To ink or not to ink image

To ink or not to ink

In a theological discussion with some friends about how we are to interpret cultural symbols in the New Testament (head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 being the prime example) we got onto the subject of tattoos. What is the symbolism of tattoos? And are they appropriate for Christians?

This is a subject I have pondered off and on over the past few years. Tattoos used to be unusual – available only in the dodgier quarters of larger towns, and sported only by sailors or bikers. Now they are ubiquitous, and available on every high street. Central to what is going on in 1 Corinthians is that the people of God are not to be rebels, and tattoos were certainly once regarded as expressions of rebellion; which alone might have been enough to make Christians cautious about getting inked. With ubiquity, the air of rebellion has dispelled. To have a tattoo now is about as rebellious as wearing a shirt without a tie. I don’t have a tattoo. The closest I’ve come to one is when I was away from home for three weeks and thought it might be amusing to have my wife’s name inked somewhere on my person as a surprise for her on my return. I went as far as entering a tattoo parlour, but then decided against proceeding when I was told what it would cost. My sense of humour only extends so far.

My general sense is that tattoos are adiaphora – a matter of spiritual indifference which the individual can indulge in or not according to taste and conscience. My personal taste is that tattoos often come under the ‘silly’ category and I can begin to sound like my mother with, ‘what will that look like when you are 60 and your skin is saggy’ type comments. Godly men who I love and respect have tattoos. Some of them look quite cool; others are bizarre – and if you insist on getting Greek or Hebrew (or even English) words inked on prominent parts of your body it is definitely worth checking and rechecking you have got the spelling right. A typo on a blog is rectifiable; a tattoo is for ever. (There are some wonderful examples here)

But apart from personal preference, is there anything theological we can say about tattoos? (Don’t even get me started on shocking hermeneutical leaps made from Revelation 19:16.)

Last year I posted about the gnosticism that shapes how we think about our bodies and how understanding the hope of the redemption of our bodies (Rom 8:23) addresses this. My working theory is that we should do only those things that align with resurrection life in redeemed bodies; or, at least, the Christian hope of redemption will profoundly affect how we understand the body. Contemporary gnosticism perceives the inner-self, the psyche, as the real ‘me’. The real me is in some way trapped by the body. Thus the body becomes merely a canvas on which to express my inner self: The real me is fixed while the body is plastic. In stark contrast to this gnosticism, the biblical hope is that our resurrection bodies will be permanent, not plastic, and there will be no division between body and soul. Perfectly united to Christ our body/soul union will also be perfect.

Working along these lines I would suggest that getting a tattoo is in some degree a reflection of a gnostic rejection of the body. It is treating the body as plastic, as something to be changed at will, in order to reflect a deeper, more meaningful interior reality. The very permanence of the ink (as opposed to a change of hairstyle or clothing) is a grasping after the permanence we feel in our souls; a permanence our bodies appear to deny us.

In our fallen world bad things happen to bodies. People are born with disabilities, suffer accidents and illness. Fingers get chopped off; lungs develop cancer; limbs are misshapen. It seems inconceivable to me that these things align with resurrection life. Christ bears the marks of his sufferings in his resurrection body (John 20:26) but these are the marks of triumph! Surely our redeemed bodies will not be marred by amputated digits, cancers or disfigurement – rather, what is sown in weakness will be raised in power! (1 Cor 15:43) Similarly, is it conceivable that we will carry tattoos into the resurrection?

My (tentative) suggestion is that getting a tattoo does not align with resurrection life, and therefore is something one destined for resurrection life should exercise a certain caution in. Of course, the argument could be made that if our bodies are going to be made new then bearing a tattoo now is neither here nor there – that if Jesus likes the ink he’ll let us keep it and if he doesn’t it will be eternally erased! But the weakness of this argument is that I wouldn’t deliberately and unnecessarily amputate my finger, or infect myself with cancer – not only because to do so would be morally wrong now, but because doing so does not align with the life to come.

I know how the response to this will go, “What about pierced ears then? Do they align with resurrection life? If so, how many piercings? How is a tattoo any different?” And on and on. This is why, as I said, my general sense is that tattoos are adiaphora. But I also think the gnostic problem is a serious one, and people of the resurrection should reflect seriously upon it, before the needle bites.

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