May I Present?

The other day I was walking with a friend out to Elk Rock Island.

In summertime it’s not an Island; when the water is low, a little desert of dry mud and rocks connects it to the banks of the Willamette River. As we made our way across this, we passed a man coming from the Island. He wore a shirt without sleeves, but in their place he wore tattoos.

“What do you think of tattoos, Caleb?” my friend asked, the man who had prompted this question barely past us.

“I’ll tell you in a minute.” I said quietly.

I’m so diffident. I don’t think the way to do things is to comment to someone on a  stranger’s appearance in their hearing. When we got to the island I began to expound my thoughts.  I won’t write out exactly the speech I gave on Elk Rock Island, but some ideas inspired by the conversation.

Instead of just going straight to tattoos I’d like to talk about an over-arching philosophy. If I just answer about tattoos it could be just like cutting off a head of the Hydra; “Well, what about make-up?”  “What about powdered wigs?” and a host of other appearance related questions will just spring up, and I could end up giving my opinions on lots of related issues without communicating what the foundational philosophy is that makes me hold the positions I do on all of those things. So without delay to the  root, the heart, the life of the matter.

Caeretan black-figure hydria (c. 346 BC) (Image courtesy of Wikimedia.)

I  do have an overarching philosophy  which helps me figure out how I should think of tattoos. Do you?  It’s my philosophy on “How we should present ourselves to each other.”

My cornerstone principle of how we should present ourselves to one another is: Present yourself to others as a real human. As one who has a soul.  That’s  who we are so I guess this just means present honestly. Try to present yourself so that your humanity is most apparent. When we look at one another, we should think, “There is another human like me, a precious soul. Though I only see the outside of him, I can tell he is not some other creature but a human like me and has a world inside him like me – the world of the soul.”

So easily I slip solipsistically into not thinking that those around me have like thoughts, emotions, and struggles as are in ME. Our experiences and existences are not exactly the same, but we are all made in the image of God, of one blood, and each one of us bears the earnest responsibility of being eternal souls. I weary of seeing on Facebook sentiments like this one:

Thinking of others as some sort of lesser creature is wrong and leads to bad places.

Thinking of others as something more than human is wrong and leads to bad places as well.

We should seek, as much as possible to present ourselves as fellow humans with souls. For the other’s sake – to make it easier for us all to do what’s’ right (Think of each other and treat each other as real humans with souls). And make it harder for them to do what’s wrong. (Think of one another and treat one another as something else.)

So how might this affect the way we present outwardly?


Recently, after the last sermon was given at a local church’s Bible conference, I, along with a group of the young Christian attendees, went out to dinner with the guest preacher – the pastor of a church in Massachusetts. He seemed to be in a good humour, and basically held court at the dinner table, telling stories, cracking jokes, and answering questions from all and sundry. He was asked what he thought about tattoos.

It didn’t seem to be just an abstract question for him.”I tell my daughter as long as she’s in my house, she cannot get a tattoo” he said with the mien that suggested that he did not like the idea of a tattoo.

“When I was her age the tattoos I’d’ve gotten would have been a big Rolling Stones tongue. So glad I don’t have that.” His argument had a touch of humour in it and appealed to our savviness. This is a kind of relaxed argument. It  invites you to agree while saying it’s no BIG deal if you disagree, because what seems savvy for one person isn’t authoritative (you may  want to show off in the nursing home your Rolling Stones tattoo or your Pikachu tattoo) and jokeyness opens the door for you to disagree; But this very opening  the door for you to disagree, in its relaxed openness is intended to make you want to agree.

He wanted to make it clear, though, that this was not an unbending “Thus saith the LORD” argument. He was not a fundamentalist legalist on this. “That verse in Leviticus is definitely not about tattoos.” he said. Then he explained why he couldn’t use what you might call the ‘natural argument’ against tattoos either. <in the voice of a hick fundamentalist legalist> “It’s not natural. We’re not born with tattoos” <clever response voice> “Well we weren’t born with clothes either! I wasn’t born in a suit!”

But I think, even though we’re not born in them,  it is natural for humans to wear clothes!

Immediately after eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil – “[T]he eyes of [Adam & Eve] both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.” (Genesis 3:7)

Fig Leaves

This force that made us sew the fig leaves in the garden is still strong in us humans. How is it that we know we’re naked, and none of the animals seem to have a similar sense? It is definitely something that sets apart as humans. And, as an aside, I think  the potency of our sense of embarrassment at our nakedness must be a persistent mystery for the materialist. I’m sure that there is many a materialist atheist who philosophically has no explanation for why he must wear clothes and yet every fiber in his being would rebel at the idea of going out on the town naked.
Idle class
Charlie Chaplin in The Idle Class, 1921.


Speaking of philosophers, recently my sister looked out the window, and there in the yard was a man perpetrating a robbery from her clothes line. She ran out saying “Hey! Don’t take our clothes.” And after seeing her three brothers pour from the house like a swarm of aroused hornets, he decided he didn’t want to. Instead of just taking a powder immediately though, he hung around. My sister had gone back into the house. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” he said in the tone of voice a bigger boy uses on the playground when he makes a smaller boy cry and he’s trying desperately to hush his screams with placating apologies before the approaching parent reaches the scene. “She’s gonna call the police” he said, referring to my sister who had gone back in. “Tell her not to call the police.” I doubted she would be calling the police.

His boldness to steal clothes in the daylight awakened some boldness in me to share the uncomfortable truth of God’s law.

“You shouldn’t be worried about the police. God our maker commanded us not to steal. It is wrong. You need to call out to him for mercy!”

“We’re just animals!” he spat back.  I was very surprised. Of course I thought that thinking of us humans as just being the products of darwinian evolution and not responsible to a good God whose image we bear would undermine morality, but I never thought I would hear an evolutionary justification from a local thief caught in the act.The thief retreated away shouting disagreement to the gospel. If I had been quick on my feet I would have replied “If we’re just animals, why were you stealing clothing?”

Hard to suppress in a human is that natural impulse to cover our nakedness. It really marks us as human. Not just the covering aspect, but that artistic, creativity in our clothing as well, both really set us apart from the animals. So if you are to present yourself as a real human with a soul, don’t present yourself like a shameless beast. Do the naturally human thing. Wear clothes.

More to come on this.

~ Watchful


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