Simon Jenkins: Between hairiness and holiness
Beards have been bristling into the headlines in the recent months. Jeremy Paxman’s decision to give his razor a rest last summer proved as much of a gift to journalists as David Dimbleby’s tattoo. The Newsnight audience polarised into pro and anti beard and Paxman passed it all off as “a storm in a shaving mug”.
Then baby-faced Gareth Malone turned up for the filming of the BBC’s The Choir with an unexpected ginger specimen of the topiarist’s art clinging to his face, which triggered fresh storms of outrage and adoration on Twitter.
Both of them are contenders in Beard of the Year, an annual wag-off between the mightiest beards of the Kingdom. At the time of writing, John Hurt, the only bearded Dr Who ever, is leading the list with 39% of the vote.
I raise the subject because a package arrived from Amazon and it got me thinking about the connection between hairiness and holiness, as well as the tragic decline of the beard in church life.
The package contained a satirical little item called the Jesus Shaves Mug. I took it in the kitchen to test it out. It is adorned with a rather Sunday-school-looking Jesus, complete with long hair and a flowing beard, brandishing a pair of scissors. I popped in a tea bag and added boiling water, and within seconds the familiar facial hair of our Lord miraculously faded away to reveal a clean-shaven saviour, bearing an eerie resemblance to an Italian hairdresser.
There was a time, of course, when beards covered a multitude of chins. There was Moses and St Paul. There was Nebuchadnezzar with his knitted beard and Pharaoh with a little wooden goatee held in place with the Egyptian equivalent of elastic. There was Elijah and Jeremiah and other monumentally angry Old Testament saints.
There was Leonardo and Michelangelo. There was Santa (and come to think of it, his anagram, Satan). In the 19th Century, a golden age for facial fungus, there was Marx and Darwin, both much bushy of face. The celebrated Baptist preacher, CH Spurgeon even said: “Growing a beard is a habit most natural, scriptural, manly and beneficial.” His own beard was a living testament to that doctrine.
That century was a time when the beard could stride forth into the world with a biblical swagger, ruling an empire and knowing it would be greeted with respect. But that high tide of beardliness has now withdrawn. The day of the omnipresent beard is now sadly passed. The big, biblical beard is no longer king. All that remains are the bearded chops of Rowan Williams, plus the other scattered winners of Beard of the Year.
In its heyday, the beard was theological. Think about it. When did you last see a pope with a beard? Or an Orthodox bishop without one? For the record, the most recent bewhiskered pope was Innocent XII, who sported a jaunty goatee plus moustache until the end of his reign in 1700. He ended 150 years of popes who wore beards in defiance of a church law which decreed that priests should keep their faces shaved.
Apart from that lapse, the Romans always preferred to follow the example of Jacob in the Book of Genesis: “Behold, Esau my brother is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man.” Around the turn of the first millennium, papal bulls and excommunications were issued against clergy (and sometimes laymen) who dared to follow the way of Esau.
The insistence that all Roman clergy should be clean-shaven gave the Protestant reformers a splendid opportunity of showing how rebellious they were. Many of them, bad boys such as John Knox, Menno Simons and Thomas Cranmer, all previously Catholic priests, grew beards as their theology shifted. And all the while, the eastern Orthodox clergy maintained their impressive face rugs, believing that smooth faces meant you were just a big girl.
All of which seems irredeemably trivial, of course, like quite a lot of church history. Until you remember that God officially has a big white beard (it says so on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel) and Jesus always has a beard and long hair. This consistent image of a bearded deity somehow conditions how we imagine God to be.
Maybe the beard is more ticklish than we think.
This article was published in the February 2014 issue of Reform
Read more Jumble Sales of the apocalypse columns