The current event combers over at The Daily Beast drew my attention to sociologist Peter Berger’s recent blog on beards. If you’ve read my bio here at TJP you’ll understand how my editor/friends may have played a role in my finding this piece. “Busse on Beards? Too good to pass up!” (Very funny, guys.)
Anyway, Berger picks up on two prominent news stories.The first is a beard massacre that–file this one under “God’s Sense of Humor”–includes an Amish defendant named Mr. Mullet. The second is a court-ordered beard-shearing at Ft. Hood. In the wake of all this forced depilation, Berger takes up the socio-cultural significance of beards.
All jokes aside, he’s getting at some pretty fundamental issues at the heart of these court cases: religious freedom, bodily expressions of that freedom, and offenses to those freedoms. As with most writing that seeks to get to the heart of things, Berger’s meandering reflections eventually lead him to God. (Well, if not God exactly, at least he approaches questions of the religious significance of beards. That’s close enough for me.) He writes:
Needless to say, religion is a particularly rich field for the beard as sacramental symbol. […] Bearded priests have become the norm in Eastern Orthodox churches; in the Roman Catholic Church, while there are some monastic orders whose monks wear beards, secular priests are normally clean-shaven. […] Mormons stand out: Young men going out on their two-year missionary stints must be clean-shaven, as must students at Brigham Young University. Beards have become the trademark of Orthodox Judaism, though the Torah does not command them directly (Leviticus only has rules for shaping the beard). […] Jews in mourning, while “sitting shive”, don’t shave and let the stubbles sit during this period. Sikhs are very intent on their luxurious beards. Many Hindu ascetics have beards, but that is not so much a symbol as the result of their having no possessions, not even a razor (they do beg—is there no pious barber who can donate a free shave?).
If it’s personal anecdotes you want, I have one. Every time (yes, every time) I’ve visited a high school classroom to give a talk about my Jesuit life during a vocation promotion week, one of the boys (yes, they’re always boys) pipes up during the “Do you have any questions” segment and asks something like, “How long did it take you to grow that beard? It’s pretty awesome.”
No joke. The kids love the beard. If Peter Berger is right, it’s probably because they’re in the middle of their own coming of age process, and the beard is a unique marker of the boy/man boundary. All I can say is that if a beard brings them closer to God and further from the foolish religious violence that plagues the bearded and unbearded alike, well, I’ll gladly field that question any day.
“It took a long time boys…it took a very long time.”