Another Hole In Your Head
Tattoos and body piercings seem to be ubiquitous these days. Youth in aboriginal chic are encountered everywhere, including the Church. Some would say that this type of body art is nothing more than an outward indication of a juvenile psyche desperately seeking to express its individuality and independence (why doing the same thing as everyone else is considered an expression of individuality escapes me). Others might suggest that self mutilation is a sign that a spirit of paganism is abroad in our land.
In the old days, America's youth displayed their rebellious nature in other less permanent ways. Long hair and short skirts are much different than tattoos and piercings. On the one hand rebellious displays (or shows of individuality if you insist), may be remedied by a trip to the barber or by way of a jaunt to the mall. In the latter case, there is nothing that can be done to erase the trappings of youthful foolishness and defiance once Johnny has come to his senses. However, the problem runs deeper than permanent disfigurement.
In Leviticus 19:28 we read, "You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord" (cf. 21:5, Deut. 14:1). The practices prohibited here are self inflicted wounds and, literally, "writing of imprintment marks in ones skin"1 as a sign of mourning for the dead. Ritual cutting of the flesh was believed to allow a man to enter the realm of the dead. In so doing he was cheating death while providing an emphatic farewell to the deceased. Ritual mutilation was a declaration that the realm of the dead was open to man; thus the man who learns to manipulate the supernatural has power over life and death. Life and death are no longer the sole prerogative of God. As with all pagan rites, it was an act of defiance.
The custom of self mutilation was widely practiced in the ancient near east in imitation of "El, the supreme god of the Ugaritic pantheon" who mourned the death of Baal by leaving his throne, sitting on the ground and lacerating himself, "making cuts on his face, his arms, his chest and his back."2 Cutting of one's own flesh was also carried out in order to force divine beings to act on behalf of the ritualist (1 Kings 18:28).
Yahweh's prohibition of ceremonial cutting and tattooing was designed to maintain the separateness of His people. It was akin to God's laws against witchcraft and other occult activity; the blessed life is not realized through the manipulation of supernatural forces, but through obedience and submission to the one true God. Pagan religions seek to harness the power of unwilling, unseen gods or demons for the benefit of the worshiper. Since this only happens if one is careful to follow the prescribed form, the pagan life is lived in constant fear. One false move, one misspoken incantation and your soul may be lost forever. Paganism looks to the earthy powers of flesh, blood, dirt and filth. It is animalistic and draws its participants into practices which mimic the natural realm rather than the heavenly.3
On the other hand, the yoke of Jesus is easy and His burden is light. God's law is clearly defined and His forgiveness is freely given. The truth of the Gospel sets a man free from fear and bondage and lifts him up to the heavens in Christ (Eph. 1:3, 2:6). As a consequence the Christian seeks to make his life an expression of God's love and forgiveness and he strives to make his every attitude and action a song of worship to his King.
Although the tattooing and piercing practiced by America's youth today is not (necessarily), performed in honor of the dead, it is related to that practice nonetheless. The essence of the ancient pagan practice was rebellion against God's order (Paul says very clearly that Mankind knows deep within Himself the truth concerning God because what may be known of God is manifest in them for God has shown it to them. ...although they knew God they did not glorify Him as God [Rom. 1:19, 21]).
Self mutilation as practiced today is an act of defiance as well. Rather than conform to the expectations of parents and other authority figures, children seek emancipation by flouting those expectations in some visible way. But alas, as our culture continues its slide into the abyss, expressions of youthful rebellion increasingly take on the character of the demonic.
There are some pagan practices that have gradually been sanctified through immersion in the culture of Christianity. We celebrate the Lord's birth during a season with heathen significance and do so with the accruements of paganism. We even named the commemoration of his resurrection after a pagan goddess. Nevertheless these have been emptied of their pre-Christian significance because nowhere do we find in them an attempt to manipulate the supernatural to the benefit of the natural. The tools of rebellion have been turned to the cause of the King; the rebellion has been broken and the rebels destroyed having taken up the cause of the victor as new creations in Christ.
But self mutilation is always and forever an attempt to change circumstances. Practiced in ancient days to disrupt the realm of the dead or curry a deity's favor; today to catapult the participant into the realm of self-determination. It cannot be brought under the sway of Christ because it is not the tool but the thing itself. To suggest that self mutilation may be brought under the power of the Master is to suggest that we may reverence the goddess Eostre rather than unseat her and plunder her name for the use of the King.
The child who rims his eyes with metal or covers his arms with tattoos may not be conscious of the pagan nature of his adornment - but he probably is and that is a large part of its attraction. Body piercings and multiple tattoos were previously the uniform of the counter culture's lowest form and were associated with the occult. To embrace the paraphernalia of the darkest corner of the youth culture provides a sense of power that Johnny really cannot explain but which he truly enjoys. They are marks of identification. Anyone who observes Johnny so costumed will immediately categorize him accordingly: juvenile delinquent, rebel, punk and so on. No one will look upon a metal and ink festooned youth and say "follower of Christ." Yes an earthy spirit wanders the land, seeking whom he may devour.
Christian youth, like Christians of any age, need to understand that their entire life is to be lived in worship of God. Worship doesn't end once we walk out the church door on Sunday afternoon. Our Sunday service is supposed to equip us with the material of worship which we fashion into soaring peons of praise throughout the week as we live a life in submission to the King. There is no area of life that is exempt. At all times we worship. We may make a mess of it and mislead observers as to the object of our worship. But life is a performance of praise to the Christ whether we care to admit it or not. Let us participate in that drama in such a way that there will never be any doubt for whom we dance.
1. Geoffery W. Bromiley et al, eds., 4 vols., The International Standard Bible Encyclopidia, Revised, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 4:739.
2. Bromiley, 1:841.
3. This is why pagan rituals nearly always involve perverted sexual practices. Ancient Canaanites regularly practiced incest, homosexuality and bestiality in the worship of their gods (and modern homosexuals claim that their perversion is acceptable because it occurs in the animal kingdom). For instance, one particular annual celebration of the Canaanites prescribed sexual intercourse between fathers and daughters on the first day of the festivities. On day two of that feast, copulation between brothers and sisters was practiced. The Bible repeatedly condemns the sexual perversion of the Canaanites because participation in their sexual sin would place the children of Israel under the sway of the ruler of the world; the animal - the serpent - the devil himself.
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