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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. bostontola

    If the bible is the word of god, why is it not superior in intellectual content or moral content to men of that time?

    October 13, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      it's a simple answer, and i suspect you already know it.

      the bible is not the word of god. god doesn't exist. the bible is the word of men, men that thought the earth was flat, slavery was a good thing and women are property. that's why so many parts of it are disgusting.

      god made man right after man made god.

      October 13, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
      • richard miller

        you get a lot of white women w that spiel?

        October 13, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
  2. TominVA

    Which ones have you studied?

    October 13, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
  3. AvdBerg

    @ Richard Cranium

    The believers go by hearing (John 3:8). He that is spiritual judgeth all things (1 Cor. 2:14).

    http://WWW.AWORLDDECEIVED.CA

    October 13, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
    • TROLLALERT

      Don't bother going to the site it is full of lies. Click the report abuse link to get rid of this troll.

      October 13, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
  4. AvdBerg

    @ Richard Cranium

    The believers go by hearing (John 3:8). He that is spiritual judgeth (discerneth) all things (1 Cor. 2:14).

    http://WWW.AWORLDDECEIVED.CA

    October 13, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
    • TROLLALERT

      Don't bother going to the site it is full of lies. Click the report abuse link to get rid of this troll!

      October 13, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
  5. TrollAlert

    It's why it's not worth going to AvdBerg's site, it's so full of lies this person can't see straight. That's why when you see that troll posting you click the report abuse link.

    October 13, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
  6. Bootyfunk

    a sad story of a woman indoctrinated into a the cult of christianity. too bad she hasn't learned you don't need god to be a good person.

    October 13, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
  7. tom horn

    Eric Hoffer wrote a book(look him up) in the 50's called "on faith" in it he say's "belief in a holy cause, represent,s the lost belief in ourselve,s" this woman a perfect example ,as are all tattoo afficianado.s who dont know who they are.

    October 13, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Don't condemn all those who have tattoos because of this woman and her choices.

      October 13, 2013 at 4:32 pm |
  8. bostontola

    Let me get this straight, please correct me if I get this wrong:

    An omnipotent, omniscient, loving god created man rife with faults. Then this loving god burns men in hell eternally for having those faults.

    October 13, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • Really?

      No just YOU

      October 13, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
      • bostontola

        Really?

        October 13, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
      • Wow

        I am curious how can you look in the mirror every day and know you have no personal integrity? You do know by constantly trolling on here, stealing other peoples handles demonstrates to yourself you have no personal integrity. You really need to get professional help.

        October 13, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      nail on the head.

      October 13, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • bostontola

      Interesting, no credible corrections. Why would you follow that morality system?

      October 13, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
    • Notperfect

      Have often struggled with this one myself. Though, man was created to glorify God. To love God of his own choice. Man was given free will in hopes that he would choose to love God. I suppose God could have opted to create beings who would love Him no matter, but love with no choice really isn't love. I can't reconcile how the sovereignty of God and the free will of man completely work. Though I know God wants us to know Him. Isaiah 1:18 "Come, now, and let us reason together..."

      October 13, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
      • G to the T

        Why would a perfect being need to be glorified? Glorification sounds a lot like stroking an ego to me. Or as Kirk put it "Why would God need a starship?"

        October 15, 2013 at 11:17 am |
  9. tallulah13

    Lutheranism is just another sect of the christian cult. It is fundamentally no different than any of the thousands of other religions humans have followed. Do what (insert name of god) wants and (insert name of god) will reward you. If you do something that angers (insert name of god), then (insert name of god) will punish you. Of course this god requires a human intercessors to "interpret" his will, thus you have priests, pastors, popes, shaman, priestesses and preachers.

    Religion is as old as humanity. It's roots are in the fear of the unknown. Gods are created out of the desire to control or bargain with the unknown. The more we know about the universe around us, the less we need gods. Think about it: There used to be gods for everything – from rain to hunting to fertility. Every time we learn to understand something, the gods go away. (Where have all the thunder gods gone?)

    Humans are outgrowing the need for gods. I suspect that is why so many fundamentalist of every religion do their best to undermine science and education. It's bad for business.

    October 13, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • Rainer Braendlein

      In contrast to idolatry (for example the old Greek Religion) Christianity doesn't worsen people but reforms their life.

      All false religions lead to a "justification of sin"; only Christianity releases from sin. Justification of sin is the basis of moral worsening.

      Sin is no abstract term. To a large extent it simply means egoism; when somebody makes profit or gains benefit on the cost of his neighbour.

      I guess if there is a contest between all religions, I would prefer and favour the religion which reforms people.

      Don't you want your neighbour to love you? How is the current state?

      October 13, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
  10. Ed

    The story of the woman in the story: once a loony and loser, always a loony and loser.

    October 13, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
  11. jill

    @Rainer Braendlein, resort! There is no caveat to the Klein bottle, and there will be no gold watch for the unspoken zero.

    Focus your nose on the test tube. Stay succulently upon your velodrome and fear not the coming of the essential kangaroo. Strawberries are your incidental chemistry. Present the fulcrum in advance of the gypsum cookie, for as the tree is combed, so goes the predicate. Expand quietly but do not relish.

    Whether or not you agree with the plumber, harvest away ye hearties. Kalabash in Friebourg but not in spanners while it's raining. Bring out the mustard but flap flap flap until takeoff. Why would you say such a thing in the presence of the substrate? 64. 1112. Welcome to the new sandwich lumberyard. Bus stops follow movement, or do they?

    The impediment to your posterior is large but can be dissected with chestnuts. Obermeyer. Glasnost and shallot cookies will do the main job when a steamshovel is too distant for pomegranate.

    And remember, never ever miss an opportunity to watch an elephant paint Mozart.

    October 13, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
  12. 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 HUMAN BEINGS.

    Tough luck, kids.
    Tough luck, ALL HUMAN BEINGS.

    October 13, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
    • Observer

      I love to spew my hatred of all things biblical and display my hypocrisy where ever i can.

      October 13, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  13. jill

    @Rainer Braendlein, resort! There is no caveat to the Klein bottle, and there will be no gold watch for the unspoken zero.

    Focus your nose on the test tube. Stay succulently upon your velodrome and fear not the coming of the essential kangaroo. Strawberries are your incidental chemistry. Present the fulcrum in advance of the gypsum cookie, for as the tree is combed, so goes the predicate. Expand quietly but do not relish.

    Whether or not you agree with the plumber, harvest away ye hearties. Kalabash in Friebourg but not in spanners while it's raining. Bring out the mustard but flap flap flap until takeoff. Why would you say such a thing in the presence of the substrate? 64. 1112. Welcome to the new sandwich lumberyard. Bus stops follow movement, or do they?

    The impediment to your posterior is large but can be dissected with chestnuts. Obermeyer. Glasnost and shallot cookies will do the main job when a steamshovel is too distant for pomegranate.

    And remember, never ever miss an opportunity to watch an elephant paint Mozart.

    October 13, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
    • Ed

      Yeah! Jill is back! Go Jill go.

      October 13, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
  14. Really?

    "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things"

    That's why the data, has shown that atheists have happier and healthier lives than conservative Christians. Your post is built on a lie.

    October 13, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
    • Observer

      Atheists have murdered more innocent people in the last 100 years than were killed in all previous centuries combined.

      October 13, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
      • Observer

        Atheists NEVER CAME REMOTELY CLOSE to what God did according to the Bible.

        He killed ALL HUMAN BEINGS.

        October 13, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
      • bostontola

        Males have killed more people in the last century than all previous, what is your point?

        October 13, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
      • David

        You really need to look-up what totalitarian is since you can't seem to comprehend the meaning of it. Plus religions have killed billions making your point moot.

        October 13, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • bostonola

      atheism is unhealthy for children and other living things

      October 13, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
      • Observer

        Atheism is very unhealthy for children and other living things

        October 13, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
      • Really?

        Yawn...obviously the data has proven you wrong. Keep trolling...

        October 13, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
      • Really?

        Only a so called atheist would pretend to be bored about the atheists mass murder of innocents... yawn.

        October 13, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
      • Wow

        "Really?

        Only a so called atheist would pretend to be bored about the atheists mass murder of innocents... yawn."

        Another great example of you not having any personal integrity.

        October 13, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
      • bostontola

        Coward.

        October 13, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
    • David

      Atheism is extremely unhealthy for children and other living things

      October 13, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
      • Wow

        "David

        Atheism is extremely unhealthy for children and other living things"

        Keep demonstrating to yourself you have no personal integrity.

        October 13, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
  15. 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 1:18 pm |
    • sam stone

      u r a liar and an idiot

      October 13, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
  16. Yo!

    You are as low as all the other trolls on here, you're pathetic.

    October 13, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
  17. Yo!

    Trolling only makes you look desperate proving your faith is not what you claim.

    October 13, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
  18. AvdBerg

    The real truth can be found at http://www.gaychristian101.com

    October 13, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
  19. AvdBerg

    @ Rainer Braendlein

    No prophesy of the scripture is of any private interpretation (2 Peter 1:20) and unless people repent (changing of spirits) they will remain spiritually blind. Without the Baptism of Repentance (Mark 1:4) people will remain spiritually blind and separated from God.

    For the true meaning what it means to repent we invite you to visit our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    October 13, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
    • TROLLALERT

      AvdBerg is a troll on this blog, don't bother going to their site its full of lies. Click the report abuse link to get rid of this troll.

      October 13, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
  20. bostontola

    Being blinded by faith may shield your beliefs from facts, but it doesn't erase the existence of those facts. Facts will outlast beliefs no matter how strong the belief. That founds my hope in our future.

    October 13, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
    • bostontola

      1. You are a coward, live with that.

      2. Fact is God is imaginary.

      October 13, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
      • bostonola

        Fact is God Is
        Fact is I'm not

        October 13, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
      • bostontola

        1. You demonstrate cowardice every time you mimic other commenter's names. Sad.

        2. You demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of what a fact is by your statement.

        October 13, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
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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.