WESTFIELD, Vt. – Nakedness is next to Godliness -- in Jim Cunningham's view.
After 20 years preaching the gospel of nudity, the author of skinny-dipping guidebooks, coloring books and take-it-all-off "naturist" magazines is using an old ally in his bid to spread the naked truth -- the Bible.
"Nudity & Christianity," his 596-page compendium of scripture citations and selectively-chosen observations by the likes of Pope John Paul II, C.S. Lewis and Kahlil Gibran, promotes a world view sacrilegious to some but perfectly natural to Cunningham.
Contrary to popular opinion, nude is not lewd, he insists.
"There's lot of references in the Bible to being naked. In the early church, all Christians were baptized naked -- men, women and children. It wasn't an issue.
"My point is that the church, instead of changing the world, has let the world change it. It's accepted (Hustler publisher) Larry Flynt's definition of the body, instead of the Bible's. If the body is just lust bait, then modesty is making sure it's always covered.
"But if the body is what the Bible says it is -- the temple of the Holy Spirit and the image of God -- then modesty doesn't mean always covering up, it just means comporting yourself in a way that does not cause lust in others," he said.
If you think Cunningham's interest purely prurient, think again.
The 53-year-old father of five, a conservative Catholic and former parochial school teacher, is blind.
He can't see the color pictures of naked sunbathers, au natural toddlers and plump, hairy Dads contained in his "Vermont Unveiled" guidebooks and "Our Wonderful Bodies!" any more than he can see the small hillside cottage in rural northern Vermont where he lives with his wife of 27 years.
A longtime diabetic, he has lost his sight, his kidneys and half his right leg to its ravages. But he hasn't lost faith -- in God or nudity.
For a recent interview, he walked down the stairs of his home and welcomed a visitor wearing a Catholic scapula hung around his neck, hiking boots on his feet -- and nothing in between.
He's not self-conscious, and doesn't think anyone else should be.
"People don't see nakedness anywhere except pornography. Everything that's naked on TV is some kind of sex theme. That creates a culture where nude is lewd, in people's minds. And it's getting worse instead of better."
"Nudity & Christianity," his new self-published book, is the first publication he's put out that has no pictures in it.
If there's a message in that, it's that he's trying to get his across without the semantic noise -- and inevitable distraction -- of naked bodies.
"I decided to put together, in one book, an anthology of writings from present day to all the way to scripture itself," he said.
In it, he quotes theologians, saints, news accounts and himself on various topics that touch on nudity. Among them:
-- "What spirit is so empty and blind, that it cannot grasp the fact that the human foot is more noble than the shoe, and human skin more beautiful than the garment with which it is clothed?" -- Michelangelo.
-- "The contemplation of this makes it possible to concentrate, in a way, on the whole truth of man, on the dignity and beauty, also the supra-sensual beauty of his masculinity and femininity." -- Pope John Paul II on nudity in art, from his May 6, 1981 general audience.
"No matter what your religious persuasion is, all naturists believe the body is inherently decent," Cunningham said. "I see the body as not only decent but in the image of God and the very temple of the Holy Spirit.
"Paradoxically, it's the Christians that oppose naturism the most -- next to the Muslims. and it's really their Bible that says so many wonderful things about the body," he said.