When They See His Face Will They Be “Beliebers”?

Last week, when an apparition of Jesus’ face began circulating the web—an image seen not on grilled cheese nor in the pan it was made, but rather on Justin Bieber’s left calf in the form of a tattoo—the gossip blogs erupted with excitement. While most simply posted photos, exclamations, and opinion polls, some also noted the 17-year-old pop star’s Christian faith (which he discusses in an interview in this month’s V Magazine). Jo Piazza even contextualized the new ink by asking whether Bieber and other icons, like Tim Tebow, are making Christianity cool.

Tattoos (and body piercing and punk rock, for example) have long been part of Christian subculture and, importantly, they were also long condemned by a majority of evangelicals. Jay Bakker, dubbed “punk preacher” because of his characteristic full-sleeve tattoos, has attested to that. But with the continual growth of a distinctly hipster Christianity across the United States, and with tattoos becoming increasingly more ubiquitous in the secular world, that Christian subculture has not only gained acceptance, but, in many ways, reverence.

Much in the same way that mainstream culture has co-opted hipsterdom, mainstream church communities seem to be co-opting elements of hipster Christianity. They hold services in alternative spaces, they play indie music, they design well and market better. They wear jeans to church and they drink coffee during services. Many have tattoos. But as I noted in my review of Brett McCracken’s Hipster Christianity for RD, “For McCracken, there are two types of hip churches, two types of hipster Christians: the natural and the marketed, the authentic and the wannabe.”

By getting a large, visible Jesus tattoo, and thereby manifesting his faith publicly, Justin Bieber makes it safe for young Christians to be “Beliebers” (as Ann Neumann remarked) as well as believers. Understood in that way, he is making Christianity cool, albeit in the eyes of a well-defined demographic.

But the tattoo also exemplifies a pattern of cultural appropriation that I only expect will expand within Christianity. He fits into the latter two of McCracken’s categories—marketed and wannabe—but it works because, well, he’s Justin Bieber. Lest we forget: before the teen heartthrob came around, tattoos needed to made safe for Christian consumption.