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As tattooing has become more mainstream, Christians have, rightfully, sought counsel from God’s Word to determine whether or not tattoos are a biblically authorized form of expression.
For those of us who have tattoos (yes, I have two three-quarter sleeves) or are considering getting a tattoo, the digital or “artificial age” is raising new questions that ultimately transcend tattooing.
These new questions aren’t about whether or not Christians should put ink under their skin but about the increased opportunities allowing us to disconnect from one another.
The tattooing process offers an interesting test case for the ways artificial intelligence (AI) models provide the means for us to distance ourselves from one another.
To underscore the problem, it is important to understand how the Bible deals with tattooing and why.
While conversations about Christians and tattoos have tended to focus on whether the action of getting a tattoo is prohibited or not, the legal literature of the Old Testament is not a list of dos and don’ts that can be abstracted from a particular context. Instead, they speak to the ways God relates to us and the way we are to relate to others.
The Bible, Tattooing, and Connection
Before deciding to get “inked” for the first time in 2005, I spent a fair amount of time researching that question.
While Leviticus 19:28 may, at first glance, seem to preclude the modern-day practice of tattooing, the text isn’t aimed at the physical act so much as it is aimed at the symbolic meaning and purpose behind those acts.
More specifically, the law is concerned with relationships between God and his people and between God’s people and others.
In both Leviticus 19:28, tattooing reflects one’s understanding of and connection to God and others. Leviticus points to ways of interacting with others that convey a false sense of reality. The prohibition against tattooing has as its background an improper human relationship.
Tattooing had been used in Egypt as a sign of slavery. The continued practice of marking oneself or others as servants of anyone other than the Lord would constitute a return to the sort of slavery from which God had delivered his people.
The prohibition in Leviticus 19:28 concerns the perpetual establishment of inappropriate relationships between humans and, thus, an inaccurate understanding of God.
Isaiah 44:5 may offer a more positive perspective on tattooing. Isaiah points to a day when God’s people will proclaim their connection with the Lord without shame.
Though the lack of a preposition before “hand” in Isaiah 44:5 leaves open the possibility that the text does not refer to writing “on their hand” than “with their hand,” the reading “on their hand” would reinforce the notion that the meaning and purpose of an act like tattooing is crucial to understanding the appropriateness of the act itself.
If Isaiah 44:5 is understood as a reference to tattooing, the relationship conveyed by the permanent mark is an appropriate one as God’s people demonstrate their ongoing commitment to the Lord.
Viewing the prohibition against tattooing in Leviticus and the potential “endorsement” of it in Isaiah from this angle situates tattooing within the broad summary of the law’s requirements: loving God with all we are and have and loving our neighbor as ourselves.
The laws given to Israel were offered within the relational context of the covenant. As such, they offered guidance to the Israelites on how to relate rightly to God, others, and creation as a whole.
The covenant, according to Old Testament scholar Richard Averbeck, “is intended to help us understand how the holy God does relationship with us as fallen sinful people.”
If the covenant and the laws given as part of that covenant are inherently relational, we should not simply attend to the specific rules laid out for ancient Israel and the way they inform our understanding of God.
We must also recognize that these laws offer wisdom regarding the sorts of relationships we are to cultivate as people who know the living God.
Why I’m Concerned about Artificial Intelligence and Tattooing
After getting a less-than-stellar tattoo in 2009 (which I eventually got covered up), I started taking the process of tattooing more seriously. I looked at a number of tattoos online, visited a few tattoo parlors, and talked to several artists before finding an artist I trusted.
Between 2017 and 2021, I worked with my artist to design a cover-up on my right arm and a new tattoo for my left.
I would bring her an idea; she would draw it up and make suggestions to improve on my rough concepts. In my experience, the interaction between me and my artist allowed for better tattoos.
My concern with some of the AI models currently available is that they will diminish aspects of the creative work tattoo artists actually do.
If AI models create the art and clients simply expect tattoo artists to apply a stencil and pop in the ink, the end product may be indistinguishable from that produced when clients and artists collaborate, but we will lose something in the process.
At the core of my concerns is a conviction: human-to-human interactions matter. It seems to me that AI is already exhibiting a tendency to turn creatives (e.g., tattoo artists) into more or less mechanistic workers.
They essentially paint-by-number. To put it simply, AI is creating opportunities for us to redefine the way we interact with one another.
While you may not share specific concerns about AI’s impact on the tattoo industry, all Christians should be concerned about the ways AI allows us to change the way we relate to one another.
If “all the Law and the Prophets” depend on loving God with all we are and have and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves (Matt 22:34-40), we must consider how AI’s functionalities hinder us from loving God and our neighbor.
We may justify our willingness to replace human work with AI in the name of efficiency. Yet, Christians are not called to be efficient. We are called to love God and our neighbor.
As such, we cannot embrace AI as a tool on the basis of efficiency. We have to consider how AI helps and hinders us from loving God and our neighbor. In some instances, AI may offer opportunities for us to care for those who are burdened in some fashion.
In others, AI will diminish our neighbors and eliminate the spaces we currently have to love them by respecting their creativity and allowing them to exercise their God-given talents.
Why Does This Matter?
In the end, AI’s potential to change the tattoo industry is of less concern than what that potential represents. It represents AI’s potential to diminish our capacity to love God and one another.
If we become overly dependent on technology, we will soon find ourselves pushing God to the margins of our lives. When God is pushed to the margins, our neighbors will not be far behind.
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James Spencer earned his Ph.D. in Theological Studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He believes discipleship will open up opportunities beyond anything God’s people could accomplish through their own wisdom. James has published multiple works, including Christian Resistance: Learning to Defy the World and Follow Christ, Useful to God: Eight Lessons from the Life of D. L. Moody, Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind, and Trajectories: A Gospel-Centered Introduction to Old Testament Theology to help believers look with eyes that see and listen with ears that hear as they consider, question, and revise assumptions hindering Christians from conforming more closely to the image of Christ. In addition to serving as the president of the D. L. Moody Center, James is the host of “Useful to God,” a weekly radio broadcast and podcast, a member of the faculty at Right On Mission, and an adjunct instructor with the Wheaton College Graduate School.
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