The latest dispatch from the LDS beard wars comes from Marietta, Georgia, where a visiting area authority, speaking at my brother-in-law’s stake conference, declared that no man in the Church should have a beard. The speaker reasoned as follows: since every member is a missionary, and because missionaries are required to be clean-shaven, every man in the Church should be clean-shaven.
Despite the questionable premises of this syllogism, not to mention at least one category mistake, my brother in law decided to inquire of the Lord about the conclusion, and felt prompted to follow the instruction and shave his beard. Our family has long felt that my brother-in-law looked quite awful wearing a beard, and so considers the area authority’s instruction to have been inspired. At a minimum, we conclude that the Lord shares our sense of aesthetic judgment.
But on a broader scale, the effects of such pronouncements may be less attractive. Consider:
Scenario One: Friends of ours, who had been called to preside over a west-coast mission, decided to invite their adult daughter and son-in-law to visit them for a few days at the mission home. Apparently the son-in-law has been chafing a bit against convention since returning home from his mission, and unbeknownst to them, had dyed his hair blue. Upon discovering this, our friends dis-invited the couple to visit, reasoning that it would be inappropriate to have a person with blue hair around the mission home.
Scenario Two: During a High Priests’ group priesthood lesson, the instructor posed the question: How do you recognize a spiritual individual? Various class members offered various answers: by the person’s obedience to the commandments, by the presence of the Holy Ghost, by the person’s service to others. One elderly brother then raised his hand suggested that you can recognize a spiritual individual by their appearance.
The instructor, clearly having not anticipated this last response, asked the brother for further explanation. He explained his reasoning thus: general authorities are spiritual people, and they are clean-shaven. Temple sealers and veil workers need to be spiritual people, and temples require them to be clean-shaven. Missionaries are (hopefully) striving to be spiritual people, and they are required to be clean-shaven. Therefore, a spirtual person will be clean-shaven.
The first scenario does not involve my family, so it ultimately none of my business. But I doubt that our friends’ decision will prove to be the wisest course. First, my understanding is that the Lord doesn’t much care about the color of their son-in-law’s hair, but about the quality of his heart. Second, a son-in-law who dyes his hair blue just before a visit to his in-laws is probably trying, apparently successfully, to yank his in-laws’ chain, and by canceling his visit, they may have given him just the response he expected. Certainly having him around the mission home should not bother any West Coast missionaries, as blue hair is likely one of the least bizarre things they will encounter.
The comment in the second scenario seems to me even more wrong-headed than the decision in the first. Several members of the class spoke up to point out that the commentor’s criteria would exclude from the category of “spiritual person” individuals like John the Baptist, and possibly Jesus himself, whom Isaiah tells us was nothing much to look at. Certainly the Pharisees and their contemporary failed to recognize the true nature of either John or Jesus, accustomed as they were to focusing only on appearances.
Both scenarios seem to signal the danger we are in by creating litmus tests for appearance. Certainly there are times and places where appearance matters, and I have on a number of occasions explained to the members of the Aaronic priesthood that one does not appear in federal court or before Congress, both of which I have done on at various times, without a jacket and tie. That is a sign of respect in our culture, and the Lord, I tell them, deserves to be shown at least the same degree of respect as a federal judge or Representative –preferably more.
But it was also He who made clear to the Pharisees that he has little patience with those who elevate appearance over substance. Is that the road that we are on?