There is nothing shameful about the human body

Christian Voice draws attention to a naked bike ride through London that took place this last Saturday, 9th June. Apparently about 1000 people were expected to take part in this “annual protest against oil dependency and the culture of cars, as well as a celebration of the human body.”I did search the Sunday Telegraph yesterday for a mention of this world-shaking event and couldn’t find anything. It obviously didn’t cause much of a stir.

Why bother to blog about it? Well – it did make me ponder a Christian response to this form of annual protest. Christian Voice points out that “despite the much-vaunted antagonism of most participants to oil and petrochemicals, none of those taking part will be stripping off their trainers, which cannot be made without petro-derivatives. Comfort apparently takes precedence over principled opposition to oil-industry products.” It’s hard to be anti-capitalist when you are enjoying the fruits of capitalism.

And the naked aspect? According to the website of the “World Naked Bike Ride” organisation, total nudity is not mandatory; rather like the famous Calendar Girls of the WI, you can employ strategic, coy means to avoid frightening the horses. The dress code is “Bare as you dare”. Given our uninhibited culture, I bet quite a lot of the participants dare quite a lot. The website also informs us that “Most riders also find [bicycling naked] exhilarating, liberating, empowering.” It adds, “It’s about body-positive values; living a healthy life in tune with our environment; establishing and projecting a positive self-image and rejecting shame.”

The little word “shame” sends ripples through my Christian consciousness. After all, what’s wrong with public nakedness? Even the law in the UK agrees that simple nudity is legal – provided there is no intent to alarm or distress; “indecent exposure”, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Yet shame matters. The first book of the Bible, embedded in the Judaeo-Christian consciousness, is Genesis. It describes Paradise, the Fall and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. The first thing they did when they sinned was to cover their bodies with foliage; what had before been innocent had become a source of shame.

We Christians believe that this Original Sin affects every member of the human race – not excluding naked bike riders. So when they speak of rejecting shame it is disingenuous, as is their contention that there is nothing wrong with non-sexual public nudity. Because of the Fall we can’t just separate the two. There is nothing shameful about the human body made by God – as artists throughout the ages have demonstrated. But subjectively we are all prone to a complex response when we see it flaunted publicly in the flesh: ribaldry, alarm and distress, curiosity and so on. We live east of Eden.

The website of the WNBR also informs us that “Seattle has a well-established naked bike ride during the Summer Solstice Parade.” Mention of the “solstice” suggests there is a neo-pagan element to this gathering. Apparently witches’ Sabbaths always include nakedness and lewd behaviour, presumably as a deliberate affront to Christian modesty and self-restraint. So there is a dodgy sub-plot here. Many years ago, when I once edited a quarterly family newspaper, an old gentleman wrote to me, asking why I didn’t include naked pictures of women on the front page. He was Catholic, happily married but somewhat eccentric obviously, and thought a Rubens or Renoir take on female flesh would be a celebratory thing for families to gaze at. I replied with a limerick:

“The Editor says she’s no prude/ for not having pics in the nude/ but since Adam and Eve/ we are taught to believe/that public exposure is rude.”

That says it. Just as all mothers give this peremptory order to their young children every morning, I am inclined to say to these World Naked Bike Riders, “Go and get dressed!”