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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. Lee

    Hiddy-ho everyone!
    Wanna look at the cheap art I got permanently etched into my skin? See the purty colors?
    They're common biblical images and stories of a socially-acceptable "rebellious" type of girl that tried to fill her low self esteem with drugs, love and nonconformity.
    Once that didn't work, my drug-addled brain decided to embrace the "pure" lifestyle of yesteryear (at this point anyway) and pray the sin away, only to convince myself I will live forever with this supernatural being that created me. After I die, of course.
    In conclusion, tattoos can teach you a lot about yourself and serve as a disturbing visual timeline. Now I just need a tattoo for "born again cliché" and "Southern Christian White Trash"

    October 14, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Lutheranism is hardly considered white trash but nice effort at derision.

      October 14, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
      • sam stone

        Bill is right. There are so many preachers that are worthy of derision, why limit it to Lutherans?

        October 14, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
        • I wonder

          How effective is derision as a weapon really. Don't get me wrong of course sarcasm is always a fun hobby.

          October 14, 2013 at 5:56 pm |
        • sam stone

          when it gets to the point of derision, i am not trying to convince anyone. take my posts to topher/gopher, for example. i had tried to be persuasive with him, until i realized he was a pigheaded moron who just wanted to preach and run from reason. that is when he became gopher. he is a punk. robert brown is not much better. arrogant dweebs who totally dismiss the possibility that they could be wrong about the existence or the nature of god

          October 14, 2013 at 7:25 pm |
    • Jack

      You are choking to death on your hip cynicism, how cool of you.

      October 15, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
      • Lee

        What's even cooler, Jack, is your wonderful commentary. Fighting sarcasm with sarcasm, veiled in a jab at even using sarcasm to make fun of something. Oh how wonderful you are!

        October 16, 2013 at 4:37 pm |
  2. Beth Cousland

    I am not judging. I am observing. In reviewing the forum, I see so many You's and They"s, and very few I's.

    I am interested in what people think, regardless of whether I agree. I enjoy a respectful debate. What I do not enjoy are simple but nasty negative comment that convey nothing more than "You're srupid" or "You're wrong". (The name calling conveys nothing but ignorance and rudeness.)

    I would like to know the reasoning behind dissenting opinions. Please tell me WHY you think I'm stupid or wrong. That, I respect immensely. I don't really need to read what I already believe. Thoughts and beliefs different from my own are those that provoke thought and, ultimately, greater knowledge.

    October 14, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
    • My Dog is a jealous Dog

      @Beth

      I would suggest that you attend a Unitarian service in your area. They support all beliefs (including non-belief) and the members are usually more than happy to engage in lively discussions about faith. I find the youth education programs to be the most telling of their viewpoints.

      October 14, 2013 at 7:49 pm |
  3. Reality # 2

    Is tattoo removal covered under Obamacare?

    October 14, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
    • Yes

      But forget about that colonoscopy you needed.

      October 14, 2013 at 6:53 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      According to the GOP, under Obamacare, Uncle Sam is personally going to give you a colonoscoopy.

      October 14, 2013 at 9:18 pm |
    • Akira

      I think it covers cranialrectomies, also.

      October 14, 2013 at 9:30 pm |
      • Spot

        Shopping around, eh? Good idea. Don't clench your buttcheeks or you might strangle yourself. Your turn.

        October 14, 2013 at 10:53 pm |
        • Akira

          Nope. Don't need one. You? Since you already know the symptoms, I guess you do.

          October 15, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
  4. humanistJohn420

    The bible says if you have tattoos you should be put to death. Just saying!

    October 14, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
    • Responding to the Pride

      No it doesn't. Just saying!

      October 14, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
    • glasshopper

      The Bible also says you shouldn't eat pork or cut your hair...just sayin'.

      October 14, 2013 at 5:30 pm |
  5. Andrew H. Brown

    My wife had a small rosé tattooed on her left boob when she was 17. Now, at 60, it's a long stemmed rosé.

    October 14, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
  6. JenfromWylie

    I am glad she's not my pastor – she's far too worried about being a hipster rather than a theologian. Lame.

    October 14, 2013 at 11:39 am |
    • sam stone

      As long as you can read what's in her heart.

      Lame

      October 14, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
      • dimblar

        snake dorothy

        October 17, 2013 at 8:05 am |
    • BARS

      Wow, very judgemental.

      October 14, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
  7. I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

    "I got my first Christian tattoo in seminary.

    So even seminaries have tattoo parlours now, or just the seminaries in the part of town next to the bail bonds, cheque cashing and liquor stores?

    October 14, 2013 at 11:13 am |
    • niknak

      How about stri pper poles!

      October 14, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
  8. Rynomite

    I have my faith marked in tattoos as well. I lack them alltogether.

    October 14, 2013 at 11:02 am |
    • Yes

      🙂 Excellent work with this post.

      October 14, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
    • sam stone

      i have marcel marceau quotes

      October 14, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
      • Akira

        Lol, sam.

        October 14, 2013 at 9:07 pm |
        • sam stone

          i did find it funny that marceau was the only character to speak a word in Silent Movie

          October 14, 2013 at 9:42 pm |
        • Akira

          Now why would I condemn Marcel Marceau?

          October 14, 2013 at 10:45 pm |
        • Akira

          I see they deleted that awful troll, so my comment about MM looks silly. Oh, well.
          Silent Movie is hilarious. A bit of genius, there.

          October 14, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
        • sam stone

          are you speaking of the troll of a thousand names?

          the instigator of the big,big,big lawsuit?

          October 15, 2013 at 5:37 am |
        • sam stone

          if anyone wants to condemn marceau, at least they should be quiet about it

          October 15, 2013 at 5:40 am |
        • Akira

          Yes, sam, that one. Still waiting for my subpoena.

          October 15, 2013 at 4:57 pm |
        • bananas

          Sam goes to prison. U? We'll see

          October 16, 2013 at 7:41 am |
        • Akira

          I am not the one who constantly breaks the TOS, nor am I the one who constantly threatens people, faith.
          I don't know who you think you possibly are, but I remain unmoved by your tedious threats of retribution for merely posting on a blog.

          October 16, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
        • dimblar

          lol dorothy

          October 17, 2013 at 8:06 am |
        • perry

          Akira
          I am not the one who constantly breaks the TOS, nor am I the one who constantly threatens people, faith.
          I don't know who you think you possibly are, but I remain unmoved by your tedious threats of retribution for merely posting on a blog.

          how is snake?

          October 17, 2013 at 9:39 pm |
  9. ReligionIsBS

    Leviticus 19:28 – Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I [am] the LORD.

    LOL!

    October 14, 2013 at 10:14 am |
    • Lawrence of Arabia

      It was important for God's people in the Old Testament to separate themselves physically and spiritually from the practices of their evil, idol-worshiping neighbors. Since the practice of tattooing was associated with their idol worship, and even connected the bearer of the tattoo to their idol, Israel was prohibited from tattooing lest they be associated with the pagans.

      Christians debate today whether this prohibition on tattoos applies to the modern church; although tattoos for tattoo’s sake are not specifically prohibited in scripture, it may not be a good idea to practice the art today for the sole reason of not ruining your witness to others. Either way, the ancient Israelites at least were forbidden to have them as they were related to pagan practices.

      October 14, 2013 at 10:22 am |
      • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

        Christians debate today whether this prohibition on tattoos applies to the modern church;

        Just like slavery or eating shellfish eh?

        October 14, 2013 at 11:14 am |
      • Thinker...

        You could have just left it at "idol worshipping'. You didn't have to say 'evil'. Not sure how you would define 'evil' back then anyway. Many things we think of as evil now were common and accepted parts of life. Or did you mean that the Israelites thought of thier neighboors as evil? That would be a definate possibility.

        October 14, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
        • Lawrence of Arabia

          Idolatry is "evil" as defined in the law found in Exodus 20. Specifically, the 2nd commandment.

          October 14, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
        • Thinker...

          Ah OK. So from their perspective it was evil. I misunderstood, sorry.

          October 14, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
      • Observer

        Yep. God thought it should be prohibited for priests, his most religious people and closest to him. For the regular people who weren't as caring about religion, they apparently could go ahead with tattoos.

        October 16, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
  10. treadweary

    All I have to say to most of the commentators: wow! She shares her story and you can't listen. They who have ears let them hear.

    October 14, 2013 at 10:09 am |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      So you don't find tattoos more than a little narcissistic?

      October 14, 2013 at 11:17 am |
      • sam stone

        No more than most religion

        October 14, 2013 at 5:44 pm |
  11. Universe

    In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

    “By the fig and the olive.
    Mount Sinai.
    And this honored town (Mecca).”* 95:1-3

    *95:1-3 The fig, olive, Sinai and Mecca possibly symbolize Adam, Jesus, Moses, Abraham and Muhammad, respectively. Thus, all major religions are represented.

    “We created man in the best design.
    Then turned him into the lowliest of the lowly.
    Except those who believe and lead a righteous life; they receive a reward that is well deserved.
    Why do you still reject the faith?
    Is God not the Most Wise, of all the wise ones?” 95:4-8

    “The example of Jesus, as far as GOD is concerned, is the same as that of Adam; He created him from dust, then said to him, "Be," and he was.” Quran [3:59]

    “It does not befit God that He begets a son, be He glorified. To have anything done, He simply says to it, "Be," and it is.” [19:35]

    “No soul can carry the sins of another soul. If a soul that is loaded with sins implores another to bear part of its load, no other soul can carry any part of it, even if they were related. ... [35:18]

    “They even attribute to Him sons and daughters, without any knowledge. Be He glorified. He is the Most High, far above their claims.” Quran [6:100]

    “Recall that your Lord said to the angels, "I am placing a representative on Earth." They said, "Will You place therein one who will spread evil therein and shed blood, while we sing Your praises, glorify You, and uphold Your absolute authority?" He said, "I know what you do not know." [2:30]

    “They say , "We live only this life; we will not be resurrected. If you could only see them when they stand before their Lord! He would say, "Is this not the truth?" They would say, "Yes, by our Lord." He would say, "You have incurred the retribution by your disbelief." [6:30]

    Thanks for taking time to read my post. Please take a moment to visit whyIslam org website.

    October 14, 2013 at 9:39 am |
    • Reality # 2

      What instigated the attack on the Twin Towers, Flight 93 and the Pentagon?

      And what drives today's 24/7 mosque/imam-planned acts of terror and horror?

      The koran, Mohammed's book of death for all infidels and Muslim domination of the world by any means.

      Muslims must clean up this book removing said passages (see below) admitting that they are based on the Gabriel myth and therefore obviously the hallucinations and/or lies of Mohammed.

      Then we can talk about the safety and location of mosques and what is taught therein.

      Until then, no Muslim can be trusted anytime or anywhere..................................

      http://www.muslimaccess.com/quraan/arabic/005.asp et al

      o "Believers, take neither Jews nor Christians for your friends." (Surah 5:51)
      o
      "Believers, when you encounter the infidels on the march, do not turn your backs to them in flight. If anyone on that day turns his back to them, except it be for tactical reasons...he shall incur the wrath of God and Hell shall be his home..." (Surah 8:12-)

      "Make war on them until idolatry shall cease and God's religion shall reign supreme." (Surah 8:36-)

      "...make war on the leaders of unbelief...Make war on them: God will chastise them at your hands and humble them. He will grant you victory over them..." (Surah 9:12-)

      "Fight against such as those to whom the Scriptures were given [Jews and Christians]...until they pay tribute out of hand and are utterly subdued." (Surah 9:27-)

      "It is He who has sent forth His apostle with guidance and the true Faith [Islam] to make it triumphant over all religions, however much the idolaters [non-Muslims] may dislike it." (Surah 9:31-)

      "If you do not fight, He will punish you sternly, and replace you by other men." (Surah 9:37-)

      "Prophet make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites and deal rigorously with them. Hell shall be their home." (Surah 9:73)

      "Believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you. Deal firmly with them." (Surah 9:121-)

      "Say: 'Praise be to God who has never begotten a son; who has no partner in His Kingdom..." (Surah 17:111)

      "'How shall I bear a child,' she [Mary] answered, 'when I am a virgin...?' 'Such is the will of the Lord,' he replied. 'That is no difficult thing for Him...God forbid that He [God[ Himself should beget a son!...Those who say: 'The Lord of Mercy has begotten a son,' preach a monstrous falsehood..." (Surah 19:12-, 29-, 88)

      "Fight for the cause of God with the devotion due to Him...He has given you the name of Muslims..." (Surah 22:78-)

      "Blessed are the believers...who restrain their carnal desires (except with their wives and slave-girls, for these are lawful to them)...These are the heirs of Paradise..." (Surah 23:1-5-)

      "Muhammad is God's apostle. Those who follow him are ruthless to the unbelievers but merciful to one another." (Surah 48:29)

      "Shall the reward of goodness be anything but good?...Dark-eyed virgins sheltered in their tents...They shall recline on green cushions and fine carpets...Blessed be the name of your Lord..." (Surah 55:52-66-)

      October 14, 2013 at 11:48 am |
  12. Lawrence of Arabia

    I see that they've stopped teaching through the books of Timothy in seminary now. I'm sure Martin Luther is turning in his grave...

    October 14, 2013 at 8:18 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      They dropped Von den Juden und ihren Lügen in the 70's. They are making progress.

      October 14, 2013 at 8:35 am |
      • Lawrence of Arabia

        Unfortunately, as Luther aged, his inability to convert Jews turned him bitter... Although his harsh views are inexcusable, his earlier contributions to the Christian faith are invaluable...
        http://www.gotquestions.org/Martin-Luther-anti-semitic.html

        October 14, 2013 at 8:44 am |
    • Alias

      Need religion to keep women in their place and make you feel imnportant?
      I feel sory for people like you.

      October 14, 2013 at 10:21 am |
      • Lawrence of Arabia

        "Need religion to keep women in their place and make you feel imnportant?"

        No, actually, Christianity is liberating, not arresting... I'm merely commenting that what she is doing is akin to showing up to a PETA meeting while wearing fur and eating a cheeseburger.

        In other words, if you're going to claim membership within a belief system – whatever that belief system is – make sure you actually believe it first. I'm not saying that she's not a Christian, but I am saying that she's not an obedient one.

        October 14, 2013 at 10:38 am |
  13. Peter Wexler

    Tattooing has an addictive quality about it. I have never seen anyone stop at just one tattoo.

    October 14, 2013 at 7:19 am |
  14. saggyroy

    Although I personally have friends and relatives with tattoos, and they run a wide spectrum from college educated white collar to the uneducated blue collar workers, I can't help but think trailer trash when I think of tattoos.

    October 14, 2013 at 5:55 am |
    • I'll stay unidentified because my wife knows my handle

      My wife stopped.

      October 14, 2013 at 10:41 am |
  15. Lisa J @ TattooForLess.com

    Reblogged this on InkQuirer from TattooForLess and commented:
    Beautiful woman and beautiful story: "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.” By Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber

    October 14, 2013 at 2:23 am |
  16. Apple Bush

    Rinse it very super much thoroughly before eating.

    October 14, 2013 at 1:08 am |
  17. roccorenzo

    Bravo, bravo, bravo. Wish you were in San Diego.

    October 14, 2013 at 12:21 am |
    • Apple Bush

      Rinse it thoroughly before eating.

      October 14, 2013 at 1:07 am |
  18. Apple Fresh

    The joyful myth and eager messenger;

    Stained glass soars to the rafters;

    Surely God is here, and yet this house is empty;

    No salesman can close;

    Lovely building full of lies, heard less prayers than cries;

    Sacred this and sacred that;

    Babies raped and priests zipping up their pants;

    No leads to follow;

    This is what Jesus witnesses from His lofty perch in that glass;

    Abuse the sheep and pay the tithe;

    Fill the tray and please don’t stay;

    Such a lovely cathedral, such a vile torture chamber.

    October 13, 2013 at 11:46 pm |
  19. Apple Fresh

    Mecca
    Blankety blank out about to catch ya

    Rollin it up, got my paper
    L.A. is a friendly neighbor

    Don’t put on the upities and yuppities
    I like my dogs better

    Raised on religion, living on stealin’
    Mecca’s in my head buy not in my religion.

    October 13, 2013 at 11:45 pm |
  20. Alias

    Poor woman need a shrink,
    not more ink.

    October 13, 2013 at 11:04 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.