St. Paul at the Nude Beach

beachBarcelona was my favorite part of our trip to Europe last April. 

I loved walking the streets beneath gothic cathedrals, stepping into Supermerkats on the corners for dollar-tallboys, and black, squid-ink Paella at night. I remember visiting the Sagrada Familia and having no idea who Gaudi was. His work is breathtaking. I’ve never seen anything like it. There is nothing like it. 

That trip was one of the best decisions my wife and I ever made. We almost stayed home, but I’m so glad we went for it. Perhaps I’ll write more about it someday, but honestly, the whole experience still feels like magic to me, and I don’t want to mess with that feeling by trying to articulate it here. 

I do, however, want to try to process a thought that starting forming on the beach during one of those days in Barcelona, next to a couple of women laying out topless on the shore.

I was talking to one of my friends about the experience and he said, “relax, it’s Europe.” For what it’s worth, that was the point. I wasn’t staring at these women foam-mouthed from the water hoping to hide an erection in the waves. It was just a reality, and it occurred to me that the temptation to objectify a human as a thing – which I have not been silent about struggling with in my life – was stripped of its power according to the normalcy of our context. 

No aura of taboo surrounded these women. They were, simply, free to be.

As was I. 

I’ve tried to express the power of that idea since being back in the States, but I’ve found it hard to do. Especially in a theological tradition that defines such circumstances as promiscuous and then attempts to control responses by creating rules for how to engage with it. I get hung up on wondering if it all sounds like a justification for having seen a thing that wasn’t meant for me.

Notice the word thing in place of the word human

I think that’s the crux of the disconnect.

The more I try to wrap my mind around this idea, the more clearly I see how much of my mentality regarding the ways I have viewed and defined people is skewed, especially as it relates to our sexuality. 

All my life, growing up, I’ve listened to Christians condemning the culture, and speaking about how the normalization of pornography and rampant promiscuity are contributing to a degenerative society and the downfall of the family system. Fine – that’s not really what I’m writing about, but I don’t think that Christians are the only ones who feel this way. I think anyone can look and see sex as a product and nudity as a point of sale. But I wonder whether we’ve done ourselves a disservice by responding to the culture’s worship of sex with our own opposing version of the same, reductionistic viewpoint – focusing solely on a woman as regards her sexuality. 

Thus, in our effort to get people to remember that humans are not just[emphasis] sex objects, we have contributed every bit as much to their objectification as anyone, albeit from the negative. 

I came across an article recently while attempting to research some of these thoughts. The author mentioned a parallel idea as it relates to what he called “modesty culture.” The essence of his idea was that waging a war against sex as a god – no matter how well-intended – still emphasized only one aspect of a woman’s complexity and personhood, and still reduces her to an object to be avoided.

Standing in the water and looking back at the women on the shore, I thought of the way sin relates to the law. I thought of the way that St. Paul wrote about how sin had no power without the law, and that covetousness did not come alive inside of him until he learned that he was commanded to refrain from it. The normalcy of my experience that day in Barcelona came and went void of the desire to lust after a thing, and see her as a human

Because she is not just an object that’s there if you want it. That’s another thing that seems so weird to me about placing such regulatory emphasis on “bouncing all our eyes” off and up and away from a “temptation,” as though woman only exists to be seen as an object, or not seen at all. 

And we wonder at being labeled misogynistic. 

This isn’t really an article about purity. Or rights, or whatever. It’s not a how-to. It’s just that I think I learned more about what Paul may have been getting at from those naked women on the beach in Barcelona than I ever have trying to repeatedly beat into my head, “she’s not an object, she’s not object, she’s not an object.”  

I tried to explain all of this to my wife over coffee this morning. I’m still stumbling over my words trying to get it right, but in the name of conversation, I decided to put it out to you today, anyway. I’ve been considering the idea for seven months now, and I think it applies to a whole lot more than just the immediate example of a response to sexuality. I wonder how many of our attempts at control end up fueling what inevitably ends up feeling like a lack of it.

Put differently, no one tells you that the best way to avoid sin is to focus so intently upon it and wrap up your entire identity in being known for struggling with it as a means to freedom from it. That’s counterintuitive. Freedom isn’t a mind focused on its prison. 

Freedom is something so much greater. It’s something we talk about extensively in My Pilgrimage.

The hyper-focus on managing the problem creates the demand as much as the production does. But where there is no rule there is no temptation to break it.

That’s probably the gist of what I’m getting at. 

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