Saturday, September 13, 2008

Christian Body Modification

Please note as your read this that I have friends and family who have tattoos and/or body piercings, so this isn't a judgment about their worth as individuals. But we shouldn't have to accept something as a being right just because others that we care for and respect believe it to be acceptable. We must not give up the ability to choose our beliefs on our own from first principles.

Also, please be aware that the question of tattoos and body piercings may really come down to a question about how we should interpret and interact with laws/rules such as the clear prohibition on tattoos in Leviticus (discussed in more detail below). So, ultimately you may want to see my entry on how most people misunderstand Paul's views on law and the old testament. See my post called "Understanding Paul from Speed Limits".

My oldest son is a freshman at a Christian college this year. His martial arts instructor that we have gone to for years. and who we respect, has a large cross tattooed on his back. So my son has jokingly said in the past that he would like to get a tattoo knowing that we would disapprove. In an IM the night before last he said that he had talked with one of his instructors and that they said that it is O.K. for Christians to get tattoos and that the Bible doesn't say anything bad about body modification.

I told him that he is an adult now and out of the house, so we would not give him any problems if he did decide to get a tattoo. But I asked him to wait and see this blog post before he makes his decision. So, Noah, here it is...

Tattoos are just one form of the broader topic of "body modification" or "body art", which includes body piercing. Take a look at the list of body modifications in the link above. Can you honestly say that some tattoos and piercing are O.K. but that the other listed forms of body modifications are not acceptable? Do you really have a defensible position as to why some body modifications are O.K. and others aren't?

One problem most people have with arguing against body modifications is that they try to accept some modifications as O.K. and then exclude others as not O.K. without a clear distinction. So, if a mother pierces her ears then on what basis, other than social preference, does she have to argue against her daughter piercing other parts of her body? Or if you let your kids put on stickers, draw on themselves or use temporary tattoos, how much different is a permanent tattoo? Also, we wear pictures and word on our clothing, so why not wear pictures and words directly on our skin?

The Bible does list at least two acceptable forms of body modification: Circumcision of a Jewish person whose life is being committed to God and the piercing of the ear of someone who volunteers to freely work as a slave for life.

Interestingly, both are meant to signify submission and slavery to a master for the rest of their lifetime, with a body modification that will last for the rest of their lifetime. And both were performed at significant life changes: eight days after birth and after deciding to stay a slave for the rest of your life. So, while these are an acceptable body modification, they only justify modifications that would symbolize that you are committed to be a slave for life. Also, circumcision is totally unseen (hopefully) and having one pierced ear is a minimal
modification, and neither adds a symbol or picture to the body.

Rebecca was given nose rings by Abraham's chief servant, but she was still in a polytheistic culture (Genesis 24). His goal was to convince here to come back and marry Isaac, so his gifts may say more about how the polytheistic culture valued nose rings than how the future Jewish culture would value nose rings.

When Jacob's family wanted to set themselves apart to the Lord, earrings are specifically mentioned as items that they put off (Gen 35:2-4).

It was the custom of Ishmaelite men to wear gold earrings (Judges 8:24), but that implies that the Israelite men did not wear gold earrings.

The Israelites melted their earrings and jewelry after leaving Egypt (Ex 35:21-23) to melt down to make items for the temple (and, of course, earlier for making the golden calf, Ex 32:1-4), so it would likely have been fashionable for Israelite women in the early years of Israel to not wear gold jewelry.

The reference in Revelations 19:11-16 to what appears to be writing on the body is obviously figurative:

11And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. 12His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which no one knows except Himself. 13He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. 14And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. 15From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. 16And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, "KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS."

- If this is a reference to a literal tattoo on Jesus, then he also has a literal sword in his mouth
- If he actually had a tattoo of his name on his body, how could he keep others from knowing that name?
- If the name was on his robe which is clothing, the reference to his thigh may be to clothing over his thigh

Trimming hair is not actually a "body" modification, unless possibly you are trying to make some artwork or something symbolic out of shaving parts of your hair. But in any case, hair modification doesn't have the permanency that tattoos or piercings can have.

In Lev 19:27-32:

27' You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads nor harm the edges of your beard. 28'You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the LORD. 29'Do not profane your daughter by making her a harlot, so that the land will not fall to harlotry and the land become full of lewdness. 30'You shall keep My sabbaths and revere My sanctuary; I am the LORD. 31'Do not turn to mediums or spiritists; do not seek them out to be defiled by them. I am the LORD your God. 32'You shall rise up before the grayheaded and honor the aged, and you shall revere your God; I am the LORD.

Even if you can reason away the clear statement not to have tattoos as being only applied to that particular culture, you have to ask yourself whether the underlying concept still applies today or not. So, look at the surrounding prohibitions and requirements and ask yourself, are tattoos today associated with the good things listed or the prohibited things?

harlotry - a tattoo in a given location in slang is called by some a "tramp stamp", so some tattoos can be associated with the general concept of "harlotry"
reverence - are tattoos associated with reverence? The statistics below say that tattoos are still associated in most peoples mind with rebellion rather than reverence
honor the aged - most older family members would likely counsel against getting a tattoo, so tattoos are associated with a disregard of the recommendations of most of our grandparents

So, even today, tattoos are associated with the negative aspects of the surrounding prohibitions and therefore would seem to still apply to our culture in a similar fashion to how it applied to the culture of the day when the prohibition was written.

Tattooing is painting over an existing work of art
Most people getting tattoos assume the body is a blank pallet that they will be putting art on. But actually, the body in totality is already an amazing work of art. Think about the attributes of a work of art: symmetry, blending of shades without abrupt boundaries, both form and functionality, communicates through scenery and not symbols etc.. Before painting over an existing work of art, we must make sure that the new artwork is an improvement over the old.

To do that, the tattoos should maintain the symmetry (the same artwork on both sides of the body), blend into the colors of the body, only use earth tones, not include symbols/words, etc..
Look at things you would consider God's works of art. The human form, a sunset, a mountain, etc.. Compare that type of art to the tattoo you are considering getting. Basically, when you get a tattoo you are saying that your choice of design is better than God's design for your body.

Tattooing is still associated with non-Christian behavior
While in an idealistic world, people would judge others by their character and not by things such as tattoos, in the real world people only have a short time and little information to decide what someone's character actually is. So, all of us use fallacious reasoning daily to make quick decisions where we don't have the time or information necessary to make logically valid decisions. So, if a Christian gets a tattoo, they need to understand that by necessity the tattoo will be one point of information that people will use to make their initial judgement about their character.

Insofar as the initial cultural (or subcultural) use of tattoos predates the widespread popularity of tattoos in the general population, tattoos are still somewhat associated with rebellion and anti-Christian behavior.

Over half of those without a tattoo (54%) do believe that someone with one is more rebellious, almost the same as those who thought this in 2003 (57%).

And over one-third (36%) of those with a tattoo say having it makes them feel more rebellious

Also, one-third of those without a tattoo (32%) say people with tattoos are more likely to do something most people would consider deviant

Those with a tattoo may think it makes them look attractive, but actually those people without a tattoo do not agree, as just under half (47%) say people with tattoos are less attractive (up from 42% who felt this way in 2003) and two in five (39%) of those without one say people with a tattoo are less sexy. And about one-quarter of those without tattoos say those with tattoos are less intelligent (27%) and less healthy (25%).

Listen to some people who have gotten tattoos then regretted it for the rest of their lives:

20% Too young when I got the tattoo
19% Permanent (marked for life)
18% Don’t like it
16% They fade over time
12% Location (too hard to hide)
11% Poor choice/picked the wrong tattoo
10% Was stupid/dumb thing to do
9% Poorly done/doesn’t look professional
7% Cost too much to remove
7% Ugly/doesn’t look good
3% Personality changes/doesn’t fit my present lifestyle
5% Other

Consider the psychology and reason that you are considering getting a tattoo
Any action we take is designed to fulfill a need or desire. For what reason are you considering getting a tattoo. Here are some likely options:

1. To look like someone you respect
2. To make yourself stand out from the crowd
3. To make your body look better
4. To show bravery, having done something that others fear doing
5. To show other that you are willing to break rules/traditions
6. To show that you make decisions that are different than your parents
7. To show that you are a man/women and no longer a boy/girl
For boys, that is the role that the beard is supposed to play
8. To attract a mate
9. To market to others that you are a Christian (if you use a Christian symbol)
10. To scare others away from causing you problems
11. To improve a poor self image
12. To shock people

Do you want the tattoo somewhere where people will usually not see it (private areas, stomach, back, etc..), where people will see it sometimes (upper arm/shoulder, neck line, etc..), or where they will always see it (face, forearms, etc..)?

A study of "at-risk" (as defined by school absenteeism and truancy) adolescent girls showed a positive correlation between body-modification and negative feelings towards their body and self-esteem; however, it also illustrated a strong motive of body-modification as the "search for self and attempts to attain mastery and control over the body in an age of increasing alienation."

How Tattoos Make People Feel
When presented with eight different personal characteristics, majorities say that compared to not having a tattoo, having one makes them feel no different. This is especially true when attributed to being healthy, athletic or intelligent, where more than nine in ten with tattoos say it makes no difference in how they feel. Over one-third (36%) of those with a tattoo, however, saying having it makes them feel more rebellious, up from 29 percent who felt this way in 2003, and three in ten (31%) say the tattoo makes then feel sexy. One in five (19%) each say having the tattoo makes them feel attractive and strong.

Historically, societies that became Christian stopped using tattoos
Historically, a decline in traditional tribal tattooing in Europe occurred with the spread of Christianity. However, some Christian groups, such as the Knights of St. John of Malta, sported tattoos to show their allegiance. A decline often occurred in other cultures after European efforts to convert aboriginal and indigenous people to Western religious and cultural practices which held tattooing to be a "pagan" or "heathen" activity. Within some traditional indigenous cultures, tattooing takes place within the context of a rite of passage between adolescence and adulthood.

You don't own your body... it is owned by God.
Also, your future spouse will have ownership of your body as well, so you should wait and get the approval of your future spouse. If you can say that you will limit your potential future wife to those people who approve of their husband having a tattoo, then fine. But if you may marry someone who may disapprove of your tattoo, then out of concern and love for your future spouse, you should wait to make sure they approve before getting a tattoo.

Jews and Muslims generally agree that God does not approve of tattoos.

Tattooing and piercing is not natural. No animals tattoo or pierce themselves.

Using Christian tattoos as a substitute for doing truly hard things to follow God
Christians who get a Christian symbol tattooed on themselves may think they are honoring God by the tattoo. But many times Christians avoid the hard work and risk of doing the hard things for God then substitute something quick and easy so they can satisfy their conscience and feel that they have done something good.

By getting a Christian symbol as a tattoo you may think that you are doing more than other Christians would be willing to do. When you think about your self image, you may say to yourself "I am a strong Christian because I have a Christian tattoo, that is proof." But getting a tattoo doesn't prove you a strong Christian. Figuring out what God probably wants and doing that, regardless of the consequences, is what will give you proof of being a strong Christian.

Tattooing and piercing can cause some medical problems
See the FDA publication Think Before You Ink: Are Tattoos Safe?

Infections that could be transmitted via the use of unsterilized tattoo equipment or contaminated ink include surface infections of the skin, herpes simplex virus, tetanus, staph, fungal infections, some forms of hepatitis, tuberculosis[14] and HIV.

People with tattoos are nine times more likely to be infected with hepatitis C, according to a study by Robert Haley, MD, chief of epidemiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Hepatitis C is spread by infected blood and infected needles, which is the virus' connection with tattooing.

Allergic reactions to tattoo pigments are uncommon except for certain brands of red and green. People who are sensitive or allergic to certain metals may react to pigments in the skin with swelling and/or itching, and/or oozing of clear fluid called serum. Such reactions are quite rare, however, and some artists will recommend performing a test patch.

After initial injection, pigment is dispersed throughout a homogenized damaged layer down through the epidermis and upper dermis, in both of which the presence of foreign material activates the immune system's phagocytes to engulf the pigment particles. As healing proceeds, the damaged epidermis flakes away (eliminating surface pigment) while deeper in the skin granulation tissue forms, which is later converted to connective tissue by collagen growth.

...may have complications, such as allergies to the pigments, formation of scars, granulomas and keloids, skin cracking, peeling, blistering and local infection. The use of unsterilized tattooing instruments may infect the patient with serious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis.

When getting a tattoo, the equipment rapidly and repeatedly drives the needles in and out of the skin, usually 80 to 150 times a second.

Tattoos are permanent, the message you want to convey may not be

Tattoos will fade over time
In the long term (over decades) the pigment tends to migrate deeper into the dermis, accounting for the degraded detail of old tattoos. Sixteen percent of people regret their tattoo because they fade over time.

You may encourage others to go farther
When you are a grandfather, as you sure you will want to be explaining your tattoo to your grandchildren? And what if you have kids that want tattoos for perhaps less noble reasons than you do now? What if they want more severe body modifications? They will argue the you thought modifying your body was O.K. for your reasons, so their modifications should be O.K. too. Also, tattooing can encourage those who cut themselves. What kind of example are you being to those people who may go farther in this direction than you did?

Will there be tattoos in the New Jerusalem?
Those Christians living when Christ returns will have their bodies transformed. Do you think when you go into the New Jerusalem that your new heavenly body will still have the tattoo or piercings? If not, why would God erase an improvement to your body? If you think that you will not keep your modifications in the New Jerusalem then do you really think God prefers you to have the body modifications in the first place?

The person getting the tattoo has to justify why this is good, since the default is not to have a tattoo.

The same justification for getting a tattoo can be used for the second one, third one, etc.. The increase in self esteem only lasts for awhile, then you may want to get more body modifications over time.

This is an expenditure of money that can best be used elsewhere. Give the money instead to help fund surgeries for kids with disfigured faces rather than adding art to your body. Even if you think this is an improvement to your body, is improving your body really the best use of your time and money? Where is your focus and desire? Where your treasure is, there is where you heart is (Matthew 6:19-21).

Why not get a henna temporary tattoo first to try it out? It is interesting that most people who get a tattoo don't try temporary tattoos first. What other permanent change do people make without trying it out for awhile first?

Are you sure you understand all the meanings associated with your design? Some people interpret designs differently, so you may be projecting an unintended meaning.


MrNatural said...

I have a question. I currently have eight piercings, one of which may be rejected, the other seven I am certain will not. I have no tattoos for almost all the regrets you have listed. In fact, I considered (and still consider) my piercings a *much* more acceptable alternative to my ever getting tattooed. I can swap the jewelry in the pierced locations in and out, or remove them altogether. If the holes grow back I can ( and have) get repierced. "Christian Body Modification" includes piercings but the article is almost exclusively about tattoos. My left ear lobe is pierced and my tongue is pierced once. If I am concerned about the initial impression my tongue barbell may leave I can replace it with a less noticable retainer. The other five piercings are covered by normal clothing attire. Jesus Christ is my savior an salvation. Am I to be judged by what is in my heart or scripture regarding the quality of my Christianity? It should not make any difference but I am a 50 year old man. I would like to hear from others since, as I say, the title refers to body modification while the context is exclusively concerned with tattoos. Yours truly, William

Legal Eyes said...

I have been a born-again Christian for the better part of a decade. For the last five or six years, I have been a body modification enthusiast. I have a tattoo on each wrist, a scarification on my left ankle, eight current piercings (left nostril, left conch, septum, tongue, snakebites, and a 1/2" lobe set), and four retired piercings (two lobe sets). I plan to spend many more hours under the tattoo machine, and would like to get around 20 more piercings.

To some people, my decisions may seem extreme, and to others completely normal. I get asked most often if my piercings hurt, and for the most part they did not. Whatever pain was present was well worth it.

I love my tattoos and my piercings. The man I will marry next May loves them as well, and has a few of his own. I believe that body modification is an expression of who you are as a person. Even in Christ, we are individuals, with our own tastes and cultures. I would not want to be with someone who found me less attractive because of my modifications, because I want to be with someone who loves me for who I am, not for who they want me to be.

I see that you did not use any verses from the New Testament to support your argument on body modification. Most Christians today see no reason to avoid eating shellfish, wearing polyblend clothing, or picking up a child on the Sabbath. So how were decrees regarding tattoos, scarifications, and piercings determined to be something that carried over into the time of Christ, when He never even mentioned them?

You failed to mention many other ways in which people choose to modify--such as bodybuilding and surgery--and even went so far as to claim that changing one's hair is not a form of body modification. Does a man who uses Rogaine to fill in his bald patches not modify himself? How about a woman who dyes her gray hair? A woman who gets a facelift? A man who undergoes gastric bypass surgery to lose weight? A bodybuilder who maintains a strict regimen of diet and exercise in order to enlarge his muscles? Are these not modifications? You cannot call any of them "natural," because none are found to be practiced by animals. But if you are using animal practices as your litmus test, be prepared to support homosexuality, casual sex, polygamy, and sterilization, which are all widely found in the animal kingdom.

Also, you should know that your information on the cleanliness of piercing and tattoo parlors equals to nothing but scare tactics. Yes, some people do get infections, but--to be blunt--most do so because of their own stupidity, either by going to an unprofessional artist, by failing to follow aftercare guidelines, or by wearing jewelry with which they are not compatible.

It is not difficult to tell if a parlor is sub-standard, and in every one I have frequented, I have felt better protected from infection than if I was in a doctor's office. The procedural materials and jewelry are removed from sealed medical pouches--the same ones that doctors use for IV tubing, catheters, etc.--and the artist washes his or her hands twice (antimicrobial soap and water, iodine and water), uses hand sanitizer, and puts on a fresh pair of gloves. All of this is done in front of you. The area of the piercing or tattoo is washed with the same substances. Aftercare instructions are given, usually in writing, immediately following the procedure.

I would suggest watching the documentary "Modify," which can be found on Netflix. It does contain footage of actual surgical and other body modification procedures, and is quite graphic at times, but it is well worth watching to properly educate yourself on body modification practices.

Alex said...

For one thing, christianity and religion in general is highly personal and what you think is your god given right isn't the same as for everyone else. Trying to decide for everyone else what God is about is so blasphemous i don't even know where to begin. Judging people from their tattoos and piercings is just ignorant.

Jude said...

Thanks for the good article. I am an artist and have been examining my own paradigms on art and culture in light of a Christian world view. I have been a Christian for more than 30 years. Here is a link to my current blog if you care to visit. My current post is "Enlightenment and the Bonfires of the Vanities"

Unknown said...

So, you say it's okay to cut hair when you yourself quotes the passage clearly stating that no man shall cut his hair or beard. "27' You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads nor harm the edges of your beard." So, you let that slide. But body modification is still wrong. You people make no sense. You have to be consistent otherwise you'll make a fool out of yourself. Either the whole bible is always true or it never is. There's no "bits and pieces".

LaurelDSein said...

Thank you LegalEyes. I'm a 23 year old woman with pierced ears a tongue piercing as well as tattoos. I firmly believe that most Christians pick and choose what they want to keep and discard when looking at the Old Testament. You wouldn't stone your disobedient child or have your wife murdered if she were unfaithful would you? Body modification has existed for centuries and even within the Hebrew community. Besides, I think god has far more important issues to deal with us as humans than our vanities which pale in comparison to the real issues of our hearts. I believe he is more interested in who we are and how we love as he commanded us to instead of our appearance. In any case, according to Jewish law, at the age of 13 you are considered an adult, so technically we are free to make our own decisions and understand the consequences in god's eyes. Please stop believing it is your responsibility to dictate what other adults should do with their lives.

j.smith said...

"This is an expenditure of money that can best be used elsewhere."

How many vehicles do you own? How many do you actually need?

TVs? Computers? Phones? Movies?

You didn't even touch on topics such as cosmetics and hair styling, which are temporary modifications that also are discussed in scripture, hence the existence of certain Christian sects that forbid the wearing of makeup.

Jer 4:30"And you, O desolate one, what do you mean that you dress in scarlet, that you adorn yourself with ornaments of gold, that you enlarge your eyes with paint? In vain you beautify yourself."

1 Tim 2:9 "Likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire,"

Consider the words of Paul, where he debated liberty in salvation versus responsibility.

1 Cor 10:23-24 "“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor."

Cosmetics, hair stylings, tattoos, piercings, body building, whatever it is you pursue for yourself, let it be to the glory of God and the benefit of your unsaved neighbors and the encouragement of your saved brethren.

Rom 14:21 "It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak."

Anonymous said...

what is your interpretation on John 4:23-24?

Anonymous said...

It doesn't say worship God with your body. But in Spirit and Truth. So I think modification to the body is more of a self glorification and not Christ glorification. But, as you have said, it will be between that person and God. I think God is more interested in saving souls than he is about your next tattoo. During Jesus's life he didn't seek out body modification but the lost. In reality any thing that takes the place of Jesus is idolatry. I'm not perfect, but I try to persue Him with all my heart, soul, and mind. Thank God for what he has done. My humble opion.

Aaron said...

God is the Creator and the Giver of life. He made us in His image and likeness, and He loves us unconditionally. Our bodies are a gift from Him, and they reflect His wisdom and glory. We should cherish and respect our bodies as they are, and not alter them or deny our true selves, because that would be rejecting God's design and purpose for us. We should accept and appreciate our bodies as they are, and use them to serve God and others. Our bodies are sacred and precious, and they are entrusted to us by God, who has a perfect plan for us.