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By John D. Pierce

The late humorist Lewis Grizzard once explained common Southern vernacular regarding nudity.

“Naked,” he said, means you don’t have on clothes. “Nekkid,” however, means you don’t have on clothes — “and are up to something.”

A lingering Puritan influence created a sense of modesty in the culture of my upbringing — with Independent Fundamentalist Baptists taking the practice to greater lengths.

That is, the length of skirts reaching the ankles — and the length of male hair cropped tightly above the ears and neck (just like Jesus and his disciples would have worn in the first century).

Occasional moral breakdowns would happen such as impromptu “skinny dipping” in a remote swimming hole or the short-lived (thankfully) fad of “streaking” in the 1970s that publicly embarrassed a few parents and made Ray Stevens some good royalty income.

Cultural and religious perspectives on nudity arose internationally last week when Iran’s President Rouhani paid a state visit to Italy. Temporary box-like structures were built to cover nude statues in Rome’s Capitoline Museum.

Public and political reactions varied (something hard for Americans to imagine since we never express disagreements).

Italian leaders who blocked even a sneak peek at the marbled flesh considered the cover up to be a simple, courteous act. But as Boston Globe writer Sebastian Smee put it: “Elsewhere, it caused conniptions.”

Some Europeans, he said, considered the cover up to be an unnecessary accommodation of fundamentalism — as well as a capitulation of civility in which art is appreciated as art.

Ultimately, said Smee, some observers felt the controversy provided an educational opportunity: to learn “how to look at nakedness.”

As an aside, my mind goes back to when my daughter’s middle school class went to see The Bodies Exhibition in Atlanta. Usually students are instructed on such field trips to look but not touch; in this case it was to look but not giggle.

Now, back to Roman statues and nudity as art.

“One of the things art, and specifically the nude does, is to sublimate desire, on both a social and an individual level,” writes Smee. “It brings this most anarchic of forces — the life force itself — under some kind of temporary control.”

Smee admits, however, that another approach to bringing desire under control is preferred by some: “banning all images that might inflame desire.” But he warns that approach often backfires.

He argues that nudes instill a profound respect for bodies. But acknowledges that “people are going to come at such nudes from completely different angles.”

Cultural and religious influences, he adds, shape how nudity is regarded — as appreciated art or pornography. The greater lesson, he insists: “…The tradition of the nude can teach us is the place of desire within civilized life.”

As an art novice, I’ll take his word for that. Surely, a well-chiseled statue can teach such a lesson better than a sagging streaker.

The difference may be akin to the Southern semantic distinction between “naked” and “nekkid.”

One calls for paying an admission to a museum and the other shouts, “Don’t look, Ethel!”

As best I can tell, that’s the naked truth.

John Pierce

About John Pierce

John D. Pierce is editor of Nurturing Faith Journal — the signature publication of Baptists Today, Inc. He is also publisher of Nurturing Faith Books and Resources. Previously he served as managing editor of The Christian Index and as Baptist campus minister at Georgia Tech and Kennesaw State University. A native of Ringgold, Ga., he is a graduate of Berry College (B.A.), Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.), and Columbia Theological Seminary (D.Min.). He speaks frequently in churches, consults with congregations concerning communications and holds interim pastorates.