My turn to do a month's worth of opinion pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. With the agreement of the editor I'm posting my BT article here. To check out the Baptist Times as a whole click here.
I got quite a shock last week. A regional minister asked to look at my body. Recently quite a few people have made similar requests: friends in the pub; a woman at a ninetieth birthday party; most of the Mainstream North leadership team during a meeting and my aunty round her house. You see word’s out that I’ve got myself a tattoo.
Now why would I want to share this with you dear reader? Well, it’s not the tattoo that interests me but people’s reactions and the assumptions that these reactions betray. More than one person has put it down to mid-life crisis. They might have a point, but I don’t think so. Others are convinced that it’s just the latest manifestation of my exhibitionist tendencies – first preaching, now this! Once again, wide of the mark – not that I’m entirely free of such tendencies, but the tattoo just happens to be hidden away under my shirt sleeve.
For what it’s worth the motivation (or at least the part of it of which I am aware) was to celebrate my 30th wedding anniversary. It’s a big red heart with my wife’s name in a banner being trailed by a bluebird. Corny can be good don’t you think?
The comment that really grabbed my attention though was when someone told me that her friend also had a tattoo. He likes it because it reminds him of the time before he became a Christian. When he sees it he gives thanks to God for turning his life round. The implication was as plain as the ink on David Beckham: tattoo’s are pre-christian, sub-christian. Interesting.
So interesting I decided to write about it. You see this is not about me and my tattoo. It’s about the tendency of too many Christians to assume that certain innocent forms of cultural expression aren’t appropriate. I still remember the shock on the faces of one suburban congregation back in the 80’s when one of the young people walked in having had a very striking punk makeover. How out of place! How unsuitable! How odd!
How embarrassing. No, not the safety pins and the green Mohican, the attitude of the congregation. That kind of thing is a shame. I choose my words carefully. Not only does it show how blind we are, confusing Christianity with respectability and church culture with middle class propriety, it also means we have a much poorer, blander, duller, church.
At a time when our society is more varied, more fascinating than at any time in its history, most of our congregations still look like gatherings of refugees from a Christian Endeavour holiday home, the very incarnation of M&S-standard smart casual. Not that there’s anything wrong with these things. I’m hardly that colourful myself. It’s just that it’s not enough, there’s more out there, far more but not in our churches.
Where’s the beauty of Indian saris or the vibrancy traditional African dress or bikers in their leathers? For goodness sake I’d even welcome the odd hairy morris dancer with bells on just to brighten the place up. And yes I know there are congregations that are exceptions, but there aren’t enough.
You see Christ died for all manner of people and until we break out of our cultural captivity, examine our assumptions and tear up our hand-me-down Daily Mail stereotypes; until we start to reach, welcome and integrate the wonderful spectrum of human life on our doorsteps we are showing the world a pale shadow of the new humanity that God seems to have in mind for us. And that is a shame, a real shame.