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. Lionly Lamb


    October 13, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
  2. AE

    I've listened to most of her sermons online. She gives me hope. And I love when she refers to her church – House for All Sinners and Saints as HFAS.S (half as.s) haha.

    October 13, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I watch documentaries about space and the earth and history. Stuff like that. Stromatolites give me hope.

      October 13, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
  3. hebrewlanguage

    It seems like a snapshot of a some what reckless life of confusion trying desperately to shed a fundamental christian upbringing. Perhaps there are better ways to deal with a philosophical struggle than communicating to the world about deeply emotional problems via permanent body art. Art therapy, self-help, volunteering etc. I'm very strongly against discrimination and prejudging someone but it's hard to overcome the fact that many people with tattoos do have checkered pasts or major issues that have needed resolution – and they found that resolution in tattoos. One can't help but see a person with major ink and think – something is a little different here. We must be sensitive and understanding but at the same time, I think tattoos will always be a red flag.

    October 13, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
  4. Lionly Lamb

    Deniability is a commoner's beholding... Be one for or against tarries naught the undeniable beholder's thought progressives... God is a constructivism around creative reasonableness upon a worldly constituency of pillared hierarchies within many a socialistic ambiance of unsure, relational cerebral rationalisms entrenched stoically and enamored fervently in ever deepening psychological responses being as a subjective resonation of any one or many but never the all...

    October 13, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
    • .

      The belief blog pseudo intellect again.

      October 13, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
      • Dave

        There are quite a few.

        October 13, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
  5. Vic


    John 3:16,17
    "16 For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him."

    Romans 6:23
    "23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."

    Ephesians 2:8,9
    "8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast."

    Scripture Is From:

    New American Standard Bible (NASB)
    Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation


    October 13, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
    • Yo!

      Hey troll we've been over this with you about your cult. It's not free when there are strings attached, it's why the writers of your cult used the fear of hell to sell it. Plus, it won't make it true no matter how many times you post it.

      October 13, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
      • Vic

        The post was deleted!

        October 13, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
        • Yo!

          For a good reason!

          October 13, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
        • Vic

          And what is that?!

          October 13, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
        • Yo!

          It's all a lie.

          October 13, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
        • Vic

          How does deleting it serve "Freedom of Speech?!"

          October 13, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
        • Yo!

          I am sure all the other trolls are saying the same thing.

          October 13, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
    • sam stone

      Try to stop being such a snivelling little sycophant, vic

      Or, if you have salvation, go meet jeebus now

      he is waiting on your silky mouth

      October 13, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
    • Vic

      I was answering a poster's question about redundancy with the following when my first post was being deleted:

      Redundancy here in "Free Gift" is for emphasis and not classification.

      October 13, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
      • AdMan

        Oh good, you did get to see it. No, it is senseless hype.

        October 13, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
    • AdMan

      Maybe barrages of Bible quotes which have nothing to do with the topic of the article are deleted.

      Gee, I hope you got to see my post about Paul's Shopping Channel/National Enquirer advertising tactic. And "free gift" is a redundant phrase.

      October 13, 2013 at 2:53 pm |
      • Vic

        I saw your reply, and the above answer was for, actually.

        My post is related to the topic. I was going over the comments, and many posters, unfortunately, are judging and accusing the Reverent of not being a Christian by her appearance whereas God is the ONLY judge of the heart!

        October 13, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
        • Vic

          "..was for you, actually."

          October 13, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
    • James


      Great post! Awesome! Thanks! In a story about faith, we need markedly important verses like the ones you have posted.

      October 13, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
    • .

      Vic = James same poster

      October 13, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
  6. Tattoos, dancing, shellfish, se-x and fun are mysterious and awkward for fundamentalists

    Education answers questions.

    October 13, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
  7. richard miller

    the message is obscured by the trahiness

    October 13, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
  8. AdMan

    "FREE GIFT" - the hallmark of the Shopping Channel and National Enquirer ads! Old Paul of Tarsus was quite the salesman.

    *hint: "free gift" is redundant and is used for hype. A gift **is** free or it is not a gift.

    October 13, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
    • Vic

      Redundancy here is for emphasis and not classification.

      October 13, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
  9. AvdBerg

    Visit this site for the real truth http://www.gaychristian101.com

    October 13, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
  10. Beth Cousland

    Scars are tattoos we do not choose. Tattoos are scars we do (choose).. Together, they silently tell our stories.

    October 13, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
    • Bootyfunk


      October 13, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
    • richard miller

      oh wow that's like really deep and stuff

      October 13, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
    • sam stone

      tattoos are bumper stickers for humans

      October 13, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
    • Vic

      Tattoos, which are by choice, I concur, are one form of self expression.

      October 13, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
    • Webby

      My son has a tattoo (a muted charcoal gray scroll-type thing) to camouflage a bad scar on his arm. The scar has a story, but the tattoo, not so much... other than maybe keeping people from being too grossed out by having to look at that scar.

      I'm not at all fond of tattoos, but his is passable.

      October 13, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
      • Vic

        I am not fond of tattoos either (except for tiny attractive ones) but I respect personal ways of self expression as long as they don't infringe on anyone.

        October 13, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
      • Beth Cousland

        I understand the desire to camouflage scars, whether it be via a tattoo, makeup, or clothing. I have seen images of some beautiful tattoos on women who chose them in lieu of breast reconstruction, and I respect their courage and choice.

        I have a few dozen scars, several of them plainly visible on my face. People often ask about them and, although I am not ashamed by them, the stories they tell are deeply personal and painful (literally and figuratively). Although separate events, they are all stories of survival, and because of that, I have learned (over many years) to wear them as would a warrior. They are physical imprints of battles won.

        Tattoos are my way of imprinting my body with thoughtful expressions of happier stories, inspirations, and milestones. They allow me to take back some control of my body, to physically balance the many scars that surviving left.

        October 13, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
  11. Yo!

    If it was really free the writers of your cult wouldn't have had to instill fear by using hell, cause if it was really free there would be no strings attached.

    October 13, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
  12. Bootyfunk

    ^^ cult babble ^^

    god loved us so much that he sent his son to be tortured and murdered - doesn't that prove he loves you?!?

    October 13, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
  13. Bootyfunk

    beautiful bible passages tell women to submit to men in all things:

    1 Corinthians 11:3 But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.

    Ephesians 5:22-23, 33 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior… However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

    Colossians 3:18 Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

    T.itus 2:2-5 Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.

    1 Peter 3:1-2 Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.

    remember not to try to be leaders, ladies - god doesn't like that.

    October 13, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
    • A woman

      I dunno guy, what I can tell you is if I wanted to read all that I'd open the door for the guys in the white short sleeve shirts when they visit.

      October 13, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I suspect god is a big fan of "50 Shades of Gray."

      October 13, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
    • Sue

      And don't forget:
      Be subject to one another out of reverance for Christ Eph. 5.21
      Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her... Eph. 5.25
      It goes both ways.

      October 14, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
      • G to the T

        You have a very myopic view of "both ways". Asking husbands to love their wives is not equivalent to the verses that tell women how to behave in churches. Not even close.

        October 15, 2013 at 11:44 am |
        • Sue

          Giving himself up for her sounds pretty much like submitting to me. At that time, there was nothing new about women submitting to men. That was the norm. What was revolutionary was men and women submitting to each other. Eph 5 would have been unnecessary if it was only about women submitting to men.

          As far as telling women how to act in church, I'm convinced that was cultural. Women coming out of goddess worship did have false ideas and did need some guidance. Also, women were rarely educated at that time. It is not the same today, though some are resistant to change.

          October 15, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
        • G to the T

          I think you're still failing to see the distinction. It has to do with who gets to make the rules in any given society. Telling women to remain silent, stay pregnant and ask your husband at home if you have any questions isn't the same as saying a husband should be good to his wife. Not even close.

          October 16, 2013 at 12:34 pm |

    That's why their site is so full of lies, they can't see them. They try to use their Christ to justify lying and stealing it's hilarious. That's why when you see this troll post just click the report abuse link instead.

    October 13, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
  15. midwest rail

    It is always amusing watching you justify your theft of advertising.

    October 13, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
  16. Bootyfunk

    beautiful bible verses about women not arguing with men:

    Proverbs 19:13 A foolish son is ruin to his father, and a wife’s quarreling is a continual dripping of rain.

    Proverbs 21:9 It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife.

    Proverbs 21:19 It is better to live in a desert land than with a quarrelsome and fretful woman.

    remember women, never argue with a man - god forbids it.

    October 13, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
  17. AvdBerg

    posted the wrong website, it's http://www.gaychristian101.com

    October 13, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
  18. emma

    The reporter/photographer does not seem to know the difference between a wrist and a forearm.

    October 13, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
  19. AvdBerg

    For the greatest truth go to http://www.gaychristian101.com

    October 13, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
  20. Bootyfunk

    i find it hard to understand why women would want to be part of a religion hates and fears women so much. according to the bible, women aren't supposed to be teaching/ministering to anyone - they are to be silent. the bible views women as a negative influence on men: Lot's daughters, Delilah, Eve, Salome, Jezebel and on and on. very few women are portrayed positively. mary, mother of jesus, is viewed positively because she remained a virgin. this reinforces that women must curb their s.exuality. after all, lustful women are to be stoned to death.

    why would any woman want to be in a club that despises you?

    October 13, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
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