Monday, February 25, 2008

Some Observations on Bearded Mormons (seen any lately?)

I was corresponding today with my good friend Toby, and he made an interesting observation: "I'm suprised to see that you've grown a nice-looking goatee. I thought the church didn't allow facial hair. I don't think that I've ever seen a Mormon with facial hair before." I gave him this short answer: "I had to laugh about the goatee. The short answer is that, yes, we can wear facial hair, but there seems to be a bias against it (throwback from the 60's counterculture movement?), so most of us don't. I remember Matt D'Errico calling me a Quaker Mormon, and I sometimes wonder if, at least in terms of grooming, norms of mission life and BYU's dress code set people up within the church to use dress and grooming in a similar way to early Quakers or Amish folk [i.e., not as a deliberate marker of difference, but one that evolves over time into a defining characteristic of a people]. I think it's easy for members to take wearing facial hair to mean that a person is "not with the program." Who knows? All I know is that my face is just that much warmer in the winter. Besides, I like that it makes some people feel a bit on edge that one of their local leaders doesn't follow the unwritten rules of piety that we seem to make that have little to do with living a truly Christian life."

As I continued reflecting, I think the real answer got to be a bit more complex. I think I'm getting to be less, rather than more, conformant with age, and I must have a need to draw attention to myself. I'll explain. When we lived in Salt Lake while I went to the U of U, I was the ward clerk and got to spend a lot of time working with our bishop, a guy who only wears bow ties. In his way, he was thumbing his nose at the system and taking a stand as an individual, and I liked that. So, I started exploring little ways to find the "me" within my personal life (You would think I would know how to do that as a 30-something with a fair amount of book learning, but it's surprising how few of us do). So as a for instance in this personal search, I decided to really embrace the fact that I still really enjoy Legos for personal reasons, and not just because they would make a good toy to play with my kiddies in the future. It also occurred to me that, while I wouldn't wear a bow tie all the time, I might enjoy wearing one on occasion, so I bought a tie or two. Then Hallie and I took our trip to Newfoundland, Canada, about a year and a half ago, and our luggage got delayed for a few days. Once we got our luggage, I decided to shine on shaving because I already had some growth going, and it was a vacation after all. So, I thought I'd keep it going once I got home. For the last two years, I've been pulling a Wally Bogguss (high school science teacher) and shaving for half the year and letting the goatee come to play for the other half.

I definitely get some varied responses from church members as a result of wearing a goatee. Most don't know quite what to do with me, because while there is no official policy regarding facial hair, there is a strong cultural bias against it. None of the big-wigs has gone bearded for over 50 years, and missionaries have a dress code (no facial hair), as does BYU (no beards, neatly trimmed moutaches are OK). By the time anyone who is raised in the church gets around to having the ability to grow a beard, it gets taken as a sign of rebellion. I think it's funny. So, I guess I just decided that having the goatee was my business as I continue to get to know who I am on the inside.

I think the big reason we don't see more Mormons with beards is that there does exist a strong cultural bias against facial hair among White, multi-generation (typically living in or with relatives in Utah, Idaho, or Arizona) Mormons, but the bias does not reflect in church policy (go on, check the handbook). Having a beard, for instance, can't keep a person from getting baptized or going to the temple, and the Big Guy has one (and it didn't keep me from being made the branch president (think bishop-lite) of our little branch (think ward-lite) out here in Detroit, so I just do my own thing and enjoy the stares.

What I genuinely hope is that people who have spent a lifetime or several generations in the church will someday begin to separate their own cultural peculiarities (which are fine and wonderful in their own way) from this beautiful gospel we purport to offer the world. Sometimes I worry that the cultural baggage we carry hides the message. One nice consequence is that I get observations from people like, "I thought that Mormons don't wear beards, have more than one wife, hate Black folks, etc.," and I get to reply with, "We can, we don't, we love everybody, etc." It's amazing how much more approachable I've been able to become to some folks while being such a thorn to others, all for not shaving. In some places, people still would have me shave if I were taking a leadership role ("It sets a bad example." I'm not sure how or why, other than the fact that hippies and Che Guevara and Fidel and Lenin . . . I'd better stop . . . wore beards), but out here in Detroit beggars can't be choosers. I plan on shaving when the weather heats back up (who want's a fur coat on their face in the summer?), and I am sure I'll get approving clucks from the folks who want me bald faced. "He finally got the memo," they'll say.

1 comment:

Aaron said...

Hello Mike,
Saw your Dad when I visited the ward with the family last week. Too bad your Mom was sick. He mentioned you are coming to Utah soon for a quick visit. Safe travels.

The beard post? You rebel.

Thinking about applying to the Learning Sciences PhD program for the fall. . .and am applying for an internship with the Church in a couple of weeks.

I'll send you an email instead of typing all this in comments. . .take care.