Genius of Genesis Part 6: Naked and Ashamed?
“Wow! A whole family of Incredibles!”
The villain named Syndrome in the Pixar classic The Incredibles has captured two adults and two children with his “zero-point energy beam.” He knows they all belong to one family. How? Simple. They’re wearing matching outfits: red with black trim, and a little yellow “I” for “incredible” on their chests.
Their clothing gave them a sense of unity as a family, but rendered them vulnerable to collective capture by “the bad guys.”
Since Adam and Eve clothed themselves in fig leaves, humans have lived in ambivalent relation to our apparel. Somehow we feel more ourselves when we hide our hides under fabric. In ancient Sumer, prostitutes were punished if they put veils on, while free women were required to wear them.
Why do we wear clothes? Some suggest it’s because unlike dogs or bears, we have little hair to protect our limbs. A geneticist named Mark Stoneking did a disgusting bit of detective work, tracing the adoption of clothing by ancient humans by changes in the DNA of body lice. Clothing kept us warm, but also gave cover to itchy free riders.
Moses tells us the first man and woman were naked “and not ashamed.” After they disobeyed God and ate forbidden fruit, their “eyes were opened, and they knew good and evil.” Apparently evil seemed coterminous with their skin, for they donned fig leaves. Before God banished his human proteges from the Garden of Eden, He “made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.”
Science writer Nicholas Wade, no friend of the Bible, argues that reason, language, and clothing really did appear together in pre-history:
It was about this time, or a few thousand years later, that people perfected language and broke out of Africa to colonize the rest of the world. It seems they had decided to get dressed up for the occasion.
Ashamed to be Seen
In C. S. Lewis’ space fantasy Perelandra, the hero, Ransom, is transported to Perelandra (Venus), an exquisitely beautiful Water World. Island rafts of matted vegetation float on an endless sea, sprouting bubble trees and fruity plants of colors and tastes so wild as to almost loose the mind from its tether.
No one wears clothing on this tropical paradise — no one but a pompous scientist who has been possessed by the devil and has come to tempt the local Eve. Ransom tries to keep her from giving into temptations — such as to deck herself out in flamboyant bird feathers.
It would be hard to film this story, since nudity is no longer natural for humans, as for dogs and cats. Having lost the innocence of a baby, “being seen for who we are” is dangerous. So we reinvent ourselves under patterned fabric.
In the Pixar story, a bossy but lovable fashion designer named Edna complains, “Supermodels. Heh! Nothing super about them … spoiled, stupid little stick figures with poofy lips who think only about themselves. Feh! I used to design for gods!”
Apparel Allows us to Express Ourselves
Edna’s job has proven useful. Butterflies and birds come decked in gorgeous colors determined by species. Two peas in a pod are alike, because their genomes are contributed by the same parents. But humans differ far more wildly than feathers or sea shells. We vary not merely in skin color, height, hair, or even sexual characteristics, but in beliefs, hobbies, friends, life experience, and in the tunes we listen to and films we watch. Apparel allows us to show some soul: Goth, business woman, cop, astronaut, Seahawk fan, graduate of Mississippi State, fisherman, senator from Pennsylvania.
We dress up, or down in the latter case, like children on Halloween night, or Jim Carrey in The Mask. Kids happily take to the game on the final day of this month, hiding in some spooky avatar to trick-or-treat as Voldemort, the White Rabbit, a skeleton, or (watch out this year!) Barbie. (Radioactive candy for kids dressed as Oppenheimer.)
Genesis tells us that after Adam and Eve failed at becoming superheroes determining good and evil, they tried their hands at fashion design. “I haven’t got a thing to wear! How do these leaves look?” The plant-based fabrics they tried first probably didn’t last long without tearing. One commentator suggests that they grabbed whatever came to hand. (Like Mary Hatch hiding behind the bush in It’s a Wonderful Life.)
Augustine recognizes this sequence of events as a loss of control, or of “mastery” (a subject I introduced earlier: and will mention again). Humans had left the Chain of Command, so lost authority over their own flesh and blood. As he says, “For the soul, reveling in its own liberty, and scorning to serve God, was itself deprived of the command it had formerly maintained over the body.”
A Reminder of Sin and Mortality
John Calvin and Martin Luther both thought the skins God provided were meant to remind us of our sin and mortality. Luther seemed to share Edna’s feeling about models:
If Adam himself could rise from his grave and behold this madness for raiment in all circles of society, I believe he would stand petrified with astonishment at the sight. For the clothing of skins, which Adam daily wore, daily reminded him of his sin and his lost felicity. Whereas we, on the contrary, clothe ourselves with splendid garments and indulge in luxury of dress
Perhaps Luther preferred the patched-jeans look.
Edna didn’t want to design for “supermodels” because they were “spoiled” and only thought of themselves. Superheroes, in contrast, did not just preen as “the fairest of them all” in front of TV cameras. They had a heroic calling. So Edna wanted The Incredibles to not just look good, but be ready for whatever vocation they were called to: “I’m sure I don’t know. Luck favors the prepared, darling.”
To Reveal Our Souls
But here Luther forgot the kindness of God. We all wish, sometime and somehow, to both hide and to reveal ourselves. We are not gods, but we are more than seashells by the seashore, and more than many sparrows. We wish to cover toes, scalp and much in between, yet also reveal a bit of our souls, to maybe be recognized by a friend.
And to keep warm. As humans left Africa, generation by generation, they crept north and east. Fig leaves would have been hard to find on the Central Asian steppe or the Siberian tundra, so our ancestors needed something tougher and more insulating. God had called His band of Incredibles to master the world. Warm leather and furs prepared these “naked apes” to settle Lapland and Siberia, and even to cross the Bering Straits to the New World, where huckleberry leaves fade in fall, and “Alaska cotton” cannot be spun into parkas.
So what does this passage about the first clothing say to us today? Do clothes make the person? Or do they hide us instead?
Humility, it is said, means being willing to be known for who you are. We bare wounded limbs at the doctor’s office, and wounded souls at the altar. To be healed, we must allow ourselves to be seen. Yet we blame others when our naked and wounded souls are exposed.
I cannot second Luther’s preference for ugly fashions. We dress up not merely out of vanity, but to say “I am professional,” “I like this music;” “I follow this team,” “Pull over when you hear my siren.” Or to make life more beautiful.
Creative in Our Clothing
Genesis tells us that God created the “heavens and the earth” in “their vast array.” All of Nature, in other words, came from His head: Apparently He thinks “Variety is the spice of life.” (After all, he invented cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, curry and peppers.)
And since He made us in His image, and in our souls we differ more than any animals — Grandma Moses or Rubens? Edgar Allen Poe or Laura Wilder? Beetles or Beethoven? — it seems legitimate to express individuality in our dress.
“There is nothing to be ashamed about in the human body.” Nor in covering it well. Edna, you go, girl. Design not for gods, but for humans made in God’s image, we who have much to be ashamed of, yet are fitted with superpowers and called (as the Incredibles’ little neighbor boy puts it), to do “something amazing!”
Thus this Genesis tale explains Edna. It explains Trick-or-Treaters, power ties, and masked dancers. It tells why nudist colonies are bare of attraction. It reveals why politicians fear cell phone cameras. Most importantly of all, it explains why a deeper sacrifice was needed to make us presentable.
This “archaic” story is uncanny, even unsettling, in how it exposes what humans hide and reveal, and our love-hate relationship to the masks we don.
David Marshall, an educator and writer, has a doctoral degree in Christian thought and Chinese tradition. His most recent book is The Case for Aslan: Evidence for Jesus in the Land of Narnia.