Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair, by Christopher Oldstone-Moore
Ok. It really has nothing to do with collegiate ministry. But hey, we all know that beards and collegiate ministry go cheek to cheek. In working with scores of collegiate ministers and collegiate church planters, the vast majority of them have some form of facial hair. So, since so many of us are sporting beards of some sort, I decided to let you all know about this book. Besides, the author does cover a lot of religious issues and events, believe it or not, while covering the topic. And don’t scoff at the idea of a book about beards. It’s a Phi Beta Kappa recommend read.
The author helps us understand that the clean-shaven standard look started with Alexander the Great in an attempt to have an eternal, youthful, god-like look of Achilles and 4th century BC portrayals of a beardless Heracles. At the young age of just twenty-two, Alexander was at the right period in his life to attempt the likeness. Why Greek artists were shifting to beardless depictions of gods in the 4th century will be up to you to find out with further reading.
Ever since Alexander, the clean-shaven look has been the standard in the West for more than two thousands years except for four periods of time: mid-way in the Roman empire, during the high Middle-Ages, during the Renaissance, and during the mid to late 19th Century (think Civil War generals). For those who are interested in theology and Christian history, you will find the material on the battle over the “inner beard” and Jesus’ beard most interesting. Why do Catholic bishops almost never have beards, and Orthodox priests almost always have them? You will discover that beards were an excommunicable offence for Catholic clergy until 1917, (though Clement VII did grow a “penitential beard” after the sack of Rome by mercenaries in 1527). Protestant reformers, by contrast, embraced beards as a sign of their theological differences with Rome.
But the book is not just trivia. Along the way Mr. Oldstone-Moore brings up issues that will stop and make you think. What is the purpose of beards? Do they protect? Do they attract mates (most research shows short stubble the most attractive to both men and women)? Are beards required by God? Do they represent male superiority, or a beast within that must be tamed? And for us doing collegiate ministry the main question must be “why beards now?” Is the spike in campus ministers sporting beards a theological shift of some sort (a Reformed resurgence?) or just the mirroring of broader trends? Are ministers with beards more “effective” on the campus?
Finally, if you are wondering if we have entered a fifth beard phase, Mr. Oldstone-Moore says the jury is still out. Though there are many men sporting facial hair of some sort, he is quick to point out that no U.S. president since Taft has had facial hair. The last nominee for president from either party with facial hair was Thomas Dewy (he wore a mustache) who lost twice in 1944 and 1948. Union members do not have a right to wear a beard, and corporate American still seems to abide by Alexander’s mandate.
I think you will find this book an interesting read no matter your thoughts, or lack thereof, about beards. You will certainly learn from reading this book, and will come away realizing that in Western history beards were, and continue to be, much more than just “fashion statements.” At $27 it is a bit pricey, but I was able to find a copy at my local library.
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