Have you ever had a debate with someone over what the Bible says? Well, I have. It isn’t always pleasant, but, often, it can be beneficial for you (and sometimes, for both parties). One instance in my own life was with my grandfather (who has now passed away) over the dreaded issue of (duh, duh, dum)…tattoos. I truly found nothing wrong with Christians having tattoos, and I was pretty confident about it. My grandfather on the other hand did not agree. In fact, he found out about a previous discussion I had with my dad about tattoos, and, at an after-church lunch one day, he handed me a 3×5 card with a verse from Leviticus, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead, and do not mark your skin with tattoos. I am the LORD” (19:28 NLT). I thanked him and responded that this verse is from Leviticus, and, unless we were expected to keep the ceremonial laws, then I would have to disregard it. We went back and forth for some time, but, eventually, we agreed to disagree.
Now, I don’t have tattoos. It’s not that I don’t want one or think they are “evil.” It’s just that I’d rather feed my family. My brother does have tattoos; perhaps, one day I will join him (and, Jon, if you are reading this, you’re welcome for fighting those battles with Mom and Grandpop ). However, I thought about this conversation with my grandfather, particularly, after his death. It just didn’t do it for me to say, “Well…that’s the Old Testament. Disregard it.” Somehow, I think I remember the Church deciding that such things were heretical. So, how would I approach something like this in the future?
Voila! Enter N.T. Wright’s The Last Word and his five-act hermeneutic. The five-acts are as follows: creation, fall, Israel, Jesus, and the church. We are currently living in the fifth act “the church” (In case you were wondering, this is not dispensationalism). There are several things to highlight about this:
- NTW explains,
This act began with Easter and Pentecost; its opening scenes are the apostolic period itself; its charter text is the New Testament; its goal, its intended final scene, is sketched clearly in such passages as Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15, and Revelation 21-22. The key point of the whole model, which forms the heart of the multi-layered view of how “the authority of scripture” actually works, runs as follows: Those who live in this fifth act have an ambiguous relationship with the four previous acts, not because they are being disloyal to them but precisely because they are being loyal to them as part of the story (p. 122).
- He continues, “We must act in the appropriate manner for this moment in the story; this will be in direct continuity with the previous acts (we are not free to jump suddenly to another narrative, a different play altogether)” (p. 123; emphasis original).
- This leads us to a state of “improvisation” within Act 5. Creativity is allowed, but we are acting within the play. For instance, if one was improvising within a Shakespearean play, he or she would not add spaceships to the play. They simply don’t work within that framework.
- What about tradition? Wright correctly explains that tradition is a “grid” on how to interpret Scripture (p. 118). There are scenes that have gone before us in Act 5. If we are to jump in now, we must take into account what has already happened in our Act. To disregard tradition is like me saying, “I don’t care who my grandfather was or where my parents lived most of my life. They don’t make me who I am. I am me.” And then I go about acting as if these things never existed or don’t influence my behavior. Such is certainly not true and is absurd (as at most a psychologist could tell you or at least my Philly accent gives it away that my history makes me who I am today).
So, back to the issue at hand — what do you say to the Christian who thinks tattoos are evil? Perhaps you consider the Act in which Leviticus was written (i.e., Israel), then look at Act 4 with Jesus, and then Act 5 with the apostles and so forth; and then you conclude that tattoos are a matter of Christian freedom–just like wearing a shirt made of two cloths. I know it takes some time to explain how this works to someone, but it might be time that we give people a better framework on how to interpret Scripture. For instance, I don’t know how one can believe in the “prosperity gospel” if he or she reads the Prophets or the Gospels (or church history for that matter). That’s like spaceships in a Shakespearean play!
As I stated yesterday, I don’t agree with Wright on everything in this book, but, overall, I believe this is how the authority of Scripture works, like a story, like a five-act play. It is a guiding principle. It leads us to better understand who God is and what his mission for us is, as well. In the end, Wright’s The Last Word encourages us to read Scripture, wrestle with it, and allow it to guide us each and every day. Score 8 out of 10.
Wright, N.T. (2005). The last word: beyond the Bible wars to a new understanding of the authority of Scripture. Harper: San Francisco.