Saturday, January 26, 2013

Don't Get Inked: Why The Church Should Start Speaking about Tattoos and What It Should Say

Tattoos are ubiquitous and no passing fad. It goes without saying that tattoos have moved off the Navy ships and out of the motorcycle gangs to include the bodies of a large minority of 20-somethings. Models, athletes, and actors, whose bodies are truly their temples, have forever altered those temples by getting inked. Tattoos may be the most visible and visceral symbol of a changing culture, a generation of men and women content to make their Baby Boomer parents look like obedient conformists by comparison. 

Not having a tattoo may now qualify as odd in a land where everyone feels the urge to uniquely brand their bodies. Not having one may also become a kind of dividing line at a deeper level. For I would argue that whether one gets inked or not may represent more than whether one is brave enough to permanently change the body we have been given; it now represents - among many, but certainly not all - a more fundamental worldview that exposes how we feel about our unique place in the world.

Before I say another word, some qualifiers. I know that to criticize tattoos has become the real taboo. Tattoos, because they are permanent and intended to say something unique, something to which we commit ourselves with our very bodies, are deeply personal. It used to be a sign of rebellion, so to criticize the person getting the tattoo as a rebel was easy. Now, Christians get tattoos of Bible verses, those grieving get tattoos to remember the dead, and those in committed marriages get tattoos to tell the world of their commitment. And then there are the tattoos that are in memory of a band of brothers, or a similarly meaningful time of intense bonding, like a squadron in the military. 

I get that not all tattoos are created equally and that to commemorate the life of a loved one or a sacred brotherhood or event is as good a justification as one can have. I get that if you feel very deeply about something, writing a blogpost won't do it justice. You want the world to know how serious you are, how deeply you feel about that one thing. And tattoos are perhaps the ultimate form of commitment. I get that, and respect that.

But those aren't the tattoos I'm thinking about. I am talking about the ubiquity of relatively meaningless tattoos, tattoos that are not forged out of a trial by fire (say the Battle of Fallujah) or out of deep anguish, wherein the tattoo is actually a part of the grieving process (say the death of a spouse or child). I am talking about designer tats that are the result of a desire to be unique, or to celebrate something you think is important now, but may not always be. I can't quantify those tattoos; could it be as high as 70% of them? 80%? 90%?

Of course, I understand that in a free society anyone can do anything they want with their body and I realize I just offended the sensibilities of half of a generation, even many of those who aren't inked. Biblically, I'm not going to say the Levitical prohibition against tattoos still stands, per se. I would personally heed that prohibition, but theologians don't agree on that. I'm asking if the Church should begin to question the culture of tattoos, the culture of uniqueness, the culture of being "one of a kind". I'm asking if somehow, someway, the Church should speak to whether or not an individual should get a tattoo. 

That may not be possible because the topic is so flammable. Maybe we'll just have to let the fad pass…which could take a while. Maybe the best thing we can hope for is to provide good pastoral care when some of those who got inked have regrets. 

But I can hardly help but to see a corollary between a generation that is getting inked like never before and a generation that has abandoned the Church, certainly a traditional or historic expression of the Church. Is it any wonder those that highly value the unique and permanent branding of a personalized tattoo may not want to sit under the authority of anyone in the Church? Is it any wonder those who want the world to know that they have the courage to tattoo themselves are so independent that they would not also desire to avoid rote liturgies and 300-year-old hymns?

Now, some congregations have used the zeitgeist of tattoos as a subject for projects and sermons. Maybe we should all try to work side-by-side with this culture so we don't lost more in the generation. One congregation had over 70 members get tattooed during Easter week to commemorate the branding of a cruciform life. As tattoos and theology go, this is probably as good as it gets. 

But this can't possibly last forever. At some point, everyone who wants a tattoo will get one, and you'll have to be on to the latest trend. One is reminded of Paul's teaching that a circumcision - itself a change to the body none would forget - should not be sought. Instead, God now requires a circumcision of the heart. 

And that begins to get to the nub of the matter. Rather than having a debate about tattoos per se, we should, as I mentioned above, see them as the most visible and visceral symbol of a culture focused on the self. I can't prevent tattoos that have already sunk into the skin, and shaming people who have them won't help anyone. But the Church should, at some point, start to speak about them because not to do so would be negligent. To let this culture continue to wallow in its narcissistic malaise isn't fair to them. And maybe talking about the zeitgeist of tats will get their attention. 

So what should we say about this culture? Obviously, the culture has changed -  and is changing - fast. I won't elaborate on the usual list: instant gratification, attention deficit, relativistic understanding of truth, spiritual but not religious, extremely independent, victims of a misunderstanding of self-esteem. While to establish a golden age that never was would be intellectually dishonest, is this generation the best we can offer? Will any history books look back on this time as one of timeless virtues being embraced and lived out? Or as a time of pretty superficial and immediate distractions consuming our day to day lives? 

No longer are we content to live quiet lives of service. No longer will we cede authority to God; we hardly concede authority to our parents or bosses. No longer do we see ourselves as filling an important, but relatively anonymous and obscure role in the world. No, we want to be important, we want to be noticed, we want to be big fish in small ponds. And because most of us cannot or will not achieve notoriety that through our sheer brilliance, our notable work output, or our impact on the arts or  film, we turn to other ways to differentiate ourselves. We find it hard to accept that we will simply be anonymous and relatively obscure worker bees in a world that is hard to comprehend.

That's when tattoos come in handy. They do for us what few of us can accomplish through sheer talent or effort: they distinguish us. They make us unique. They celebrate the fact that there is no one else exactly like us. They feed our desire to be different and significant. 

But they're a quick fix to the wrong problem. This is where the Church has something important to say to those who feel the need to distinguish. God has already made all people unique and different. Everyone is gifted with gifts that only they have, gifts that the world needs. And everyone already looks different. We don't need to go out of our way to be different. We already are. We just need to exploit the gifts we've already been given. We just need to be willing to explore how we are already made wholly unique and in demand. So long as we rebel against the authority of God, putting tattoos aside, there is no reason to expect that our natural uniqueness will quench our thirst for notoriety.

Again, without shaming those who have tattoos, at some point the church can and should talk about the tattoo phenomenon. It won't be popular among our generation, but the next generation that is not yet inked may appreciate that someone spoke against them before the pressure got to them. And not just to be negative, but encourage their desire to be unique and to be, dare I say, special. Their unique gifts can be put to service. That's a much more fulfilling, and perhaps even more permanent, way to distinguish oneself.