Home > Uncategorized > Tattooed Irony: Just Keep Reading

Tattooed Irony: Just Keep Reading

A friend of mine, Will Andrews, posted a picture on his Facebook page titled: “Why is this anti-gay Leviticus tattoo extra absurd?” Will Andrews’s post calls attention to a separate post, found on the website Technoccult, of its own by a guy named Andrew Sullivan, who has tattooed his right arm with Leviticus 18:22–the nauseatingly oft-recited scripture, detailing how a man should not lie with another man.  The irony is, as the post points out, the fact that Leviticus 19:28 (which, of course, rests between the other, even more homicidal scripture from Leviticus in chapter 20 that condemns same-sex, sexual activity between men to death) says: “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord” (see the NRSV translation).

Could Mr. Sullivan better demonstrate for us the wantonly irresponsible way in which we utilize scripture to persona-fy our sense of superiority to the world by means of an appeal to the Bible?

Over the last week or so, I’ve been having my own little “crisis” (albeit, a very healthy one) of theological faith, due to the harsh and mean-spirited nature of some of Bible’s most telling scriptures, which I have usually overlooked, idealized, or excused by use of clever (or, even better, mentally exhausting) apologetic strategies.  For instance, in Matthew 10, Jesus tells us that he has not come to bring peace, but a sword to divide families for the sake of the Gospel (see Matthew 10:34-35).  These passages parallel Luke 12:49-53 and 14:25-33.  The former recalls the “I do not bring peace” language of Jesus; the latter, a rather chilling remark encouraging a hatred for “life itself.”

Some scholars have pointed out the textual parallels in the passage with Exodus, when Moses commands the sons of Levi to kill some 1,000 Israelite apostates with the “sword.”  It is very common for the Gospel writers to recall stories and scriptures from Hebrew tradition to make a point.  Thus, it is very likely, they argue, that the scriptures in Luke and Matthew are meant to recall Exodus (see the Harper Collins Study Bible).

Recognizing, of course, that there are as many interpretations of these scriptures, and apologetic explanations for them, as there are, perhaps, denominations and people in those denominations, including the very probable explanation that these verses are an addition to the original sayings of Jesus (in an attempt to explain the fall of the temple in the year 70, and the sign that it purported to be of the end of times), we cannot forget that such verses are so often recalled to justify serious horrors against people who do not believe “as we do”–or better, as God does.

I want to note that the scripture in Matthew rests in the context of one of Matthew’s most touching themes. Deirdre Good writes “Jesus’ Family Values” (published 2006), which I had the privilege of reading for class this week, and which I recommend (especially for those of us who feel certain that the Christian family ethic is a timeless phenomenon).  In dealing with the Gospel of Matthew, she demonstrates rather moving ways in which the Matthean Jesus has it in mind to set up a family (in a very literal sense) under a heavenly Father, by use of His language, His choice to use (or not use) significant appellations, etc.  The short of it is, according to Good, the Matthean Jesus is concerned about extending the boundaries of the Christian community to those who are sincerely devoted to His call to follow the will of God.  She writes:

“So as Matthew understands it, the community of Jesus’ followers constitutes a new family based not on biology but on behavior.  Those who associate themselves with Jesus by doing the will of the heavenly Father become the brothers and sisters and mothers of Jesus, and offspring of the Father in heaven, and are therefore related to each other as brothers and sisters.  There is no role for the human father in this community; the male who begets has equal standing with his offspring as a brother of Jesus and a child of the heavenly Father.  The authority of the heavenly Father overrides any obligations of biological kinship and is mediated by the community as a whole” (see page 71).

When I read this, I applied it to the part of myself that feels a sense of connection with a much-needed relationship with a heavenly Father (especially considering rather pivotal moments in my own development).  However, in doing so, I realized that the comfort I have drawn from this scripture is, indeed, the byproduct of my own personal take on the meaning of these scriptures, and what it is that I need these scriptures to do for me.

Am I doing the same thing with the scriptures, in basic principle, as Andrew Sullivan?  That is, am I pulling from the scriptures what I “need” them to say?  What happens if that need becomes malevolent or homicidal?

What if I have instituted a belief in God for the purpose of responding to and sanctioning the craving I feel for peace and human connections?  What does it say of me that I, too, have picked and chosen this or that passage of scripture in the Bible, so as to justify my own private desires to construct a world that looks a certain way, according to the ways in which I need it to look or function?

I think that this entry could easily end here.  The question is very much rhetorical.  I have come up with an answer that I believe satisfies, but it requires that we presuppose the existence of God… and not just that, but the existence of a God I am not yet ready to relinquish (if I must do so).

It seems like a no-brainer to say that there is no consistent, harmonized theme in holy scripture–especially the Bible, and especially when considering other scriptures outside the Jewish or Christian traditions.  The Bible is not “all about” love and peace.  It is not “all about” social justice, nor is it “all about” heteronormative privilege.  It is “all about” whatever we want (and perhaps need) it to be “all about.”  And I believe that therein lies the real test of religious practice and belief.  What if it’s the case that God has designed (or, at least, allowed) it to be this way, just to see what and how we will negotiate it?  It is almost as if, in every step of our respective religious journeys, we are constructing an image of what we think God is–what we think is important to God, how we idealize God, etc.–in the things we choose to select out of the scriptures, and how we choose to apply them to other people.  Levinas argues (more or less) that it is in the encounter with the face of other people that [our] Gods come alive.

So, I suppose the main point of this post is: Whether or not you believe in the anthropomorphic, white-bearded God on the thrown somewhere in a dimension we know nothing of, or if God is more pantheistic or created in discourse (or, of course, something in between), it remains an obvious fact that our Gods come alive in how we allow scripture or any given revelation dictate where we will place ourselves in “human hierarchy,” and by what ultimate ethic we will chose to govern our lives.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. February 26, 2011 at 3:47 PM

    For the centuries that Christianity has existed in the United States baptized persons have claimed that they take the Old Testament literally. This seems odd to many well-educated people (whether they be religious or not) and is often scorned at by those who walk the halls of prestigious seminaries.

    I am interested in parish ministry and am aware the emotion or belief that possessed this young man to tattoo this scriptural passage on his arm is still alive and well in most churches in this country. In practical experience I find the reason is often poor education. In rare experiences the person is committed to hate and needs something more serious than schooling.

    But I take comfort in introducing to lesser educated Christians the concept of Talmudic interpretation as well as the existence of an oral tradition (the Mishnah if I am spelling it correctly) in Judaism. Plus, I would argue that the Jewish covenant does not apply to those who proclaim the gospel. My rudimentary understanding of the early fathers suggests that some agreed with me on this point.

    Bishop Ratzinger (Credited at Pope Benedict XI on the jacket cover) in his book on Jesus I think makes a good and dense argument for Jesus as the new Torah. He also meditates on a book that I have not read but plan to: A Rabbi Talks With Jesus. He and that books author (Jacob Neusner) argue that by the very fact that Christ declares himself to be God he has replaced the Torah inasmuch as he has violated a central idea of Judaism.

    So I think either way you look at it (either from the traditional Jewish, relying on supplementary commentary or the conservative Christian view looking at Christ as replacing the Torah) that young man with the tattoo probably should see a surgeon to have it removed. Otherwise he might get laughed at.

    The passage where Christ talks about breaking up families used to trouble me deeply. But as I meditate on my own story (two years as a Pentecostal Christian who generally went to church alone) and even now as my faith takes a more communal feature within Episcopalianism I still get Christ’s message to us. The gospel is (or can be, particularly for the born again community) a radical departure from all we know in the material world, and it certainly can and does break people off from family members. In the baptist tradition where one chooses to be baptized I think that person is breaking off from family. A personal relationship with Jesus Christ (at least speaking for myself) does transcend any other relationship.

    I get uneasy at people trying to fool with the gospel. I think some of its power lies in how much it challenges us.

    Your ending paragraphs give a very intelligent argument against we putting our own opinions on top of what we read in the Bible. My cerebrum is far less octane than yours, so thank you for the illuminating and informational post.

    Forever in Christ,


  2. prettyhumanbeings
    February 26, 2011 at 5:36 PM

    Devan, this is a beautiful post and a well formed process. Your last statement is especially compelling and the paragraph leading up to it feels essential to it’s truth. That is, no matter what “ultimate ethic governs our lives” no matter the extent to which a doctrine or scripture “dictates” the way we relate and behave, it is dangerous, harmful and ignorant to believe that our ethic or any belief is fully supported by any scripture. It seems that it is the unwillingness to accept contradiction and inconsistency that leads us to harm one another so deeply. It is the “this not that” ideal that creates separation instead reaching for the “both/and” that might in some way bring us together, even if on shaky and sometimes tense grounds. After all, it is not ease that we are after, it is unity.
    More than anything this makes me feel empowered. To think that god is the spark that happens between us. And therefore our greatest hope in finding/discovering/creating god is to remove ourselves from the bounds of hierarchy and to reach into as many lives and stories as possible.

  3. March 1, 2011 at 8:48 PM

    Reading through your paragraphs Devan I was relieved to come to the part in which you offered: “What if it’s the case that God has designed (or, at least, allowed) it to be this way, just to see what and how we will negotiate it?” because that was going to be my own conclusion. Since you wrote it, and since the comments from Matthew and Lauren have already ratified your sentence very well in their replies, I don’t need to! (I beg to differ Matthew, I think your cerebral octane is very high indeed). The only strong point I would add is one that so often comes to me when discussing Bible or other theologies and principles which for instance might include “ordinances” which make it possible for the church member to enter into a special condition of the Lord, and I have a big problem with ordinances as such but only in a negative interpretation, and here’s what I mean: An ordinance such as baptism is a wonderful principal in and of itself, since ritual and dedicatory sacraments stating your love for Diety can be beautiful. But when you pair it with its obverse, when you say someone CAN’T get into heaven because he/she did not perform an EARTHLY ordinance, (especially a baby who dies unbaptized), this side of the ordinance is wrong in my view, and not meant to be. Only the positive side is even possibly true or viable….or else the God I know is not the one preached by so many people.

    Many regards to all,
    Linda Hite

  4. Chris
    March 4, 2011 at 5:12 PM

    Great post Devan. Again, as always, I am impressed with your ability to turn an argument/analysis against yourself and apply it with equal fervor as the one with whom you are opposed. Your post brings up a lot of tough, tough issues….not the least of which is the place that the scriptures hold as the ultimate authority for most of us. I’m not talking about the argument regarding which scriptures to take literally and which ones not to. I think generally, in MOST instances (not all of them of course), the number of people who take this or that scripture literally (and its subsequent application) can be broken down into groups based primarily upon educated level, secular or otherwise. I think Matthew Gonzalez already made this point in the first blog comment. The “literalness” debate will always exist as long as a certain segment of the population is allowed to procreate (which means it will last forever!).
    The greater issue which you raise is the FINAL authority conferred upon the scriptures…an idea that most believers share. This is a tricky one because most people, including myself, do not have a degree in ancient scriptural exegesis (thankfully). So when someone challenges the authority of these texts which we hold sacred by throwing out an argument like, “Textual analysis reveals that Jesus PROBABLY didn’t say this or that,” or “this scripture was clearly added to the primary text after such-n-such event to justify X, Y, or Z”, then most of us have little recourse or means by which to disprove or actually agree with the statement. We are left to choose whether or not to take the arguers word for it.
    You already know that I struggle with the validity of certain scriptural passages (as I think most deeply invested, self-conscious believers do), and that there will probably always exist this tug-of-war in choosing which ones to abide by. Did Jesus really say never to divorce without the existence of highly specific caveats? Did He really mean it when he said he had come to set children against their parents for His name’s sake? I don’t know. But I can tell you that my strong belief in these scriptures as authority probably saved me from getting a divorce from my wife when our marriage was young and things were very bleak and I did not see a reason to press on. As you know we now have been married eleven years and I think it’s within the realm of possibility (ha-ha) to say that getting a divorce would have been a monumental mistake with eternal consequences. Likewise, when making the ultimate decision to get baptized I took great comfort from the authority of the scripture that more-or-less says that following Christ is even more important than those most natural and strong of ties, that of kin/family. We both have friends that to this day have not been able to “take the plunge” because of the fear of their families reactions. True, like the scripture predicts, things are not the same between myself and my immediate family, but again, looking back at choosing the particular path I now tread stands as one of the best decisions I have ever made. The validity of those scriptures as authoritative helped me greatly in my decision making process.
    You probably understand better than anyone else I know the careful route one must take when navigating (cherry picking), one’s way through the scriptures. This terrain must be navigated so carefully because of the very real danger one confronts when deciding which scriptures to disregard; dangerous because if X and Y can be disregarded then how close are we to eventually ditching the entire book? Most people, as you know, find it uncomfortable (to say the least), to live life with self-generated paradoxes.
    I think one of the points that I would like to raise is that scriptural exegesis, helpful and useful though it may be, is not going to be the route through which life altering views are going to be changed, at least for the mass of humanity. Can you imagine even someone as esteemed as Joel Osteen coming to the pulpit and stating that after years of in-depth study and learning two languages that he can prove without a doubt that the Pauline verses that touch on homosexuality were in fact referring to something else entirely and that it is now permissible to accept gays on equal footing. Wonderful idea; not going to work. Most people wouldn’t be able to leap over the hurdle that they’ve carried with them since their formative years, regardless of what someone in his position of authority might have to say. In fact, now that I think about it all (if not almost all?) major doctrinal changes in the Church have occurred as a result of revelation as opposed to a tweaking/reinterpretation of ancient scripture.
    In conclusion, I think your summation nails it on the head:
    “And I believe that therein lies the real test of religious practice and belief. What if it’s the case that God has designed (or, at least, allowed) it to be this way, just to see what and how we will negotiate it?”
    This comment resonated most strongly with me and to tell you the truth, as I was reading through your post I was anticipating, much like Mrs. Hite (Hi Linda), a response similar to the one you gave. Thanks for not disappointing and for having the courage (and the time!) to open the dialogue….

  5. March 5, 2011 at 11:00 AM

    Lauren and I went to see The Adjustment Bureau last night, and until reading your post I think the only thing I really appreciated about it was the chemistry between the Blunt/Damon characters. (And the pleasure of seeing “Roger Sterling” in action during this drought of a time between Mad Men seasons.) I was hesitant to appreciate the thrust of the film because there was a pretty strong sexist element and one dialogue in particular that reeked of Western historical slant. BUT – I think what it may have been TRYING to accomplish was what you HAVE accomplished in this post – i.e. pointing to the real possibility that God (or something like God) engages us on our paths rather than deciding them for us. And indeed the scriptures (or any given revelation [very Tillichian of you]) function as memorable, but by no means final, moments of engagement. Thanks for the devantics my friend!

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