Swimsuit season is approaching. Time to sweat pounds, shed weight, and squeeze into swimsuits. But why do we even wear swimsuits? And why only cover our “private” parts? The Bible explains why, down to our genitals. If however you confuse body talk with bawdy talk, be forewarned. You might find this column too graphic.
Talking about genitals makes some people jumpy. Two dynamics are at play here. First, a pornographic culture causes people to hear penis and think porn. Second, Western Christianity is largely a disembodied faith. It focuses mostly on the mind. James K. A. Smith says the Western church considers people to be “brains on a stick.” This leaves the rest of the human body out of the equation. The gospel doesn’t however.
The Apostle Paul wrote that the gospel is a “great mystery” (Eph. 5:32). It is the marriage of divinity and humanity. It begins with God. He is a Mystery, three persons – Father, Son, and Spirit – in one nature. This reality is so far “beyond” us, the only way we could encounter it would be for the Mystery to come down to our level and reveal himself. God did – and why the church historically taught that “the flesh is the hinge of salvation.”1
The way our flesh works opens the door into the mystery of God as well as the marriage of divinity and humanity. This glimpse begins with God is love. By definition, love is the enjoyment of another as well as the desire to expand the circle – enjoyment and expansion. For all eternity, Father, Son, and Spirit enjoy one another and seek to expand the circle of love. Expansion requires creating other beings. The marriage of divinity and humanity requires human beings, male and female, made in the image of divinity.
Adam was created first. His name means “body-person.” In his infinite wisdom, God knew that it was not good for Adam to be alone (Gen. 1:18). Adam however was finite and didn’t yet know what “alone” meant. He had never felt alone. My hunch is that if God had told Adam it was not good to be alone, Adam would not have felt it in his body. It might have registered in his brain as some sort of concept (“concepts” are what the Western Church tends to teach), but he wouldn’t have felt it in his bones.
God instead had Adam replicate what God did over seven days. God spoke reality into existence. For example, he “named” day and night. God brought animals to Adam for naming. This is the part in the story where those who confuse body talk with bawdy talk might find the following to be too graphic. Adam was naked. For a long time, largely due to coming to faith in a disembodied faith tradition – I imagined Adam decked out in lab coat, clipboard in hand, scientifically surmising what to name the animals. I was wrong.
In his outstanding book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, James K. A. Smith writes: “We feel our way around our world more than we think our way through it.”2 Adam felt his way along in naming the animals. God didn’t run the animals assembly-line style by Adam. Adam instead petted them, played with them, talked to them – much as we do with our pets. In the pristine creation, the animal kingdom didn’t fear humans. Yet, as Adam was feeling his way along, we know from our experience that he did not feel one particular sensation – sexual arousal. Adam began to sense in his body that he hadn’t found “a suitable companion” (Gen. 1:20).
God put Adam to sleep, formed a female, and presented her to Adam. In a flush of erotic enthusiasm, Adam gushed: “OMG!!! This is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh!” He didn’t sigh, “Gee, a woman who thinks as I do.” Adam felt love. Adam felt Eve. Love is enjoyment and expansion. Adam’s penis expanded. He called the woman “Eve,” meaning “Open.” It is a picture of spreading, or receptivity. Eve’s outer labia – the two folds of skin and fatty tissue on each side of the opening to her vagina – expanded. Her nipples expanded, becoming erect. What happened next is what you are imagining at this moment. Eve spread her legs and the two became one flesh (Gen. 2:24.)
Christopher West sums it up well. “Our sexuality illuminates the very essence of our humanity as men and women made in the image of God.”3 It is in our sexuality, particularly in our genitals, where we most instinctively feel what it means to be made in the image of God and designed for the marriage of divinity and humanity. We experience physiological and biochemical sensations designed to point humanity to the immortal, invisible God who loves us and desires to expand the circle of love.
Our design also explains Adam and Eve’s instinctive reaction after they fell into sin. They immediately covered their genitals. Why didn’t they cover their head instead? It is mostly in our genitals that we intuitively feel the image of God – and feel fallen. Adam and Eve, feeling shame, instinctively cover their genitals with clothing. Clothing is for modesty. It holds in tension two realities. First, our bodies, particularly our genitals, are designed to tell a public story of love – enjoyment and expansion. Our entire bodies ought to be celebrated. But particular parts of our bodies poignantly remind us of the fall. Desire easily degenerates into lust. That’s why particular parts of our bodies, breasts and buttocks, designed to be public, require an appropriate degree of covering and privacy. That’s why we wear swimsuits. That’s why only cover our “private” parts. And that’s one reason why men and women in times past believed in Christianity.
“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen;” C. S. Lewis wrote. “Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Only a graphic gospel explains reality, including erections and swimsuits. Christians who confuse body talk with bawdy talk find this gospel too graphic. Christians who see neighbors succumbing to a pornographic culture feel otherwise. If you are one of the latter, the next few weeks will grapple with the graphic gospel. If you like graphic novels, stay tuned. If you find it all too graphic, we’ll see you in September, at the end of swimsuit season.
1 Catechism of the Catholic Church (1015)
2 James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), p. 57.
3 Christopher West, At the Heart of the Gospel: Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization (New York: Image Book, 2012), p. 18.