Col. 2:20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
Col 2:17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.
I don’t listen to much Christian talk radio. I overdosed on talk radio in the 90′s. I listen to MLB radio at night and to a few broadcasts during the day: White Horse Inn, Issues, etc. Desiring God, James Boice, Bible Answer Man. But Saturday I found myself listening to a rebroadcast of the Michael Medved Show, a staple on the Salem radio network line-up of Christian/politically conservative radio programs that millions of conservative Christians listen to each day.
I’ve always liked Michael Medved, back to when I first saw him on “At the Movies,” with Jeffrey Lyons. He is advertised as a “pop culture specialist,” and he is an articulate and engagine representative of a Christian-friendly Orthodox Judaism.
On this particular program, Medved was seeking to stir up his audience with outrage over the currently popular trend of tongue-piercing. (No other kinds of piercing came in for his review, which I found quite odd.) His interest was created by articles in journals of dentistry describing the various terrible results that can come from tongue piercing: broken teeth, bizarre growths, infections and so on. Medved regaled the audience with lurid quotes of the nastiness and pain of tongue piercing, assured us there was much worse to be read that he was avoiding, and capped it all with his best version of being stunned at a source telling him that 10.6% of all university students have their tongue pierced. (I find that statistic to be quite suspect, and would advise anyone to be cautious about believing it.)
When Medved opened up the phones, however, he was greeted with a long line of callers with tongue piercings who all, like good libertarian conservatives, wanted Brother Medved to know that it was their body, and they could do with it whatever they wanted to. Further, they asked him to furnish them with some higher priniciple that could somehow prove that their tongue piercing was wrong.
Medved was taken aback by this, and responded to various callers with the following logical gems.
-It is up to society to create healthy definitions of normal.
-Medved attempts to only engage in activities that have a clearly designed purpose.
-Choosing to experience pain is clearly wrong and dangerous.
-Common sense would teach anyone that tongue piercing is wrong.
-Tongue piercing is like using heroin. (??)
-Extreme sports should be avoided as well as tongue piercing, because they are needlessly dangerous.
And so on. For an advertised pop culture critic, Medved came off more like an Amish homeschooler mom who simply couldn’t comprehend what kind of person would ever want to do anything more daring than wear a bonnet with a floral design.
I found myself wondering about Medved’s Judaism and how it might be affecting his response. I know that Judaism has much to say about the treatment of the body, and that it isn’t unusual for rabbis to opine on the orthodoxy of body piercings and tattoos. I never heard Medved’s faith come into the picture, which ultimately made me ask how a Christian culture critic might respond to the same questions.
At the center of the Christian wordview is the glory of God. I frequently tell students that the key to working through any moral issue is “Can I do this for the glory of God?” This isn’t just urging upon them a mental game- “I’ll view porn with an appreciation for God’s creativity”- but a clear knowledge that this is something in which I can rejoice and be thankful that God is seen, and his character and person are exalted without sin. 1 Timothy 4:4-5 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.
God is most glorified when we are satisfied with all that he is for us in Christ. Jesus reveals God, and he reveals the truth about all of us. The image of God in which we were created is perfectly filled and fulfilled in Jesus.Christians are bringing every thought- and every subject- into captivity to the Lord Jesus Christ.
In considering a sub-culture such as piercing and tattoos, a Christian would not look at the phenomenon primarily in terms of rules and regulations of a spiritual nature. (Col 2:20-23) Health concerns, and other “common sense” concerns about the body, are certainly appropriate in a Christian consideration, but they are not primary. This is important, as we ask, “Would Jesus be outraged at tongue piercing?” The answer to such a question will give much evidence of how we are appropriating Jesus as a symbol of our own concerns, much along the lines of “What would Jesus eat?” or “What would Jesus drive?”
The selective outrage of some culture warrior types is evidence that they are playing their own interests as God’s agenda. Note how Jesus does not express outrage at the lifestyle of the woman at the well in John 4, but seeks to move her to a knowledge of her true “thirst” and faith in Jesus Christ. We glorify God in the body, but a Christian response to a human person is not primarily on the level of “What are you doing with your body?” but “What is your relationship to God?”
In his phone conversations, Medved heard a number of justifications for tongue piercing. Callers defended the practice as individualism, a generational ritual and a desire for rebellion against the mundane. At least one caller, however, grabbed my attention with the word “authentic.” She and her husband were seeking to be authentic.
One can probably anticipate that the search for the authentic among current fashion of self-mutilations is a quixotic quest, but I believe the caller was telling the truth. I believe the person who buys an Eddie Bauer style SUV on a quest for “individual expression and authenticity” is telling the truth. I believe the person who buys the same t-shirt, the same house, the same nuclear weapon as another person in a quest to “just be real” is telling the truth.
The quest is not wrong, but the end of the quest is not going to be found in a fashion, a trend, a possession, or anything else on the grocery list of modern culture. I believe the quest is real, and that Jesus is talking to seekers and questers for authenticity when he says “Come unto me, all you who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” I believe the Bible is talking to seekers after the real when Paul says “What you worship in ignorance, I will proclaim to you (in Jesus.)” I believe the seeker for authenticity is the one who can hear the Christian message that this world is full of shadows, yet Christ is the substance, the satisfier, the giver of significance.
It is impossible for me to imagine Jesus doing a radio program talking about the outrage of tongue piercing, even though it is not hard for me to picture a Christian building a case, based on scripture, that all body piercing is wrong, except for his wife’s earrings and his grandaughter’s little nose stud. It’s all just a phase.
What I can imagine is Jesus asking the tongue and body piercer to talk about the meaning of the ritual, and the meaning it gives to his or her life. As a result of that conversation, I can imagine other conversations that go to the heart of the things that we do. I do not imagine an autopsy of the nature of various sins, but I can imagine a discussion of the ontology of Sin itself, and our quest as a race, and as individuals, to find meaning in the tribal, the material, the daring, the existential, the extreme and the provocative.
Responding to a confession of a hunger for the authentic, Jesus would have much to say. And in his approach to the person who pierces his/her tongue, we could learn much.
Jesus would offer to them the friendship, acceptance and approval of God in the Gospel. He would announce that they are invited home, they are invited to the table of fellowship and they are adopted into God’s family. The tongue piercing makes no difference at all. The bad decisions, the lack of good information about hygiene, the juvenile motivations…none of it matters at all in the banquet at the center of the universe. God COMMANDS us to find the tongue-pierced, with all their real and faux feelings of exclusion, individuality and authenticity, and to give them the very best seats in the house.
Culture warriors are increasingly complaining about a catalog of issues among young adults that they find annoying, immature and shallow. Is this kind of interaction with culture really helpful to the cause of the Gospel? When we are making fun of “emergent goatees” or any other subcultural trait are we also signaling that people with goatees, tattoos, piercings, ripped jeans or a taste for video games are somehow “the problem” in church and culture? Does our ridicule communicate Jesus’ own attitude?
We are about to be overwhelmed with a collection of subcultures taking root in the American middle class. They won’t be in San Francisco; they will be everywhere. Our approach and welcome must connect with Jesus, and not the paternalistic, hypocritical selective outrage of the culture warrior class.
Let Jesus be our teacher on what ought to outrage us, but more importantly, on how we ought to treat those who advertise themselves through various rituals as being the “excluded individuals” religious people dislike the most.
Michael Medved may be a pop culture commentator, but when it comes to engaging that culture, I’ll take the carpenter of Nazareth.