This is the sixth installment of the blog posts on silly Christian controversies using something as harmless as tattoos and earrings as example, simply because some Christians get so obsessed by them.

Here’s an excerpt from the book China Rich Girlfriend: ‘Eleanor sidled up to Astrid and began her commentary, “The only thing missing from that service was a good Methodist pastor. Where is Tony Chin when you need him? I didn’t really care for that … minister. Did you see he was waring an earring? What sort of … minister is he?”‘ Sounds familiar? This is funny considering the fact that even a non-Christian author knows about Christian hangups. 

As a matter of review, we have done posts so far of the following questions. First, someone would say, “I don’t like it. Therefore it’s wrong.”  Second, “Maybe he’s doing it for the gospel. The problem is why someone is getting ink.”  Third, “the body is the temple of God. By inking it, the owner shows disrespect towards God’s creation.”  Fourth, “someone may stumble.” Fifth, “the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible says that getting tats is wrong.” Today, we come to the sixth objection about tattoos and piercings, “It’s a cultural problem … you don’t understand what tattoos and piercings mean in our culture.”

“It’s a cultural problem…” is yet another magical key used by the church police to regulate neutral behaviors in the church. Culture, first of all, is shifting sand. It means different things for different people. For the present objectors, culture probably means a set of acceptable beliefs and practices. Acceptable for what and to whom?

The objector assumes that everyone shares his culture and this is precisely where the objection goes badly wrong. We don’t all share the same cultural assumptions. For instance, tattoos were once used in the Roman times to show the mark of owners on slaves (like the modern way of branding cattle), but we’ve moved on since. For some in Asia (e.g., the Yakuza’s), tattoos are similar to gang clothing here in the US (though some US gang members also sport certain tattoos), but that has definitely changed. If we walk into many MMA gym, you’d find more fighters with ink than not. Gang tattoos in many cases have become a thing of the past.

In the case of earring, the cultural implications are as varied as tattoos. Deuteronomy 15.17 tells us that when a slave wanted to work for a master even though he’s freed, he could choose to pierce his ear and show that loyalty. The slave could then work as a freedman for the master. In ancient Egypt, both men and women wore earrings. Earring has also a very complicated set of interpretations in modern world. For instance, when I got my ear pierced, one young person suggested that I ought do both ears. When I was growing up, heterosexual men only wore earring on the left side. However, these days, no less a mega star than David Beckham or Cristiano Ronaldo wear them on both ears. We have no doubt about these men’s sexual orientation (this, of course, isn’t my homophobic statement). The point of the matter is, culture shifts and changes faster than ever. Someone remarked to me once, “I wonder whether Christians know how stupid they look to the outside world.” My reply would be, “I wonder whether Christians know that there’s an outside world.” In theory, they know, but in practice, not so much.

The problem of tattoos and earrings, if we put the problem in pastoral term, is that the church can’t understand culture. Neither is the average Christian a competent interpreter of culture. As incompetent interpreters of culture, we’re yet so quick to use “culture” as an excuse to prohibit the action of other people. The controversy, if we can even call it a controversy, exposes the church’s culturally unaware biases. Quite often, the church exists in a bubble and a time warp, while the rest of the world passes us by. This is tragic. Thus, before we prohibit other people from certain action, maybe we would best examine whether we interpret such action correctly instead of shoehorning out own grid on the matter. How can the church reach out to the field, if she thinks the field is a minefield?

Someone once said something along the line of “the problem isn’t whether we can but whether we should.” I think no matter whether we can or we should, I believe we all “should” think hard about the logic of our philosophy and read hard the scripture on which we base our faith before spouting off our “wisdom” on a fellow believer. THAT we should do. For the page image today, I deliberately set it to the photo of my earring along with my Hugo Boss suit.  Can I? Should I? I can and should.

Back to China Rich Girlfriend, I must spoil the story by saying that Eleanor, the one who complained about the earring on a minister, is an insufferable schemer. If that’s the kind of culture we offend with tattoos and earrings, the offense isn’t so bad then. The bigger question becomes, “When someone comes into my church, does s/he find the Insufferable Schemer Club or a loving community?”