If you were online at all on Sunday, particularly on the social networks, chances are that you saw at least a bit about the controversy surrounding Tattooed Jesus. Tattooed Jesus has been declared blasphemous by many within the Bible Belt. As such, I was more interested in learning more about this inked deity.
You can read the story here.
When I looked at the image of the tattooed Jesus, I wondered why anyone would find it offensive. Some people thought the image of Jesus tattooed was blasphemous, yet how is it different from the tortured, mutilated, bloodied body that is often presented when we are told of Christ dying a brutal death to take away our sins? I fail to see how a tattooed Jesus is more disturbing than a mutilated, dead Jesus.
In any case, after I read the article, I shared it on both Twitter and Facebook with the simple question, “What say you?”.
The first response I received came via Twitter, from a lifelong friend who is also an active member and leader in her church. She says, “I actually like it! We all have words tattooed on our souls. I think that is what the artist is recreating.”
Indeed we do. And those words tattooed on our souls shape us in ways we may not perceive until they have done significant damage to our lives.
On Facebook, the responses were equally positive. One friend commented that she has never been able to identify with the perfect white Jesus so often presented. Another friend reminded me of the story “The Ragman” by Walter Wangerin, a beautiful, profoundly moving illustration of what it is that Jesus did for us in taking our old, tired, tattered rags of self, and giving us something new and altogether lovely in return.
In the video which accompanies the billboard campaign, we see a tattoo artist who operates a tattoo parlor which is odd, to say the least. Those who come into his tattoo parlor do not begin by choosing an image, but by revealing an image that is already etched into their skin. The tattoo artist looks at the image, then sets to work. Person after person comes in, showing words etched into their flesh…Addicted…Outcast…Useless…and the artist transforms those words into life-giving truths, sending each person away with words that will, over time, change them as much as the original markings did.
At the end of his busy day, the artist, worn and weary, takes off his shirt and reveals that not only did he give each person new words, but he took on their old words. He was the addict. He was the one living in fear. He was the one who felt useless. His skin bore the marks of the lies they had believed.
To me, this is a powerful illustration of the work of Jesus, the purpose of his incarnation. Often when we speak of “dying to self,” we think of laying aside our vices, or our wish to engage in those vices, and instead choosing to do whatever it is we believe would be the antithesis of licentious living. Yet, even for those of us who don’t live licentious lifestyles, it is possible that we are still living a life that is not in keeping with God’s intentions for us because we are living in a paradigm constructed of lies about his beloved…lies about us.
All of our souls have been tattooed with something, and those things that have left their mark on us define in a multitude of ways. They help determine how we function in the world, what we believe our role is in our relationships, what sort of relationships we pursue and what we are worthy of, how we treat other people, how we let them treat us…all of these things are born out of those identifying marks that are etched onto our souls. If we are not “dying to self” in these measures, all other acts of contrition amount to very little because we are still caught in a paradigm which identifies with life before Jesus.
That is not to say that simply replacing one word with another in our ongoing internal monologue will render the needed soul-shift. It will take more than that. Yet, choosing to acknowledge that we are marked by untruths about ourselves, and those marks have rendered such damage in our lives that we are not living in the fullness of who we were made to be, is a tremendous first step in embracing not only a cloak for those ugly images, but stepping into a whole new self. A new creation.
Many years ago, I was given the book “Hinds’ Feet on High Places,” written by Hannah Hurnard. The title of the book comes from Habakkuk 3:19, “The Lord is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places.”
The book is an allegorical novel in which we follow the journey of Much Afraid as she is transformed into Grace and Glory. Throughout the book, Much Afraid is made to face her worst humiliations, her darkest fears, her greatest trials, as she journeys away from the valley and the home of her Fearing family to the High Places of the Shepherd. The Shepherd, while always gentle and tender with Much Afraid, does not lead her around her fears, but takes her through them. It is in facing the pain of the journey that her transformation takes place. Surely, the Shepherd possessed the ability to offer Much Afraid an instant new nametag with Grace and Glory written upon it, but it would not have been her identity. Without the hard work of transformation, the new name would merely cover over the old name, not replace it.
The labels we wear at the deepest level of who we are shape us. They become us. We become them. I have many labels etched into my soul that have taken years upon years upon years of work to even begin to erase. Surely, on an intellectual level, I know I am not useless, I know I am not unworthy of love, I know I am not stupid or ugly or worthless, and so on. Yet, I have lived in that paradigm for so long that I adopted those words as my identity, and shaped my life accordingly. I have spent much of my life living in fear and want, because I have believed I am inadequate to carve out a stable life for myself, and I would fail if I tried because I am not smart enough, capable enough, talented enough, blessed enough…whatever enough…to succeed, all of that not-enoughness amounting to the soul tattoos of Inadequate, Unworthy, and Stupid.
As I get older and I understand more about how these lies work, I understand that I can create a paradigm shift based on new soul tattoos, and those tattoos will not only cover the old ones, but will replace them. Just as powerfully as the old tattoos shaped my life, so can the new ones, if I choose to let them.
And why do we sometimes avoid doing the things that are so right for us? Sometimes, we are so comfortable in our misery and loneliness, it feels safer to just stay there and continue to wallow in it than it does to take the risk of stepping beyond the filthy environs of the valley of fear and shame, and into the light as we venture toward our high places of freedom.
Galatians 5:1 reads, “It is for freedom that Christ as set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not be burdened by a yoke of slavery.”
Jesus came and lived and died and rose again so we could be free from the things we are enslaved to, the things which keep us from fully identifying with God and his purposes for us. I am not talking about sin in the traditional sense, though certainly there is room for discussing that. I am talking about freedom from slavery to the false identifiers which have become lodged in our souls. I know of many people who have faithfully served God for most of their lives, doing all the right things all the time, yet they still live within the grip of false identifiers which haunt them in the quiet moments when they are not busying themselves with all the right things they are doing. It is in these quiet moments when we have no distractions and we have to face who we are without the noise when we are best able to see what lies behind the mask that looks like us. Jesus came to set us free from those things that haunt us, to set us free from the need for the mask.
Imagine what the world could be if only we would allow our most damaging soul tattoos to be transformed into truths that empower us to impact our worlds in positive, healing, restorative, reconciling, rehabilitative ways. We could lay down our weapons. We could open our hearts. We could be more peaceful, gentle, and forgiving with each other. If we allowed ourselves to embrace the truth, if we allowed ourselves to really believe that Jesus took all of our sin…in all its forms…upon himself so that we no longer had to be burdened by it but could live in freedom, it would be world changing.
For me, Tattooed Jesus represents the exchange made when we step into our new paradigm as a new creation. The old has gone. The new has come. There is freedom.