Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

Immanentizing our Eschatological State through Tattoos: The Earthen Vessels Symposium (Ch. 6)

November 14th, 2011 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Jason Hood wants to extend the conversation into 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?

Like commenter and friend of Mere-O James, I'm initially ambivalent about the proposal.  Jason has a good point on our emphasis on liberal arts over the trades when it comes to Christian eduction, but it strikes me that one way to remedy the gap is to enfold the trades into a university along with all the rest of branches of knowledge, with those peculiar theologians (like Jason) churning out good work from the center.  A modification on Newman's model (not that Newman), if you will, at least as I understand it.

How broad, though, do we want to use the adjective "Christian"?  I don't make Christian art:  I'm a Christian who makes art.  Heard that line before?  I have too, and usually as a justification for bad art.  But the Christian chiseling away at the marble has unique and privileged access to the universe, and you think that would be good for something.  Counterexamples abound, of course, of those virtuously creative pagans.  But this is the very problem that Hood's proposal is going to run into.

Let's move to his second, to get to safer territory:

1 Peter 3 and 1 Timothy 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 Peter 3 and 1 Timothy 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.

And by "safer" I mean twice as dangerous.

I didn't go to these passages because, well, I wanted to emphasize the disanalogy between tattoos and how we clothe ourselves.  But they're both externalities, making something visible to the world that was previously invisible.  And as such, Jason's right to take us there.

But for now, I'd rather go off to Galatians, where Paul is in the middle of a fight about what demarcates the people of God in the world:  is it obedience to the Law through circumcision, or is it the life of faith as manifested in the fruits of the Spirit?  We know what Paul answers.

I am only going to be able to say enough about this right now to get me into trouble, but I think that should mean our confidence in our status should be grounded in Christ, and in the manifestation of his life in us through love.

The real danger of those Christian tattoos is that we immanentize our own eschaton, writing on our arms what God has written on his hands.  I'm all for confidence and assurance of our salvation.  But such confidence flows from a modified form of self-examination, by the testing of ourselves to determine whether we are "in the faith."   It's a testing wherein we should not "pronounce judgment before the time" precisely because the secret things in our hearts won't be finally revealed until the last day.  And that criterion, simply put, is not simply skin deep.

Such is the danger.  The chapter fails, of course, my new standards for Christian cultural engagement:  "And I will show you a more excellent way."  There may be something to the tattoo as a moment of joy, an excess celebration that establishes a permanency to our happiness that we had never known.  But that will have to wait for another day.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.