The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

A Christ-Rejecting Culture and Body Modification

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What we are witnessing in Body Modification is the developing self-consciousness of a Christ-rejecting culture (see Part 1 "Body Modification: The Return to Paganism"). For the fundamental need of fallen man is atonement. This is critically important to know and understand. There is only one God-provided atonement, and that is the pierced and risen Christ. A societal rejection of this atonement will result in the arising of pseudo-atonements, typically involving the infliction of pain upon others or oneself.

Thus it is, that to ask “Doesn’t that hurt?,” is to miss the point. Of course it hurts! And the permanent holes and markings and scars are as sacraments of the false atonement. Thus the devil leads astray his hordes, turning their eyes and hearts from Christ to themselves.

A recent feature article in the New York Times Magazine talked about young people cutting themselves with knives, glass, fingernails, whatever, “to feel better.” The girl featured in the story told of how she cut herself the first time with a wallpaper cutter: “It felt good to see the blood coming out, like that was my other pain leaving, too. It felt right and it felt good.”

The New York Times, lacking a Christian worldview, can only describe the phenomenon; it cannot explain it. “In an age of tattoos and nose rings, self-mutilation is the latest expression of adolescent self-loathing.” According to Dr. A. Favazza, professor of psychiatry at the University of Missouri-Columbia medical school, “Self-injury is probably a bit epidemic.” He defines self-mutilation as “the direct, deliberate destruction or alteration of one’s own body tissue without conscious suicidal intent.” The Times recognized the relationship between the growing popularity of body modification and the estimated “two million people injuring [themselves] in secret.” We are beginning to “look like a nation obsessed with cutting.” One expert called it “the addiction of the 1990s.”

The article cites self-injury in other cultures, but the antecedents noted are cults, pagans, homosexuals, and sadomasochists. Hardly the kind of gallery to which a Christian or a Jew might appeal for justification for body-mutilation. Yet there is an increasingly vocal number of self-professing Jews and Christians intent on making BM just another form of lawful expression.

Interestingly, all the apologists I’ve read begin by rejecting the Law as normative. First, a Jew: “Are Jews prohibited from practicing body modification? In my opinion, the answer is ‘No,’ for several reasons. One, most Jews in the Reform [not to be confused with the Christian version of Reformed], Reconstructionist [not to be confused with the Christian version of Reconstructionist] and Conservative movements do not take the Bible to be pure divinely inspired word.” He then explains that this view of Scripture (not surprisingly) facilitates acceptance/tolerance of such things as “homosexuality, pre-marital sex, birth control ... and our general rejection of antiquated sexist ideas....”

Next, a “Christian,” a United Methodist minister pastoring two Midwest churches, who has numerous piercings (including sublingual, nipple and genital) and a growing number of tattoos: This “minister” finds “analysis of specific Biblical passages ... useful,” but prefers to justify BM theologically. (His theology includes spelling God as “Godde,” explaining that this “is a term being used by some to shift away from the culturally gender-bound term, ‘God.’”) BM, he insists, must be understood in the light of the Incarnation. For him this means that “Godde [sic] acts in and through the human experience.” Christians who reject BM are plagued by Hellenistic dualism. Enlightened Christians, such as himself, see the body as “a sacrament of Godde [sic] .... My piercings and tattoos are my attempt to clothe and ornament well my body.” His self-mutilations are “profoundly expressive of Godde [sic].” Maybe so, but not of our God, not of the true God.

In the Law it is written, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:28). The rabbis speak clearly on this passage: “It was a pagan custom to gash the skin when a close relative died. They also did this when they suffered any other grief. With this they would call upon their deity to help them (cf. 1 Kings 18:28). God told us to avoid this.

“The Torah continues, ‘Do not make tattoo marks on your skin.’ It is forbidden to make any tattoo marks or to allow oneself to be tattooed. The pagans used to make tattoo marks by gashing their skin and then placing dye or other coloring into the gashes so the color would remain. We similarly see many gentiles today who have tattoos on their arms, chests and other places. In ancient times this was done to show that they were like slaves to their pagan deity. The Torah therefore commands us not to do this. We are slaves of the Living and Everlasting God. We have our holy signs such as the mark of circumcision as well as the Sabbath and Festivals. These are the great signs that we are God’s servants.”

The prohibitions of Leviticus 19–28 are said to include “every area of the body, whether [generally] exposed or covered by clothing,” and to be “in effect everywhere, at every time, for both man and woman.

Compare this to the defense of BM by a self-described Christian: “Christians are not bound by the Law. Remember that it’s not what you do; it’s what’s in your heart when you do it.” Uh-huh. And hear yet another professing believer: “These laws are from the first covenant, which Jesus replaced with the new covenant.” This clever man uses the de facto American Christian view of the place of the Law in the life of the Christian to release himself from any obligation to it. None but the Reformed can respond potently. But how can anyone respond to this fellow’s New Testament justification for BM? The sum of it, for him, is to be found in Ephesians 5:29: “For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church.” What remains to be said when a professing Christian equates piercing, cutting, burning. and slashing the body with nourishing and cherishing it? Pity his wife!! (Eph. 5:28). And if we are to love neighbor as self, my advice to his neighbors: Move!

Among the Jews the historic penalty for violation of Leviticus 19:28 was flogging. Of course, the Jews have not practiced flogging for some time, yet voluntary tattooing is non-existent among observant Jews, and almost non-existent among practicing Jews of most varieties. How do we explain this state of affairs, especially in view of the fact that nearly all Western Jews live in largely Gentile urban areas, where tattooing has not been unknown, and is sometimes not uncommon? There is a reason to explain this, and it is brimming with instruction.

Ironically, the reason can be traced to what is actually a myth: that if you have a tattoo, you cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. (The truth is that you may be buried in a cemetery, but if it is largely orthodox, you may be consigned to an isolated area marked off and away from the frum (observant) Jews. Other conditions may apply: no prayers on behalf of the dead [don’t confuse these with Romish prayers]; no shrouds; no entitlement to ritual cleansing; no prayers at the time of burial; Shiva, the traditional mourning period, may not be observed. In short, the “myth” is a handy, though inaccurate, shorthand for the facts.) Virtually every Jew I’ve ever known believes the myth to be true. And that belief alone was enough to utterly banish any thought of tattooing from our minds. We would never even for a moment entertain the thought of tattooing ourselves.

But this fear of being excluded in death from Am Yisrael—the “people of Israel”—is itself predicated upon a profoundly deep-seated understanding of oneself as a Jew. This, in turn, is built upon an understanding of Jewishness which utterly transcends the individual.

This—may I say?—is precisely where American Christianity has failed, pathetically and tragically failed. I am convinced that this fruit of the triumph of Baptistic, atomistic, anti-covenantal theology in our history. Yet, be that as it may, the fact remains that the consciousness of a Jew regarding his being a Jew has value only as part of a called people. The suggestion that a certain behavior will disqualify him from being buried with his people is enough to banish any thought of that behavior.

Now try that with a typical American Christian youth who is contemplating body modification. Tell him he won’t be allowed to be buried in a Christian cemetery. Oh, wow! Can’t you see him shaking in his boots?

Hardly. The fact is that we do not even approach (except among the Dutch Reformed) the Jewish sense of peoplehood. No matter that the Holy Spirit tells us that we are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God (1 Peter 2:9), we can’t help but think of ourselves as merely a collection of individuals who have made choices to become Christian. But this is precisely what the truth of the covenant, particularly as it is seen in infant baptism, is so-well fitted to overcome: we were appointed, designated and constituted a people by the one and only God! It is He who made us a people and not we ourselves!

Also involved in the Jewish rejection of BM is, as we have noted, the belief in the continuing validity of the Law of God. The orthodox Jews have bested us with a highly developed sense of corporate calling. They also hover closer to Scripture when they regard God’s moral standards as irrevocable. It is quite true that Christians, unlike the Jews, are united firstly by a common faith and creed. But this faith must never be thought of as a replacement for God’s Law, but rather as its only proper foundation (Rom. 3:3 1). True Christianity does not differ with Judaism by affirming faith and rejecting deeds. Rather it differs from Judaism in the arrangement of these two essential covenant elements: Jews believe in what they do; Christians do what they believe in.

The church in America and elsewhere will soon find itself plagued by the in-your-face confrontation of Body Modifiers. If it is to respond in a God-pleasing manner, its response will be exceedingly simple: We have no such practices, nor do the churches of God (1 Cor. 11:16). We do not do these things. We do not do such things because: (1) they are contrary to God’s Law. We do not pretend to know how to apply every law in every generation and culture, but this one offers little difficulty, Biblically or historically. This is a pagan practice and we are not to be like the pagans. (2) Such practices are contrary to God’s requirement to render our bodies unto Him in righteousness. Our bodies are not our own. (3) We reject practices which confuse the differences between male and female, and which confuse the differences between Christ’s people and the world. (4) Above all, we reject these practices because we are the people of the atonement. All these practices are inseparable from a mindset that operates without atonement. But we are controlled by Christ’s atonement in all we believe and do. “He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood.” (5) Thus we are of all people the most free, for we alone have “been set free from the tyranny of the devil.” It was for freedom that Christ set us free. We do not use our freedom as a cover-up for evil.

The encroachment of body modification into the church presents us with yet another opportunity to recover the sense of our unique calling. Shall we rise to the occasion or once again capitulate? The task assigned by God to us, particularly those of us in Reformed churches, is huge. And it is comprehensive. It cannot be completed, however, unless we inculcate in our congregations a worldview and more: a consciousness, an identity as members of the covenant community, a community redeemed by God’s grace to abide by God’s Law. Our calling impacts everything we do. We do not proclaim a one-dimensional Christ, but a Savior who is Prophet, Priest and King of His people, the Ruler, in fact, over all the world and all of life.

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