Every year about this time, when the petunias wither, the horse coats thicken, and the dogs have to be coaxed outside in the morning, a certain delicate debate returns to the Prior household. Each year, as if for the first time ever, I inquire of Mr. Prior if he has forgotten to shave. And Mr. Prior answers, without elaboration, in the negative. After a few more unshaven days pass, I ask, as though I don't already know: "Are you growing a beard?" And Mr. Prior again offers a noncommittal sort of non-response. Finally, after a week or so goes by, I state rather than ask, "You're growing a beard." And Mr. Prior, as though we hadn't discussed this once or twice or twenty times before, responds, "I thought you said you liked my beard," referring, of course, to last year's battle of the beard. "Yes, I like how it looks …" I explain, trailing off, unconsciously brushing my sensitive cheek with my hand.

Sometimes our facial hair skirmish goes on for a week, sometimes a month. Happily, it always comes to an end once the beard does, too.

Beards have a complicated and varied history. In various times and cultures beards have signified wisdom, manliness, virility, dignity, poverty, propriety, conservatism, and countercultural revolution. Some men's very identities are tightly wrapped up in their beards: who would Abraham Lincoln be without his legendary beard? Or good ol' St. Nick without his white whiskers?

Poor men. While the range of personal expression women can achieve through fashion includes bags, shoes, jackets, hairstyle, hair length, hair color, nail polish, earrings, necklaces, scarves, boots, barrettes, bracelets, and lipstick, or the lack of any of these, a man's range can be pretty much summed up in Dockers or not-Dockers, bowtie or regular tie, and facial hair.

And if it's true that a woman's dress and appearance are subject to endless scrutiny (illustrated perfectly by the astonishing number of reader comments on a recent Her.meneutics post), the facial hair of men is subjected to a fair amount of interpretation and controversy, too, as a few recent news stories show:

  • Last week, famous Jewish rapper Matisyahu stirred up fans when he posted a photo of himself online sans beard, explaining that shaving was one more step in a decade-long, unfinished religious journey.
  • The U. S. Army recently agreed to let an ultra-Orthodox bearded rabbi serve as a reserve chaplain, due to a settlement in a federal discrimination lawsuit. Army grooming standards require soldiers to be clean-shaven, but the discrimination suit claimed exceptions to the rule had been made for Sikh and Muslim clerics.
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  • In October, Amish men in Ohio were terrorized in a series of beard-cutting ambushes which resulted in the arrests of several members of a rival sect who've been charged with federal hate crimes. Because beard growth is a central expression of the religious beliefs of the Amish, the attacks were direct attacks on the core of the men's belief system.

Such religiously motivated beard brouhaha led Slate.com to ask, "Why Does God Love Beards?" Clearly, for some beards are serious business.

Among religious conservatives, beards are either requisite—or rebellious. For some traditionalists that claim the Old Testament as part of their religious texts, beards continue to signify the reverence and respect with which they were associated under Mosaic law. For a different kind of conservative—namely, the modern American kind—beards are suspect: "Never trust a man with a beard," the saying goes in some quarters. For example, at my own conservative institution, located on the buckle of the Bible Belt, administration have only recently let students sport beards.

Perhaps such policy changes reflect only the resurging popularity of beards, particularly within the college set. All my life, I've never understood the grizzly beards of old men. Now in middle age, I'm even more perplexed at the recent turn that has brought into vogue what I call the train-hopping/Avett Brothers/hobo look among the younger generation. Personally, I'm thankful to have been born between beard generations, my husband's short-lived annual attempts notwithstanding.

It's no coincidence, I think, that in an age of diminishing rites and rituals, one of the most prominent male physical features traditionally associated with both maleness and religion is making a comeback. As a symbol of masculinity, beards set the men apart from the boys—and the women. The old practice of swearing an oath by one's beard was to stake one's virtue (the Latin root word for virtue means man) on one's word. As a religious expression, a beard separates one from the surrounding culture. Traditional Jewish and Orthodox Christian interpretation of Old Testament law centers on the prohibition of shaving with a razor, not a requirement to have a beard, since cutting the hair was permissible under the law. As an expression of masculinity or holiness or both, a beard can be sacramental, an outward sign of an inward state.

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Of course, a beard does not guarantee virtue or true manliness, any more than it guarantees true religion. But in a world increasingly less certain about such inward states, I'm not surprised to see increasing attention given to the significance of outward signs. For those under the law, a beard is a mark of salvific obedience; for those under grace, however, salvation comes from One bereft of his beard not by the blade of the razor, but by the hands of men: "I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard" (Isaiah 50:6a). Even in such a seemingly small matter as facial hair, Christ both upheld the law and fulfilled it, so that from the law we, too, can be unlocked.