by Pastor George Van Alstine
“First, we got our nails done, then we hung out in Old Town, then we went down and got some new tats . . .” I felt like an alien as I listened to this conversation among a group of teenage girls. “Tats?” I said. “Tattoos!” they patiently instructed me. I realized that having a permanent tattoo placed on their bodies was as casual for them as a nail polish touchup or a walk down Colorado Boulevard.
Since then, I’ve been talking with other young people about this. They seem to have a pretty good sense of what “permanent” means, and they’re very careful about what tattoos they choose. One girl had a new one on her wrist, which she didn’t want to show me at first. I thought it was her boyfriend’s name and that she’d regret having it a year from now. It turned out to be her mother’s name. How can Momma get mad about that?
The resurgence of tattooing, along with various kinds of piercings, is pretty alarming to those of us who are over the hill. In our experience, these seem to be radical assaults on the bodies God has given us. In our past experience tattoos have been worn only by somewhat fringy people – gang members, bikers, men just out of prison, women who frequent bars. The themes of tattoos have often been violent, sexy, or even blasphemous. It’s hard to accept the fact that our kids see them as innocent and expressive of positive self images.
So, it’s not surprising that many Christian preachers and writers have come out strongly against tattoos as of the devil. Usually they quote Leviticus 19:28 as a slam-dunk prohibition:
“You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord.”
Of course, they don’t bother to point out that this is part of a list of practices which in that time and place were clearly associated with idolatry. Also in the list of prohibitions are trimming your beard and “eating anything with its blood,” which would rule out hamburgers.
There are, on the other hand, a growing number of Christian tattooists who advocate the practice as a means of Christian witness. They see Isaiah 44:5 as a model, where a prophecy of Holy Spirit infilling during the Messianic age includes such a visual witness:
“This one will say, ‘I am the Lord’s,’ . . .and another will write on his hand, ‘The Lord’s,’ and adopt the name of the Lord.”
Of course, tattooing is not necessarily implied here; it could refer to writing with ink, or with paint. But following the model they see in this verse, a whole new industry of Christian tattooing is emerging.
Christian tattoos bother me for the same reason that Christian bumper stickers bother me – you’d better live up to your advertising, or you will be an embarrassment to the One you’re advertising!
The bottom line: I’m not taking either extreme as the Christian position on tattoos. I’m part of my generation in recoiling from practices which had somewhat seedy connotations in my past. But I’ve lived long enough to see a couple of generations of young people shock their elders by going in bold new directions which looked dangerous, but turned out to be refreshing and renewing for the church.
I do have one final word on tats. The most important tattoo mentioned in the Bible is not worn by pagans or by believers, nor by any generation of human beings. It is a tattoo boldly and proudly worn by God himself. Isaiah echos the feeling God’s people had in his day, a feeling often shared by us his followers today:
“The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.”
And then the prophet expresses God’s reassuring response:
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.” (Isaiah 49:14-16)
The word translated “inscribe” does not mean “write.” Its root meaning is to “cut into.” It is used of engraving a stone or clay tablet. The names of those he loves are permanently “cut into,” indelibly tattooed on the palms of God’s hands. Both hands – the word is plural.
That’s how much God loves you. That’s how deep and lasting his commitment is. If a young girl tattoos her lover’s name on her body, she may someday wish she could scrape it off. But God, though you may stretch his patience and disappoint him, still wears your name where he can always see it. He has permanent tats for you!