Tattoos!

I’ve signed up to discuss a part of Matthew Lee Anderson’s book on the body in Christian thought and practice, Earthen Vessels. (You should buy a copy, or have him chat at a church or campus or even with a reading group.) What follows is my internal dialogue (so say some) an external diabolism.

I realize it’s not the normal format. Please indulge me like Tetzel.

Why bother with the chapter on tattoos? For starters, there are some nice observations and turns of phrase. Tattoos, MLA notes, are a social and not merely personal phenomenon; “The skin stretches beyond its limits into the world around us.” There are many such, but let’s keep it light, shall we?

Why did I volunteer to write about something I can’t even consistently spell, let alone something I don’t have an opinion on? Why couldn’t MLA have asked John MacArthur to blog about this? JMac could have told you clearly what to do—in three points—and spawned a snafu over tattoo taboos.

Why don’t I care about my tattoos?

What has me writing is that my students—whether fundy, liberated, or secularist—do care. Last week I taught through Lev 19 with undergrads in an introductory OT survey course. We had some stimulating discussion on the quest for identity and labels. It was abruptly terminated. (Just picture a fairly immature crowd, and Yvette Nicole Brown with an extra 75 or 100 pounds. Now imagine her saying, “What about a sexy little butterfly tattoo? Would that be a quest for identity?” Now imagine recovering the conversation after that.) But the thoughts on identity-quest registered while it lasted, just as they did in MLA’s tattoo chapter.

So I can get a convo going, but I don’t know what I’m talking about: I’ve had three earrings, but I’ve never been inked. So allow me to draw from the shameful specter of tattoos in my family. Shortly after her 80th birthday, my grandmother got her first tattoos. Okay, so they were just eyebrows. But her pastor, who “graciously” gave her a pass, was still concerned enough to preach on tattoos three weeks later. (Without naming denominations, let’s just say they place tattoos, alcohol, and worship with musical instruments in a catch-all drawer that—in their view—holds anything falling between “demonic” and “dumb” on the moral spectrum.)

I think many of us agree that there’s nothing inherently sinful or wrong with getting a tattoo. We commonly call these “wisdom” issues (as opposed to matters of “law”; that’s a gross simplification that borders on the theological felonious, but let’s roll with it for the moment) and agree not to bug one another about them.

The challenging part is that “wisdom” issues actually require wisdom. We always have to work through interesting and important questions. (How exactly do you spell IXTHYS/ICHTHUS, and will it fit legibly in the fish symbol you’ve selected? Why exactly do you want a sexy little butterfly? What if your fiancée dies and you marry someone else…with a different name? Obviously you are trying very hard when you ink to say something…what is it, and is it worth saying? If later in your life you are less hostile to Darwin, could you modify the tat so that your Jesus fish kisses your Darwin lizard?)

And while we try to answer those questions, we’ll always have conservative and liberal voices pressing us, squeezing out the middle ground that lies between (1) “Do whatever you want” and (2) “The devil wants you to get inked.”

The tricky part lies here: “wisdom” issues involve motivation. (And I can’t fully know my own heart, let alone much about others.) But I’ll hazard this thought: I suspect that one primary reason we tat and pierce, as with so much of what we do with our body, is a matter of staking out identity. (I’m cosigning Matt here.) That might be true even if we are just identifying ourselves as “bored.”

I remember struggling back in the 90s, after my third earring:  I wasn’t really the sort of musical rebel who needed three earrings. I didn’t even have black Doc Marten’s. I was no longer depressed enough to wear black all the time. The earrings seemed so…out of place.

Pessimistic non-sequitur: What is the difference between stamping doulos on my bicep to praying on street corners? Neither is wrong per se; I’d give you a ride downtown for both activities. But with the latter, maybe you’re telling the world, “I’m holy!” And with the former, I could be shouting, “I’m not a loser fundy, and by golly, I’m a Jesus-slave!” If so, the line between holy roller and holy rock-and-roller starts is thinning…

Up to this point I’m merely playing on Matt’s points. But I do want to suggest a way to advance the conversation. I have two directions. First, if we tat, we should probably do it with excellence. In fact, I’d love to see Christian tattoo academies. (Not least so that people could learn to do Hebrew and Greek correctly. Very serious question: what’s the ratio between evangelical liberal arts schools and trade schools? What does that say about our view of working with and on our bodies?) Can’t we raise funds to start such joints in, say, Grand Rapids, Colorado Springs, Wheaton, or Branson? Couldn’t Thomas Kinkade, Rev. Finster’s estate, and Mako join forces for the greater good?

Ain’t no tat like a Christian tat, cuz a Chrsitian tat comes in matte. (And complete with “master highlights” for a few hundred bucks more.)

Secondly, and seriously: I’ve never heard anyone apply the NT’s approach to externalities to tats. Granted, I haven’t been listening—again, just not something I care about.

1 Peter 3 and 1 Tim 2 both cite what I call “peacocking” as a particularly dangerous thing for Jesus people. Braids (which were often elaborate, status-symbol endeavors in Gr-Rom culture), gold, pearls, and expensive clothing create problems both for the community of faith (stratifying and segregating) and for the peacocks engaged in such displays.

If tats and piercings are really a subset of the bigger discussion about how we clothe and present ourselves, maybe the concerns we find in places like 1 Pet 3 and 1 Tim 2 need to be part of the conversation. The NT wants us to downplay flash and splash, and does not look kindly on acts of segregation.

That certainly doesn’t mean “NO TATS!” But it does mean THINK (theologically) WHEN YOU INK…

Matt, back to you in the studio for some elaboration on t(h)at…

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jasonbrianhood@gmail.com'
Jason is a graduate of Rhodes College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Highland Theological College and the University of Aberdeen. Jason works as Scholar-in-Residence and director of Christ College Residency Program at Christ UMC. He's trying to figure out the twitter thing, twitter.com/jasonbhood.