Stained Glass

Tattoos used to be reserved for rebels, bikers, prisoners, gang members, and so on. It was an easy marker that this person didn’t belong to the mainstream of society. And it was easy to judge those persons, especially since their tattoos marked them as members of an alternate society. The one socially acceptable group that regularly sported tattoos was the military, and when you asked them about it, the story usually went something like this: “We all got them. We’d get out on leave, get drunk, and wake up with a tattoo.”

By the way – I’ve found that, with an additional question or two, even this kind of story leads to a great conversation. “Where did you serve? Which branch? Do you stay in touch with some of those guys/gals?”

Religious folks–okay, conservative Christians like the ones I grew up around–used to have a response to those who sported tattoos. Quoting 1st Corinthians 6:19-20, they’d say: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” I didn’t get this quoted to me for sporting a tattoo, but I did get it for smoking cigarettes (I’ve been a non-smoker now for 25 years). Smoking and tattoos were seen to be “desecrating God’s temple”. And tattoos had a Levitical prohibition as well: “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:28)

I’m not one to easily dismiss Scripture as archaic and therefore irrelevant. Nor am I one to say that we should throw out the book of Leviticus, or even one of its chapters, just because there are some practices in Leviticus 28 that are no longer commonly observed or enforced. After all, there is plenty of good material remaining for us in that chapter. So instead of discarding the text, I would ask the question: “What might this have meant to the original hearers of this prohibition?” One possible answer may be in 1 Kings 18, where Elijah is found holding a reality-show competition with the priests of Baal. When those priests became frustrated that their god was failing to make an appearance, “they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.” (1 Kings 18:28) One might assume that the prohibition in Leviticus is condemning a practice that served as an attempt to bring power to the bearer of the cuts and tattoos. Since this is not a common practice today, a literal application of its prohibition might be a misappropriation of this passage. Tattoos, in general, are not intended to force the hand of an invisible, impotent god.

In more snarky moments, I’ve thought that it might be fun to get “Leviticus 19:28” tattooed to my arm. But others have already taken that angle.

Going back to the 1st Corinthians passage, one can also re-frame what is happening there in light of its original intent. In 1 Corinthians 6, the Apostle Paul is making the case that one should “flee from sexual immorality.” He’s not talking about smoking or getting a tattoo. He’s saying that what we do with our bodies and with others’ bodies is important, and that there are consequences for the misuse of our bodies.

OLGH-Holy-Spirit-Stained-Glass-001-cropLet’s take this from another angle. If you’ve been in a church or two, or especially a great cathedral, you’ll notice something about the stained glass: it usually tells a story. With pictures instead of words, with art instead of intellect, the colored glass transforms sunlight into narratives of how God creates and then interacts with God’s creation; from the Garden of Eden to the Garden of Gethsemane to the Garden Tomb, outside of which Mary found a Gardener who revealed himself as the risen Jesus Christ. Although breathtakingly beautiful, stained glass is more than pretty colors. Its task is to present the gospel in a way that words alone cannot.

if the body is a temple, one might say that a tattoo is stained glass.

So then, if the body is a temple, one might say that a tattoo is stained glass. Sometimes breathtakingly beautiful, and other times faded and nearly indecipherable, each application of ink to the body becomes word made flesh: story on skin. Tattoos share stories. Sometimes the stories are poignant and beautiful; other times they’re simpler stories of comrades and the consumption of alcohol. But each one is unique, and like their tattoo is on the surface to be seen, their story is just beneath it, yearning to be heard.

Every person is a living biography: a story that may be told, but that is still unfolding. I believe this is also the case with the gospel: its good news can be told, but it may also be witnessed in the lives of others. What I’m trying to do with Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh is to harness the stories that are portrayed on skin to help their bearers discover the incarnate story of how God is active in the lives of each person God has uniquely created to bear God’s image–an image designed to tell the story of that same unique God.

So I encourage you to continue to view the body as a temple, and to consider that by saying “I like your ink–is there a story”, you may also be asking, “What’s the story to be seen in your stained glass?”

Santa Cruz 1: Harbinger

Things didn’t go as planned in Santa Cruz, but I learned some important lessons. I’d like to share these lessons, especially one biggie, over the next few posts. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In this post, I want to share the premonitory episodes that took place on the first night in Santa Cruz. But even before I get to that, some back-story should be shared.

Santa Cruz wasn’t initially on the radar for Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh. I already had a Spring Break beach trip planned (initially for this year but postponed until 2016) to Daytona Beach, FL. Then my good friend Chris called to say that he had access to a cabin at Mission Springs, near Santa Cruz, and asked if I would like to do some tattoo research among the surfing crowd that gravitates there. He also mentioned that Echo and the Bunnymen, one of our favorite 80s bands, would be playing Santa Cruz in early August. We checked the dates and made it happen.

On the way in to the cabin, we stopped at a coffee shop in Scotts Valley. I noticed that they served vacuum-pot coffee. I asked the barista about it, but unfortunately they were too busy training some new staff to take the time necessary to make that particular type of coffee. I would have to wait one more day to experience what is supposed to produce the smoothest coffee on the planet. We bought some beans for the cabin and chatted with the barista, who was sporting a number of tattoos. When I told her that I liked her ink and asked if there might be a story, she shared that she had struggled with depression in her life (I also saw, but did not comment on what I assumed were cutting scars on her arms). She pointed out the tattoo on her wrist, which reminded her to STAY STRONG. At that moment I thought our conversation was a promising sign that Santa Cruz would indeed be a great place for ink-talk. Little did I know that this would be one–and definitely the most meaningful– of only a small number of tattoo-initiated conversations we’d have that week.

After we got settled in the cabin, we headed into downtown Santa Cruz for some dinner at Kianti’s. From their lovely outdoor seating, we were able to observe the constant stream of foot traffic through the downtown strip. It was impossible not to notice a burned-out young couple who looked like zombies. For no apparent reason, the woman looked terrified and the man looked completely defeated. When we saw them later, they looked slightly more relaxed but just as lost. We would see them again several times throughout the week.

Our waitress was professional and friendly. We learned that she was from Costa Rica and was in the USA studying at UC Santa Cruz. I said, “Oh, so you’re a slug”, referring to the UCSC mascot, the Banana Slug. She agreed, but asked us to keep that on the down-low; for some reason the locals aren’t all that appreciative of their local university. I asked why, and she surmised that it had to do with the impact UCSC students had on local apartment prices. I thought it a bit strange, especially since the school resides up the hill from the city of Santa Cruz, but as a fellow outsider, I took note of her experience.

Chris and I crossed the street to The Catalyst, where we would remain for the concert. An innocuous acoustic duo played a few opening numbers, after which we were ready for the Bunnymen. However, the Bunnymen weren’t quite ready for us, and their stage crew took quite some time setting up after the opening group and their equipment were cleared. We guessed that the group had not taken a sound-check prior to the show; all the instruments needed tuning and the amplifiers checking. We were excited to see and hear the guys we had promoted and listened to during our days in college radio–even though our colleges were on opposite coasts.

Down went the house lights,IMG_1947 and Echo and the Bunnymen took the stage. Singer Ian McCulloch, wearing dark sunglasses, assumed a statuesque pose at center stage, both hands around the microphone which was held in a floor stand before him. This would be his position during every song they played. Guitarist Will Sergeant, the other of  two original members present that evening, took his place to the far left with a red Fender Jaguar in his hands. The rest of the band consisted of a keyboardist, drummer, bassist, and a second guitarist. I took quite a few photos with my iPhone that night, the best of which is here on the left. We enjoyed the opening few numbers before we began to observe some strange things happening onstage.

First of all, the lighting was coming exclusively froIMG_1944m the rear of the band, effectively placing them all into silhouette. Their faces remained in shadow, as you can see in this photo on the right. That was disappointing as I (as well as, I imagine, most people) had been looking forward to “seeing” the band perform. Even though we were relatively close to the stage, facial expressions were indistinguishable. McCulloch’s sunglasses remained in place for the entire performance, which added a certain absurd sense of irony, considering that all the lighting was coming from behind the band. The guitar technician had to hold a flashlight so that Sergeant could see what he was playing!

Between songs, McCulloch spoke to the crowd, but his words were indecipherable. I’m not sure if it was his accent, his state of insobriety, or a combination of the two, but other than a few f-bombs, we couldn’t make out anything. Then he would turn away from the audience, to a small table that contained a glass of milk, a second glass of brown liquid that we assumed was some form of hard liquor, a pack of cigarettes, and a lighIMG_1954ter. At first he smoked between songs, then switched to keeping one lit as he sang. Milk, booze, and cigarettes. Probably not suggestions given to him by his vocal coach, but they were McCulloch’s stage staples.

The band didn’t  interact much with one another, and even less with the audience. During two of their best-known songs, the whole band pulled back their volume so the audience could be heard singing on the chorus, but other than that, there was pretty much zero interaction. Chris and I talked about this after the show. At first we agreed that their stage presence was intense, but the best word Chris found to describe the experience was “impenetrable.” They seemed unhappy and/or bored to be there, which might have been explained by the small stage, the small venue, the lighting, the lack of a sound-check, jet-lag, or many other things. The audience was excited, but it seemed like the band was ready to head for bed.

I should add one correction to that last paragraph. Echo and the Bunnymen performed two encores after the show. One of them was my favorite selection from their library: Lips Like Sugar. At the end of the show, and at the end of each of these two encores, McCulloch threw cigarettes (unlit, thankfully) into the audience. Not sure why, but there were plenty of folks smoking outside the venue afterwards, and they were probably pleased with the gifts. I guess that was interaction, Bunnymen-style.

These experiences, all of which took place on our first evening in Santa Cruz, were a collective harbinger of the week to come. As I will write in the next entry or two, the Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh experience of Santa Cruz was intense, but in the end pretty much impenetrable. Just as the lights and sunglasses obscured these performers, we would find that many of our experiences, from surf shops to coffee shops, were more confusing and less engaging than we had hoped. Fortunately, there were lessons to be learned, which I will begin to share in my next post.