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.