Naked Time

A friend of mine recently made a post on his blog entitled, “Naked Time.”

For simplicity’s sake, I’ll just repost the content here. He writes,

Some friends and family of my church community are currently missionaries in West Papua. As they have been dedicated to an extremely remote village, the indigenous people whom they live with wear very little clothing. The women only wear grass skirts (nothing on top), while the men wear strings around their waist and a small flap hanging from the front.

A while back I called our missionary friend on the phone to see how he deals with the “nudity” while raising a family, and he brought up three interesting points: 1) It is against the law to seek to try to cloth the people of these remote tribes (they don’t know how to take care of “normal clothing,” ending in sickness), 2) The missions agency they work with has a fairly strict dress code for women to wear long skirts (necessary for certain locations this agency stations their missionaries at), and 3) The long skirts are so unusual and mysterious among the tribe, that they serve as an enticing, stumbling block for the tribal men, becoming a constant distraction.

So what would you do? Seek to eventually fully-dress these tribes? And what about the obligation to follow your agency’s guidelines, when in turn they are creating the effect they were meant to stop?

If you read his post and the comments following, you’ll see my feelings on the topic as well. So I’m curious, what do you think about this sticky issue? Am I right, or am I wrong-headed?

5 thoughts on “Naked Time

  1. Interesting issue…You said in your comments that one of the great tragedies was the destruction of the culture. I mostly agree with you, but I wonder about it being a non-issue (good way to throw in “adiaphra” there). With an understanding that western thinking is far to consumed by sex and nudity, it still causes me to wonder exactly why there would be an opposition to seeing these cultures become more clothed. Is their culture based around their worship of various deities and witchcraft practices? If this is the case, then doesn’t presenting the light of the gospel include detroying that culture focused on witchcraft? I’m not sure of the answer to this question. How far do you go as a missionary in bringing people, not to a western understanding of modesty, but to a Biblical understanding of modesty? Just my own questions…

  2. Good point to bring the potential for pagan worship practices into the discussion.

    I can think of two potential responses:

    First, would it be possible to incorporate some of those practices into Christian worship without compromising the integrity of worship?

    Second, does the Bible ever give a specific, non-cultural description of what modesty is? In other words, isn’t every instruction that pertains to modesty directly related to the cultural standards of those receiving the instruction?

    For example, in Corinth, it was taboo for Christian women to wear their hair loose and free. Reason being, the only women in Corinthian culture to wear their hair that way were prostitutes and witches. So, the command that women should wear their hair a certain way is culturally bound, not a command to be interpreted literally for all people in all times in all places. The modesty principle – if you will – may extend to the present, but it must be culturally interpreted.

    So, to your question about wanting them to be more clothed. My answer is, yes, it is a problem for us to want them to wear more clothing because the amount of clothing they wear is determined by culture, not Scripture. If modesty by their standards allows them to be essentially naked, then Scripture doesn’t demand anything else.

    Obviously, buying my argument for this specific culture depends entirely on whether or not my cultural hermeneutic makes any sense to you. Many will reject it, arguing that the Bible should be interpreted in a purely literal way, full-stop. I don’t think that makes any sense, because then all Christians would be stoning their kids for talking back.

    My two cents. I’d like to hear your response.

  3. “If modesty by their standards allows them to be essentially naked, then Scripture doesn’t demand anything else”
    I guess this is my hangup. If their pagan practices determine their standard, shouldn’t their salvation experience move them into an understanding about modesty? – Gen 3:21 The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them. – NASB.
    This wasn’t a matter of Biblical interpretation. The Lord clothed them! That’s pretty awesome…kinda makes you wonder what the style was in those days…Red carpet interviewer – “Who are you wearing?” Adam – “God”. I guess the point is this… If their pagan practices draw them away from God and they are comfortable with their nudity, shouldn’t drawing them closer to God give them cause to put some clothes on? Adam and eve were only comfortable with their nudity because they lived in perfection. Now, I haven’t been to Papau New Guinea, but I’m fairly sure it’s not the garden of eden. While we’re here, do you think there are some pagan practices that are ok to incorporate into worship? If so, what?

  4. Good points. Here’s how I would respond.

    Concerning Gen. 3:21: Would you consider that passage prescriptive or descriptive? Does it describe how the first couple was clothed, or does it prescribe that every human being after them should be clothed? Second, it is interesting how few details we have about their clothing. Was it total and complete? Shirts down to the wrists and up to the neck? Were they vnecks with cleavage showing? In short, we just don’t know. Third, I would argue that the clothing in this passage has a much more symbolic than literal reference. On one level, it address God covering the sin of Adam and Eve so it could not be seen in their eyes or in God’s eyes. On a deeper level, clothing Adam and Eve is actually a precursor to JC’s covering of sin in his death and resurrection. While the passage certainly has a literal reference, I would argue the symbolic reference is actually more significant.

    Now, how do we know the tribe in New Guinea is wearing more or less than Adam and Eve? We don’t. For all we know, their clothing is closer to the original than ours was. In some ways, we know that for certain, because they are living off the land, and their clothing is much more ad hoc than ours is – made from animal skins and plants.

    Concerning pagan practices in Christian worship: there is a long, long history of incorporating pagan practices in worship which goes far beyond Christianity and stretches into our ancient Hebrew roots. For example, the entire sacrificial system of the OT did not originate with the Hebrews; they adopted it from the wider geographical/cultural region. However, they did certainly have distinctions that set their system apart from others, but the fact remains that they certainly did borrow from their neighbors – and God used that system and accepted worship through it.

    Obvious examples in the Christian era: Christmas – originally a pagan holiday through and through which was hijacked by Christians in the early centuries of the faith. It is now almost universally acknowledged by Christians as the day to celebrate Christ’s birth. You think God minds? As an aside, the Orthodox church rejects December 25 and continues in the older tradition of linking Christ’s birth to the Passover feast, but that’s more complex than I can flesh out here, and I’m not certain I even understand the entire argument. Easter is yet another example; a pagan fertility feast that was hijacked by Christians to celebrate the resurrection.

    Now, on to the present day. Think about any modern praise and worship band you have listened to in your lifetime. Most likely, they have employed guitars, drums, pianos, and keyboards. If we use a strict definition of “pagan” then those are all pagan instruments which are used in Christian worship. Do you think God minds?

    It seems to me these points shed light on the New Guinea situation. First, the objects and holidays I spoke of are all familiar things, i.e., they don’t feel “pagan” because pagan and foreign are so closely linked in our minds. Christmas isn’t foreign, but it was/is pagan. Yet, most of us don’t hesitate to celebrate it, and rightly so I think. However, the modesty of the people of New Guinea – or lack thereof – is foreign to us as Western, American Christians. Given our cultural understanding of nudity and sexuality, we immediately link their nakedness with sin, i.e., paganism. We do so for one main reason, namely, that if women were clothed like that in our culture we would most likely commit the sin of lust. However, we have ignored the fact that these men do not lust after the women of their own culture who are running about half-naked while lusting after Western women, who are fully clothed.

    Which brings me to the final thing I would say in this part of the discussion: we have yet to talk much about the motive and intention of the people involved. We’ve spent most of our time debating the external component – i.e., what clothes and how much are they wearing – without discussing how the external is affecting the internal. If the men and women of NG are not in fact lusting over one another day and night but are tripped up by Western clothing, then it seems to me the solution is obvious. If your eye causes you to sin pluck it out, or in this case, forget about Western clothing and modesty standards in favor of the preexisting ones.

    Concerning incorporating preexisting materials and practices into public worship, here’s what I mean. Odds are, they don’t have guitars, keyboards, and sound systems. Odds are, they do have some type of instruments that are technically “pagan.” Instead of destroying their culture by importing ours, utilize the existing instruments and music for the worship of God. Instead of importing Western Christmas to celebrate Christ’s birth, look closely at their religious calendar and see if there is a similar holiday which can be taken over while being careful to distinguish between the Christian concepts and the “pagan” concepts.

    Make sense?

  5. Ben, good points as well. I have to say, i agree with most everything you’ve said. Save a few things I just see differently, not right or wrong, just my viewpoints:), you’ve brought up some good points. Kinda weird hearing about Eve’s cleavage, but hey…whatever works for ya! lol. Anyways…good discussion…I look forward to the next one! Later Bro.

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