What About Tattoos?
by Professor Jack
I’ve been one of the few people I know who has spoken out against Christians wearing tattoos. Call me stupid or call me bold. I’ve been called both. So here are my reflections, in no particular order.
Some of my kids have tattoos. I’m not crazy about tattoos, as they all know. Sometimes I poke fun at tattoos and use sarcasm regarding them. This almost always backfires because my kids rightfully think that if I can’t be on board, I will at least be accepting. I’m never quite sure what they mean by “accepting,” but I do attempt to assure my kids that in spite of my dislike of tattoos, I love them (my kids) very much.
It’s hard to make this distinction between their persons and their tattoos because for so many young people, tattoos are closely bound up with personal identity. I wonder sometimes that if kids get tattoos so young, they—the tattoos—will distort the normal processes of maturation. Here’s what I mean by this. Most of us don’t really get to know who we are until our twenties, and even then we see through a glass darkly. Self-knowledge seems to be coming later with each generation. Sociologists are now telling us that adolescent-like behavior and attitudes are persisting into the forties for many young adults.
Some time when I’ve come to terms with it myself, I’ll say more about what adolescence and maturity are, or at least how I view these life stages.
My point is that tattoos are permanent. The tattoo a young person decides is appropriate at, say, seventeen will be with him or her forever. I can’t imagine what I might have put on my arm or chest at seventeen, or even twenty-five, but I do know that it would not have fit me at thirty, or fifty. But what if I’d been stuck with it (so to speak)? Would it have determined how I developed? Would it have impeded, in any way, the normal growth I would have experienced had I not put it on my body? What role would it have played in my personality? And was that a good thing? Granted, one can’t know any of this until much later, if ever.
Yes, I know: Clothes, styles, habits, music, culture, hobbies, education all do much the same. That is, they all have an effect on what psychologists call “individuation,” our growth into our unique character. But none of these things is permanent. Most young people will progress through the cultural artifacts of their times as their tastes and perceptions change. Tattoos aren’t like that. They don’t progress. I wonder if, in a sense, they arrest normal development.
I recognize that most tattoos are probably harmless: Names, crosses, flowers, family crests, Bible verses, etc., things you can live with for the duration without a lot of remorse (even if the girl is long gone). I also know that many young people have the good sense to be discreet with their tattoos, not displaying them front and center. They instinctively know that final calls don’t make sense at twenty-one. I can live with that, even though I don’t especially care for it, if they can live with me living with it.
Am I being judgmental?
Much of what I have previously written concerning tattoos actually addresses another level of personal expression, of which body art is only a part. This level goes beyond personal identity to personal badging. It goes beyond what I may think of my tattoo. It even goes beyond what you think of my tattoo. It goes to what you should think of my tattoo.
There is a level of personal expression that is thinly-veiled assault. It has no intention of being accepted or understood. Its entire purpose lies in taking and giving of offense. We all know this when we see it. Its approach is irredentist, an implacable hostility that is sharpened and heightened with each concession of its putative enemy. Watch a gay parade in San Francisco or a Hamas demonstration in Gaza City. It’s pretty much the same thing: Don’t even try to satisfy, agree with, or reason with me.
Do I think that most people with tattoos think that way? Of course not. I would only say that some people move along a spectrum from the level of casual tattoos to intentionally transgressive behavior, including outré tattooing, without being aware of it.
I would imagine there are lots of gradations in this whole matter of tattoos. Psychologists, for instance, study an entire subclass for whom obsessive tattooing is linked to other compulsive behaviors earlier in life. For instance, young females with a history of bulimia, self-laceration, and experimentation with hair are especially prone to disfiguring body art. I wouldn’t be surprised to find a male variant to this kind of self-mutilation.
So far, I haven’t mentioned the religious and theological dimensions of tattooing. If you’re not a believer, and don’t intend to be, this won’t make sense to you. But it’s pretty clear that tattooing was considered a Canaanite practice and was condemned among the Hebrews as paganism along with incest, homosexuality, withholding wages, keeping two sets of books, shaving the edges of one’s beard, and cutting oneself.
This mixed catalog of abominations stretches from Leviticus 19 through 21. (Leviticus 19:28 refers explicitly to tattoos.) Most Jews have traditionally avoided tattoos as a profaning of the Law of God, which is one of the reasons the Nazis tattooed numbers on the arms of concentration camp inmates. Otherwise the Bible doesn’t say much about tattooing, though the matter of separation from the world is a huge biblical theme. It’s good to keep in mind that the Bible also has much to say about justice, marriage and moral uprightness.
I know there are those out there who were waiting to remind me of this.
Are there far worse things in the Bible than tattoos? What do you think? Have I done things in my life that are worse than sporting a tattoo? You bet I have. But does that excuse me from abiding by what might be considered lesser commandments? Comparison n’est pas raison.
If you are a young Christian considering getting a tattoo, you should ask yourself: Does having a tattoo make me more like the Canaanites or more like Jesus Christ?
Just putting it out there. It’s likely nobody else will ask.
Incidentally, I have no problem with normal piercing of the ears for earrings. This was an entirely biblical practice. I sell wire earrings and other jewelry, after all.
There’s much more to say about this subject, and sooner or later I’ll get to it. For now I hope this will answer some of the questions people have asked me. When you’re one of those who speaks out against something as popular as tattoos, you do get asked to back up your assertions. And you sometimes get called either stupid and bold, or something else.