What We Learn from Nude Reality TV

G.K. Chesterton said public nudity is never practical, except on occasions that are entirely artificial. So nude reality TV, it seems, was unavoidable.

Several current shows point the camera at the unclothed bodies of technically non-actors.

  • “Buying Naked” (TLC) — A real estate agent specializes in house hunting with nudists.

  • “Naked Dating” (VH1) — Random men and women are introduced to each other nude in the hopes they will emotionally connect.

  • “Naked and Afraid” (Discovery) — A man and woman meet in the nude and must survive together in the wilderness for 21 days.

  • “Naked Castaway” (Discovery) — Survivalist Ed Stafford tries to last on a desert island — think Bear Grylls, but with extra bare.

  • “Naked Vegas” (Syfy) — The show features a body-painting company in Vegas.

  • “Skin Wars” (GSN) — An ongoing body paint competition.

Reports suggest Fox is considering adding another naked dating show to the mix. And this new strand of naked survival/dating reality TV is not confined to the U.S. Last year the Dutch launched “Adam zkt Eva” (“Adam Looking for Eve”), which is now making its way to Europe, Germany, and Spain. According to the show’s description: “After a spectacular and rather awkward start, the couple explores the island to find their shelter and food supply, where they will spend the night together in a breathtaking paradise: it is their true Garden of Eden.” And just like the real Garden of Eden, contestants get lured by attractive Satanic temptations.

These are the new reality shows, focused on the stripped bodies of average nobodies. And to get past FCC regulations, frontal nudity is covered by props, blurred by pixelators, or layered with body paint.

As you can imagine, these shows have their defenders.

Nudity is au naturel, and we’re wild about “all natural,” right?

And supporters argue that stripped-down dating is a way to meet others in complete openness, removing all the complexities of modern life that get in the way (like clothes). “In an era where one-third of married couples meet online and a person can hide behind old, blurry profile pictures, the idea of seeing a potential match’s true self all at once has a certain appeal: once the physical stuff is out of the way, you can actually get to know someone” (Time).

And for the viewer, these shows promote security in self. It’s the celebration of bodies that are, I guess, average. As a culture we need to celebrate average bodies and help people get comfortable in their own skin.

But before we ignore all these shows as cheap marketing ploys by desperate networks losing money and distressed executives facing joblessness, let’s pause and look at why nudity and clothing are significant issues for us.

Public Nudity in Context

We must agree from the beginning: the private nudity of a man and woman in marriage is worth celebrating and protecting. In marriage bedroom, nakedness is beautifully shameless.

But this post is about public nudity, and celebrating public nudity is no recent innovation. The Ancient Greeks celebrated starkers in culture, art, battle, and athletics (in fact, the Greek word for nakedness, gymnos, is the root of our English word for gymnasium). Beginning again in the Renaissance, the bare bod was celebrated in public. Nude art pleased the critics and the artistic elite, gained popular appeal, and ultimately sold well. Very few artists who became famous for nudes were brave enough to escape the praise and money to redirect their careers elsewhere (props to Jean-François Millet).

Even a study of church history will uncover some bizarre twists of nudism. One of these trends led to a patristic face-palm when Augustine battled with a sect called the Adamites, early Christians in North Africa who believed they could regain their innocence by gathering together in a church they called “Paradise” to strip off their clothes and to enjoy some bare naked worship. Ah, the joy of sects!

Now, not for a moment do I equate nude reality TV with Italian Renaissance art, but the celebration of public nudity has been around a long time, challenging generations of Christians to open their Bibles.

At over 200 mentions, nudity is hard to miss in the Bible. With a finger on the texts, here are four lessons we can take away from this rise in nude reality TV.

1: Public Nudity Feeds the Wildfire of Lust

Several of these shows attempt to amplify sexual attraction by the most lewd approach possible, luring naked strangers together by the promise of erotic adventure. It seems the point is to see how long it takes for the couples to copulate in paradise.

But audiences are the real target here, drawing viewers with lust bait. Television critic Matthew Gilbert watched these shows and explains how it works.

One interesting tension about watching these shows is that we really aren’t seeing full nudity, even while the people are nude. We’re seeing Barbie and Ken. We’re playing eye games with the pixels, constantly trying to see through the blurring, wondering if the editor might have missed a little something around the edges. . . . Unlike online porn, the naked reality shows toy with titillation, coyly making us look and then look more in a pointless game of erotic hide and seek. (Boston Globe)

Let me say that again: Private parts pixelated (to resemble Barbie and Ken dolls) actually enhance the luring power of the televised nudity.

Ignorant Bliss

Before sin, Adam and Eve lived blissfully in glorious nudity. They were happy and naked and that was because they were ignorant of a lot of things, especially the ravages of evil. You can live naked and unashamed if you’re ignorant. But the moment they disobeyed God’s word and bit into the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they were cataclysmically awakened to evil. This knowledge came at a tragic cost. Adam and Eve became sinners, and they came face-to-face with the monster of rebellion for the first time (Genesis 2:15–3:24).

We laugh when little children run down the neighborhood sidewalk unclothed, chased by an embarrassed and apologetic parent. There’s a funny innocence to it in the life of a child who, to some degree, is ignorant of sin. In the same way, when men and women show themselves nude in public, they act like children, like ignorant children dumb to the fires of sexual lust that fuel the most unspeakable crimes in this world. Nobody can be protected from this. Even within the safe haven of a church will arise men who “have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin” (2 Peter 2:14).

To stoke the flames of lust between perfect strangers, and broadcast that to a national audience, is to fuel sexual expression outside of the proper boundaries of covenant marriage. In this post-Fall world, the last thing we need is people intentionally enflaming the powers of lust. Our hands are full enough trying to extinguish the forest fires of sex trafficking, adultery, and every other kind of sexual sin. To leverage the power of lust to boost ratings is to expose a child-like ignorance of evil.

2: Public Nudity Is Shameless

After Adam sinned, he hid from God, but God searched him out to interrogate him with a simple question: “Who told you that you were naked?” (Genesis 3:11). Nobody. Nobody told Adam he was naked. His guilt and his shame spoke from within his heart that he was naked and ashamed and needed to run away, cover, and hide.

Shame runs deep in every sinner, deeper than skin, deep as the heart, and that’s why nudity of the skin cannot lead to total honesty with others, writes Don Carson.

The idea is that if you could be completely open and transparent in one part of your life, then sooner or later you could foster openness and transparency in every part of your life. So we begin with physical transparency — complete openness, nakedness — and maybe down the road we’ll all become wonderfully open, candid, honest, caring, loving people. It never works. But that’s the theory. The reason it never works is that we have so much to be ashamed of; there is so much we need to hide.

Shame is the lingering sense that something inside me is rotten, and that I have hurt others and offended God in specific ways. For his entire life, the apostle Paul never forgot the shame of persecuting the church and murdering Christians (1 Corinthians 15:9; 1 Timothy 1:13). Likewise, John Newton never forgot the shame of stuffing and chaining African slaves on their backs into the hull of slave-trading ships. The gospel forgives and removes our guilt before God, but it does not scrub away the memories of the terrible ways we have sinned against God and others.

Christian counselor Robert D. Jones explains. “Believers in Jesus must be convinced that in Christ there is no condemnation (Romans 8:1). We must bask daily in the sunlight of God’s love. We must believe his cleansing forgiveness and drink the living water he offers.” But, he goes on to say, “There is no contradiction between a present enjoyment of justification and a proper sense of shame about past sin. Both mark the maturing Christian.” This is not shame for what others have done to us. And this is not the crippling shame that condemns. This shame is a healthy, lingering memory that we once lived in sin (see Romans 6:19–21).

Get as naked as you’d like on television, you will never broadcast to the world your deepest sins.

This is why we wear clothes.

We know deep inside that something is not right with us. We are sinners. And by our sin we have lost something of inestimable value.

As John Piper explains, God clothed Adam and Eve as a way of saying,

You are not what you were, and you are not what you ought to be. The chasm between what you are and what you ought to be is huge. Covering yourself with clothing is a right response to this — not to conceal it, but to confess it. Henceforth, you shall wear clothing, not to conceal that you are not what you should be, but to confess that you are not what you should be. One practical implication of this is that public nudity today is not a return to innocence but rebellion against moral reality. God ordains clothes to witness to the glory we have lost, and it is added rebellion to throw them off.

Public nudity exposes a body, but more importantly it exposes a rebellious heart in denial. To be honest with God, honest with ourselves, and honest with others, we must keep our clothes on.

3: Public Nudity Is a Metaphor of Judgment

A male contestant in one nude dating shows laughs, “It used to take four dates to get my date naked; now we start there.” Oh it sounds so adventurous, so exotic, so erotic, but some naked woman will be presented to this man as a nearly defenseless object for the gratification of his lusts out in the woods. She is a fool, but my heart breaks for her.

Throughout the Bible, nudity is a metaphor of helplessness and defenselessness, which is why public nudity is a fitting metaphor for God’s judgment on sinners (Jeremiah 13:22–26, Isaiah 3:17; Nahum 3:5). Appearing in public, voluntarily nude, and without Christ, is to prefigure the shame of God’s future judgment.

But most importantly, this explains the cross. Christ “emptied his glory, ev’n to nakedness,” wrote Milton. The clothes of Jesus were ripped off his body and divvied up. Hanging naked on a tree, Christ absorbed the unmitigated exposure to God’s wrath — with no fig leaves, no animal skins, nothing to cover him. In his defenseless exposure to God’s full wrath, he died for my sins and he turned the tables on Satan and “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame [nakedness], by triumphing over them” (Colossians 2:15).

Christians aren’t entertainment prudes; we embrace public nudity in a way the world finds offensive and foolish. For Christians, Christ’s public nudity meant the utter defeat of Satan and victory for us.

4: Public Nudity Is Regression

Joni Mitchell’s 1970 hit song “Woodstock” includes these lines: “We are stardust / We are golden / And we’ve got to get ourselves / Back to the garden.” A deep longing in every human heart reaches back to Eden. However scintillatingly intended, this desire to return to Eden frames many of these reality shows.

But stripping nude in order to walk back into Eden will only end in things getting singed and severed by flaming swords. There’s no return. God’s plan of redemption only moves forward, not toward restored nudity, but away from nudity, and toward greater clothing. Clothes testify something greater than Eden is in store.

Christ died and was raised so that we can be clothed in him (Romans 13:14; Galatians 3:27). But even that is not the end of the story: “we groan, being burdened — not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed” (2 Corinthians 5:4). Our problem is not that we wear clothing; the problem is that our clothing is never enough. Our bodies must be remade, resurrected, and then reclothed for the marriage of the Lamb, when the Bride (the Church) is dressed in “fine linen, bright and pure” (Revelation 19:7–8). Redemptive history moves from nakedness in a garden to the glorious adornments of a royal wedding.

In the end, Piper warns, “Taking your clothes off does not put you back into pre-Fall paradise; it puts you into post-Fall shame” — yes, an intensified shame. On the other hand, “our clothes are a witness both to our past and present failure and to our future glory.” Clothes fit into God’s unfolding (and unfinished) storyline.

A Wardrobe of Hope

Nude reality TV seems novel, but in many cases it’s just the expression of the Adamite heresy headed in the wrong direction to find an Eden that no longer exists. Nudists cannot tell the story of future glory. Public nudity is public hopelessness. Public modesty, on the other hand, may seem like old cantankerousness in this culture, but it’s designed by God to reflect a forward-looking and hope-filled longing.

Either way, our clothes (or lack of clothes) say a lot about us, our identity, the hopes we believe, the lies we grasp, and how we think of our lives before God.

“God, cover me!” is the Christian’s true longing. We must escape this post-Fall nakedness. We must be covered by Christ. And we must keep the eschatological hope of resurrection burning in our souls, a longing so intense we find it now impossible to get comfortable in our own skin.

Sources: Eliana Dockterman, “‘Dating Naked’ Is Just the Same Old Reality Formula, With Less Clothes,” Time (July 17, 2014). Matthew Gilbert, “Conceding Reality TV’s Soft-Core Promise,” Boston Globe (July 26, 2014). D. A. Carson, The God Who Is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story (Baker, 2010), 25. Robert D. Jones, “Redeeming the Bad Memories of Your Past Sins,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling (Fall 2003), 43. John Piper, This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence (Crossway, 2009), 37, 38. John Piper, “Nudity in Drama and the Clothing of Christ,” desiringGod.org (November 20, 2006).