Last semester, I was giving a lecture on the history of the Supreme Court from 1953 to present. Toward the end of the lecture, I asked my students if they could name the current Chief Justice. None were able to do so. There were thirty students in the class. This was in a college classroom, mind you.
I was annoyed by the failure of a single student to know the name of one of the three most powerful men in America. But, whenever annoyed, I have a tendency to make jokes to lighten the atmosphere. So I told my students to go to the SCOTUS website next time they were in the tattoo parlor and had a couple of spare hours to surf the internet on their iPhone. They laughed and then I casually asked “How many of you have tattoos?” About twenty students raised their hands, which was far more than I expected.
Asking that question was a big mistake. The next time I walked into class, a young man was asking a sorority girl where her tattoo was located. She lifted up the back of her shirt and showed him a giant tramp stamp across her lower back. It was as sad as it was surprising. Apparently blond hair, blue eyes, and natural beauty aren’t enough to attract college boys these days. She needs a tattoo to let him know that his chances of getting sex on the first date are close to 100%.
Over the last few years, tattoo parlors have been popping up like weeds here in Wilmington. I have always assumed that their popularity was easily explained: Young people just want to draw attention and tattoos give them something to show off. They are just another way of helping young people feel different. Even if most kids have them, theirs can be unique. They can even tell a story.
But the narcissistic and short-sighted component of tattoo accumulation is just half the story. I had an epiphany about the other half of the story as I was talking to a woman we will call Brooke. We’re going to call her Brooke because that really is her name. Brooke was complaining to two of her friends (who are also my friends). She was complaining about the thing single women complain about most often: the boyfriend who won’t respect her even though (maybe because?) she is sleeping with him regularly.
Brooke’s complaint with her boyfriend was that he desired to stay in her bed after they were finished having “fun.” This TMI moment was topped off by a deep philosophical argument: “My bed is an intimate place. Until we’re married, he’s not welcomed there overnight. That’s just too presumptuous. It’s too intrusive.”
Translation: You can have my body but not my bed. The former is of less value to me. Some will say it’s just one anecdote. Of course, it is. But it is part of a larger pattern I am seeing among younger adults. Like virtually all other unhealthy aspects of our culture, it is being nurtured in the university setting. Thinking about these three campus cultural trends will add some perspective:
*Sexual experimentation is encouraged by the administration. Free condoms are available, free birth control is often available. Students are taught to give themselves away and that the only concern is that they remain physically healthy enough to continue to do so.
*Abortion is strongly encouraged on campuses - often to the unconstitutional exclusion of competing ideas. Use of RU 486, which is a dangerous toxin causing the death (and then expulsion) of the unborn, is encouraged. Rarely is there an intelligent discussion of the drug’s harmful side effects.
*Genital mutilation is promoted as a means of increasing diversity. College students – even as young as 18 - are encouraged to resolve sexual confusion with the blade of a knife. This permanent disfigurement of their genitalia is simply another form of sexual expression. It’s no longer stigmatized. It’s celebrated!
There is a dangerous undercurrent here. It is obvious that immediate gratification appeals to young people. But it is compounded by something that is lacking. And what is lacking here is any sense that we as humans are made in the image of God – and that our bodies, therefore, have some intrinsic value. If we were still willing to nurture that idea in our culture – and allowed to do so by the Supreme Court - these trends would not be engulfing us and destroying our children.
Tattoos are a lot like guns. Soon after you get one, you want another. But unlike guns the tattoo always leaves a permanent mark. Whenever the desire to cover one’s body with ink sets in, one thing is clear: there is a void in one’s soul that desperately needs filling. Like all such voids it is of a spiritual nature and cannot be filled by physical things. At its core, every desire we experience is really a longing for God.
I should not be surprised that so many of our children are covering themselves with ink. They have been separated from transcendent meaning. Now they must create meaning for themselves in order to fill that void. Too often, they try to recreate themselves altogether. And they mask their God-given beauty in the process.