The first thing everybody at Lake Como Nudist Resort seems to want to tell me is they're not like those creeps over at Caliente, the resort up the street. "They're not even nudists," says a nurse in her late 40s, with a red sarong around her waist and grand breasts that rest just short of it, as she drinks a beer at the Butt Hutt, the resort bar. "They're swingers," she hisses softly.
Her man friend nods in agreement. His bare member bounces up and down on a towel-wrapped barstool as he nervously watches the Rays' closer blow a tight game on the bar TV; her sarong ripples as she antsily awaits the conclusion so they can move along to the hot tub, plastic cups in hand.
Just because they're naked and living easy doesn't mean they're libertines at Lake Como. Don't be fooled by the starkers biker types tossing darts (soft-tipped), or by the way this duo slips off into the cloudy night to get stoned before sauntering back to finish beer pitcher No. 3. There are many different ways to be unclothed here in Pasco County, Florida, a semi-rural stretch outside Tampa that has acquired a reputation over the last half-century as "the nudist capital of the world." Bare-assedness comes in distinct social categories.
"This is a nice place," the nurse says. Those people in Caliente—with their "MILFs and Mesh" club parties—are at one end of the spectrum. Lake Como is a "family" resort. Minors are welcome with a parent or guardian. There's tennis and shuffleboard, and a keyboard-playing Jimmy Buffett sound-alike on the pool deck on Saturdays.
I realize she's emphasizing the niceness because I'm an outlier, the only person under 40 unaccompanied by a partner. I'm the naked guy upsetting the naked balance, with tan lines announcing my recent disrobing. It doesn't help that I'm wearing my wedding ring.
I try to reassure them. I just got here, see, for the Christian nudist festival. I am on a sincere spiritual journey with 20 or so new friends.
"Oh!" her friend says, straining for a followup. They look at me sympathetically, silently. "Sure. It's a great place for that, too." He falters. "How, uh, how many of you are there?"
Before I was Christian, I was naked. I was raised in a working-class secular Jewish/Catholic family where nudity was casual, tribal, and—by the standards of Lake Como—dilettantish. We were committed in our way; we stripped, mother and father and son, as soon as the house door shut behind us, peeling off the veneer of work, school, supermarket, politics. We ate, watched TV, fed the pets, talked among each other in various stages of disrobing. It seemed natural.
But it never rose to the level of naturism—the preferred term of nudists, denoting an ethical culture of outdoor communal nudity. Naturism has a logic and rules, some written, some not. My parents would be as lost in the etiquette of a nudist colony as in a tony WASP-approved country club.
Consequently, on the Friday evening that I enter the inner gates of Lake Como, the well-policed entrance of a secure military-style installation, I experience typical stages of newbie nudist terror:
1. I check in and freak out. At the resort office, I count two middle-age penises and one older braless woman in just a T-shirt. Five varieties of sunscreen are available for purchase. Behind the reception desk is a dusky '70s-style oil painting of a lean female nude, blond locks in a bob, perched with her legs open on a tree limb over a watery mangrove. Her left leg dips slightly into the lake below. The title on the mantel is "CHARLIE'S GIRL."
Manscaping is clearly practiced among the office crew, and I wonder if my vaguely wild Semitic kinks will mark me apart from the born Gentiles. (I will learn that the answer is yes, but it is not to my disrepute. Converted Jews are like Super Mario power-ups to the Jesus set.)
The décor of the rooms seems unchanged since the '50s, an amalgam of old Florida tourist-kitsch clichés, down to the lime-green deco tile in the bathroom. It bears all the amenities of a cheerily-painted prewar boot camp barracks. Bonus: venetian blinds, which I quickly close. As I do, a reddened barrel of a man wheels by the front window on a bicycle. He wears ankle-length socks under New Balance sneakers and nothing else.
2. Freshly showered, a pair of flip flops slipped onto my feet, I realize that I am dressed and freak out again. I check the agenda. The ice cream social is at eight. There's a bonfire at nine. It's 7:47.
Through the balsa-thin walls, I hear the grandparently couple conversing next door, he a little too exuberant, she muted but pleased that he is pleased:
"Let's go, baby!"
"I'm on my way! Just eatin' a piece of candy... So you got the key?" she asks as they egress.
"Uh huh," he assures her. "That's all I got, is the key."
Thoughtfully, the resort's room keys come attached to stretchy armbands.
3. I retreat to the rear room of the suite, with a back door that opens to a porch and the lake beyond it. The lakefront is secluded and empty. It is an ideal moment for a hypotest.
I undo the latch and swing the door open swiftly enough to feel a breeze in my happy trail. A step, and another, and I'm on the porch and God sees my wang. Cautiously forward into the thick grass, past the barbecue grill, separated from the lake only by a thicket of cypress. I take note of all the other suites' windows. I see no one. What does it matter?
What matters is I realize, here in the grass, that I forgot to don insect repellent. This will be important.
4. A quick review of the erection problem. This, it turns out, is one of the most common questions newbs have. "We do not know of anyone who actually had an erection on the first visit," the Federation of Canadian Nudists explains on its informational site, adding that a hard-on "is a natural part of life":
Naturists realize this and will not take offence as long as it is not being flaunted. If an erection does occur, a strategically placed towel, a dip in a cool pool, or rolling over on your stomach will take care of it.
Nevertheless, I need a backup plan. I settle on taking my decidedly un-arousing British biography of John Milton along, a treasury of flaccid-making phrases. Should the worst happen, I resolve to repeat in my head: amanuensis, amanuensis.
It was Milton, really, who had set me on the path toward Lake Como's Garden of Eden Church. For about two years, I had been a tentative follower of Jesus. All the while, the question of nudity and innocence had intrigued me: Naked as the day we were born; naked as a jaybird; naked as we come. It first occurred that I might not be alone in graduate school, during an intensive course on Milton's Paradise Lost.
The earnest radical Protestant dwelled on how mankind lived in Eden before the fall, describing prelapsarian nudity as "native Honour clad/In naked Majestie." The Puritan dedicated an entire glorious passage to Adam's and Eve's naughty bits:
Nor those mysterious parts were then conceald,
Then was not guiltie shame, dishonest shame
Of natures works, honor dishonorable,
Sin-bred, how have ye troubl'd all mankind
With shews instead, meer shews of seeming pure,
And banisht from mans life his happiest life,
Simplicitie and spotless innocence.
So passd they naked on, nor shund the sight
Of God or Angel…
Like a cable reality show in reverse: Naked and Unafraid. In my own tenuous faith, it was a revelation. Any casual reader of Genesis knows Adam and Eve start out unclothed: "And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed." Only when they eat of the forbidden fruit and gain knowledge of good and evil do they become aware of their nudity, ashamed of it, compelled to cover it. God gets in the game mostly ironically—angered over their transgression, he banishes them and clothes them in "coats of skins," like the dad who makes his kid smoke the whole pack of cigarettes.
The loudest and most visible form of American Christianity is dedicated to keeping those punitive coats of skins on. All those fleshy human tabs and slots are the nasty equipment of sinmaking, temptation, the continuing ruination of souls. It is the culture that gave us last year's viral-sensation letter from a mother to her sons' female school chums, admonishing them to stop posting sexy selfies:
I know your family would not be thrilled at the thought of my teenage boys seeing you only in your towel. Did you know that once a male sees you in a state of undress, he can't quickly un-see it? You don't want our boys to only think of you in this sexual way, do you?
Neither do we ... if you want to stay friendly with our sons online, you'll have to keep your clothes on, and your posts decent. If you post a sexy selfie (we all know the kind), or an inappropriate YouTube video – even once – it's curtains.
I know that sounds so old-school, but we are hoping to raise men with a strong moral compass, and men of integrity don't linger over pictures of scantily clad high-school girls.
In this Christianity, it isn't the man's responsibility to temper his lecherous gaze; he can't help it. Women's bodies are just too much for a godly boy to handle. This is the Christianity we've grown accustomed to in America, a religious culture made comically neurotic and obsessive by its knee-jerk fear of cocks and tits and pussies.
But contrary to the beliefs of its adherents and secular detractors alike, this is not the only Christianity around. There is another strain, going back to Milton and beyond, that separates nudity from shame. In this worldview, since clothing itself was a "sin-bred" manifestation of our original guilt, it followed that nakedness should represent our original innocence. Christianity taught that all we had to do to receive God's saving grace was receive it. Set our shame down. Strip ourselves, as Milton put it, of our "mere shows of seeming pure."
It turns out plenty of Jesus' followers agreed. In the first centuries after Christ's death, sects of naked "Adamites" reportedly emerged, worshiping in secret, "men and women appearing in a state of nature to imitate Adam and Eve, and calling their meetings paradise." Early church fathers and moral killjoys like Epiphanius and Augustine had little use for the zealots' holy nudism, deriding them as apostates.
Yet Adamite thought caught on again in the Renaissance and Reformation, first in Bohemia and later in Holland, France, and England. One German chronicler describes an "Anabaptist sect in the Netherlands about 1580" that "required candidates for admission to appear unclothed before the congregation and thus show that physical desire had no power over them." When more zealous practitioners took their naked message to the streets of Amsterdam, they were brought to heel by concerned citizens with muskets.
Around the same time Milton began work on Paradise Lost, the Adamites made it to England. Pro-government pamphleteers described the devoted nudists as heretical libertines, lumping them in with Quakers and Puritans and other dissenter sects whose fervor threatened the crown. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, small flocks of Christian nudists would pop up in the English-speaking world, getting blasted as Satanists, mystics, communists.
But still they persist. Today, a U.S.-based Christian Nudist Convocation organizes gatherings and exhorts members "to be faithful in their service to our Lord within their nudist and clothed communities." Humans, the Convocation asserts, are "created with bodies and we confess that the naked human form is good and wholesome." All the same, CNC-approved events make clear that they have moral standards to uphold: "'Swinging' is against God's moral law and will not be tolerated."
Which was how I found myself in the dead of a Florida summer, not amid the sinners at Caliente, but at Lake Como, once described by the New York Times as "Where Skin Is Typically Bare, but Lust Is Verboten." The Garden of Eden Church was hosting its first Christian nudist festival. The theme: "Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: Celebrating Wholeness and Strength in Christian Naturism."
The terror of stepping out nude ends like a cliff dive, and I float along in the Lake Como Rec Hall with about 20 other saved and bared souls, stirring at individual styrofoam bowls of Neapolitan ice cream as we introduce ourselves and our scars, growths, wrinkles, stains, and flaps. All of the others are old hands at nudism and Jesus; most are permanent residents here at the resort or in the nearby clothed environs.
We sit down on the chairs, which are covered with towels, in accord with Lake Como's holiest commandment: "You must place your towel on any seating area before sitting if you are nude."
"How can we take what God has taught us about our bodies, our healthy bodies, and share that with other Christians?" asks Dan, our de facto spiritual leader, short and bright and framed in a Davy Jones mullet that quavers slightly when he makes a poignant statement, which he does often. In our circle are a retired Presbyterian minister and a retired Southern Baptist pastor, several lifelong Christians and a few Johnny-come-latelies like me. Dan asks us to lower our heads in an opening prayer.
My face bowed, penitent and hopeful, I focus chiefly on how bumpy the follicles on my scrotum look when smushed against a white towel. Christ changes your perspective.
The nine o'clock bonfire is canceled due to inclement weather, but we are welcomed to stay in the rec hall for the drum circle, a regular, secular Friday night ritual at the resort. The oldest among God's chosen recede and the rest of us mingle with the preparing percussionists. Pastor Dan makes a beeline for the palest, loneliest, most out-of-place of God's elect. I steel myself for the conversation.
Dan, it turns out, is a bona fide pastor at his Southern Baptist church, which he runs very separately from his nude ministry here. "This part of my life is something I don't discuss there," he says. "It's my special ops—a covert mission to bring people the right view of the body."
He volunteers that it's been a challenge convincing his wife to join him in "the community," not of Jesus, but of joyful nudity. "My sons are both ready for it," he adds.
As we talk, the drum circle sets up and the lights go out, replaced by a few red spotlights. Twenty barrels and bongos roll and bang; two younger naked women hula-hoop and twirl multicolored light-up balls in time to the rhythm. Dan explains how he came to be a nudist.
"I was a Christian first and just wrestling with these wrong ideas about the body," he says. These wrong ideas included not just false modesty and fear of sinfulness, but insecurity about imperfections. Eating disorders. Excess vanity.
"I never thought I'd be standing up in front of people preaching naked," he says. "My wife said, 'What's it like?' I say, 'Isaiah did it for three years!"
The drum circle suddenly cuts off its beat. "That was a six," laughs Mike, one of the Christian retreat organizers, perched atop a seat back in a "Life is good" ball cap. They start up again, striving for a 10, led by a wiry ponytailed man in mirrored aviators with the features of Kid Rock and the demeanor of an ecstatic Phish fan. Low to the ground and beaming up at everyone, he assails two five-gallon drums.
Dan discusses the troubling secular past of mainstream naturism, bound up as it's been with new age hippiedom—paganism, to the serious Bible believer. It is a toxic influence that can taint the nascent flock. Christian naturism must guard against becoming "too liberal"—and by this Dan means both doctrine and politics. "Some of them share terrible ideas," he says of several nudist congregations. "But we're fine as long as we stick to the basics and stay centered on the Gospel."
One hula-ing woman with particularly supple hips effortlessly rolls her hoop down from there to her knees and back up again.
"There are a lot of seekers here," Dan says. "It's great, fertile ground for my covert operations." Introspection about the flesh, he suggests, heightens introspection about the spirit. "Now, there's even talk about us starting a ministry at Caliente!"
Throughout the performance, denuded resort members poke their heads into the rec hall, notice the still-present folding table of NIV Bibles and inspirational pamphlets, blink, and quietly back out. A woman enters, enticed by the music, but falters at the table. She leans into me. "Is this a church thing?" she asks, her nipples smashing wantonly into my triceps, before gently dancing out the door.
The retired Baptist minister saunters by, sinewy and slightly bowlegged, his junk dancing slightly. "I'm gonna be hearing drums in my sleep," he says, smiling.
"It's a good fucking drum circle," says one of the unsaved regulars.
While Saturday is a sunny pool day for most Lake Como residents, for the naked Christians it is dense with rec hall meetings. The majority of these are led by I. Mac Perry, author of The Bible: Why Trust It? and a devoted nudist. He offers a series of sessions that aim to prove the Bible's inerrancy and highlight lesser-known journeys of Christ indicated in the Gospels.
Described on his website as "a Renaissance man," Perry is also the author of Indian Mounds You Can Visit, Sandwich Lover's Diet, Black Conquistador, How to Play Blues on Your Harp, and Mac Perry's Florida Lawn and Garden Care, among other titles.
He has set up an overhead projector to facilitate his presentation, using acetate transparencies, like a 1990s high school algebra lesson. Bespectacled and grizzled, wearing nothing but a Butt Hutt denim shirt with the sleeves torn off, he speaks with a soft Dixie lilt that intoxicates his audience, cherry bourbon served on ice by Lindsey Graham.
"I'm not here to sell books," he announces, gesturing to a table beside the projector where he's assembled a panoply of his books for sale. He's not peddling, he explains, because he doesn't actually make any profit on the books; his titles are out of print, so he buys old copies on Amazon to resell to readers, and he makes about what he spends on them now.
Not counting myself, the average age of the audience is about 60. There is a sameness to them, but a stunning and lovely diversity, too, a summit of ribs, spines, nipples, mastectomies, foreskins, and hairs. There's even one set of apparently augmented breasts, belonging to the only woman who also bothers with cherry lipstick and Betty Page bangs and cleanly shaved mons; I later learn she and her husband reside at Caliente but worship here. She would probably be a hit at Caliente's MILF parties, if her sincere love of the Lord did not enjoin her from attending.
The sessions themselves are perfunctory: a survey of 30 Old Testament prophecies purportedly fulfilled by Jesus in a day in Jerusalem, for example. "The odds of all those prophecies being fulfilled together, on a heads-or-tails basis, are about 1 in 537 million," Perry marvels. "Now, tell me that's not the work of the divine!" I consider explaining that, on a heads-or-tails basis, the odds of 29 prophecies not being fulfilled and one coming to fruition would also be 1 in 537 million, because that's how probabilistic reasoning works. But I think better of it.
After a series of charts showing the topography of Judaea and Jesus' presumptive travel patterns, the sessions devolve into group banter, Bible trivia, and witticisms. What's the oldest book? Job. Who's the most prominent doctor in Scripture? Luke. What is Mary's mother's name? Mom. Ha ha.
A discussion of the fall of man occasions several attendees to give their personal testimony of faith, a vital part of the evangelical experience. But here, the naturism is a part of the faith.
"Covering Adam's and Eve's bodies was covering what Satan made, and not covering their nakedness. Their failure was disobedience, the first sin," Perry says. "To atone for that sin, to forgive it, God killed an animal, spilled his blood, and made coats to cover their nakedness." But an obedient follower of Jesus, while human, need not feel that shame or assume that covering: "As a Christian, I feel that in a way I am restored. Paul said, 'There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ.'"
Several amens ensue. "My nakedness before God, I feel no shame in that," one of the younger men in the crowd, perhaps 50, offers. "People outside the church, they've got blinders on."
Despite the promised rewards, faith is not easy for this flock. A woman from a Jewish background, who wears a small gold cross and a smaller Magen David around her neck, describes to the group how disappointed her parents were when they learned of her religious conversion. "When I was saved and explained that I wished they would be baptized and saved, too, they just flipped out," she said, her voice wavering, her dark tight curls shaking slightly.
I wonder how her parents reacted to news of her nudism, but I dare not ask. It's clear at Lake Como that while neighborly friendliness abounds, intimate and searching questions of naked folks—particularly from singles—go over poorly.
Perry, high off his triumphal explication of the savior's travels through Capernaum, restores levity with his jokes. "I saw a street sign the other day, it said 'Need help? Call Jesus,' and it had a phone number," he says. "So I called it. A couple minutes later, a little Mexican guy named Jesus showed up at my house with a lawnmower."
The laughter sounds suspiciously sincere.
After the lecture, I decide to approach my Bible studies as I approached college: by skipping class and seeking life credit. Surely if I undertake my journey with a right mind, God will have my bare back. Perhaps I'll take a kayak out on the lake, I think as I sun myself on a secluded section of sandy beach.
The Things They Carried would be a lot shorter if it took place in a nudist resort. One need not pack heavily, though sunglasses, hats, bug spray and sunblock are wise. Certainly that's the gear of the recreationalists, the majority of those here, comically slung over red shoulders in knapsacks or above bare crotches in fanny packs.
But for the seekers, the philosophes after some Rousseauian or Emersonian or perhaps zen truth about humanity and its groundedness in nature, the list of belongings is much shorter. To be denuded in the world in this way—without my phone/wallet/watch, I'm naked!—is to be radically bare, free of the self we're most used to. Outside, the completely naked self is perhaps the freakiest naked stranger of all.
There's a special clarity even to sin when it's done in plain view of the Lord and your fellow man. Naked self-interest, if still unpardonable, is at least the most honest kind of self-interest. But it's actually hard to be selfish when you're nude among other bare people. Most of what we spend our lives acquiring and protecting, sinning over, simply isn't there.
I wonder fleetingly if bagging out on a few of the class sessions, doing my own thing and listening to the poolside singer croon Roger Miller, is the sort of liberal deviationism Dan guards against. If God likes us natural, what's to stop our naturalizing every whim and impulse?
But I can meditate on Scripture as easily here as anywhere, and anyway, a sunbaked Central Florida breeze on your ass feels damned proper. If the Holy Spirit, so often represented as wind and light, is not moving in this brilliant tickle of open air across my loins... well, is He anywhere at all?
Which comes first, the nudism or the religion? In all the naturists I'd met, it seemed, Jesus had come first, whether from a rod in childhood or a bolt in middle age. Nakedness still seemed a latter-day lifestyle choice, albeit one easily reconciled with the faith. Pastor Dan talked at length about seekers in the clubs of Central Florida, but little passed between us about how many finders he'd snagged.
I'd gone the other way around. Which left me on the outs again, in an extended but noncommittal flirtation with the trinity, predicated first on my pointyheaded intellectualization of nudity, my romanticization of some posited form of "natural" humanity where work and politics and bills and the ugliness of culture and the worst of people couldn't reach.
Of course, you can't nostalgize your way back into Eden, any more than you can wish yourself back into mama's womb. Adam and Eve partook in the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and you can't uneat it for them. When you are naked in this world, no matter how you may strive for some original position of innocence, you are acutely aware of your nudity. The sin is always with us.
And yet. What better ritual for a Christian to practice than the striving for innocence and the stripping down of culture's secularizing influence? Nudity even for the nonreligious at Lake Como is an innately nonsexual, or post-sexual, experience. The resort encourages airing out of foreskins and labia, but it bars bathing suits and sexually suggestive clothing.
Desexualizing and ritualizing are just what the moralitarians running America's ship of evangelical fools purport to do. But in the nudists' view, those Christians seem to have confused what's biblically verboten with what's culturally taboo. So you get a manly, muscular Christianity—straight out of Victorian England, with antecedents in Catholicism—that ordains propriety with all the gentleness of a whip-bearing adolescent Taliban footman.
All this comes home to me on Sunday at Garden of Eden's worship service, the final evolution of our nude fellowship weekend, where Pastor Dan intones on the acceptance of imperfection in body and thought and speech.
But first, the rituals. Being a nondenominational, all-comers affair, naked church is on the touchy-feely side. We watch a music video to the church's unofficial theme song, a contemporary ditty titled "Days of Elijah," with an interminable refrain about swords and glory. Then there are the hymns, all simple and modern, discomfiting to an Episcopalian with high church tastes like me, the liturgical equivalent of a High Fidelity record-shop snob: If it's post-1850, it's not a real hymn, it's sappy praise chords.
A familiar church dynamic obtains. Men, so eager to shed their clothes and traipse about naked, suddenly grow reluctant to sing the hymns aloud; women, less wanton in nudism, sing loudly and unabashedly. We partake in an informal communion, bits of stale matzo and shot glasses of Manischewitz wine distributed to the tables, and Pastor Dan opens the floor to announcements.
The woman with the lipstick and bangs—her name is Melinda—rises excitedly to share her good news: She's expanding the ministry to her bare brethren across town.
"God has elected me and told my husband that this is what we're going to do, and he said, 'Okay,'" she laughs. "Sunday services at Caliente are going to be a reality." The plan is coming to pass; Jesus fire really is about to break out at the swingers' club with the vaguely diabolical name.
The message delivered, Melinda sits and we settle in for the lesson, based on Psalm 139, verse 14: "I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made."
"My question for you this morning is, do you feel fearfully and wonderfully made?" Pastor Dan says. "If not, why not? Sometimes it's because of a physical thing. Sometimes we look at our bodies and say, 'This thing ain't fearfully and wonderfully made.'"
He runs through a litany of verses, Corinthians and Galatians and Colossians and Ephesians, all inclined to the same level: How can something that God made not be perfect, even in its crookedness?
"You are a special creation of God," Dan concluded. "No matter how old or infirm you are."
This is the enduring appeal of a mystical Judaic offshoot attributed to a thirtysomething crazy hippie rabbi in the Roman hinterlands: We do have a cosmic debt, this worldview asserts, and the creditor has offered us loan forgiveness, even the most entwined of the mesh-wearers at Caliente. The sense of lack or flaw, of things left done and undone, of human life as marked by dread or indebtedness, is perfectly natural and naturally perfect, as much so as our bodies.
[Image by Jim Cooke; photos via Shutterstock]