Like Jello on a Plate

C.S. Lewis once wrote a short story (I think it was called The Shoddy Lands), in which a female character reveals herself to be utterly uninterested in anything but (I think it was) jewelery. I bring this up because I recall reading a reference to that story by someone else who took it as clear evidence that Lewis was being a misogynist at the top of his form that day. The argument for this critique is that any story in which you take a particular woman to task for anything is prima facie evidence that you believe all women to be guilty of the same thing. I know, go figure. If you chastize a woman for not being a lady, this must be an attack on all women, including the ladies. I bring this up because I am about to do something similar, and I wanted to seize the high ground in the first paragraph. Me and C.S. Lewis.

My wife recently posted on tattoos here, and then followed it up with some comments on piercings here. Then my daughter The Liz got into the act, and had some fun here. Still with me? Their posts have generated some fruitful discussion, and nothing is more apparent than that it is a discussion we need to have. Otherwise we are going to continue to drift, and the cultural innovations within the Church will continue to be made by insecure girls, and the drifting will go in the direction it always does, which is downstream.

In addition to the shrewd observations my wife and daughter already made, let me add these comments.

Whenever we talk about things like this — culture-wide phenomena that have to be implemented on an individual level, the first assumption that comes to mind is that those who oppose (say) tattoos are doing so because they believe it to be “a sin,” and that the person who gets a tattoo is “in sin.” Then the reasonable demand comes back, asking for a Bible verse that would establish this. But let’s leave sin proper out of it for a minute.

This is something that often stymies Reformed believers as they try to talk with their Christian brothers in other camps. The Reformed have a strong sense of God’s presence in everything, and they have a robust sense of how the Westminster Larger Catechism can nail you pretty much any old time. Other evangelical believers tend to emphasize sin as that which is spelled out as such in the Bible, and no fair putting it on the kitchen counter and extending it with a rolling pin. And, of course, if we make some basic distinctions, we see that both are right. If we don’t see the appropriateness of the other emphasis, both are wrong. If the presence of God in all things doesn’t bring with it a moral component, then what does this say about His holiness? And if we nail someone for walking longer than a sabbath mile on the Lord’s Day, then what are we doing but going beyond what is written, and straining gnats and swallowing camels as we do?

All right, then, that said, what would I say to a parishioner who got a cute little diamond nose stud? The answer to that is easy — nothing. That is, nothing unless asked by a concerned party — like father or mother. The fact that Rebekah had a nose ring, and that God gave one to Israel in Ezekiel means that they aren’t inherently sinful. What would I say if a young lady in the church got a tarantula tattooed on her cheek bone? The answer is equally simple — plenty. And mostly to her father about the insecurities he clearly drilled into his daughter.

Now questions about tattooing and piercings almost always veer off into a discussion of the sinfulness, or not, of the Tattoo As Such. Is it a sin to have “a tattoo”? Well, let’s ask another question instead. Is it is a sin to be insecure? Is it a sin to have your identity and worth all wrapped up in what other people are telling you about your appearance? Well, yes, but it is not the same kind of question anymore. We do and say silly things because of our insecurities, and this is clearly the result of the fall, and as the Holy Spirit works in us, He is maturing us so that we grow up out of those insecurities. A mature Christian needs other Christians in the right way. An immature Christian, an insecure Christian, needs them in the wrong way.

Now I have said for a number of years that the only tattoo I can imagine approving beforehand is one that said, with an appropriate floral decoration, “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.” What would you say if your parents not only wore the clothes they wore in the eighties, but they had figured out some way decades ago to make those clothes permanent, welding them to the body? Would you wish, perhaps, that someone had been there to cast a dissenting vote?

When my kids were still at home, there were many areas of their lives, in their cultural interactions with other Christians, fine Christians, where we said no. We didn’t say no because it would have been a sin in the sense that theft or blasphemy are sins. We said no because we wanted out kids to learn how to lead, and not to follow. We wanted this because sheeplike behavior, caring more what some idiot boy in the eighth grade thinks of your dress than what your mom thinks of it, is a sin — the kind of insecurity sin I am talking about here. And this sin of insecurity is the fuel that drives the car of Cool down the road.

Insecurity creates wannabees. This is why — to take a random example — I have no problem with someone who grew up Anglican and likes it. God bless them all, and isn’t Christendom grand? I have huge problems with insecure presbyterian kids who know virtually nothing of their own heritage, and want to chase after smells and bells. The problem is the coolness quotient, and the insecurity that makes coolness attractive. As I said in a sermon recently, I would hope that if anyone tried to introduce incense to our worship service, I trust I would behave in such a manner that all anybody could smell afterwards was burnt marshwiggle. And that reminds me of a story, after which I will return to my point. Promise. A drag queen went into the cathedral at Canterbury, and soon saw a robed magnificence coming down the aisle, swinging his smudge pot, or whatever it is they call those things. As he passed, the drag queen said, in a sultry voice, “Love your dress, dahling, but your purse is on fire.”

Where was I? Right, check. Piercings. Tattoos. All that.

I see it everywhere. Nancy and I just got back from a trip to the city, on a hot day, and I saw more acres of tattooed flesh than was entirely edifying. And while I am here, let me say something about that, wouldja? When I say that it was not entirely edifying, many Christians rush to assume that women shouldn’t jig around the place, as the old blues song has it, like jello on a plate, because it might “stumble the brethren.” But in the overwhelming number of cases, stumbling has nothing whatever to do it, and please remember by invocation of C.S. Lewis above. If anyone was offended by any earlier comments, let me mention that Lewis was an Anglican, and one of my heroes.

One of the most striking things about these flesh parades is how unattractive it all is. As in, gekkk. There appears to be an inverse ratio between how many pounds overweight a young lady is, and how little her clothing covers, with the dismaying result of unintentional assault on the public weal. There are clearly numerous young ladies who have no one in their lives willing to speak to them truthfully. And when women don’t have someone who loves them like they ought to, they become susceptible to any number of fads, so long as someone — most likely a peer with the same emotional problems — is willing to tell them it is “cute.” Well, it isn’t. Sorry to break it to you. There also appears to be an inverse relationship between the class of the person and how many square feet are covered by the tattoo.

The problem here, at least within the church, is that hints don’t get you anywhere, no effect at all, and if you state the problem plainly, it flattens the poor girl for months, like somebody took a pastoral mallet to her. By “hints,” I mean general references in sermons to modesty and decorum, and by “stating plainly” I mean suggesting that she come to church next week with the mammalian pride dialed back just a skosh. The problem is not that she is secure in her sexuality — it is just the reverse. You can tell this because women who want to be “secure” in their sexuality in this way at the same time do not want men around them who are secure in their sexuality in a comparable way. More on this another time, but for the present, you can’t ramp the one and damp the other.

Related to this is the problem that when the problem is communicated to her, more often than not it is done in a way that is sexually flattering — “The guys just can’t handle it, girl. Outbreaks of lust all over the place” — when the actual problem is that lots of people are just plain embarrassed for her. When it gets to this point, incidentally, there is nothing you are going to be able to do about it in a conversation. She doesn’t need more flattery, and she doesn’t need to be insulted, and her father should have taken better care of her. Her father needed to have been a fortress for her, long before this. If he wasn’t, you still do what you can. Sometimes you just have to watch, with an ache in your throat.

In the meantime, we shouldn’t get distracted by the objects in themselves — the diamond on the side of the nose, glistening like . . . you know, that’s another thing. Do we really want things glistening on the side of the nose? Makes people do double takes. But all this said, the basic issue is why.

I mentioned this once to a group of college students. Who has an easier time of it? The world, in getting you to do whatever it is this time, or me, your pastor, trying to ask you to hold off, to think about it? Which way is the gravity pulling? Which direction is downhill?

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