October 12th, 2013
08:50 PM ET

A journey of faith in five tattoos

Opinion by the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, special to CNN

(CNN) - The first tattoo I got was meant to set me apart from my conservative suburban Christian community, a way to signify “I don't belong to your tribe.”

Little did I realize that if I lived long enough I’d eventually become mainstream.

Tattoos now cover me from shoulder to wrist, but with the ubiquity of body art today, in many of the places I hang out I look more like a soccer mom than an outlaw.

Even the ill-advised and regrettable tattoos are part of my story, and ultimately, that’s what tattoos are: a way to wear stories–– our mistakes, celebrations, relationships, insights and losses–– on the skin.

Today, as an ordained Lutheran pastor, when I stand behind the altar table on Sundays and lift up the bread and wine and tell the story of the night Jesus gathered with his faltering friends for a meal that tasted of freedom, the arms that lift those common and holy things are themselves, common.

But they are covered in images of the holy.

These tattoos, both the Christian and decidedly non-Christian ones, tell the story of how I became who I am today. An unlikely lady preacher who loves Jesus a lot, but also swears a little.

1. The long-stemmed rose

It was 1986 and I was dating an older man when I got my first tattoo.

He was 20. I was in high school and not legally of age to do many of the things he introduced me to.

The biker dude at the tattoo shop didn’t ask my age. We were in and out of the dingy, little converted bungalow in half an hour. My body was forever altered. As was my attitude. The long-stemmed rose inked on my right hip set me apart. Now I. Was. An. Outlaw. The most Outlaw Church of Christ girl out there.

I don’t show a lot of people that very first tattoo. I tipped the scale at 236 pounds when I was pregnant with my first child, so that long-stemmed rose tattoo, which at the time was the self-affirmation of a really tall teenage girl, is now an unidentifiable blobby stretch mark which can easily double as a Rorschach test. So…what do YOU think this is?

2. The Peace Dove

I would get my second tattoo a year or two later after hitchhiking up Highway 101 to San Francisco from Pepperdine University, where I failed out after a single term, having succeeded more in impressing frat boys with my ability to drink like a man than in actually showing up for class.

I got a peace dove tattooed onto my ankle at the famous Lyle Tuttle Tattoo shop. I fancied myself a revolutionary at the time, and was getting arrested at protests–– when I was coherent enough to show up for them. I wanted to change the world but I had a hard enough time remembering to change my socks.

3. The Snake Goddess

When I was a young adult, everything felt like a crisis, as though my skin was letting too much in. Too many emotions and fears and threats and uncertainties.

I needed my skin to protect me, so I had tattooed on my arm an image of the Snake Goddess from a pre-historic Minoan society. She wore a long skirt, and was shirtless, and in each hand she held snakes above her head.

At 21, I needed to be strong and so I did the next best thing: I pretended I was. I claimed the strongest sacred image of a woman I could find, since my fundamentalist Christian upbringing had nothing helpful to offer in this area, and I knew I needed to borrow something from somewhere holy.

4. Saint Mary Magdalen

I got my first Christian tattoo in seminary: an image of Saint Mary Magdalen taken from Saint Alban’s Psalter, a 12th-century illuminated manuscript.

One hand is opened to heaven, while the other makes a pointing gesture as though to say “Shut the hell up, I have something to tell you.”

The other half of this depiction of Mary Magdalen announcing the resurrection did not fit on my arm. It’s a huddled mass of male disciples with befuddled looks on their faces, several of them pointing stupidly at scrolls.

I’d returned to the religion (but not the denomination) I was raised in, after 10 years searching elsewhere. I was struggling with my call to ordained Christian ministry for many reasons, including my own checkered past and a decidedly non-pastoral personality.

I started to study more about Mary Magdalen, again borrowing strength from a sacred female figure.

On my right forearm is the image of this deeply faithful, yet deeply flawed woman, who, like me, had been delivered from so much, and who had dropped everything to follow Jesus. Jesus, who loves like crazy and eats with all the wrong people and touches the unclean, chose Mary to be the first witness to his resurrection.

She was the one he chose to “go and tell”. Maybe to those more pious and good disciples, she seemed a questionable choice for the job. But Jesus is just like that.

5. The Liturgical Year

As a seminary graduation present to myself, my Snake Goddess was covered by the Advent image of a night sky from which the angel Gabriel announces to Elizabeth and Zechariah that they are going to have a bug-eating desert-dwelling baby boy: John the Baptist.

From this flows images of the church’s entire liturgical year. My arm has turned into a sort of stained-glass window telling the story of Jesus: a nativity for Christmas; Jesus in the desert for Lent; the Marys at either side of Jesus’ crucifixion for Good Friday; the angel and the women at the empty tomb for Easter; and Mary and the apostles with flames on their heads for Pentecost at my wrist.

I didn’t see it as a cover-up of the Snake Goddess as much as a layering of my story. My tattoos create a colorful confession of my journey to the cranky, beautiful faith I hold today.

The enormous image of the Annunciation currently in progress on my back that hides the black scratchy tattoo Jimmy the Junkie gave me in his living room….now that’s a coverup.

But that’s another story for another time.

The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber is author of the New York Times Best Selling memoir, "Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint," and the founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado.

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Church • Faith • Jesus • Opinion

soundoff (809 Responses)
  1. Stephen

    Charmed, I'm sure.

    October 13, 2013 at 9:17 am |
  2. Chad

    I love how so many of these religious preachers are recovered drug addicts. People who make all the wrong choices in life, are so weak that they will hurt and steal from those around them just to get high. Now, they clean there act up and suddenly they the rest of us, who made good choices, how to live our lives. The only bigger joke than the type of individual I have described, is the people who follow them. Religion is consistently the most destructive force through out history: we invent gods and then ruin the lives of our fellow man in their name. More over, all you have to do is travel to the Vatican or watch this show to realize the racket that is Christianity. Is it really better to suffer in life with the assumption that paradise awaits? If thats the case, why do we see (throughout history) decadent Kings and Clergy living in luxury while the people suffer?

    October 13, 2013 at 9:06 am |
    • A slice of real life

      I'm not sure where you're going with this Chad. Reformed addicts are reformed. That's it. It's never to late to start over. If they made some mistakes at least they changed. The one's I've met are some of the people who are most opposed to luxury and most open to the needs of the suffering and the poor. Besides I for one would prefer the company of someone who has been down and out to the company of someone who thinks they are so perfect their backside squeaks when they have a b.m. and if some of those recovering addicts believe a few strange things along the way I couldn't care less.

      October 13, 2013 at 9:42 am |
    • Pirate Kate

      I find that the religiously fanatic are always those people who have an addictive personality. They always seem to trade alcohol and drugs for religious addiction, which is quite capable of being every bit as destructive to society as their original addiction.

      October 13, 2013 at 9:46 am |
      • Topher

        I knew that.

        October 13, 2013 at 10:11 am |
      • Bill Deacon

        Me too. The Eucharist gets me all excited.

        October 13, 2013 at 10:13 am |
        • snowboarder

          don't even get me started on ritual mock cannibalization.

          October 13, 2013 at 10:19 am |
      • Really though

        Who would be more excited about having dinner with Rodger Ebert or Keith Richards?

        October 13, 2013 at 10:31 am |
    • Jeff E.

      The people who hit bottom in life HAVE to open their hearts to something bigger. Meanwhile, people like you, Chad, sit on your make-believe high-horse, judging her for the weaknesses and mistakes that are inherent in ALL human beings. You could use a little of the humility and spirituality that these "weak" ex-addicts possess.

      October 13, 2013 at 10:07 am |
    • peick

      But they know how to spell "their."

      October 13, 2013 at 10:25 am |
      • Really though

        Are you that hard up to feel better than someone you are willing to peick through the smallest typos to get there?

        October 13, 2013 at 10:35 am |
    • Lisa

      It can be incredibly difficult for some people to step away from what they have been taught to believe from the time they learned to walk. May be the case here. They at least don't promote her as someone who tells others how to live. I have to believe some pastors are sincere in wanting to help people rather than pushing an agenda. It's the only way they know how to help I guess.

      October 13, 2013 at 10:46 am |
  3. tom LI

    All in all this story is but another of the same old fallen-risen bios. One in a million and one no better or worse than anyone else.
    Its funny to me that ONLY Xtians find it important to capitalize on what is the most mundane of Human acts. Getting ones shyte together.

    Most non-believers who fall and rise again, do not find it very important or special that they fought their way out. They just come out the other side, brush the dirt off and go about their business. But not Born-again, re-converts, etc...they have to make their story public, show how SPECIAL they are that according to them God called them and pulled them out. God came to ME special, God makes me special.

    This woman has simply been chasing the carrot of Being Special – being different – and it now centers around her being Tat'd – which frankly is now one of the most boring of social cliches there are. Who cares anymore? Big deal you rebelled with tattoos and risky behaviors.

    These stories are nothing but Hubris, nothing but a LOOK at ME I'm special and EDGY!. Oooooh! Edgy...not!

    Where are the rebels who dont rely on cliches? Who dont do what every other alleged rebel does, leave one group only to join another usually with even stricter rules of admission...!

    Boring Pastor Aldy, boring tale of yet another arrogant Xtian looking to self-aggrandize.

    October 13, 2013 at 9:06 am |
    • Yeah

      It's almost as bad as the "look at me I'm calling someone out" posts.

      October 13, 2013 at 10:07 am |
    • Pete Zanko

      Hear hear!

      October 13, 2013 at 11:08 am |
  4. Rachael

    half way through Pastrix now and I'm loving it!! great job, pastor nadia!! i'm also a seminary grad but was told that i wasn't "cut out" for ordained ministry. 🙂 love this whole thing.

    October 13, 2013 at 8:11 am |
  5. AvdBerg

    The above article about the church of Nadia Bolz-Weber depicts and confirms everything about "so-called" religion and that the Word of God is correct when it records in Revelation 12:9 that this whole world has been deceived.

    All those that call themselves Christians are not necessarily followers of Jesus Christ, but rather followers of an image of a false god and a false Christ, including Nadia Bolz-Weber (Matthew 24:24), and they are not all Israel, which are of the Israel of God (Romans 9:6; Gal. 6:16).

    For a better understanding of the above article and the history of 'Christianity' and 'Judaism', we invite you to read the articles 'Can Christianity or Any Other Religion Save You?' and 'The Decline and Fall of a Divided Nation (Matthew 12:25)' listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    All the other pages and articles listed on our website explain how and by whom this whole world has been deceived as confirmed in Revelation 12:9, and what mankind must do to be reunited with the true and living God.

    October 13, 2013 at 7:28 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      Once again Andy...stealing advertisement for your god.

      October 13, 2013 at 8:08 am |
    • tom LI

      The deceiver is IN you. Anyone who claims to know ALL of Everything, especially of a book that demands to be interpreted and has no actual one coherent and solid theme, that has been manipulated to mean many things over time – yes, that person, those people who claim the ONE and ONLY Truth – those people are the DECEIVERS.

      Be warned, the DECEIVERS are always the ones claiming everyone else is deceived!

      October 13, 2013 at 8:55 am |
    • Pirate Kate

      I find Israel to be the least like what I think the Creator would want people to be like. Instead of learning from the American genocide of our indigenous population, Israel repeated it by herding the Palestinians (who have been there every bit as long as the Jews) into a reservation and stealing the land their families have held for centuries. You can no longer subdue other tribes with your religion. I don't fear your "god" and those of us who have a clue can see the objective of your elaborate religious scheme.

      October 13, 2013 at 9:57 am |
      • Pete Zanko

        Agreed. In fact, I think it's fun to mock their little "god."

        October 13, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
      • tallulah13

        Not to mention repeating their own history with the Nazis, this time as the aggressors. I find it absolutely appalling.

        October 13, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
  6. CNN Belief Blog Commentator

    Hmm, while I don't like the idea of depicting the biblical figures, especially the angels, I have to say this was an interesting article. Very forth right too, even about her Snake Goddess and its origins (and perhaps a hint of what she was into at the time.) Have to say I am kind of surprised, this was a decent article by Belief Blog for a change. Thumbs up.

    October 13, 2013 at 6:20 am |
  7. sick of christian phonies

    I used to joke about the all the sheep hopping on the "cool, edgy, I'm different" tattoo bandwagon- monkey see, monkey do. I said, pretty soon even nuns will have tattoos. Pretty close.

    October 13, 2013 at 6:18 am |
  8. galt


    October 13, 2013 at 2:21 am |
  9. Not a Fan

    I'm not a fan of tattoos. Most of them look like the various stages of a real bad bruise that's healing - black and blue, with some bloody tinges and various bilious tints of yellow and green. I often actually cringe when I see them, thinking of the pain.

    They also remind me of when you do that thing with Silly Putty, where you stick it to the Sunday newspaper comic section and lift it off...

    Suit yourself, though.

    October 13, 2013 at 2:00 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      you must be in some weird area where everyone gets terrible blotchy tattoos. some tattoos are bad, some are good. i've seen both in equal amounts. seen some really amazing work too.

      October 13, 2013 at 2:09 am |
  10. Reality # 2

    From the tattooed reverend aka painted lady's commentary:

    "Today, as an ordained Lutheran pastor, when I stand behind the altar table on Sundays and lift up the bread and wine and tell the story of the night Jesus gathered with his faltering friends for a meal that tasted of freedom, the arms that lift those common and holy things are themselves, common."

    But did such a gathering ever occur? It did not as per many contemporary NT scholars.

    To wit:

    See for example: http://wiki.faithfutures.org/index.php/016_Supper_and_Eucharist

    An excerpt:

    "At the same time, (Professor) Luedemann concludes that the portrayal of Jesus celebrating such a ritual on the night before his death is not historical. He is clear that there is "no generic relationship" between any actual final meal and the Lord's Supper understood in cultic terms. He also denies the Passover character of the supper as a Markan creation. Like Meier (below), Luedemann does accept the saying (Mark 14:25) about drinking wine in the kingdom of God as authentic. He concludes: (this saying) "hardly came into being in the early community, for in it Jesus does not exercise any special function for believers at the festal meal in heaven which is imminent. Only Jesus' expectation of a the future kingdom of God stands at the centre, not Jesus as saviour, judge or intercessor."

    October 12, 2013 at 11:45 pm |
  11. Douglas

    Tattoos are a sin.

    Defiling the body by inking or carving on it is a sign of mental duress.

    October 12, 2013 at 11:38 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      So you are saying if you are suffering mental illness and mutilate your body it is a sin, correct?

      October 12, 2013 at 11:41 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      you wouldn't say that after you saw my shweet-@ss ink!

      October 13, 2013 at 1:28 am |
    • Pirate Kate

      According to your religion, judging people is also a sin, but I see you're doing plenty of that.

      October 13, 2013 at 9:59 am |
    • sam stone

      Doogie: How is that closet? Still confining?

      October 13, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
    • Sue

      Gluttony is also a sin. It is in many lists of sins. I hope you are taking upon yourself to point this out to all fat pastors (and there are many), and their flocks. Oh, and don't leave out all the women who have defiled their bodies with the evil piercing of ears. Thank you so much for your service in this important ministry. Sheesh!

      October 14, 2013 at 10:39 am |
  12. Patti Butler

    I just want to be the person that invents a ten year ink! Tattoos are a personal choice. They can mean anything the person thinks they mean. If this womans tattoos are spiritual to her, then so be it. I thank God we are not all alike on the matter of body art, or sleazy tattoos. But the one thing we all have in common is the right to choose to get one or not.
    Vivat vivere! Peace out.

    October 12, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
  13. El Pibe

    The Israelites were forbidden to engage in this practice, one that was common among some other ancient peoples. (Le 19:28) For example, there were times when the Egyptians tattooed the names or symbols of their deities on their breast or arms. By complying with Jehovah’s law not to disfigure their bodies, the Israelites would have stood out as different from other nations. (De 14:1, 2) The prohibition would also have impressed upon them a proper respect for the human body as God’s creation, to be used in honoring him.—Ps 100:3; 139:13-16; Ro 12:1.

    October 12, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
    • berryrat

      If you believe this, then don't get a tattoo. No need to judge others with our own imagined yardstick.

      October 13, 2013 at 9:11 pm |
  14. tallulah13

    I have a tattoo, as well. There's a story behind it. There is still no evidence that any gods exist.

    October 12, 2013 at 11:00 pm |
  15. Christopher

    Ever notice how everyone thinks their tattoos have such fascinating stories behind them?

    October 12, 2013 at 10:01 pm |
    • Rufus Lerkin

      There's a fascinating story behind your comment, I can tell. But I recall some of that with tattooed ppl I have met.

      October 12, 2013 at 10:21 pm |
  16. Question for an experienced atheist

    Why is imagination not considered a dimension?

    October 12, 2013 at 9:53 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      For more-or-less the same reason that Tuesday is not considered a cheese.

      October 12, 2013 at 9:58 pm |
      • I defer

        I was going to be technical about it but your reply is close enough for this "clever" religitard. No worries here.

        October 12, 2013 at 10:18 pm |
        • Question for an experienced atheist

          Tom's response was really funny. Your response is just mean. It's a shame too I would have enjoyed a technical response to that question.

          October 13, 2013 at 5:23 am |
      • Question for an experienced atheist

        I get it, it's because Tuesday is a concept and does not actually exist. Cheese is tangible. Some day I'd like to learn how to classify the intangible.

        October 13, 2013 at 5:31 am |
        • Twilight Zone

          "between light and shadow, between science and superst!tion....." That is were religion exists or between logic and fantasy.

          October 13, 2013 at 6:15 am |
        • Pete Zanko

          There's no use arguing with you. See, anything you raise is posited on an unproven, false fiction, namely that there's some sort of all-powerful creator being who gives two licks about humans.

          October 13, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
      • Pete Zanko

        Great, great comeback!

        October 13, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
      • Sue

        Sitting aboard my sailboat, in Alaska, in a gale, laughing my head off! (Yikes! It better not roll overboard!) Thank you.

        October 14, 2013 at 10:47 am |
    • tallulah13

      I think it is considered a dimension in the Twilight Zone. Or maybe it is the Twilight Zone.

      October 13, 2013 at 3:45 am |
      • Question for an experienced atheist

        Well that's mostly it, Isn't it?

        Religions and philosophies are about ideas but atheism is looking for some way to measure them. You can sort of "measure" Tuesday but you can't measure things like capitalism, God and enjoyment.

        October 13, 2013 at 5:34 am |
        • G to the T

          "Measure" seems a fairly crude description. I think what most atheists want is for their beliefs to be backed up by what they feel is an accurate representation of reality.

          October 15, 2013 at 11:00 am |
  17. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    October 12, 2013 at 9:39 pm |
    • Observer

      (Gen. 7:21) “And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and ALL HUMAN BEINGS”

      Wow! All little children. Tough luck for them.

      All the fetuses, too. God's version of abortion for the ENTIRE WORLD. Not ONE SIN commited by them. OOOOOPS!

      October 12, 2013 at 9:42 pm |
      • Observer

        Oooops my bad...I've misrepresented the Truth again, how many readers have i deceived?

        October 13, 2013 at 6:44 am |
      • ploj

        How about the 58,000,000 u approved since roe v wade?

        October 13, 2013 at 5:57 pm |
        • midwest rail

          Do the math. If only 2 % of the population is atheist, then the vast majority of those abortions were obtained by believers.

          October 13, 2013 at 6:04 pm |
    • Jesus

      Prayer does not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!

      October 13, 2013 at 11:31 am |
      • ploj

        Lol. What a boob. Millions of examples of prayer's effacacy

        October 13, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
        • G to the T

          Great! Please cite one. All the info I've seen so far showed no affect and/or a slightly detrimental affect in prayer studies.

          October 15, 2013 at 11:03 am |
    • berryrat

      Perhaps it does, but it is not the only way to change things.

      October 13, 2013 at 9:14 pm |
  18. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    If I were Christian I'd be Lutheran. Nailing shit the church house door since 1517

    October 12, 2013 at 9:37 pm |
    • UberSomething

      Martin Luther wrote an anti-Jew pamphlet that was used by the Nazis in forming their ideology. Good choice.

      October 12, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
    • Sara

      The ELCA. would be one of themore tolerable Christianities. They are hardly going to take Luther's every thought as gospel when they don't exactly take the gospel as gospel.

      October 13, 2013 at 6:58 am |
  19. No to tattoos

    Tattoos are a taboo.

    October 12, 2013 at 8:54 pm |
    • Rapper

      In God's service are all kinds of people, people with tattoos, a rap artist, a saint, a nun and everybody else in the between.

      Only God knows their heart and he welcomes them all!

      October 12, 2013 at 9:02 pm |
      • Jaden

        Right, that is what the scriptures say in Romans 8–Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

        October 13, 2013 at 5:09 pm |
        • G to the T

          yeah – because never mind what god said previously, Paul knows what he REALLY meant...

          October 15, 2013 at 11:04 am |
    • Matthew 22

      37. Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

      October 13, 2013 at 7:36 am |
      • Jon

        "If a man is caught in the act of raping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay fifty pieces of silver to her father. Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he will never be allowed to divorce her." – Deuteronomy 22:28-29 NLT

        October 13, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
        • Richard Cranium

          A practiced still continued in Morocco

          Woderful religion.....

          October 13, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
    • berryrat

      Taboo to who? You? Well then don't get a tattoo. Leave everybody else along.

      October 13, 2013 at 9:15 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.