Category Smashing: Why Our Culture Hates Labels

Hello My Name is Name Tag RedHave You Noticed That Our Culture Hates Categories?

There is a strong underlying disdain for clear-cut, single-item categories and labels for things.  What used to be “cars” and “trucks” is now “hybrids,” “cross-overs” and “SUV’s”.  Old music genres like “classical” and “rock” have now been outmoded by creative new crossbreeds like “trip-hop” and “acid-jazz.”  I recently shot a music video for a band whose self-described style was “post-melodic death-core!” (i.e. “heavy metal” for the over-40 crowd).

It’s All About The Hyphen

One of the hallmarks of the modernist experience in contrast to the postmodern experience is that modernism embraces clear, rational categories to the exclusion of the mysterious and ambiguous.  Postmoderns can’t stand this seemingly arrogant and corner-on-the-market view of reality so they overreact and avoid all categories like the plague.  Michael Stipe famously summed up this viewpoint when he said in relation to his sexual orientation, “my feeling is that labels are for canned food.”   Labels are out.  Hybrids are in.  We live in a post-categorical climate.

Another nail in the coffin of categories is the modern distrust of words.  Images have kicked words to the curb through the simple dominance of the home television set but also we’ve been trained to distrust words in general thanks to decades of political scandals, corporate double-speak, historical revisionism, and the politically correct trend of re-wording definitions into new “less-offense” versions. “I’m not a janitor, I’m an ‘institutional hygiene consultant.’”  Crimes have become “temporary insanity,” stealing has become “misaligned financial jurisdiction,” and lunch-lady’s everywhere are enjoying their new title of “educational nutrition-systems analyst.”  Some of these efforts are worthwhile and attempt to rightly correct derogatory insinuations but the overall result to grind the meaning of word descriptors into nothingness.  This trend is an over-compensation.

What Does This Mean for Christians and Church Leaders?

There are certainly some opportunities and challenges for us living in the post-categorical age.  There has been wide-sweeping acceptance of swapping the label of “Christian” for “Christ-follower” (ironically that’s still a label).  Denominations are still going strong but in the younger generation there is more fluidity and temporal irony when you hear them talk about their church affiliation.  It’s like when a first-year college student tells you what school he or she is going to and it’s a community college; “I’m going to XYZ Community College this year but after that I’m transferring to ___ University.”  Permanence, classification and exclusivity are soooo 1980s!

The benefit of loose-category affiliation is that it does make it more difficult to hide behind a label as a safety umbrella.  When you can’t stand being labeled as anything so outdated as “Lutheran” or “evangelical,” you are forced to think through your most cherished beliefs a little farther than someone who is just looking to coast and use their denomination as a way out of thinking for themselves.  The flip side however is that if you never join a category or label you might never actually have to decide about anything!  In “Bobos In Paradise” David Brooks calls this the “ever-widening spectrum of possibilities”.  When your buffet of spiritual options widens endlessly before you it ultimately flattens and cheapens any beliefs that require an exclusion of their opposites.  For instance, you can’t be a “Christian-Buddhist-Agnostic” because each component of those three beliefs requires disbelieving a core component of the other!  It’s ultimately not a hybrid-belief system it’s a stillborn-belief system.  This obvious paradox doesn’t seem to matter in today’s world however.  Making your own hybrid un-category is really popular.

For church leaders it’s hard to get commitment from a generation that distrusts institutions and never commits to anything except the priority of being uncommitted!  There are certainly exceptions but the bottom line is that if you never risk being “labeled” then you will only invest your energy in yourself. As church leaders we have to help the technological/online/spiritually-homeless generation understand the beauty of believing exclusive claims, making commitments outside themselves and sticking with the hard truths instead of disposing of them when things get uncomfortable.

Jesus Was a Category-Smasher.

By the way, Jesus loved turning labels upside down and disrupting the institutional status-quo.  He upturned the day’s categories and stood concepts like “the Sabbath” on their heads!  What do we learn from Jesus about choosing labels and categories?

Future-church demands as few labels as possible. As church leaders we wield extraordinary power about choosing which labels and categories are Biblical and indispensible and which labels are superfluous, counter-productive or extra-Biblical.  It may be exciting or risky at times but we can certainly assume that it will be a messy but worthwhile adventure.

Happy Holidays Vs. Merry Christmas: A Fabricated War

It’s Tradition This Time of Year.

It starts sometime around Thanksgiving on television or maybe by the checkout lady at the supermarket.  “Happy Holidays,” we hear.  “Merry Christmas,” someone says.  It won’t take long after the first days of well-wishing for the age-old quarrel to start up again.  “It’s ‘Merry Christmas’ not ‘Happy Holidays’!”  People will begin to argue that we should not say “Happy Holidays” but instead say “Merry Christmas” because it is only out of fear of offending people that we have kicked the “Christ” out of “Christmas” and we should not forget the real reason for the season by adopting the mongrelized “Holiday” salutation in lieu of the Christian one.  Well, the unfortunate news this season is that it’s all been a hoax.  The whole thing.  No one is offended if you say Merry Christmas.  Few Christians are actually put out if someone says “Happy Holidays” to them.

There is No Real Conflict Between “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.”  It’s a Sham.

Have you ever met, in person, someone who was genuinely offended by your use of “Merry Christmas?”  Has someone actually said to you, “hey, when you say that, you offend me.”  Chances are for most of us this has never happened.  The reason why is because no one cares.  People who don’t celebrate Christmas don’t care if you say it to them.  No one is offended if you write “Merry Christmas” on your card or “Happy Holidays.”  People who aren’t Christians don’t care if you say it.  People who are Christians don’t care either. No one cares. Say whatever you want.  The whole notion that this is an actual controversy is a mass media byproduct.  Regular people like you and me have never, ever offended anyone from our use of the Christmas salutation.  It’s a huge hoax.  People are only offended when Christians act like idiots, no matter what greeting they use.

Sticking Up For Jesus?

A lot of people think that by saying “Merry Christmas” over “Happy Holidays” that they are in some way sticking up for Jesus or taking a stand for him where others have shamefully fallen away.   They think that if they mention the name of Christ in their salutation that they have really kept on the straight and narrow and not sold out to materialism or subjectivism or postmodernism or any other –ism.  But here is the sobering reality.  Even when people do say “Merry Christmas,” more often than not they aren’t wishing you anything religious.  In fact what they are really wishing you is more like, “happy warm-feelings and cozy wintertime happiness day.”  Let’s be honest here.  Even people who use the name of Christ in their Christmas greeting aren’t even thinking of Christ when they look forward to the holiday.  To a lot of Christians in America, it is about feelings of happiness and family, cozy images of Thomas Kinkade wintertime scenes, snow, fireplaces, nice decorations and a general feeling of goodness that happens during a once-a-year holiday.  I suspect that for most Christians only 1 out of every 40 “Merry Christmases” are about the Savior.  Those other 39 greetings have the word “Christ” in them but they express the same secular feeling of generic goodwill that people intend when they say “Happy Holidays.”  You’re saying X but you mean Y.

Want to Be a Real Rebel?

Say “Merry Holidays.”  Say “Happy Christmas.”  Say whatever words come in to your mind, it doesn’t matter, it’s a mandatory phrase that comes out of everyone’s mouths for a month each year and nine times out of ten doesn’t even mean anything significant to the person saying it.  If you want to be a real rebel then just say whatever greeting you feel like but then actually care about people.  Give to the poor.  Help someone who needs help. Don’t freak out because someone cuts you off in traffic.  Be patient in line. Want to really take a stand for the true meaning of Christmas?  Stop caring about the two words that people use to greet each other and start caring about the things that God cares about like loving your enemies and speaking up for those who have no voice.

“Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen.”  2 Timothy 2:14

Tattoos and Christians: An Article for Parents and Teens

hot rod tattoos

Your favorite rockers have them. That guy at the coffee shop has some. Even the checkout lady at Target has one. It seems like everyone is sporting a tattoo nowadays, from the highest ranks of music royalty to the everyday people you see going to school or buying groceries. The show Miami Ink has taken off with a huge following, proving to the world that the tattoo is no longer taboo in the eyes of the masses. In the last 15 years, tattooing has exploded out of dingy strip malls and biker culture and into the mainstream. The older generation is having a hard time with it since so many of the things that they associate with tattoos are negative. However, for a lot of people, including Christians, getting a tattoo is either something they’ve seriously considered or have done already. There are still lots of questions, though, for those of us who either don’t have any ink or are ready to go but still have some doubts about it. Here are seven things to think about before stepping into your friendly neighborhood tattoo shop.

1) What will Mommy say?

Let’s be honest. Few moms out there are going to say, “Wow, great tattoo Jonny! I’m glad you finally got one, I’m so proud of you!” It’s far more likely that your Mom is going to:

a) Flip out loudly
b) Flip out quietly
c) Try to wash it off you
d) Talk about it forever until you wish you had never got it

But hey, our parents’ parents flipped out when they greased their hair back and listened to rock and roll, so I guess parental objection isn’t necessarily a show-stopper. A better way to think about it since your parents are probably not going to be too excited about your tattoo is, “can I still honor my Mom or Dad and their beliefs while still getting my tattoo?” If you know it is going to create HUGE friction and bring the universe as we know it to a standstill in the eyes of your parents, then you have a few choices…

1) Tell them the meaning and the why behind the tattoo you want to get
2) Tell them before you get a tattoo that you’re considering it.
3) Don’t get the tattoo somewhere totally obvious like your forehead or hands
4) Don’t “surprise” them with it during a holiday like Thanksgiving or Christmas. If you’ve already done the deed, then the best time to show them is some off month like March or July. This is simply the flow of the universe. Your parents will thank you one day.

2) What does God think?

Did you know God is interested in your tattoos? Perhaps this should be the first thing you consider in your quest for ink. What does God think about it? We have to look to Scripture to help us understand this one.

Tattoos in the Bible. The word “tattoo” is mentioned once in the Bible in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. It comes in a section of laws for the people and based on your translation it might not even say “tattoo.” A better translation from the Hebrew is “cutting” and has to do with self-mutilation in idol worship. I don’t believe that this passage is saying, “don’t make designs on your body.” If it is, then those face-painting clowns at church picnics have a lot of explaining to do.

Art in the Bible. Although mostly silent about tattoos, the Bible does have a lot to say about art in general. The Bible is a rather visceral and poetic sort of book, isn’t it? Throughout its pages, we are confronted with art, design, poetry and music. The Psalms are full of songs, Revelation is full of imagery, the Old Testament is filled with designs and artwork; tents and tabernacles. The first example in the Bible of God filling a person with His Spirit is for the task of art! In Exodus 33 we learn that God chose this guy Bezalel for a special task; “See, I have chosen Bezalel…and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts — to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship.” Art is important to God and adornments and decoration and design are all central to what makes us human. The art we pursue in life is simply the unearthing of God’s creativity. Tattoos are art that is on us.

You in the Bible. Maybe the strongest case to be made by those who do not see tattoos as appropriate for God’s people comes from Biblical arguments that have nothing to do with tattoos or art at all. In 1 Corinthians 6:19 we are called to consider our bodies as “temples” and to honor God with them. Just before that Paul tells us that even though something might be considered OK and not a sin, we must ask ourselves if it is really the best thing for us. “’Everything is permissible for me’—but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible for me’—but I will not be mastered by anything,” he says. Another way to think about it is, “will this tattoo be a wing or a weight?” Will it help me take flight in serving God or weigh me down, no matter whether it is clearly right or wrong? Just because something is not obviously spoken about in Scripture doesn’t mean that you have carte blanche to do it. God is concerned with your heart and the hearts of others. Even though you might have liberty in Christ to do certain things, will your actions cause others to stumble? Will it be a weight slowing you down as you try to live for God? Think about this.

3) You are an influencer

Realize that you influence others, no matter what, when, or who you are. We become like the friends we hang around, and we start to become like whomever we think about the most. There are at least a couple people who are looking up to you and are mimicking you in their own lives, either consciously or unconsciously. You have to realize that your decision in this will affect them. Sometimes it doesn’t matter, like whether you prefer the McFish over the Big Mac, but deciding to get a tattoo is one of those things that will take your friends and family some time to process, especially if it’s a new thing to your group. Take that into account as you think about it. Who looks up to you? Whom do you influence? How will this tattoo affect them?

4) Will you regret it?

Here’s something that any old Joe will tell you: Don’t get a tattoo that you’ll one day regret! Let’s review some classic themes that should never be tattooed:

1) Girlfriends’ or boyfriends’ names (no matter how much you pray about it).
2) Your favorite band. (Any old Milli Vanilli tattoos out there?)
3) Sports teams. Just trust me on this one.
4) Anything that you’d be embarrassed to show your Grandma.
5) Your favorite blog name. (Even this one!)

5) Do your friends think it’s ugly?

If you have an idea for a tattoo already or at the tattoo shop checking out some of the pictures on the wall, you should realize that God has gifted your friends with wisdom in exactly 3 infallible ways. They are:

1) Knowing the character of your boy/girlfriend
2) Knowing when you are being stupid
3) Knowing when a tattoo design is just plain ugly

Your friends may convince you to drink a whole bottle of Tabasco Sauce, eat a live scorpion or switch seats with another driver at a stop light, but for the three areas above, you must take into account the wisdom which has been given to them. Take seriously your friend’s advice about the people you date, when you’re acting stupid or being a jerk and whether or not a tattoo is ugly. It will all pay off later in life.

6) Can you afford it?

Did you know tattoos are expensive? Yes, they are. The more fancy, colorful, or large the tattoo you want, the more expensive the job will be. If you have some amazing design, remember that it might set you back $500 to $1000! If you want it, then you’d better save or budget for it. Don’t spend money you don’t have for a tattoo that you might curse later when you’re riding a tricycle to work because you couldn’t afford your car payments anymore.

7) Are you doing it for the wrong reasons?

A big reason people get tattoos is because they just look cool. There’s nothing wrong with that — it’s art. It’s why we buy clothes for our body, fuzzy dice for our car, or gel for our hair. But at some point in our life-customizing, we have to understand ourselves enough to know if a thing of style has become a thing of self-worth. When you do something to make yourself feel good about who you are as a person, you are on dangerous ground. When you look to your friends to reassure you that you’re okay and have worth, that’s a dangerous place to be as well. Finally, when you look to a tattoo, piercing or even a trendy new jacket to try to assure you that you’re a better person, you are making a wild mistake! Although it might make you feel better for a time, ultimate self-worth comes from seeing ourselves through God’s eyes. No person, tattoo, record deal, or pair of jeans can give us meaning for our lives or hope to like ourselves. That’s a spiritual thing. The Creator must give the Created its worth.

Don’t try to make a tattoo be more than it is. It’s not going to be the ultimate proof of your love for God — that’s in your heart. It won’t be the one thing that’s going to make you share your faith more or convince people that believers in Jesus are cool too — that comes from your love. It’s not going to heal your heart or make you happy or more popular, either. If you’re looking for a tattoo to do all these things, then don’t get one. Spend your money on a week of vacation and meet with God on a cruise ship or hotel by the sea.

– Jon