Writings by Cole Huffman

The Dove Not On My Shoulder

I’m currently reading Matthew Lee Anderson’s Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith.  Anderson is responsible for the mereorthodoxy.com blog that I keep a link to on this site.  In this his first book, Anderson devotes a chapter to tattooing: “Tattoos and the Meaning of Our Bodies.”  I’d not yet read a Christian author’s—or any author’s—treatment of the subject, so it interested me.

I learned from Anderson’s chapter the following: that nearly 40% of adults between the ages of eighteen to twenty-eight (the generation just behind me) sport at least one tattoo now; that tattooing either accompanied enslavement or was used punitively, or to associate with gods, in ancient cultures (the direct reason for Israel’s tattooing prohibition in Leviticus 19:28); that wherever Christian missionaries have gone through the centuries tattooing has largely ceased, yet when the subject arises in discussion with “tatted” young evangelicals, many of them will say their ink has proven a good conversation starter with non-Christians; and that some justify tattooing for Christians (dubious hermeneutics, but nevertheless) on Isaiah 44:5 and 49:16, Galatians 6:17, and all the talk of branded foreheads and thighs in Revelation. 
For most of the twentieth century tattoos were a countercultural statement or a soldier’s permanent token of war.  But then as countercultural movements begun in the fifties and sixties became mainstream mindsets, tattooing lost its antisocial chic as suburbanite kids found in tattoo parlors a means of unique self-expression.  Anderson, reflecting on why tattooing has become so prevalent now, says it is because “tattoos function as aesthetic expressions of meaning-making, as we attempt to navigate the hollow emptiness of the world in which we have been raised” (p. 120).  This hollowness is for many filled with personal ink.
While reading Anderson’s chapter it occurred to me that I’ve never been asked to counsel anyone through a tattoo decision.  This means either I minister among people for whom body art/body modification is no decision or it is something about which they feel no need for pastoral guidance.  But if I were to be asked, here’s how I would counsel a young Christian contemplating it.
Anderson points out that in generations past, self-expression often took the form of ink to paper (poetry/writing) and paint to canvass.  Tattooing turns the ink and paint on ourselves, as it were, making ourselves the canvass and the poetry.  There is, then, an inescapable self-referential (even self-reverential) experience that tattooing invites, even sanctions.  In the marketplace of self-made identities our tattoos become our trademarks. 
I want Christians to think hard on this, along with a corresponding consideration: that self-improvement/enhancement has for followers of Jesus always been more about the “internal artistry” of ourselves than our external artistry—our character more than our coolness.  This by no means makes our bodies irrelevant.  Our bodies matter to our faith, as Anderson aptly subtitled his book.  Paul, in a context of warning about sexual immorality, says our bodies are “a temple of the Holy Spirit within you…. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). 
Paul wasn’t thinking of tattoos there, but he does make a blanket statement about what our physical bodies mean to God.  Tattoos are culturally popular and sometimes sought to commemorate meaningful experiences, including salvation, baptism, and/or a cherished passage of Scripture (which, as Anderson notes, is “even cooler” if tatted in the original Hebrew or Greek). 
But I wonder if eschewing a tattoo can display what I’ll call “cultural modesty”?  A lot of Christians in my generation and younger have adopted a cultural strategy of accommodation, finding in Paul’s 1 Corinthians 9:22 principle of “becoming all things to all people” a permission slip to participate in most everything the world does, just without going “too far.”  (It is apparently self-evident where “that’s okay” ends and “too far” begins.)  But this strategy has panned out a lot of iron pyrite (fool’s gold) for us.  Anderson quotes Lauren Sandler, whom he calls “an outside observer [of evangelicals]”: “Young Evangelicals look so similar to denizens of every other strain of youth culture that, aside from their religious tattoos, the difference between them and the unsaved is invisible” (from her book Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement, p. 6).
I wonder if we might make more visible inroads with the world if we’re “marked” (pun intended) by humble restraint.  This is what I mean by cultural modesty.  I’m willing to bet you that a young tatted dude or dudette, encountering a tattoo-less contemporary, might actually find it more intriguing to hear from him that he gratefully (and of course, non-judgmentally) considers his body a temple of the Holy Spirit, rather than pulling up his sleeve to reveal a crying dove on his shoulder, “Because, like, you know, a dove descended on Jesus when He was baptized, plus I also love that Prince song, ‘When Doves Cry.’”
Another line of counsel I’d take in this consideration is the caution against what I call “absolutizing your now.”  You will likely feel differently about the tattoo later on.  As I get older I want to put more distance between who I was as a younger man and who I am now, even though I don’t “have a past” in the loaded meaning of that phrase.  It’s that I want to grow and mature, believing as I do that I become even more useful to the younger ones coming behind me.  In other words, the younger need me to be older, as I am.  They don’t need an older guy trying to be like them, but a guy they can learn from, hopefully winsomely, how to be like Jesus. 
I’m glad I don’t look at my fraternity crest on my ankle in the shower every morning, had I opted for that in college; therefore my grandkids will never feel the need to ask, “Why do you have a big E-X (Sigma Chi) on your ankle, Grandpa?”  (I concede it would be worse to hear, “Why do you have a big crying bird on your shoulder, Grandpa?”)  Will we feel the same about our tats, and even the experiences they memorialize in emblem, in our sixties as in our twenties?  I remember a Saturday Night Live skit featuring a woman who got a “tramp stamp” on the small of her back that said, in elaborate cursive, “Pretty Lady.”  They then time-elapsed the inevitable sagging of skin in the aging process; it mutated the artsy stenciling on her back to “Pretty Sad.”
Some of you reading this have tattoos and will perhaps fear my seeing them now.  Don’t.  What’s done is done.  I don't judge you.  I sometimes ask people about their tattoos and even genuinely compliment the artistry, finding tattoos to indeed be good conversation starters with strangers made in the image of God as I am.  In many cases there is a meaningful story behind the tattoo and I don’t discount this.  I think the medium is suspect for a follower of Jesus to avail, that’s all.  One isn’t sinning in the act of getting a tattoo, I don’t think, but neither is one exhibiting wisdom, which is what we want to be permanently marked by.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 9:22 PM
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