real, and very serious problem.
But there’s also an undercurrent that affected the words that came out of my mouth in that story. It’s one of the reasons why I can’t really get on board the Buddhist, Gnostic, or neo-Platonic bandwagons– they all seem to treat the physical, and therefore our physical bodies, as inherently bad– as something we are to endeavor to escape. This idea is encapsulated in statements like “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” [which, by the way, is often incorrectly attributed to C. S. Lewis.] All of these views share dualistic traits– they have underpinnings that treat the mind-body-spirit unity as a problem.
Fundamentalists are told from nearly every corner that their body is bad. That their body is shameful. That our flesh is weak, and our emotions are not to be trusted. A phrase I heard very often growing up was “I trust you– but I don’t trust your flesh.” Our flesh–our body–is what drives us to sin. Our body, not our mind or our spirit, is what is vulnerable to temptation. We are trained to “bring the flesh under subjection.”
So, we dissociate. We disconnect. Our bodies are not really us– they are only things, and things we are supposed to think of as our opposition. Our body becomes our enemy, and only the most rigorous self-discipline will keep us from going astray. A Sunday school teacher once encouraged the gathered group of girls that if we ever got home one day, and our feet were dying to get out of our shoes, that we shouldn’t. Instead, we should leave our shoes on and not sit down for another thirty minutes, at least– so we can make our bodies “submit” to us.
While I’ve heard fundamentalists decry the “works-based Salvation” that they associate with things like asceticism and self-flagellation, the teachings I heard all my life were not that different. I was taught that fasting was not to bring us closer to God– fasting was meant to deny ourselves, to crucify ourselves on our cross. Paul’s declaration of “I die daily” was taken as literally as it could possibly be taken.
This mentality can be so damaging. It resulted in eating disorders by many of the women I knew in college. It created a derision and dismissal for anything earthly, anything physical, in our existence. “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through,” becomes a mantra that results in never recognizing all the goodness that exists here, in our physical reality. It ignores that God called his creation “Good,” in the fullest, most wonderful sense of the term. Good, as in both morally perfect and absolutely beautiful. This view of physical as our enemy forbids us from truly witnessing the beauty of a moment, or to appreciate our senses. Food becomes utilitarian, instead of the joy it could be. Music, because it cannot help but demand a response from our bodies, becomes a perversion. We lose the ability to be moved and transformed by art, and fundamentalists reduce it to kitsch.
But Jesus came to earth as a man, fully human. He was in all points tempted as we are– he hungered and thirsted. He mourned. He celebrated. His miracles, except for casting out demons, had nothing to do with the spirit and everything to do with our bodies. He made sure his followers were fed– and fed well. He sheltered them and protected them. He healed their bodies.
I’ve learned to cling to the wholeness of my self. That I am a mind, a spirit, and a body, and that these things are meant to work in conjunction with each other, not against. My body is not my enemy– and I can revel and delight. I can be sensuous. I can enjoy the feeling of my husband’s hands, I can sigh in wonder at a sunset, I can enjoy every single last bite of the chocolate cake that’s going to be in the oven soon. I take showers until I’ve used up every single drop of scalding hot water. I pull my blankets tighter on a lazy Saturday morning and refuse to get out of bed.
La dolce vita or carpe diem don’t have to be ‘heresies’ regulated to the decadent, the worldly– they can be a mantra I claim for myself.