Neo-Orthodox Iconography: A Place for Tattoos in Pentecostal Worship

Pentecostals and tattoos

Have you noticed that an increasing number of Pentecostals are choosing to become tattooed? In the past this would be almost unheard of (unless, of course, someone had been saved out of a more shady lifestyle), but today it is becoming increasingly more common. And not just amongst the young people! Male and female, younger and older, a diversity of people are embracing tattooing. Maybe your church is a bit like mine, and you have congregational members who aren’t quite sure how to respond to this growing phenomenon.

Tattooing in Western society is more dynamic than many realise. Until the nineteenth century only the upper echelon and sailors sported tattoos, a sort of social symbol, of being well travelled and cultured. The invention of the tattoo gun in the 1920’s saw the social elite abandon tattooing as they became available to lower social demographics. They came to be associated with gangs, bikers, and criminal elements of society.

Over the past thirty years tattooing has continued to evolve, contemporary tattoos typically being symbolic, employing artistic creativity, and serving as memorials, self-expression, and in belief and identity formation. Today, tattoos are generally accepted as an art form, with tattoo displays sometimes found in art museums.

So what is the motivation for Pentecostals in becoming tattooed? Through conversation with fifteen tattooed Australian Christian Churches (ACC) pastors and leaders and a synthesis of their responses four broad generalisations could be made:

  1. Tattoos serve a specific cultural meaning shared by Westerners generally, Christian or otherwise;
  2. Art may serve a role in worship;
  3. Pentecostal tattooing is an example of doxological art;
  4. Tattoos may serve as an indigenised expression of worship.

 

  1. Tattoos in contemporary Western culture and the church

In Western culture generally, modernism has collapsed, and with it the separation of the sacred and the secular. Postmodernism has reintegrated faith with life and a variety of sources are used to express deeply held beliefs, convictions, and matters of importance. Since the arts are influenced by culture, beliefs concerning tattooing have changed; from a symbol of high social status, to a negative form of cultural aberration, coming presently to be an artistic display of personal belief formation and self-expression.

Although some Christians could balk at the idea of the church being influenced by culture, theologian Amos Yong has observed, “the lines between the church and the world can never be hard and fast in actuality … [T]he historical Church is composed of communities and members within communities wherein identities are never pure but always already immersed in the historical world.”[i] Accordingly, the changing perception about tattoos by Pentecostals seems a natural fit with shifting cultural trends.

Even if one can broadly agree with Yong’s position, should this be applied to tattooing?

Fourteen of the people who were interviewed for this study expressed that they have been questioned by churchgoers over the supposed Biblical injunction against tattooing, being cited Leviticus 19:28, “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you.” Seven of them admitted responding by quoting the verse immediately prior, Leviticus 19:27, “You shall not shave around the sides of your head, nor shall you disfigure the edges of your beard.”

One pastor said he cites two Scriptures in response to these questions: Isaiah 49:16, “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands,” and Revelation 19:16, “He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.” This pastor commented, “I tell people that according to these Scriptures I could argue that God Himself has tattoos. If they want to misuse Scripture, I can do it just as well as they can. Obviously God doesn’t have tattoos; we need to interpret Scripture in context. God was speaking in Leviticus about not conforming to the religious practices of the Canaanites. He was not addressing contemporary tattooing.”

This response indicates an attempt to explain the need to apply contextualisation to Biblical interpretation.

The most common tattoos possessed by the people who participated in this study involve the cross, salvation themes and other references to Christ, revealing the strongly Christ-centred nature of Pentecostalism. Other repeated themes included a dove representing the Holy Spirit, and faith statements – all holding salvation themes.

Two key motivations were repeatedly expressed: foremost is that these tattoos serve to aid in personal worship. Second, they declare the most important things for his or her Christian identity.

 

2. The role of art in worship

Art has played a role in Christian worship from the earliest times, from communicating messages between the faithful, to funerary settings that combined Biblical pictures with local cultural images. Over time, as Christianity integrated with culture, so too Christian art advanced.

For example, Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as the Roman state religion saw the mild Jewish shepherd-teacher transformed into the all-powerful, remote figure of the Pantacrator. It was not until the Middle Ages that the Palestinian monk, St John of Damascus, developed a robust defence of the use of icons in worship. A distinguished defender of icons, his Apologia of Divine Images proved decisive in their place in worship. John writes,

[T]he Word became flesh immutably … so also the flesh became the Word without losing what it was, being rather made equal to the Word hypostatically. Therefore I am emboldened to depict the invisible God, not as invisible, but as he became visible for our sake … I depict God made visible in the flesh … [W]hen the invisible becomes visible in the flesh, then you may depict the likeness of something seen.[ii]

Yet John was unequivocal in his stance against idolatry. The invisible God could not be portrayed, nor a human image worshipped as a god. According to John, God was never against imaging heavenly things – the Tabernacle and its adornments are just such – only against imaging His own pre-incarnate essence. Through Christ’s incarnation, created matter is able to carry the divine, and accordingly, may be used in worship.

The English word ‘worship’ is derived from the Latin ‘cultus’, an umbrella term with two distinct meanings: adoration and veneration. In Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, adoration is worship that rightly belongs to God alone. As Creator, God is praised as wholly other to creation. Adoration is what Protestants and Pentecostals typically mean when speaking of worship.

Veneration is different; it is an honour directed towards persons who have achieved excellence, their virtue worthy of imitation; it denotes respect. A contemporary equivalent might be referring to a magistrate as ‘your honour,’ or the accolades thrust upon a sports star or celebrity.

In Catholicism and Orthodoxy veneration may be attributed to holy objects, most commonly icons, with the goal that it ultimately honours God. Theologian Miravalle explains, “If we praise a beautiful piece of artwork then we are ultimately praising the artist who created the artwork. So too, when we honour the [image] we are ultimately giving honour to God himself.”[iii]

For the Orthodox, icons possess a quasi-incarnational quality through a pneumatological presence of Christ in the image that may be sensually perceived. They provide direct access to God. In Catholicism, the role of imagery was limited to its instructive potential, as Scriptures for the illiterate. Catholic artworks are instructive and may mediate between humanity and the divine, but the presence of God does not live there.

Fears of idolatry led the Reformers to reject images completely. John Calvin was particularly damning of images, suggesting anything learned from them was false. Protestantism’s focus became the primacy of the written Word. Texts of the illiterate were replaced with Sola Scriptura and the Ten Commandments cited as proof that images were none other than idolatry. Although Protestantism maintained some aesthetics – the centrality of the pulpit and baptismal font, the symbols of communion elements, and the aesthetics of communal singing – the removal of images and the exaltation of Scripture led to a more cerebral expression of faith.

In agreement with the Reformers, Pentecostals affirm the Bible as God’s authoritative Word. But unlike Reformed theology that can limit Scripture to an historical record, Pentecostals find in Scripture their own story lived out in the life of the contemporary reader. Whilst post-Reformation theology developed a static approach to Scripture, Pentecostals understand Scripture as dynamic, leading to a sensual spirituality in which they share in the Kingdom of God through the Spirit even now.

Following Scripture as their source text, it is not uncommon to find Pentecostals imitating Biblical practices. This is well evidenced, for example, in practices concerning divine healing – the laying on of hands, prayer handkerchiefs, and anointing with oil are Scriptural practices that Pentecostals are known to employ. Each one – person or object – mediate the grace of God to the afflicted, whether this is understood as a symbol or as a channel of divine power.

This sensual expression of faith finds points of contact with the Orthodox use of icons, specifically Christ present through the Spirit, though Pentecostals would resist any permanent, semi-incarnational view of Christ in these implements. Despite the nuanced theological differences, this recognition creates a space for art to aid in Pentecostal worship.

Theologian Richard Viladesau offers a rebuttal to the exaltation of the Word over images or images over the Word, that honours the locus of both the Orthodox and Reformed imperatives, “[T]he divine acquires its pictorial quality because of the humanity of Christ; because Christ is God’s Logos and Eikon in person, words and images of God are possible.”[iv]

 

3. Tattoos in Pentecostal worship

Pentecostals are known for their passionate worship services. The sight of fellow worshippers with hands raised and declaration pouring forth can stir the Pentecostal heart toward a deeper personal engagement in worship. By simple extension, this demonstrates the importance of visual aids in Pentecostal worship. The emphasis on spiritual gifts in Pentecostalism necessitates a lively and sensual spirituality, leading to an emphasis on pragmatically expressed faith.

Yet this pragmatism should not be misconstrued as simplistic or anti-intellectual. As noted earlier, the two key motivations for choosing his or her tattoos expressed by dialogue partners were to aid in worship and to declare what is most important in his or her Christian identity. These point to clearly developed and rationalised motivations. Given that there is demonstrated theological merit in the use of art in Pentecostal worship, the expressed motivations of tattooed Pentecostals can be explored in greater detail and a more robust, albeit preliminary, theology for the use of tattoos in worship proposed.

Mention worship and the Pentecostal imagination quickly conjure a congregation of saints, hands raised and hearts turned heavenward, singing and declaring praise to God. However, responses of dialogue partners reveal a growing understanding of worship.

One of the interviewees said, “My tattoo is a dove, representing the Holy Spirit. I got it on my foot because I wanted to walk with the Spirit every day. I got it at a time when I was learning about a lifestyle of worship.” Another pastor, who has the Hebrew form of ‘zamar’ on his forearm claimed, “I’m passionate about praise. I love the meaning of this word – I should use an instrument or my voice. When I raise my arm it reminds me that praise should be in front of everything I do.” Yet another pastor saw a lifestyle of worship as having potential to transform not merely himself, but also those around him, stating, “Worship is a life dedicated to Christ and my tattoo is a symbol of a life dedicated to Christ … I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve shared my testimony when people ask about the symbolism of my tattoo. If I’d known this would be the response, I’d have done it years ago.”

What these Pentecostals describe about the role of their tattoos in worship may be described as adoration by lifestyle. It is reminiscent of eminent worship leader/songwriter Darlene Zschech’s comment, “Worshipping our Saviour, Jesus Christ, is fundamental to living a faith-filled, Spirit-led, Christian life … There are multiple worship methods, plans and styles that vary among cultures and geographic boundaries … Worship should be a way of life, with many facets of expression.[v] Whether directly or indirectly, contemporary Pentecostals appear to be influenced by Zschech’s philosophy of worship.

A second way in which tattoos are being used for worship is effectively a type of veneration that leads to adoration, though it should be noted that this terminology is not used. One pastor noted, “My tattoo is a picture of God, and seeing it directs my attention to who He truly is.” Another pastor, who has prayed for deliverance from demonic oppression for people with Satanic-themed tattoos said, “I have no doubt that some tattoos can attract negative spiritual forces.” If a tattoo can attract a negative spiritual force, it can be reasoned that tattoos have the potential to point to the divine.

Pentecostals often view all of life as an expression of worship, tattoos included.

Although in practice Pentecostals have not often viewed art as a focal point for worship, a sensual spirituality certainly provides space for art, but in what way? Thomas Aquinas offers insight, “Mere things are not deserving of reverence, which is proper only to rational beings. Hence images of Christ are revered only insofar as they are images, with the same reverence that is shown to what they represent – that is, Christ.”[vi]

 

4. Tattoos in Pentecostal identity formation

In contemporary Western culture tattoos assist people in shaping identity and in expressing that which is most deeply personal and true to the individual. This is equally true of contemporary Western Pentecostals.

Every research participant agreed that there would be no injunction against Pentecostals choosing a tattoo of any design that contains significance to the wearer. It is noteworthy, then, that only two participants had tattoos expressing something other than faith, and in each case it was an expression of family and culture. Most tattoos, as already noted, focused on Christ and the Holy Spirit, suggesting these are the most significant themes for Pentecostals. The expression of those deeply held beliefs through contemporary tattooing might also be understood as reflective artistic worship.

In light of the aforementioned Pentecostal inclination towards adoration by lifestyle, a worship function might be subsumed within all Pentecostal art generally, including tattoos. Pentecostal worship is always God-centred. But worship is not only directed to God, but also a reciprocal encounter with the divine by which the worshipper is inwardly transformed to reflect the object of his or her worship, that is, Christ.

To state it another way, while worship is primarily for God, there are equally primary benefits of worship for the devotee. There is an aspect of worship, therefore, that is concerned with identity formation.

Christ-centred salvation has always featured as central to Pentecostal faith and spirituality. One pastor chose a cross as it represents the most significant thing about her faith; another, who has multiple tattoos, advised he has chosen the cross as a tattoo theme because it is the most important thing to him, and yet another chose the words ‘Amazing Grace’ because that is what he experienced. In each case the supremacy of Christ, and more specifically salvation through Christ, in the Pentecostal identity is clearly conveyed.

What distinguishes the Pentecostal understanding of salvation is that the Christ-centred nature of Pentecostalism is believed to be supernaturally and dynamically outworked by the Holy Spirit. The Gospels present Christ as dependant on the Spirit. Jesus is both Spirit-baptised and Spirit baptiser. Pentecostalism’s dynamic pneumatology is a participatory spirituality by which Pentecostals share in God’s redemptive work, mediated by Christ and made manifest by the Spirit.

It should be expected, then, that Christ as pneumatologically active and the Spirit as Christologically conveyed would be at the fore of Pentecostal tattooing. One leader explained that he initially chose a cross tattoo, but after discovering Pentecostalism she shared, “I grew up in an evangelical church. My second tattoo was, for me, really embracing the Holy Spirit.” Another leader, who has a hummingbird on her wrist, stated, “Birds aren’t meant to be caged; I associate my tattoo with Jesus – because of Him I am free.”

These tattoos clearly reveal the centrality of Christ and the cross in the Pentecostal self-identity. They also reflect that the Pentecostal self-identity is framed within a person soteriology as outworked through a pneumatological construct.

Some preliminary concluding thoughts

Pentecostals are to be commended for their ability to develop their identity and express worship through an inculturated gospel. If Pentecostalism is to continue thriving in an increasingly pluralistic world, a strong self-identity – as Pentecostal specifically and Christian broadly – is essential to weather the burgeoning cultural-religious milieu.

The pragmatic spirituality of Pentecostalism has embedded itself within the arts, and through tattooing in particular. Could it be that the work of the Holy Spirit may be evidenced through contemporary Pentecostal tattoo practices? Through an otherwise seemingly undirected process, the tattoos Pentecostals are choosing have common themes and display consistent imagery, including the dove and the cross, and are reflective of shared community values, such as Christ, salvation and evangelism. The Holy Spirit is the one who baptises all believers into the one community of faith, and as such contemporary Pentecostal tattooing may represent a postmodern iconic expression of worship that embraces the trans-denominational work of the Holy Spirit through art.

 

[i] Amos Yong, “Radically Orthodox, Reformed, and Pentecostal: Rethinking the Intersection of Post/Modernity and the Religions in Conversation with James K. A. Smith,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology Vol 15, 2 (2007), 233-250, 249.

[ii] Andrew Louth in St John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, translated by Andrew Louth, (Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 22-24.

[iii] Mark I. Miravalle, Introduction to Mary: The Heart of Marian Doctrine and Devotion, Third Edition, (Goleta: Queenship Publishing, 2006), 15.

[iv] Richard Viladesau, Theological Aesthetics: God in Imagination, Beauty and Art, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 170.

[v] Darlene Zschech, Extravagant Worship, (Bloomington: Bethany House Publishers, 2002), 31.

[vi] Thomas Aquinas, as cited in Viladesau, Theological Aesthetics, 171.

 

About the Author: Phillip Webb is an ordained minister with the Australian Christian Churches, currently serving as the Assistant Pastor of Encounter Christian Church, Shepparton. He is a graduate of the Master of Arts (Christian Studies) from Alphacrucis College.