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Can we talk about tattoos?


Four days after his wife, Jennifer Flavin, filed for a divorce, Sylvester Stallone covered a tattoo of Flavin on his right bicep with an image of Butkus, his dog that appeared in the movie “Rocky.” Ouch!  Stallone’s insensitive do-over may have raised eyebrows, but the original tattoo itself caused nary a stir.  

Once taboo, tattoos are all the rage. In a stunning turnaround, it’s speaking critically about tattoos that is now taboo! So, going where angels fear to tread, I’ll just say it flat out: On a cultural scale, there’s something spiritually amiss about tattoos; and, in many troubled individuals, something terribly sad. 

If not careful, one could be tempted to cite Leviticus 19:28: “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.” See, there it is in inspired black and white! Yet, both context and translation issues cloud what otherwise seems to be a straightforward prohibition. Is “marking” the same as “tattoo”? Are we bound today by all the rules in Leviticus? In each instance, likely not. We eat shrimp, wear polyester, and live under the law of Christ.

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In Ezekiel, various passages refer to God having his seal inked on the foreheads of his servants. There is also that intriguing verse (Revelation 19:16), referring to what appears to be a tattoo on the thigh of the rider known as “the Word of God.” Yet, because social tattooing has such deep pagan roots, the popularity of tattoos at every level of society speaks volumes about the paganization of culture. While there are other indicia of an increasingly pagan mindset, none is as graphic and in-your-face as tattoos.

Yes, our days of the week have pagan names, which doesn’t make us pagans. And at Christmas and Easter we wrap Christian meaning in pagan packaging, which doesn’t make us pagans. Indeed, many believers have tattoos with Christian themes, which obviously doesn’t make one a pagan. But when a classic pagan practice takes such a widespread and lasting hold on society, we’re way past the point of merely a passing fad. We’re talking about a serious seismic shift. Do tattoos provide a clue?

What prompts so many good, decent people to deface their “temples” with inked graffiti? Is it simply to display meaningful symbols, or their unique story? Seems innocent enough. Or, are some so bereft of personal worth that they must shout in bold technicolor, “Notice me!”? Or — as with today’s abandoned, misguided, and confused young people — so desperate for attention as to add the pitiable “neon hair” and body piercing? Whether showing off, or covering over deep wounds, or merely “scrapbooking” on one’s own skin, I suggest that body art is the most visible expression of a self-focused “Me Generation.”  

Today’s subtle linguistic change from “He and I” to “Me and him” is not just the crass corruption of grammar, but a reordering of relative importance signifying that “It’s all about me.” The connection is not a coincidence. The showier the truer: tattoos are “all about me” — hardly a Christian virtue.        

As Christians, our identity is not to be found in some tattooed sub-culture, as with gangs, but in the culture of Christ. Our identity comes, not from drawing attention to ourselves, but from drawing attention to Christ, through what others see in us, not on us. Our identity is not in displaying permanent fashion accessories, but in the humble fashion by which we live our lives. Our identity is not in body piercing that looks cool, but the “piercing of the ear” that lets the world know we are willing, committed servants of our Master (Exodus 21:2-6).

I’m not saying no one with tattoos can get to Heaven, but of one thing you can be sure: no one will get to Heaven with tattoos. In the words of the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 15), “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” Nor ink, presumably. For at the Resurrection, the natural body — whether youthful, wrinkled, amputated, or tattooed — will be raised a spiritual body. And on that Great Gettin’ Up Morning, each saved soul will bear only one image — that of the Heavenly Tattooist who has indelibly marked us as His for eternity.  

F. LaGard Smith is a retired law school professor (principally at Pepperdine University), and is the author of some 35 books, touching on law, faith, and social issues.  He is the compiler and narrator of The Daily Bible (the NIV and NLT arranged in chronological order). 

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