Why all the little beards?


Here’s something a little off the theological track: An analysis of the “new evangelicalism” from the perspective of…facial hair. The article is entitled, “Icons of the New Evangelicalism” and is subtitled, “Why all the little beards?”

In this provocative little article over at Killing the Buddha (subtitled, “the medium is the messiah”), author John D. Boy reflects upon the meaning and significance of the presence of goatees on the chins of influential evangelicals such as Rick Warren, Brian McLaren (yes, he’s included!) and Doug Pagitt (and formerly Mark Driscoll, who apparently has now ditched the whiskers). Boy cites the French literary critic Roland Barthes as his theoretical starting point:  “Among priests, it is not due to chance whether one is bearded or not.” According to Boy, Rick Warren’s choice not to shave at the inauguration ceremony of Barack Obama, “suggests a pointed attempt to remake the evangelical iconography.”

Though I encourage you to take a few minutes to read the article yourself (some pretty probing and intelligent questions are asked here), in the end Boy echoes the question of Theodor Adorno, the German social critic, whether “the beard is the oppositionist costume of juveniles acting like cavemen who refuse to play along with the cultural swindle while in fact they merely don the old-fashioned emblem of the patriarchal dignity of their grandfathers.” Ouch!

There is an old saw  (that I could not source–anyone?) that says you could discern the theological bent of a theologian by what he did or didn’t smoke. (And yes, the pronoun is “he” here, because at the time the joke was making its rounds, well, there just weren’t a lot of “she” theologians) So, the maxim goes, if a theologian didn’t smoke at all, he was clearly fundamentalist.  If he smoked cigarettes, he was liberal. Pipe-smokers, of course, were neo-orthodox, cigar smokers were Chestertonian, and those who smoked cigarettes only with a cigarette holder, were influenced by French existentialism. So is there is a new saying emerging that tells us something of one’s theology by the amount or type of facial hair one sports? (It would be interesting experiment to figure out the categories!)

As an aside, it is an interesting phenomenon that historically, beards and moustaches were generally forbidden here in 1960’s and 1970’s when Briercrest College and Seminary was Briercrest Bible Institute (founded in 1935). Indeed, facial hair was generally frowned upon amongst fundamentalists in North American during the hippy era when facial hair represented rebellion against authority. But by the time I entered the college as a student in the mid-1980’s, beards were just beginning to be accepted on faculty, though I clearly remember some basic “do’s and don’ts” about facial hair in the student handbook, along with prohibitions of jeans in the academic building. But I clearly remember that the dean who hired me in 1993 sported a goatee! My how times changed! The question is, is that good or bad?

Oh, by the way, I recently shaved off the ends of my “horseshoe mustache” (though now I’m not sure what style it is). Amazingly, no one seems to have noticed, or else, no one is brave enough to say anything about it to me! My kids haven’t even said anything, even though once they cried when I shaved my moustache off! But my (only half-serious) question to myself is this: Does this act also signal a change to my theology? I’ll expect those who know me well to tell me in the coming months whether behind this recent decision to change my moustache lies an unconscious attempt to reinvent myself and my theology. In other words, is it true, to paraphrase Barthes, “Among theologians, it is not due to chance whether one is moustached/ goatee’d/bearded or not”?

P.S. I was just thinking about how many theologians I know with goatees…eery!


8 thoughts on “Why all the little beards?

  1. RogueMonk

    Ah, so I was elected to go beardless…but not elected in Christ, for, surely, Christ had a beard. (I just knew Barth was wrong.)

    Blessings, RogueMonk

  2. Is Rick Warren a theologian? Thought he was a pastor trying to be cool.

    You shaved the handlebar hooks? I’d have noticed and said you were distancing yourself from your German leanings.

    I have always thought the full beard was the scholar’s beard and the goatee was for those trying to stay youthful looking.

    I love that someone wrote an article like this! (even though at the end of the day I reject the premise that someone’s appearance can tell you anything sure about them).

  3. bubbie

    i personally…loved the old moustache wayyyyyyyy better!!!
    nothing theological about it
    …time to grow it back i say!!! start today dont delay!!! Ü
    …love you shorty moustache man!!!

  4. John Boy

    I’m glad you enjoyed my little contribution to the burgeoning field of Beard Studies. Do let me know how the mustache trim makes itself felt in your ecclesiology.

  5. There was a joke when I was in seminary that you could distinguish OT and NT profs by their appearance – the former as relatively unkempt, bushy beards, shirts hanging out; the latter as spic-and-span in how they dressed and kept their hair. (The idea was that Hebrew is “looser” grammatically than Greek.) I know a lot of OT people with BIG beards!

    By the way, I’ve always thought that suspicion of beards was weird: it’s one of the way that the sexes are kept distinct. And so many of the ways men and women are different have been erased in the last century, I’m in favor of holding on to the few that remain.

  6. Personally I have a goatee to hide my double chin…sometimes it really isn’t all that complicated 😉

    PS – used to have a complete beard but it made my face look wider

    yeah yeah …vanities vanities

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