An open letter to the FHU board regarding nudity in art
I send you all warm greetings from Franklin, TN. I hope that this note finds each of you well. I want to commend you on your recent decision to hire David Shannon as the new President of FHU. I, like many Christians in the southeast, believe hiring David was a brilliant move and sent a loud message across the brotherhood about the direction you want to take FHU. Thank you for having the courage and conviction to make such a bold statement.
This letter is in hopes you will have the same courage and boldness on a separate issue. Please allow me a few minutes of your time to explain.
There is a relatively new sub-discipline field of science known as neuroesthetics. This branch studies the aesthetic perceptions of art, music, or any object, investigating the neuronal circuitry involved in specific responses. For instance, in a recent study they analyzed the eye response when human males where shown images of naked people. This study demonstrated what part of the body the eyes lingered on and which areas the eyes skipped over. It also showed how long the eyes lingered over specific genders and what part of the brain lit up. This new field is demonstrating what happens on a neuronal level in the brain when individuals look at art. (See “The Experience of Art : Insights from Neuroimaging” by M. Nadal, 2013, Progressive Brain Research, 204:135-158.)
So what about naked images? Research has shown repeatedly that any time a nude image is viewed, the brain INVOLUNTARILY releases two neurochemicals: dopamine and norepinephrine. (For a good review see Todd Love et al’s 2015 review, “Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction” published in Behavioral Science September 5(3):388-433.). These chemicals are released whether the individual is looking at material that is deemed art or pornography. From an aesthetics perspective at the neuronal level there is no distinction in the brain. Dopamine is a pleasure neurotransmitter—activating the pleasure circuit of the brain. (It is similar to the feeling a drug user gets when they take a hit of some type of drug.) (For a great review of this please see Anjan Chatterjee’s Neurobiology of Sensation and Reward)
Norepinephrine is the neurochemical I hope you will remember. This has been called the “paperclip” neurotransmitter—in that it clips the image into your memory, making it available for recall. The average college student takes about 0.7 seconds (less than a second) to paper-clip an image they view into their brain. A better description would be the “tattoo” neurotransmitter—because it builds a permanent memory of that image that is very hard to erase. There are other chemicals the body releases under certain conditions such as oxytocin, vasopressin, and endorphins that all help create a “high” and bring pleasure, but the two that I hope you will remember are dopamine and norepinephrine.
So what happens when a student in an art class views a picture of a naked person? Dopamine is involuntarily dumped into the brain, stimulating the reward center. The image is then “paper-clipped” into memory and is available for recall. Overstimulation of the reward circuitry in the brain—such as occurs when dopamine is repeatedly released from viewing nude images—creates desensitization.
When you think about something (or view something) it actually changes the physical structure of the nerve cells in your brain—and it can change the connections between nerve cells. In other words, your brain is wired according to what you think about… which is probably why Paul wrote ““Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—think on these things” (Philippians 4:8).
For drug addicts to feel the feeling they initially felt when they got that first “hit” they need to take more drugs. For individuals who get that feeling from nude images, they don’t need more…they need something different (or more intense). Thus individuals will often ”graduate” to material that contains multiple people, violent scenes, or even children. The reality is that viewing nude images is actually changing the physical structure of the brain. There are recent studies that point out viewing naked images also changes a person’s attitude toward sex as well as divorce.
Please understand that I fully comprehend that the human body is amazing—and I too believe it should be celebrated as an incredible marvel of God’s creation. I frequently teach on Intelligent Design, and I often use the human body in that discussion. However, I am able to have that discussion (with PowerPoint images) without ever showing naked images to the audience.
My background is in neuroscience. One of the troubling factors for me personally is that when many humans view a nude image, their brain identifies it as an object—not a human. Research using brain scans has shown that viewing naked images lights up a different region of the brain. The brain views the person in the image as “a piece of meat” rather than a human, created in the image of God, who possesses a soul. Love is left out of the equation.
Lumping artists and medical students into the same category is like comparing apples and oranges. Artists can selectively choose what they draw/paint. Doctors are charged with learning and treating the entire human body. I earned a doctorate in Anatomy and Neurobiology—and in the course of my training viewed both images and cadavers of the human body for the purpose of learning various systems. Professors spent an enormous amount of time discussing how human bodies were to be treated and the genitals were always kept covered unless we were dissecting that specific area. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo did look at human bodies—in an era that we had little knowledge of internal human anatomy and in an effort to produce accurate medical textbooks. Their efforts were to broaden the knowledge our knowledge of the human body—not to look at it from an artistic perspective or to appreciate it artistically.
In almost all fifty states being naked or exposing oneself is considered a criminal act of public indecency. Look carefully at that description—public indecency. In simple terms, this is something that is not decent in public. The Bible speaks clearly about modesty. Paul wrote, “likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control (1 Timothy 2:9, ESV). Most universities have a dress code. As Christians, we recognize that clothes that are low cut or too revealing are not pleasing to God. So what about no clothes at all? If these same images from textbooks were sent to a classmate who missed a class via cell phone it would be perceived as sexting—something most preachers and youth ministers have spoken out against.
Many youth rallies on modesty have pointed out that Adam and Eve were naked prior to sin. However, after eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil the “eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings” (Genesis 3:7). They were ashamed and tried to hide. I have heard point out that the fig leaves were inadequate and so “God made tunics of skin, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21). The fact of the matter is, thanks to sin, we now live in a fallen world in which immodesty is sinful. The Bible overwhelmingly presents nakedness as shameful, immodest, and degrading (e.g., Genesis 9:21; Exodus 20:26; 32:25; 2 Chronicles 28:19; Isaiah 47:3; Luke 8:27; Revelation 3:17).
Last week I spent several days with Josh McDowell—having dinner with him and listening to him talk patiently about a subject that is often taboo in the church. Josh has authored over 100 books including More Than a Carpenter and Evidence that Demands a Verdict. He has a popular radio show and is a professional speaker on Christian evidences and cultural issues. Last year Josh commissioned Barna Group to carry out the largest survey on pornography—costing well over $250,000. They spoke to thousands of individuals and spent months analyzing their data. I interviewed him following that survey for Think magazine. In that interview he gave several startling statistics:
- The average age most children are introduced to pornography is eight years old.
- Teens and young adults consider “not recycling” more immoral than viewing pornography.
- Young adults are watching more porn and seeking it out more than any other generation.
- Viewing pornography increases marital infidelity by more than 300%
- Every day there are 68 million pornographic search engine requests.
- 47% percent of children under 18 receive pornographic emails daily.
- 41% of Christian young men use pornography regularly
- 20% of all Christian women are addicted to pornography
- 91% first time exposure by a teen was during activities such as research for a school project or surfing the web for other information.
- 90% of 8-16-yr olds have viewed pornography
- 21% of youth ministers and 14% of ministers admit they currently struggle with using porn.
(For the complete results please see https://www.josh.org/key-findings-in-landmark-pornography-study-released/ and https://www.barna.com/the-porn-phenomenon/)
Again, viewing naked images alters the brains of these young people. Given this massive problem, I hope and pray you all will reconsider the recent decision about the use of naked images in art and photography classes at FHU. There are several questions that I sincerely hope you will ask yourselves as you contemplate these things:
- Am I prepared to give an account for the brain changes that are occurring when FHU students view naked images?
- Why do Christian art students (or photography students) need to view such images? Surely we are not preparing students to make a living painting naked art or taking pictures of naked individuals once they leave FHU.
- What about the souls of those who are in the pictures? You take pride in that real-life models are not used as they are on some Christian college campuses; yet someone had to disrobe in order to get in front of a camera and get the images into the hands of students. Are we helping this “stranger” keep his/her marriage bed undefiled?
- Would you be comfortable with David Shannon having these images displayed on the side of the Presidential Trek travel trailer as part of the face of FHU?
- Jesus spoke very plainly about the dangers of lust (Matthew 5). Is it wise to tempt students with these images if we really don’t have to? How does viewing these images impact future relationships of the students at FHU?
- Several professional artists have offered to come speak to you all about the fact that viewing/drawing/painting nude images is not necessary for a career as a professional artist. Would you be willing to sit down and listen to them?
- Given that pornography is such a major problem on college campuses these days, why would FHU do anything that could add to that problem?
- Lastly, aren’t we—as Christians—called to be different from the world? So worldly art students look at nude images as a part of their training. So what? We aren’t trying to train up young people to be like the world. We should not be in competition with the world. Instead, we are trying to help transform their minds (Romans 12).
Much more could be said, but I know your time is valuable. I appreciate you considering these points, and I do hope you will give some serious consideration to the neurochemistry of the brain in making a decision about what the eyes of FHU students view.
Many Christians will chastise me for getting this document to you in such a “public” way. However, I did some due diligence and tried to contact you privately. I went on the FHU website and could not find your names or contact info there. I called the President’s office and was informed they did not give that information out. I did try private messaging one individual (even offering to talk by phone or in person), but received no response. And as you know from last week’s Open Forum and from other notes on social media, this issue has become very public. Also, I honestly don’t know all the board members, so I am hoping this method will help ensure everyone sees this letter. I apologize in advance for any headaches this causes you. (As a side note, it might be beneficial to set up a “Board” email on the FHU website so future concerns from Christians can be shared in a private fashion.)
My prayers are with you. I pray that you will look at the decision you made by hiring David and follow it up with an equally strong voice of conviction. I am available if you have any questions about the neuroesthetics, neurochemistry of the brain, or research on pornography.
Serving Him with you,