Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Theory for Tattoos - Debunked

This blog entry at First Things was very disappointing to me, not only for its conclusions and shallow thinking, but for its deceptive brand of rhetoric.

The rhetorical method may be summarized in this way:  (1) Make an outrageous statement (ad hominem, optional); (2) flesh out the statement for the remainder of the paragraph; (3)  begin the next paragraph with a partial retraction.  In this way the author, Mark Bauerlein "gets away with" stating absurd and unsubstantiated things, but also has an "out" if someone objects, because of the partial retraction.

So, for example, he states that beneath all the variety of reasons that people get tattoos "is the same call:  'Look at me.'"  But in case anyone should notice that this requires him to be able to look into the soul of another person, he begins the next sentence with this bit of backtracking:  "At least that's how many people regard the sight of a tattoo on a nearby shoulder."

Beyond the rhetorical shenanigans, however, Bauerlein is substantively wrong.  At least that is what this reader believes.  (See how that works?)

grant, for the sake of argument, that self-expression and the passion for distinction.  Why is this a bad thing?  Is the proper course for a human being to seek to lose himself completely in a larger corporate entity (whether church or state or club)?  Some churchmen think so.  I knew one freewheeling, independent preacher who stated that "within the church, there is no such thing as an individual act.  All acts are acts of the body as a whole."  I provided him counterexamples from Scripture, but he was not able to admit them.  For him, the urge to dissolve his individual personality in a larger whole, to become a mere cog in a big machine, trumped any desire for individual expression.  Or, so he said, because in fact his actual ministry was very individually suited to his own quirky personality.

From my blog on The Passion for Distinction, two quotes from John Adams, 2nd President of the United States:
"There is none among them [the passions] more essential or remarkable, than the passion for distinction."
According to Adams, this passion for distinction was,
"a desire to be observed, considered, esteemed, praised, beloved, and admired by his fellows."
So, I think that much of Mark Bauerlein's suggested reason for people getting tattoos ("This is me, check me out.") is, if not an outright positive virtue, at least a universal element of human life.  Granted, humans often tend toward the other extreme (individualism at the expense of any corporate identity or loyalty) but there is a balance point which allows us to be "very members incorporate" and yet retain our individual identities.

Bauerlein's line of reasoning also fails to account for people such as myself, whose only tattoos are in private, seldom-seen places on the body.  So clearly  there are more reasons that people get tattoos beyond the mere desire for attention.

In his excellent short treatise on "Art & the Bible", Francis Schaeffer brings up the fact of the adornments commanded by God to the Old Testament tabernacle and temple.  It is therefore not an inconsistency to view the human body as a "temple of the Holy Ghost" and yet give it artistic adornment.

Later in the article Bauerlein expands the discussion to include piercing, plastic surgery, hair coloring, and "otherwise modifying the physique" (which would include, of course, bodybuilding).  He then synopsizes a (non-Christian) academic argument which urges us to stop treating the body as a temple.  But simply because this is a line of argument used by some defenders of tattoos and body modification, it certainly does not mean this abandonment of body as temple is supported by all defenders of the same.

Bodybuilding is a good example.  It seeks to make the temple more glorious than one can make it by eating doughnuts and being a couch potato.  And what is wrong with this?  As King David opined,
"... the house to be built for the Lord should be of great magnificence and fame and splendor in the sight of all the nations."  (1 Chronicles 22:5, NIV)
Should our bodily temples be less glorious?  I think not.  But I believe that most who complain that tattoos deface the temple of the Holy Spirit are not really serious about this in their personal lives.  Nearly all of them have excess body fat, and many are obese.  That defiles the temple in a far greater way than simply adding a bit of color does, and yet this is the way that they choose to keep their temples.  So, here is my advice:  the next time a 
Christian complains to you that your tattoo is defiling God's temple, have a long hard look at his collection of belly fat.  That will let you know if he really takes the whole "temple" notion seriously, or is rather simply trying to score rhetorical points.