Defining Cool Before Cool Defines Us
I have a general topic this evening, which is the idea of the cool, and then a particular practice that we may treat as something of a lab—that practice being the biblical attitude toward tattoos.
A Secular Justification
I want to set certain things aside right at the first. I am talking about coolness as an important cultural category. I am not talking about it as a term of generic approval. “These snow tires at Les Schwab were a really good deal.” “Cool.” The cultural category I have in mind is that which uses it as a term of approval or acceptance at the most fundamental level available.
Consequently, I want to define the idea of cool as a type of secular justification. As is inescapable with all forms of attempted counterfeit justification, an attempt to have it be by faith alone is also necessary. What elements that surround justification are present?
- Antithesis—there is always another side to the divide, the uncool, the damned.
- The formalists—a bunch of people who are not cool want to be cool anyhow, and so they keep joining the church. The cool, like the early Christians, are victims of their own success.
- Semper reformanda—there has to be a constant winnowing. The god of Cool raises up a new vanguard, and they are the cutting, bleeding edge. And then about fifteen days later, every pimply junior high kid in America has one. Shoot.
- Assumes the center—the definers of
- Vindicated—the Christian who is justified is declared righteous, despite his sins, which are many and grievous. Righteousness is imputed. The same privilege, the same status, is given to the cool by the arbiters and worshippers of cool. Who even cares if the iconic James Dean had personal problems, or if Marilyn Monroe was a bundle of neuroses?
- Attitude—many might say, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” Some sunglasses are cool, some just keep the sun out. Some hair gels are cool, some are just goopy. What is it that makes it cool or not? Attitude, faith. Show me your faith by your works.
Are sunglasses a thing indifferent? Sure, as Calvin would say (Institutes 3.19). “I admit it, provided they are used indifferently.” But if there is an attitude, if there is ostentatious display, if there is spin on it, a little English, then the biblical name for this is worldliness.
“Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever” (1 John 2:15-17).
Calvin again: “And we have never been forbidden to laugh, or to be filled, or to join new possessions to old or ancestral ones, or to delight in musical harmony, or to drink wine . . . away with vanity and arrogance—in order that men may with a clean conscience cleanly use God’s gifts” (Institutes 3.19).
As Christians, we are justified by faith alone, certainly, but this is by faith alone in Christ alone. We are not permitted to put only faith in Christ, and also only faith in someone or something else. That is faith alone, but not Christ alone.
“But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils. Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils. Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? are we stronger than he?” (1 Cor. 10:20-22)
So excluding actions explicitly prohibited by God, worldliness is defined by attitude, and not by whether the item is on an index prohibitum. All things are lawful, but not all things are necessary.
The Right Question:
Someone secure in their Christian identity, when enticed by the latest worldly thing, will ask, “Why?” This is in sharp contrast to the question asked by unthinking teenagers everywhere, which is, “Why not?”
The next thing to remember is that there is no place in the world where we can go in order to opt out of that basic choice. Whatever we do, whether we eat or drink, we are to do it to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). And remember, in sorting this out we are not permitted to read the Bible only. We must also read the culture accurately. We have to read the menu at God’s restaurant, and we also have to read the menu at the devil’s restaurant.
- An Israelite dancing around the golden calf who saw Moses and armed Levites approaching would not have the option of saying, “But I wasn’t worshipping . . . I just like to dance! Kickin’ band they got here. . . . um.”
- A modern Christian doesn’t have the right to talk to his pious grandmother with an obscenity-laced tirade, on the grounds that the apostle Paul didn’t know any of those words, and hence could not have had them in mind in Eph. 5:4.
A New Tattoo:
“Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:28).
Let’s begin with some incidental remarks about tattoos, before moving on to an application of this idea of the justified cool.
- Some people say the verse from Leviticus doesn’t apply because it says “for the dead.” But how many modern tattoos are for the dead? Why do we refuse to see deep patterns here? Tattooed tears for men killed? In memory of? Obviously, this verse ought not to be applied like a verse that fell from the sky—otherwise, someone could well ask why I don’t have Hasidic ringlets, and why my beard is trimmed (Lev. 19:27). We are looking at a narrative, and in the story of lost humanity, men are always seeking justification. If culture is religion externalized, it is reasonable to ask what religion this is.
- Another category is what we might describe as simply unfortunate—the sorority girl who gets a tramp stamp on her lower back. It is an ancient Chinese character which, when translated, means “stupid white girl.”
Our Baptism Is Sufficient:
In the old covenant, only one cutting was permitted, and that was the required cutting of circumcision (Gen. 17:10). In the new covenant, with the replacement of circumcision with baptism (Col. 2:11), that number is lowered to zero. You have a mark on your body already—you have been baptized. Piercings are a sign of subordination (as with a godly wife in Ez. 16:12), or with slavery (Dt. 15:16-17). Make-up and other decorative adornings are temporary and are certainly lawful as long as they are not overdone (1 Tim. 2:9). Markings on houses, cars, and tee-shirts are also lawful (Dt. 11:18). But your body was purchased, which means you are not to rent out, lease or sell ad space on it.
To mark your body with any other “ultimate commitment” marks is to reveal that in your mind and heart you believe that your baptism needs supplements. In other words, you are either getting a worldly tattoo, or you are getting an “I love Jesus” tattoo. If the former, we are told not to seek justification in the world by the world. This is part of the world’s system of marking her sons, and we are not to be worldly. But if you want to show your radical dedication to Christ, what exactly did you think was deficient with your baptism?