Superficially Innoccuous Practices and Why We should Care about Tattoos

My piece at Relevant on tattoos (yes, another) came out last week and commenters, well, let’s just say they didn’t quite get it.

The general sentiment was something along the lines of “Who cares?,” a response I would rebuke if I didn’t understand it so well.  Indeed, in the book I anticipated the point, noting that among the pantheon of concerns tattoos probably ranked somewhere near the bottom.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care.  Younger Christians often want to shout “every square inch” along with the Kuyperians until, apparently, we start considering the inches of their skin.  Then the exercise is apparently reduced to legalistic jockeying, an attempt to see who can become the most restrictive while ignoring all those verses about God caring about the heart.

But tattoos still matter. The comments at Relevant are about as good a representation of how evangelicals think about ethics—for good and ill—as ever I’ve seen.  Tattoos are helpful to think about because, well, we can think about them without people throwing us over for being heretics.  It’s a somewhat safer question to ask than those questions about, say, bioethics even though the way in which the Bible intersects with both topics is roughly the same.

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, got married this weekend.  A notable event in these parts only because it prompted this bit by James Poulos, one of the smartest folks I know and one of the few writers whose every word I try to consume:

The real fear about advertising — and so much else — is that its superficially innocuous practices will lead us to live in ways we don’t want to because we’re already in a state of vulnerability and confusion that reaches too deep into our psyches to be corrected or protected against.

Any critique of tattoos in contemporary evangelical culture has to include the fact of advertising.  The phenomenon is an indication of how deeply wedded to consumer culture we are as Christians, of how much we have borrowed the script for our lives from the world around us.  Not necessarily problematic in every instance, but worth noting nonetheless.   The thing can’t be understood without knowing its history and emergence, and I assure you that Christians didn’t get the tattooing habit from sitting around reading Revelation.

Tattoos may be innocuous as a social practice.  Or they may only be superficially innocuous, a practice that has the appearance of harmlessness while revealing and reinforcing a diseased understanding of who we are meant to be in the world.   To me, the question is still an open one.  But given the popularity of the form of self-expression, it’s a question worth asking. 

Let me add this in defense of thinking long and hard about tattoos.  Some issues, like homosexuality, are so contentious and have so much wrapped up in them that any genuine inquiry is all but closed off before the conversation begins.  Folks know the right answers and there’s a lot at stake if someone deviates.  The social pressures to conform are high because of how much is at stake.

There’s not much that hangs on tattoos, which is why they are so helpful as a test case for our intuitions.  We can have genuine inquiry about them, we can work to see whether our method of reading Scripture actually suffices, and discern how Scripture intersects with the world.  All the skills, I’d point out, we need on issues of greater importance.

In order to understand the world in which we live and thereby more clearly grasp our place within it, sometimes it is more effective to put questions to it that seem irrelevant than those which are incredibly contentious at the front.  The forces and dynamics that have made tattoos a plausible option aren’t simply limited to aesthetics and self-expression.  And even if they were, what happens in one sphere of life shapes the whole.

 

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  • http://evangelicaloutpost.com J.F. Arnold

    Hey Matt,

    Just want to be clear, here. Your thesis, and your purpose in this post and the last, is that we should be thoughtful and considerate before making a decision about the moral status of getting a tattoo. This should include some sort of community focus (from your previous post) and a recognition of the historical and cultural force of tattoos in general (and, I suspect, in the particular image chosen?).

    If that’s the goal, then I’m all for it. As someone who has wanted a tattoo now for a few years (and in the last six months decided on the type and location, though I have yet to settle on a design, and am intentionally taking my time), I’ve obviously got some investment here. I’m open to being wrong, and perhaps careful study will say that it is unwise to get a tattoo.

    My question, then, is this.

    At this point in the study and discussion, do you think that there is some universal injunction against tattoos as we see them today? I know in Earthen Vessels that you hesitate about young people getting tattoos, because we tend to seek permanence in a fluid society through a superficial marking (is my memory right, here?). I suspect that getting a tattoo would be unwise, and possibly even sinful, for a great number of people (those who would cause their communities to struggle by seeing the tattoo, those who have some internal conviction, perhaps even those in the public light, depending on the tattoo and public). Likewise, at this point I suspect that it is acceptable to get a tattoo for at least some people in some circumstances. I think there are likely good reasons, though I’m admittedly not so far into reading up on this that I’m willing to say this without room for qualification or dissent.

    Finally, do you think there would ever be a situation where getting a tattoo would not only morally permissible, but morally encourage? Not likely to be morally required, though I’ve never considered the possibility before.

    Thanks for the thoughts, though. You’re thoughtful, as always, and I’ve got more to think about on the topic.

    I will say this, though: you’re spot on about using Tattoos as a test case.

  • http://davidhoos.com David

    One of the most interesting reflections I’ve heard on tattoo’s is that it can stunt your spiritual growth. Once you’ve done it, often times you’re reticent to admit regret about it so you continue to defend and make excuses for it even if you come to feel it was an immature decision. It’s not really an argument, but I’ve seen it played out in numerous lives. Food for thought.

    • http://evangelicaloutpost.com J.F. Arnold

      David,

      I’d actually not yet considered that. Really interesting. I’ll have to keep that in mind.

      -James

  • Michelle

    You’re equating tattoos with morality? Seriously? Find something else to do with your time. Worry about yor own life instead of trying to tell other people how to live theirs. Is that a log in your eye? Tell me how this is relevant to your life? As a Christian with a lot of tattoos, 99% of which were done before I became a Christian, this topic is old. Do you have any idea how the enemy uses this as fire against new Christians? Get over it already. The only people who have ever given me a hard time about my tattoos have been self righteous Christians! Not even Jewish folks comment other than to say they don’t like them. So thanks for pointing out the speck in my eye.

    • Josh N

      Michelle, there has to be some line we can draw in the sand, when it comes to moral living. I think this article makes the point: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/05/22/60-second-summary-to-tattoo-or-not-to-tattoo/

      I would say, in the words of a scholar, that “division and quarrels within the church existed before there was anything spoken of it.” This means that we are not feeding the devil’s schemes by talking about the possible implications of tattooing on a christian culture.

      And yes, Michelle, it is important to be concerned with the log’s in our eyes, but the Bible also calls leaders and ourselves to be instructive and insightful on matters of importance. Tattooing may seem passé, but as for instruction and wisdom, I don’t think we could be more careful than to search for the truth in every area of life. Besides, the writer isn’t passing judgment; he is asking questions about the topic.

      I think that it would be to the devils benefit if he could get us all to agree in an abyss of relativism and individualism in the church. I think we are helping the discussion along and creating resolve by asking questions about life and liberty as it pertains to the Gospel. Remember, We live not just because we are free from sin (and the Covenant of Works) but also because we have been royally enslaved to our great, gracious, and humble Master of Masters: Jesus. That means we should care about how we present our bodies to him every day.

      • Michelle

        When you think tattoos are an issue of immorality, it’s a problem. Is it wise to get tattooed? Probably not so much. It’s ptty much throwing money away. But that’s a world of difference to immorality isn’t it? No one is righteous, no not one. Romans 3:10 That includes you and me as Christians. Only Jesus himself is righteous. Why do I have a serious problem with this topic? It’s like beating a dead horse to me. This is a public blog. That means every non believing person on the planet googling tattoos may find this post. Which means you are being an obstacle to the cross for that person AND making every single tattooed Christian who is tattooed, right or wrong, think he is less of a Christian than you who doesn’t even have a tattoo, who has no idea what it’s even like to have a tattoo. That’s a problem. Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good, he came to make dead people alive. The Holy Spirit is perfectly capable of changing people from the inside out. He doesn’t need your help or mine for that matter. I have been saved by grace through faith. Ephesians 2:8 I don’t know what you’ve been saved by. Nice calm discussion or not, this is very unloving and legalistic. Try to remember what Jesus said the most important law is: Matthew 22:34-40 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

      • Michelle

        Forgive me for making an assumption. Do you even have a tattoo? I assume you don’t because it’s usually only the untattooed Christians that like to point out my horrible flaw, which by the way is a cultural flaw. If we’re going to nit pick the tattoo, why not all the plastic surgery to alter our appearance? I see plenty of ladies in my church that don’t have any problem having Botox, juvederm, and facelifts. I mean come on! Do you obey men or do you obey God? I serve the Lord. He is sovereign! He knew me before I was born! He has forgotten my sins when I repented and believed in his only Son, Jesus for my salvation. He is my Shepherd. When he calls me, I hear his voice. I stand by my first comment. Pull the logs out of your own eyes before you try to tell others about the specks in theirs. I will be praying for you to really understand the Gospel of grace because I really don’t think you get it.

  • Will Barrett

    It’s an important discussion, but on some basic level it all sounds like LAW LAW LAW.

  • Mary

    Tattoos don’t make one good or bad. Wise or foolish…..maybe….but the point is…..what is the whole tattoo culture softening us up for? We are in the foreshadow of end times, if not already in it. One world order…….can’t buy or sell…..marks on the body……what’s one more mark on the body…like a chip in the hand or forehead so a wand can be passed over it……you can neither buy or sell without it…..sound familiar…..Read Revelations…..we are culturally being softend up for what’s ahead starting with tattoos as mainstream.

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