Nudity in Church

One of the most famous churches in the world, the Sistine Chapel in Rome, was originally decorated with dozens of nude figures on the ceiling. Painted by Michelangelo, the chapel is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Western art. However, a later Pope was uncomfortable with the nudity and hired another artist to paint loincloths over Michelangelo's nudes. For centuries people have debated the pope's actions. Was he advancing holiness or desecrating art? Not long ago Pastor Dan Kimball from Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California, faced a similar decision.

I got a call Sunday morning as I was driving to our worship gathering. A friend informed me that the coffeehouse our church worshiped in had new artwork displayed including a number of nude drawings. He asked what we should do? No one taught me how to handle this in seminary.

We recently opened the coffeehouse as phase one of our building plan. We are using it for worship until we develop a business plan that allows us to open the coffeehouse to the neighborhood every day like a normal coffee shop. The mission of the coffeehouse is to be a place where those outside the church can meet us, develop friendships, and hear and experience the gospel in a variety of ways.

The coffeehouse has an art theme that changes every 6 to 8 weeks. We recently asked people from inside and outside the church to submit art from their sketchbooks. Our art team strung cords all around the room like a spider web, and the artwork was fastened to the cords. A local tattoo artist submitted beautiful tattoo sketches. Another artist created landscapes. But among the three hundred sketches submitted were three nudes.

There were two female nudes and one male. The male nude was drawn from the torso down, so there was definitely a focal point on that one. The females were both half body and full body drawings, and very realistic looking. So, we stood there and had quite a fun discussion about what to do. It raised some really interesting questions such as:

1) What defines art?

2) What should be hung in a coffeehouse that is part of a church?

3) Michelangelo painted and sculpted nudes. Would we hang a Michelangelo in the coffee house?

4) What art is considered "holy" or "unholy"?

5) What about violence in art? Of course no one would object to a crucifixion piece being hung. So, why not another violent scene from the Bible? Would we hang that up?

We stood there in front of the nudes and debated for a while. How will parents react? This isn't a museum where you might take your children and expect to see nudity in classical art. One person was arguing that the nudes should be left up. They believed the church should redeem the beauty of art and teach that the human body should not always be seen sexually.

After a long discussion, I had to make the final decision.

Before revealing Dan Kimball's decision, let us know what you would have done. What factors would you have considered in making the decision? And how would you answer the questions raised by Dan and his leaders? In a few days we'll post the rest of the story.

December 11, 2006