Monday, May 1, 2017

A naked preview of my book in honor of May Day

Ah, the ol' alma mater

May Day means different things to different people. For some, it's an international day of strikes and worker solidarity. For other's, it's a pagan celebration of spring. And for graduates of a little liberal arts college on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the day will forever be associated with a whole lot of nudity.

Wikipedia's understated "May Day (Washington College)" page

(It should be stated that this was not what beloved professor Bennett Lamond had in mind.)

So I figured, in honor of this May Day, that I would offer a preview of one of the chapters I'm working on for my book, Christ on the Psych Ward. The chapter is entitled "Who Told Us We Were Naked?" It explores what a really old story about nudity, and shame, and vulnerability might have to say to those of us with mental health struggles.

I first started messing with these ideas in a sermon I gave at American University a while back -- with direct reference to the nudity-infused May Day celebrations at my alma mater, Washington College. Later on, I picked up on some of the same themes in one of my seminary classes, which led to both an academic paper and a song. That academic paper, in turn, served as the basis for this chapter in my book -- I'm still working on smoothing some of the seminary-ese out of this thing and making it a bit more readable and accessible.

This chapter is definitely a work in progress, so I'd be interested in your thoughts! And so, without further ado, an excerpt from a draft chapter of Christ on the Psych Ward:


          For centuries, Christian thought on the topic of sin has relied on a story that, despite its prominent place in theology and popular culture, is really rather odd. It involves a snake, and some fruit, and a God who is apparently in the habit of taking evening strolls. I am speaking, of course, of Genesis 3, of the man and the woman who eat the fruit that God told them not to. Biblical scholar Susan Niditch notes that it is difficult to present fresh readings of this text: “All too often readers come to Genesis weighed down by Augustine’s or Milton’s interpretation of the story.”[1] Yet it’s exactly a fresh reading of this text that is helpful in untying the threads of sin, shame, and suffering, and which can perhaps lay the groundwork for a destigmatizing theological understanding of mental health struggles.
In short, what if we were to read this strange little story, not as a story about “Original Sin” or “The Fall,” but rather as a story about the harmful effects of shame on our human need for connection and belonging?
As it turns out, none of the Hebrew words that are usually translated into English as “sin,” “transgression,” or “iniquity” appear in the Genesis 3 account.[2] In other words, the text in its original form, or as close to its original form as we can get, is oddly devoid of the concept of “sin.”  The interrelated themes of nakedness and shame, on the other hand, play a central role in the narrative.
“The man and his wife were both naked,” we are told, “and were not ashamed” (Gen 2:25). The stage is set for us with a depiction of two humans, innocent, unashamed, and most decidedly unclothed.
Then things get weird, and it all starts with a pun.
The Hebrew connection between the last verse of Genesis 2 and the first verse of Genesis 3 is obscured by most English translations. [3] The Inclusive Bible attempts to capture the segue:  “Now, the woman and the man were both naked, though they were not ashamed. But the snake was even more naked: the most cunning of all the animals that YHWH had made.”[4] The nudity of the humans is correlated to their lack of shame. The snake, on the other hand, is “even more naked.” Literally, the humans are “smooth,” but the snake is “smoother.”
Pretty smooth, right?
            By setting the story up this way, the ancient narrators center nakedness as a key component of the story. Whatever is about to happen next, it’s going to have something to do with nudity and shame. In fact, this story establishes shame as an early, repeated motif in the Hebrew Bible.[5]
As previously mentioned, BrenĂ© Brown’s definition of shame is an intense fear of disconnection, “the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection….Shame is the intensely personal feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”[6] Denise Dombkowski Hopkins and Michael Koppel echo this definition when they note that “Shame can be…negative in that it makes us feel deficient, flawed, and inferior – in short, not ‘good enough.’”[7] They also state that shame “can be positive by helping us to maintain boundaries for appropriate behavior.”[8] To differentiate these positive and negative aspects, Brown employs different terminology, using the term “guilt” to refer to the positive, behavior-influencing aspect and “shame” to refer to the negative, deficiency aspect.[9] Guilt, according to Brown, means I did something bad; shame means I am bad.[10]
If the nakedness of the woman and the man is linked to their being without shame, and we understand shame not as the feeling that I have done something wrong but rather that I am somehow deficient or fundamentally flawed, then the character of the “even more naked” snake takes on a different dimension. Rather than the tempter of traditional interpretation, the snake is the voice of shame which points out deficiency: “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (v.5). Once naked and unashamed, the woman now has a sense of lacking in something, something that could be gained by eating the fruit of the tree. Brown calls this the “shame-based fear of being ordinary.”[11] Interestingly, she notes that when humans experience shame, “we are almost always hijacked by the limbic system…that primitive fight-or-flight part of our brain.”[12] The snake, then, stands in as an expression of the “reptilian brain” that tends to dominate our responses to shame.[13]
             Once the man and the woman have eaten from the fruit of the tree, the first thing they notice is their own nakedness, and their first act is to cover themselves (v.7).  No longer oblivious to their nakedness, the human beings are also no longer unashamed. When they hear God taking a daily stroll through the garden, they hide. At which point, of course, God finds them and condemns them for their disobedience.
Well…not exactly.
God’s first words to the humans are not a condemnation, but a question: “Where are you?” (v.9). This open question gives the humans the ability to take responsibility for their actions or to share their feelings. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, humans have a particular response to being addressed by God. The word hineini, which means, “Here I am,” is uttered by priests, prophets, and patriarchs when God speaks their name. Responding with hineini can indicate “the ability to be present for and receptive to the other (Gen. 27:18), the readiness to act on behalf of another (Gen. 27:1), or the willingness to sacrifice for someone or something higher (Gen. 37:13).”[14] But the man in the garden does not say “Hineini.”[15] Instead, his answer centers around the realization of nudity and fear – a newfound sense of what Brown calls “excruciating vulnerability.”[16]
If the motif of nudity-shame is central to the story, than God’s next question – “Who told you that you were naked?” – takes on an importance that is often eclipsed, in more traditional readings, by the question that follows (v.11). We can reimagine this encounter, not as one between an angry father and disobedient children, but with the voice of God’s heartbreak over the damage shame causes. “Who told you,” God’s voice shakes, “that you were anything but beautiful and good?” The question, “Who told us that we were naked?” is of vital importance. What are the voices that tell us that we are lacking, that we are deficient, or that we should be ashamed and afraid?
Jan Richardson, pastor, theologian, and artist, tells a story which to me perfectly sums up the primordial voice which whispers to us of our nakedness:
In one of my earliest memories, I am perhaps five years old. I am standing in my parents’ bedroom with a stack of my artwork. Drawings in pencil and crayon, paintings in tempera and watercolor and finger paint: these are the pieces that my mother has gathered up and saved. The entire collection. And I am systematically tearing up each one. The most vivid part of the memory is when my mother walks in. I have made it nearly to the bottom of the stack by this point. Horrified to see the pile of shredded paper, she asks me why I have done this. “Because they weren’t any good!” I tell her, amazed that she can’t see this for herself. I don’t know where I got this idea; it didn’t originate at home, where my family valued and supported creativity. Call it a precocious inner critic.[17]
“A precocious inner critic,” is what Richardson calls this voice, which by she says did not come from critical parents or teachers. There is a primal tendency we inherit as humans that predisposes us toward this “They weren’t any good.” It’s the whisper of the snake – though the snake in the story is clever, smooth, naked enough to disguise the message, selling it as “You could be like God.” Why settle, then, for just being loved?
Of course, our lives are full of external forces that amplify this voice, from advertisements, to hierarchical power structures, to concrete experiences of shame. BrenĂ© Brown reports that in 85% of the interviews she conducted in her research for Daring Greatly “the men and women we interviewed…could recall a school incident from their childhood that was so shaming, it changed how they thought of themselves as learners.”[18] These early experiences of shame are particularly detrimental in the arena of creativity: “[In] approximately half of those recollections….research participants could point to a specific incident where they were told or shown that they weren’t good writers, artists, musicians, dancers, or something creative.”[19]  
We are now getting closer to a deep, rather than a shallow, view of the tangled connections between sin, shame, separation, and mental illness. Mental illness is not a sin. It is not the result of bad behavior or a lack of faith. But mental illness is one of many things that can amplify or conduct the voice of the snake, that primal voice of shame that whispers, “You are naked. You are not truly loved. You are lacking in something. You are not enough.” This is a shared human experience, but it is exacerbated, broken open, by the pain of mental illness. If sin, at a deep level, is about alienation rather than simple wrongdoing, then the suffering of mental illness can bring a person face to face with the deep reality of sin in the world.

[1] Susan Niditch, “Genesis,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, 3rd edition, edited by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon Hi. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 31.
[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation (Boston: Cowley Publications, 2000), 47-49. The three root words that Taylor explores are chatah, avah, and pasha: “But nowhere in this [Genesis 3] story is the word “sin” mentioned, much less the phrase “original sin.”
[3] Rober Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1996), 10-11.
[4] The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation, The Quixote Center Collective (Lanham, MD: Sheed & Ward, 2007), 6. Emphasis added.
[5] Denise Dombkowski Hopkins and Michael S. Koppel, Grounded in the Living Word: The Old Testament and Pastoral Care Practices (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 42.
[6] Brown, Daring Greatly, 68-69.
[7] Hopkins and Koppel, Grounded in the Living Word,  41.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Brown, Daring Greatly, 71.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Brown, Daring Greatly, 22.
[12] Ibid., 76.
[13] Rachel Ternes, one of the students I worked with at American University, informed me when I first presented this idea that a, would like me to point out that the “reptilian brain” is not actually synonymous with the limbic system, which is more accurately paleomammalian; however, she has granted me absolution and the permission to continue with my metaphorical wanderings.
[14] Hopkins and Koppel, Grounded in the Living Word, 46; with reference to Norman J. Cohen, Hineini in Our Lives: Learning How to Respond to Others through Fourteen Biblical Texts and Personal Stories (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003).
[15] Interestingly enough, while up until this point the woman has been the protagonist, it is now the man who answers God. The introduction of shame into the story almost completely silences the woman, except for her later participation in the “blame game”; and the later consequences of v.16ff reinforce this patriarchal norm.
[16] Brown, Daring Greatly, 5.
[17] Jan Richardson, “In the Presence of Angels,” 5 Sept 2010, available online:
[18] Brown, Daring Greatly, 189.
[19] Ibid., 190.