Saturday, July 5, 2008

Jesus shaves in the latest Ensign

In the June Ensign there was a picture that caught my attention in terms of Mormon dress and grooming.  I know it is not a new topic, it was always an annual topic of conversation in the Daily Universe at BYU, but it still strikes me as an unusually strong shift in cultural norms and one that begs commentary.  Of course I'm talking about the infamous beard. 

Did the editor of the magazine not realize that the darkened image of this presumably reformed sinner has a strong resemblance to modern depictions of Jesus?  And of all visual representations of a reformed life, how did the progressive shaving of one's beard become the quintessential image of repentance?  

Mormons have a long history with beards, no pun intended, ok, maybe intended.  We started clean shaven, Joseph Smith was said to have not even have been able to grow a beard he was so lightly patched.   Then Brigham Young became the face of Mormonism (sorry, I can't stop) and a bearded old man was the public image of Mormonism until David O. McKay took over in the 1950's.  Now when people think of Mormons they think of clean shaven young men on bikes.

Is there a right and wrong in this all?  I would argue that the largest populations of individuals that wear beards in our modern day are the poor and if a negative connotation associated with a beard persists to the point that the poor do not feel comfortable gathering with general population of the Church or if beards are such a cultural norm in a country such as Kazakhstan, for example, that a clean shaven church is seen as completely foreign/not worthy of listening to the message entity then yes it is wrong to perpetuate such an image. 


km said...

How funny. I was just pointing this out to my brother this morning. What's wonderfully ironic about it is that on the very same page, there's a picture of Jesus up in the left-hand corner of the very same page! Jesus is depicted in profile, and he looks exactly like the illustration of the man in his bearded, "inactive" stage of life. Ah, the quirks of Mormon culture.

Kim Siever said...

Mary and I noticed this when we received our Ensign last month. We had a god chuckle over it.

David Stoker said...

Thanks for coming by! The ensign should supply a steady pipeline of quirky bits of Mormon culture, complete with good chuckles.

Julie Bradshaw said...

I've been thinking a bit about this post and about the post on ties and I think rather than this being an indication of Mormon culture, it's probably more accurate to term it as a result of the Mormon church operating within western culture. I can't think of any major western political figure or CEO (there might be some, but none spring to mind) who wear a beard. It's just not fashionable right now for men in western culture trying to put forth a foot of leadership. Often when men are making a statement of independence (or are just being lazy) the first physical change is often their facial hair. :) That being said, was it and is it worn in the middle east, where Christ walked? Absolutely. So it would be appropriate for his picture to depict him wearing a beard. I do wonder, however, if this same image is used in the Liahona. It would be interesting to compare.

Another thought: I know that you are concerned that these types of stereotypes or expectations for conformity might dissuade international investigators from joining the church, but I think that if that is indeed the case, the faith does not run deep enough. All of us must make sacrifices to be part of this church, and sometimes those things require us to give up a part of our culture, no matter our nationality. I think that there is nothing wrong with asking for a clean, well kept appearance to go along with being a member of the church. Don't you think it would be nice to be easily recognizable as a Mormon because of how you present yourself? Just a thought.

I would be interested to see more postings on other "quirky" Mormon culture bits that you actually like. :)

David Stoker said...

I agree that it is a function of the church operating in Western culture and that is exactly the point i.e. that the Church is by default exporting a western culture along with the message of the gospel and my point being that the gospel message is intended for the entire world, all backgrounds and cultures, but a gospel message that comes in a western-packaged box is an immediate barrier to large populations of the earth.

Regarding the faith not running deep enough... I agree that strong faith should and would trump any cultural barriers (I'm still a practicing member :) ). But I do think there is something to be said about first impressions and image and it being important to even getting someone's ear to the point that they could hear the message. If it didn't matter at all there would be no need for a public relations department. I also think the need for faith to see past cultural differences should be expected by all members, and I'd argue even more so from the Western-culture members of the church to see that there are alternatives and that the gospel can "look" different in different areas among different people but still be the "true" church. And I whole heartedly agree with you about the clean and well-kept appearance, that is the principle, that is the universal, having a beard or not having a beard as the sole representation of that principle is what I'm picking apart.

I also agree with you that I would be interested to know if this same image was published in the Liahona versions of the Ensign but I still think as the flagship publication and the version with the most international distribution that the Ensign would really be the place to question such an image.

So yes, Mormons should be known for cleanliness in all aspects of their lives, dress, grooming, language, dwellings, thoughts, etc. but what that cleanliness looks like in the end should not be limited to the Western manifestation of business suits and shaving habits.

I've had the same thought that I need to highlight some of the quirky aspects that I do like, which are many.

O'Golly said...

It is high time we put aside such childish notions about what a pious man "should" look like. Beardless men, throughout all history, are more often associated with just the opposite (I believe it was Roman soldiers who first advanced the fashion).

Mormon history, to say nothing of Christian history in general, is absolutely full of bearded men in leadership positions. The current antipathy to facial hair stems from the late 1950s and 1960 cultural experience with the beatnik and then the hippie, cultural movements that have come and gone. Bearded men are now more often associated with the likes of "Al" of the late TV series 'Tool Time.'

Facial hair for men is simply a fashion that comes and goes, the most recent hairless trend being rooted in the millions of men who attained the habit of being clean shaven as soldiers during the war years of the last century.

To base an entire ecclesiastic typology on such recent and flaky fashion trends is just utterly silly INMHO.

I remained clean shaven for over twenty years as a soldier. I now sport a beard, not because I am lazy, but because I have always (even as a child) liked the look and felt most comfortable that way. (I tried shaving it off just last month, and my youngest son was quite upset ... I just wasn't the "dad" he knew and loved).

I have notice a steady, if slow, increase in the number of men who have beards in the church in the last decade, and I predict that the trend will continue, and the silly notion that lack of facial hair is some indication of piety will slowly fade away with this generation.

There is a similar thread about neckties I contributed to today that compliments this discussion.

David Stoker said...

I think you're right O'Golly in pinning the last main shift in cultural perceptions of the beard to the beatnik/hippie generation and before that the War.

If the trend is occurring as you propose then I suspect there will always be a lag in the church publications reflecting that change.

Stephen said...

Ah, but there is a witness one communicates by appearance. If I speak English the words I use have meanings in English, regardless of what they might mean in another language.

If I groom myself within my culture, I communicate.

That said, I grow beards every vacation because my wife likes them, I have to shave them off when I return to work, well, because it makes a difference.