Sunday, April 29, 2012

Book Review: "Unclean" by Richard Beck

This book is subtitled "Reflections on Purity, Hospitality and Mortality", and it is a blend of psychological and theological analysis.  Starting from a similar grounding in psychological research to Jonathan Haidt ("The Righteous Mind"), Beck probes deeper with a profound meditation on the significance of the text "I desire mercy and not sacrifice" for Jesus' ministry and for the Christian church.

In brief, Beck's contention is that the psychology of disgust is active in many conscious and unconscious ways in the thought and worship life of the church.  The core function of disgust, he says, is to protect the boundary of the body, for example to prevent us from eating offensive food.  But the psychology of disgust and the associated notion of contamination spill over from this core role into the sociomoral and existential realms.   "The central argument of this book", writes Beck, "is that the psychology of disgust and contamination regulates how many Christians reason with and experience notions of holiness, atonement, and sin. In a related way, the psychology of disgust and contamination also regulates social boundaries and notions of hospitality within the church."

Beck wonders why churches, followers of Jesus whose practice of inclusivity – of table fellowship with “tax collectors and sinners” – was one of the most notable features of his ministry, so often retreat into practices of exclusion, into “gated communities”. “Why is it so difficult to create missional churches?”, he asks.  And he finds the answer in the psychology of disgust: the unconscious activation of this psychology in church affairs prioritizes “sacrifice”, that is boundary-forming ritual activity, over “mercy”, that is, boundary-transgressing hospitality and welcome after the model of Jesus.  Beck suggests that the tendency for Christians to be “captured” by disgust psychology is like a “theological sweet tooth”, and that this “capture” has a variety of unhealthy outcomes: fear of contamination, scapegoating, exclusionary practices, even a Gnostic flight from physicality.  Indeed, it is remarkable how many aspects of church life are illuminated by Beck’s psychological insights.

In Beck’s view, the “theological sweet tooth” represented by our attraction to disgust psychology cannot (and perhaps should not) be eliminated: it can only be managed.  How can this come about?  In his final chapter Beck suggests that the Eucharist can function as a divinely ordained regulating ritual against the danger of what he calls “purity collapse”, that is, the privileging of purity over all other concerns such as welcoming others or facing our own need and mortality. For the Eucharist simultaneously activates many facets of disgust psychology; food and ingestion; ritual purity, atonement and sacrifice; table-fellowship and hospitality (as in I Corinthians); and animality/mortality (“this is my blood”).  “In this ritual, purity is tethered both to hospitality and to the body… the Eucharist, properly practiced, regulates how the church experiences otherness and difference… (and) pushes against the Gnostic temptation by keeping the disgusting aspects of the body firmly in view.”

“If this book has any recommendation”, concludes Beck, “it would be for churches to attend to and cultivate the tensions inherent in the celebration of the Eucharist.” His meditation provides an incisive resource for such attention.


Frotastic said...

Hi John!
Thorough review! I am left wondering, though, how does one--or a whole church--"attend to and cultivate the tensions inherent in the celebration of the Eucharist.”?
(Please don't tell me to read the book, I am allergic to non-fiction, as much as I wish I weren't!)

John Roe said...

Hi Jen... In my opinion, we should preach about what communion entails - in terms of welcoming the "other" to the table where we were "all made to eat of one bread" - and we should celebrate its transgression of purity boundaries (e.g. by sharing a common cup - rather than individual paper cups with their message of "my private time with God"). The book is well worth reading though!