Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Getting Naked(er)

By Diane Reynolds

I had the Jon Watts experience twice while he was at Earlham School of Religion, once when he was performing at the Peace forum and once when he did a program called “Clothe Yourself in Righteousness” with his friend Maggie Harrison.

Jon Watts is that rarity, a young friend, and he has created a buzz with YouTube videos. In one, a group of Quakers in a meeting at Pendle Hill get up and start dancing. In another, at Guilford College, a group of Quakers purportedly “get naked” at the end of a meeting for worship … except they don’t actually get naked (at least not in the video I saw). They get underweared.

At the Peace forum, Jon talked and performed music. He had been at Guilford College and he then went to Portugal, but didn’t like living in a city there. He would walk the streets, wondering why humans paved over nature and killed animals and created this terrible thing—the city. Then one day, as he was walking and thinking, he met someone’s eyes—and realized he was communicating hate to that person. Not good. He realized that destruction comes from the pain and brokenness we feel as a culture. How to heal ourselves?

Jon sang a song called “We Are Lovers of Our Lost Earth.”

On Tuesday evening, for “Clothe Yourself in Righteousness,” held in the Quigg worship space, Maggie took center stage, talking about early Friends who had stripped naked and run through the streets as a witness to the need of people to clothe themselves not with outward apparel but with inward righteousness.

Maggie—and Jon when he performed—connected the physical nakedness of (some) 17th century Quakers with a metaphoric stripping down of our defenses, our false selves. If the word weren’t so overused into meaninglessness, we might say the two made a plea for living authentically. Today, as in the seventeenth century, the term “nakedness” is more powerful than authenticity---blunt, unguarded, provocative, vulnerable.

I found the session Tuesday night oddly comforting. Maggie’s unvarnished presentation modeled authenticity/nakedness. I found appealing the argument that it’s OK just to be yourself. It was soothing to attend an event that didn’t really have a point except to be about being. Just being. Not even being naked, really, because that, of course is a “statement.”. You were there in Quigg, and it was OK. You didn’t have to do anything. You didn’t have to be worried about factory exploitation in Indonesia or violence in the Gaza strip. You could just sort of chill. It was therapeutic. Young people came. There were a lot of big wrinkled cottony scarves, some bare feet, many boots. If the Quigg could ever be said to have a clubby, coffee house feel, it did that evening. I kept waiting for Allen Ginsberg to stand up and start reciting “America.” Well, OK, no…

Not to change the subject, but while I like their attempts to stir the pot, it nags at me that Jon and Maggie and their friends didn’t get naked in their get naked video. It seems a tease. If you’re going to say you’re getting naked, then get naked. The integrity testimony comes into play, in terms of “possessing what you profess.” Stripping down to your underwear is … faux daring. Safe daring. (What happened to streaking?) So that bothers me. Jon talked about getting to peace through shaking things up—“coming up through the flaming sword,” as the early Quakers called it. Stripping to your modest underwear on a video is not exactly the flaming sword. Going fully naked—yes, maybe.

On the other hand, Jon and Maggie evoked a mood and created a “space” for thinking about how we live. And beyond that, I didn’t really want Jon and Maggie to get naked. I was actually relieved that they didn’t, because I didn’t know how I would react to “too much information.” And that gets back to a thought about nakedness — Tell the truth but tell it slant. Get naked, but have the light and shade beams shining through the meeting house windows so that the most private parts stays private.

So I value the message Jon and Maggie are communicating. But I wish they would tweak it a little. We may need to strip down, but how about — like Jon and Maggie -- only to our underwear? How about getting naked-er? Or at least that’s my thought—and perhaps it says more about me and Jon and Maggie holding  back from really shaking things up than anything else. Maybe, in the end, Jon and Maggie are just upholding the status quo, not really making us uncomfortable? What do you think?

Diane Reynolds is a student in Earlham School of Religion’s Master of Divinity program. She maintains a personal blog, Emerging Quaker.


  1. I saw one of Jon's 'naked' performances not too long ago and found myself thinking similar thoughts. Then ,just now, I read this article and was interested by the intriguing and thoughtful points it made. Then I got to the bottom and realized it was written by the wife of one of my teachers. There goes that small Quaker world again...

  2. OK, now I'm curious as to who posted the comment above ... it IS a small world.


  3. I had similar thoughts when I saw the video.

  4. Jon's and Maggie's words challenge us to be authentic, to strip away pretense in our dealings with others and our relationship with Spirit. I certainly hope these messages -- so vital in today's world of ubiquitous deception -- are not lost to a listener because she/he focuses on whether someone has on underwear or not. Nudity is often used as a gimmick to entice, but results in distracting us from meaningful dialogue. Many early Quakers who used "nudity" to shock or to make a point may have revealed only a petticoat or bare feet. Would it be genuine to ask college students to appear naked on the Internet, knowing that their image could be used in perverse ways to hurt them in later years? To those who believe that “Clothe Yourself in Righteousness” would be significantly improved by a video with complete nakedness, I suggest they contact Jon and volunteer to be in the cast.

  5. As a Quaker sex educator, I see two meanings in this video--spiritual nakedness but also Jon taking to task the shame religion teaches us of our bodies. Though [liberal] Quakerism is basically silent on sexuality and body shame, I think every young person in this country learns the message that bodies are shameful and that sex is bad. Whether or not the young Friends in the video really get literally naked doesn't matter to me--I appreciate Jon's willingness to be bare here and open this conversation.

  6. Dear Anonymous,

    The point is not whether the two are naked--as the blog said, that was not the desire. But if they are not going to become naked, they should not, imho, say they are--profess what you possess.

  7. Julie,

    Nakedness is not inherently shameful, but to get naked on the internet in a culture that sexualizes nudity is an exposed and vulnerable act. It's going through the flaming sword--as Jon and Maggie understand. However, the point is, again, that they are taking a safe route. That is OK--I would do the same-- but it's also, to my mind, like going to jail virtually. If you are going to do that, fine, and yes--maybe it will start a conversation (and do we Quakers love to talk), but especially as Quakers, I believe we need to possess what we profess. Why not label the video "getting (almost) naked?"