I considered calling this post “Subtracting from the reading list” in order to contrast it with my entry from about a month ago (“Adding to the reading list“) and to emphasize that I do, in fact, finish books once in a while. However, I didn’t think that title did enough to highlight the work of someone who is exploring some of my favorite topics in creative and illuminating ways. So if you visit my blog for stories of my children, you have my permission to stop here. If you enjoy armchair theology, continue on…

I have talked previously of how I came across Richard Beck’s blog in the midst of the hub-bub surrounding Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. I found his writing on universal reconciliation to be accessible (i.e. there aren’t a bunch of undefined theological concepts that you have to understand before you can begin reading) and fresh (i.e. he approaches theology as a psychologist, which I think makes for interesting reading). Since I appreciated his insights into universalism, I kept on reading his blog and found lots of fascinating stuff that I think about – topics like doubt, atonement, privilege, and discipleship – with an emphasis on the relevance of all of this to the life that we live right now. It’s a blog that I visit regularly.

Anyway, his book, Unclean, came out a few months ago,  and I decided to buy it – completely on a whim – since I liked his blog so much. I haven’t been disappointed. Here are some of my notes, which I’ve tried to put into my own words, but which undoubtedly retain many of Beck’s ways of saying things…

Unclean is Beck’s attempt to get to the root of Jesus’ statement to the Pharisees in Matthew 9.13:

Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

Sacrifice represents a tendency toward purity and holiness, whereas mercy privileges compassion and justice. In the time of Jesus, these two impulses represented two sides of an unresolved tension. Should a person side with the priestly tradition (sacrifice), or does one lean toward the prophetic tradition (mercy)? Jesus came down squarely on the side of the prophetic.

Beck gained insight into this dinner scene when he encountered a simple thought experiment. He relates this experiment right at the beginning of the book.

Imagine spitting into a Dixie cup. After doing so, how would you feel if you were asked to drink the contents of the cup?

I bet that grossed you out. But why? The answer, according to Beck, is the psychology of disgust. It creates within us the desire to separate ourselves from what is unclean or impure. It causes us to build walls in order to maintain our own purity. It serves a valuable purpose in protecting us from disease vectors. But it also strongly influences us at a moral level, causing people to exclude those that they view as “other”.

Jesus smashed right through those walls, and in the process, he judged the walls themselves to be unclean – not the people on the other side.

Beck’s writing is quite helpful. From his vantage point as an experimental psychologist, he is able to show how disgust psychology overextends itself from a useful function to one that causes the Church to become inhospitable. And he points out that this psychology makes statements such as “love the sinner; hate the sin” difficult, if not impossible, to follow. One cannot build and tear down walls at the same time. “Mercy and sacrifice are intrinsically incompatible,” he says.

This statement may indicate how this book may best be used – as part of an educational effort:

Calls for love and community are all well and good, but churches often undermine these efforts by failing to help their members understand and navigate their psychological experiences of purity and holiness. Purity via inclusion, the notion guiding Jesus in Matthew 9, is counterintuitive and, thus, fragile. It’s simply not natural to think this way. Calls for embrace are swimming upstream against an innate and ingrained psychology.

There are two related issues that I don’t think are addressed well, perhaps because they can’t be addressed well. The first issue is what to do with the priestly tradition. Do we simply ignore the first part of the Old Testament? View it as Israel’s early understanding of God? Or what?

The second issue, related to the first, is how to handle admonitions such as the one that Paul gives to the Corinthian church in I Corinthians 5:

But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside. ‘Drive out the wicked person from among you.’

Beck introduces this passage himself and says that he wants “to tread lightly here.” He acknowledges that every group will develop some boundaries “to maintain spiritual and moral integrity.” But he encourages everyone to examine how these boundaries “affect, at the psychological level, the dynamics of love, mercy, and hospitality.”

I wish there were easy answers.

Beck concludes Unclean with a fascinating insight. He argues, throughout the second portion of the book, that our fear of death is ultimately what motivates disgust psychology. We try to stay far away from anything that reminds us of our own mortality. And in the Eucharist, Jesus has given us a ritual that forces us to constantly face the various facets of this psychology. In this meal, we welcome one another, as Jesus did; we are confronted with death and with the scandal that God would willingly face death to demonstrate love for us; and we eat and drink this reminder, breaking through the purity barriers.

Powerful stuff. I recommend it.