Laying in my bed, I tried to stay awake and listen to Radio Mystery Theater and its creepy host, the late E. G. Marshall. Living my middle school and high school years in Minnesota, the show aired at 9:00pm on WCCO. According to their website,
CBS Radio Mystery Theater was meant to appeal to an audience that remembered when old time radio drama was a popular form of family entertainment. Riding on the wave of nostalgia fever, the radio show attracted many younger listeners who would stay up late, hidden under their covers to hear the program on their bedroom radio (and many of them were not able to go to sleep after listening to the frightening program!)
Radio drama was just one of the ways I fed my love of mysteries. I still enjoy mystery novels, television shows (especially the British ones) and movies. For me, mystery means trying to stay one step ahead of the plot, only to delightfully find myself two steps behind. My brain always tries to solve the mystery, to understand the world, to consume information about how things work and how things happen in the world.
However, this is not the only definition of mystery. According to the dictionary on my iMac, the word “mystery” has at least four possible definitions:
- something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain;
- a novel, play, or movie dealing with a puzzling crime, especially a murder;
- the secret rites of Greek and Roman pagan religion, or of any ancient or tribal religion, to which only initiates are admitted;
- a religious belief based on divine revelation, especially one regarded as beyond human understanding.
A chief desire that I have for Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh is to help readers make connections between the art that we apply to our bodies and the Spirit that inhabits them. One of the ways that we can do this is through the idea of mystery. While I began this post talking about mystery as defined by #2 in the list above, it is the other three definitions that apply more directly to body art and its connections to spirituality. I plan to present several blog posts that deal with these other aspects of mystery.
Let’s take a look at definition #3: mystery as a sacred rite that belongs to a particular religious sect. One might argue, in the case of Judaism (and early Christianity), that circumcision is a body art/marking that could match this definition of mystery. It probably also fits into mystery definitions 1 and 4, as one may be hard-pressed to explain its practice to others.
Tattoos have a long history of use as part of religious rites, and can mark the bearers as belonging to a particular group or sect. John A. Rush notes that “The Greeks and Romans used tattooing to indicate status or clan membership (slave, freeman, political affiliation, etc.) and for religious/mystical/spiritual reasons (ancestor worship, life and death rituals, curing procedures).” (Rush, John A. Spiritual Tattoo. Berkeley: Frof, Ltd., 2005.) A rather innocuous way that this takes place is with friends who get the same tattoo, perhaps on the same location of their bodies, to signify a bond they have with one another. On the malevolent side of the spectrum, gang members often bear tattooed gang symbols to “permanently” display loyalty to the gang. These symbols, both those shared by friends and those shared by gang members, can have mysterious connotations known only to those on the inside of the group. The irony of an outside marking, the meaning of which is known only by insiders, will eventually lead us to our other posts dealing with “mystery”. For now, I suggest that these tattoos are, like most tattoos, an invitation for us to enter into a conversation with their bearers.
Our curiosity about others’ tattoos, which leads us to say, “I like your ink – is there a story?”, might lead us to someone whose story includes a belief that they have been permanently, even religiously marked in a negative manner. They may believe they are beyond God’s help, that their life and behavior has cast them away from God’s care. Perhaps their mystery, embedded in their tattoo, points to their despair or their longing. This is where we might make a connection to the points that Samuel Kee makes about the permanence of the tattoos God has artistically rendered onto the skin of our souls.
In his book, Soul Tattoo, Kee imaginatively suggests that God has given us four permanent, indelible “tattoos”, each of which helps to mark our identity. (Kee, Samuel. Soul Tattoo. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2014.) The following tattoos represent God’s never-changing words to each of us:
- “You are mine”
- “I will be with you”
- “I love you”
- “I created you for my glory”
These are the words that many are longing to hear, and Kee tells us that they are already tattooed onto our souls. Using these images, Kee gently introduces readers to a God who is concerned for them, and who can transform them regardless of their past. I’m happy to recommend Soul Tattoo as an “Introduction to Christianity for the Inked.”
Don’t touch that dial! More on mystery in future posts.