"Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity." Thus begins Ecclesiastes.
"You're so vain, you probably thing this song is about you," sings Carly Simon. "You're so vain, I'll bet you think this song is about you. Don't you? Don't you?"
Reese Witherspoon stars in the movie "Vanity Fair." A popular magazine carries the same name.
Some Americans have vanity license plates on their cars. Others pay to have their books printed at vanity publishing houses.
Vanity is a widespread and age-old human characteristic.
It's a form of pride, albeit a softer version of the pride to power, long seen as the taproot of sin. Nonetheless, vanity should not be quickly dismissed as an insignificant moral problem. Vanity has the ability to distort our honest self-assessment and distract us away from authentic values.
I confess that I'm now more aware of my own vanity than ever before. I suffer from a particular form of vanity—vanity of hair. I've gone from a head of mostly dark, straight-brown hair to a few whiffs of snow-white hair that provided temporarily an awful comb-over to a completely bald head to new sprouts of hair undetermined by color and texture. For several weeks, I considered signing my emails with the nom de guerre "the hairless white rat."
In addition to my preoccupation with food, I'm spending too much time looking in the mirror. I can't seem to help it. I wonder when it will come back in. I wonder what my hair will look like if it comes back in!
A number of medical staff members and friends have told me that my hair might come back in a different color and texture.
With a paternal grandfather named "Red Parham," I fear the worst. I've warned my family that if my hair comes back in red and curly that I'm returning to the sleek bald look.
Hair vanity was not always a problem for me. One night in the hospital, I ran my right hand through my hair. I realized that I was holding a clump of hair. Oh, well, I shrugged. Such is the price of chemotherapy.
When I returned home, my hair vanity emerged. My remaining dead-white hair made me feel older and frailer than I wanted to be.
I've come to realize that my hair vanity parallels the widespread hair vanity within the American faith community.
Hair vanity is one of the most unacknowledged and accepted forms of pride among people of faith.
Benny Hinn and the former Tammy Faye Baker are poster children for hair vanity. Trinity Broadcasting Network's Jan Crouch is a close second.
Adrian Rogers' oddly colored reddish hair and Charles Stanley's sprayed gray comb-over reveal two Baptist preachers who claim to know the absolute truth but refuse to show the truth about aging.
Within Baptist church life, younger congregants whisper about the purple-haired members of the Woman's Missionary Union.
Moderate Baptists chuckle about a Southern Baptist Convention ethics head who went from a dreadful jet-black comb-over a new hairdo. "Is it a rug or a plug?" folks whisper. "Where's the integrity in this cover up?"
A former moderate seminary dean showed up at a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship meeting a few years ago with hair so blond that observers wondered what in the world had happened to him and who he thought he was fooling.
A Georgia chairwoman of deacons told a church pulpit chairman that if they considered a certain man as their next pastor that the man would need to lose his hairpiece before he arrived.
Hair is such an undeniable fixation for people of faith that we avoid any consideration about what the underlying roots of vanity say about who we are.
Our culture spends an estimated $1 billion annually on hair products and treatments. We watch numerous commercials in which sexy young women sell shampoo and balding young men are promised pharmaceutical cures for their handicapping condition.
Part of our hair vanity correlates with our disdain for and flight from aging. We think we can avoid old age by looking younger. We hope others don't notice how old we really are. We engage in deception.
Part of our hair vanity relates to our accommodation to culture's definition of beauty that commercialism reinforces. We want to have the hair color and fashion of the Hollywood stars or political celebrities. Attractiveness and power mean big hair, colorful hair, a certain hair style.
Beneath our hair vanity is a wish to be someone we're not: a younger person, an attractive person, a fashionable person.
I think my own vanity stems from the desire to be anonymous. I would rather go unnoticed in public than receive the unconformable stares with imagined questions about what's wrong with that guy.
At another level, I may hold the idea that the return of hair will represent the return of health.
Ironically, I've had a certain vanity about my good health. I have prided myself on my lack of sick days, my drug-free lifestyle, my work ethic, my ability to outrace most of my age group. Good health has corresponded to physical strength—strength is first expressed visually with good hair.
My, my, the preacher of Ecclesiastes was right: "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity."
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.