I have plans to return to the issue of homosexuality sometime soon to affirm Ross’s excellent clarification, address Jan’s excellent query, and to try to respond to a few comments.

But the past few days, my thoughts have been consumed by issues surrounding body piercings and tattoos.   In case you haven’t heard, they are a big deal among younger evangelicals (40% of us have ’em), and traditional evangelicals–demonstrating, as they tend to do, an acute ability to be about 10 years too late–have started to rethink them.

I’m n9t going to put all my cards out on the table.  You’ll have to wait for the book for that.

But I will say this:  Kevin Van Hoozer, who is very smart, thinks body piercing (and, I’m guessing, by extension tattoos) can be read as one way in which the contentious phenomenon known as “post-modernism” has made its way down into pop culture.  I quote:

“Body piercing can be viewed as an attempt to “write the meaning” of the body over and above its biology.  One’s body and one’s self-identity are viewed as aesthetic projects, undetermined phenomena that invite further construction, not just passive reception.  There is apparently some satisfaction in the feeling that one has a degree of power over the project of constructing one’s identity.”

Van Hoozer writes like a parent bemused by what all the kids are up to (“apparently some satisfaction”).  And that’s a tad amusing in itself.

But I’m curious to hear from you, oh reader:  Did you get a tattoo or additional piercings, and why?

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • I got one tat about 13 years ago. It’s small and out of sight and I wish I’d not gotten it at all. I admit that I like sleeves of tattoos and full back pieces, but after a while, they’re just ugly. Plus, my thinking on the body has changed in recent years, moving from the body-is-a-shell view to the body-is-a-temple view. In light of this, my outlook on piercings and tattoos has changed. I don’t judge others who have them and would never make it an issue, but I think it’s something that many don’t put enough thought into.

    I also had ear piercings around the time I got inked.

  • Haven’t piercings/tattoos been around for thousands of years?

  • “Haven’t piercings/tattoos been around for thousands of years?”

    Yes. But “Pierced for our Ancient Practice” doesn’t sound as good.

    Besides, who says postmodernism hasn’t been around thousands of years? : )

    matt

  • “Who says postmodernism hasn’t been around thousands of years?”

    Haha! That is a perfect post-modern comment. In my opinion. :-)

  • greg

    Who says ” “Pierced for our Ancient Practice” doesn’t sound as good” ?

    “Besides, who says postmodernism hasn’t been around thousands of years?” McLaren? Tickle? (They really, REALLY, want it to be ‘new’)

  • I have both.

    I can’t remember now, but I think it was about 6 or 7 years ago I got a tattoo on my ankle of the Tetregrammaton – YHWH – in Hebrew. Interestingly, I got that tattoo at the beginning of a very agnostic period of my life, but I knew that God’s identity (I AM WHO I AM – or however you want to translate it) would always be meaningful to me. I think it was an act of desperation to hold onto some bit grounded spiritual objective reality. The tattoo does still hold the same meaning for me. However, if I could go back in time, I would not get the tattoo again, or I would get it somewhere more hidden. Now I worry that my tattoo will be offensive to Jewish people, or even some Christians, which didn’t even occur to me at the time. I also sometimes wish I had just kept my body pure, the way God made it, free of that permanent mark. But I can’t change that now, so for the most part I forget it’s there and don’t mind it one way or the other.

    I also have my nose pierced – just because I like the way it looks. :o) I’ve had it for longer than my tattoo, so at least 7 years. I also had MANY piercings in various places on my ears, but I have since removed them all but one in each lobe. Also for aesthetic reasons. I decided that FOR ME all that hardware in my ears was unflattering, unfeminine and messy looking.

    (For what it’s worth – I am 28 years old.)

    I don’t know that you can make blanket statements for why people do body modification. Some do it simply for fashion/aesthetics. Some do it to remember something significant. Some do it because of self-loathing. Some do it to fit in. I have known at least one person who was addicted to it.

  • T

    I gots me a tat, but I’m not saying why. Instead let me respond to the VanH quotation, thusly:
    By his lights, the only possible uses for clothes are protection and the old fig leaf over the private parts. Any attempt to be beautiful, stylish, formal, playful, dandified, serious, refined, funereal, sacerdotal, colorful, and so on are mere postmodern attempts to write the meaning of the body over one’s biology.

  • Hey Matthew,
    I have no tattoos or piercings, but how about some fun ruminations?

    So Leviticus outlaws tattoos, somewhere, right?

    But, Jesus has a name written on him that no one knows (Rev. 19:12) and he has this awesomeness written on his thigh (Rev. 19:16):

    “KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS”

    Gives me chills every time I read it. In less seriousness, though, if Jesus had tats, why can’t a Christian?

    I work with college students so actually get this question a lot. I have no opposition to tats even though I would never have one. I usually opt for the “everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial” route.

    My standard when I talk to college students: if your tattoo is in a location that could be seen by your grandparent and future grandchildren, then okay. Also, if your tattoo has content that you don’t mind showing your grandparent or future grandchild, then okay. That verse can be found in the “David Strunk Book of Wisdom” which will never exist. :)

    • Matt has pointed out my occasional appeals to authority. Do I detect a subtle appeal to authority when he does not offer his own view on body piercings and tattoos but appeals instead to Kevin Vanhoozer (the spelling is not “Van Hoozer”)?

      1. Vanhoozer says that p is true.
      2. Vanhoozer is authoritative (“who is very smart”).
      3. Therefore, p is true.

      Matt likes to call me a “scholar and gentlemen,” but does a gentleman have a tattoo of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment on his back? Ha, ha. In all seriousness, I think Vanhoozer’s statement is perceptive: the body has become a canvas for expressive individualism.

  • @Amy, MANY thanks for sharing. That’s really, really interesting to me. I completely agree that blanket statements about people’s motivations for tattoos are impossible. But I’m curious to know, if you don’t mind sharing, why your friend got addicted.

    @T, “Any attempt to be beautiful, stylish, formal, playful, dandified, serious, refined, funereal, sacerdotal, colorful, and so on are mere postmodern attempts to write the meaning of the body over one’s biology.”

    Perhaps. There may be, though, a difference between some sorts of adornment and others. Tattoos, for instance, have a degree of permanence that our clothing doesn’t. That seems, at least, significance.

    @Dave, I think the difference between the OT and NT in this is one of the fascinating aspects of the tattoo question. Absolutely fascinating.

    @Christopher, yes, I spelled his name wrong. I was in a hurry last night to get this up, and quite tired. Alas….mistakes.

    But you do misread if you find an “appeal to authority.” Other than my endorsement that he is very smart, I don’t actually weigh in on the merits of the excerpt. In fact, I say explicitly that I am not putting my own cards on the table. : )

    Best,

    matt

    • @Matt

      I don’t really know WHY my friend was addicted to body modification. I just know that he was. Actually, that question could be answered in two ways: 1) what is it about body modification that can be addictive, and 2) what unfulfilled need was that addiction meeting?

      As for the first, I can say from my own numerous ear piercings that there is something about body modification that can be addictive. There is a pleasure that can come from piercings and tattoos, and I could have seen myself getting much more carried away with it had my life taken a slightly different path. What that pleasure is is hard to pinpoint – some of it is aesthetic, some of it is just the novelty of something new (just like people addicted to shopping). But it’s definitely there.

      But as for the second way of answering your question, that is very personal. Why do any of us get addicted to anything? Part brain chemistry, part emotional brokenness, part personality, all under the banner of original sin.

  • Matt: I only raised the question of whether there was a subtle appeal to authority. ;-) I’m disappointed that you didn’t express surprise at my Last Judgment tattoo. Do I need to send you a photo?

    By the way, I read Ross Douthat’s response. First, it’s pretty cool that your First Thoughts op-ed got his attention. Second, I think he’s right on the money when he writes:

    The main objective of any serious social conservative, in the end, should be to restore a particular sexual ideal among heterosexuals, not just to forestall the redefinition of the institution of marriage to include gays. The goal should be a world where the struggle to defend marriage is understood primarily as a struggle against divorce and out-of-wedlock births and premarital promiscuity, and not just a world where the law offers a particular distinction to Newt Gingrich’s third marriage that it doesn’t afford Ellen DeGeneres and Portia DeRossi. And if all that social conservatives can ever hope to accomplish is to keep homosexual couples from getting marriage licenses, then there’s a case to be made for living with the public redefinition of the institution, taking the older ideal private, and trying to rebuild a thicker culture of marriage from the ground up.

  • I read an article a while back about “existential” tattooing by Christians that I thought interesting:

    http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2010/05/tattoos-and-spirituality.html

    The article is rather short, but there’s a little bit of interesting dialog going on by the readers afterwards.

    As for my personal take, I’m undecided. My brother has a pretty large (and rather well designed) one of Animal from the muppets on his back. A few members in my good friend’s family had the name or initials tattooed on them after the tragic and early death of a family member.

    I could see getting something of significance in my life tattooed on the small of my back, but do you need a physical mark to demonstrate internal character if that’s all its there for. Or is it more symbolic of the painful and permanent process of marking oneself in such a manner?

  • greg

    Sean said: “…do you need a physical mark to demonstrate internal character if that’s all its there for. Or is it more symbolic of the painful and permanent process of marking oneself in such a manner?”

    Now……who’s up for a treatise on Sacramental Theology?

    Over to you.

  • Mark

    >> there’s a case to be made for living with the public redefinition of the institution, taking the older ideal private, and trying to rebuild a thicker culture of marriage from the ground up.

    Douthat’s comment in one form or another is a very common one by now. I hear it all the time in the Biola community. I’ve heard it from at least one professor and countless students. A co-worker told me last week he didn’t understand the basis for non-Christians wanting to be married at all. I admit I just stared in dumbfounded amazement and muttered something about “therapy needed rather than argument”. As someone raised in a non-Christian family it is just embarrassing to think what my parents would think of this. They’d think it was crazy talk, but more to the point they’d think it must have come from some apocalyptic David Koresh type cult. In fact if I didn’t hear it so much here I’d think that myself.

    That he easily talks of “taking the older ideal private” and building the institution “from the ground up” is one of the stronger forms of idealism that I can think of. Why don’t we rebuild gender and sexuality from the ground up while we’re at it? This is crazy talk.

    I don’t accept that the main goal of social conservatives is to “keep homosexual couples from getting marriage licenses”, and if this is his suggested alternative is that far out there then I think that is a pretty good indication that he isn’t offering alternative and Matt’s critique of his piece was on target.

  • casey

    Mark, I wonder if you misundestad what he is saying (or perhaps I’m misunderstanding it).

    The point, as I see it, is that the instution of marriage from a legal and cultural standpoint is already a weak perverted shell…and this is prior to any gay marriage legalization.

    Adultury, drive through divorce (50% rate), single parent homes and birth rates, etc, etc. are the proof. While its understandable, its also somewhat ironic that the conservative politicos are up in arms about legalization of gay marriage when legal and cultural marriage is already a dead laughing stock in this country…and we are only now concerned?

    In that perspective, marriage does need a rebuilding from the ground up…one that is in some respects independent of legal recognition and cultural approval, at least at first.

    As a Christians (we are all citizens of the kingdom of heaven befre being citizens of this nation and culture) I think that God’s view of marriage must be strong within the church. How can we expect the (increasingly secularized) nation to get it right when God’s people can’t.

    Fortunately the gospel saves us from (and to) our fumbled marriages and fallen culture.

  • Philip

    The Copts tattoo the crucifix on their wrists at a young age for purposes of solidarity, as well as to flaunt their faith in the face of Islamic oppression:

    http://photos1.blogger.com/img/229/1129/1024/DSC_0001.4.jpg

    The Ethiopians often tattoo the crucifix on their foreheads:

    http://www.freetattoodesigns.org/images/ethiopian-cross-tattoo.jpg

    Pretty righteous stuff. I have a small crucifix on my upper arm, and Psalm 30:5 over my heart. Of course, being an American, they don’t resonate as much.