Friday, July 8, 2011

Unclean, by Richard Beck

So, I have two options. 1) I can say I have taken a sabatical on reading lately, hence you haven't seen any book reviews on the blog for a while. Or, 2) I can say I started reading this book two months ago, didn't put much time into it, and only just now finished. Take your pick.

Which ever you choose, I have just finished reading Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality, by Richard Beck.

Beck is an experimental psychologist and professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University in Texas. I was first introduced by, I think, my sister who pointed me toward his blog. You can peruse his award winning blog titled Experimental Theology, by clicking here.

His first book, Unclean is written to and for the church as an admonition to become aware of and careful when dealing with disgust psychology. Disgust psychology is that innate part of us that feels revulsion toward any kind of waste, dirty food, people, actions, etc that grosses us out. Our natural disgust reaction serves to protect our human bodies from foreign and unclean substances.

For a quick example of the disgust reaction, consider this quick anecdote from the book. Imagine you take a clean paper cup from a pack of new ones and spit into it. Now, imagine drinking that spit. The sensation your probably feeling right now is called disgust. It's an uncontrollable psychological response.

(Notably, my dogs don't seem to have a disgust response as I have witnessed each of them ingest and digest...poop.)

Dr. Beck is certainly not the first to write about disgust psychology; however, he is aiming his conclusions toward the church and pointing out how disgust psychology affects where the church draws moral boundaries as well as the church's level of hospitality or lack thereof.

Honestly, because I read this book so slowly over two months, I'd be silly to try and summarize it. But, I'll do my best to say something worth while about it. The main theme I noticed in the book is how disgust, when applied to the church, tends to draw tension between remaining pure and remaining hospitable. A classic illustration is the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man was robbed and beaten, thrown into a ditch, dirty. Two religious leaders walk past the man keeping their distance so as not to be contaminated and made unclean. A third man, the Samaritan, helps the man offering him hospitality.

Let's pretend that the religious leaders who walked past actually wanted to help the man, but they couldn't for fear of being made unclean. Or, let's pretend that the Samaritan, while he helped him, was grossed out by the stench of the beaten man. The tension here is between hospitality and purity.

In today's society, imagine a person wants to help the poor by volunteering at a community soup kitchen. After volunteering only one time, the person never returns, because it was just so dirty and unpleasant in the homeless shelter. There's something antithetical between purity and hospitality. Or put another way, purity tends to draw lines of exclusion while hospitality draws lines of inclusion. This dynamic is very easy to see when looking at ancient Israel and examining their many purity laws. It's a little less clear in our society, yet it's alive and well.

In his book, Beck, provides a clear academic treatise of disgust psychology, and then addresses the church looking for places where the tension between purity and hospitality is off balance. His main conclusion, though a little tough to get in only reading this blog post, is that the ritual of the Eucharist (communion) can help to keep this tension in check. The Eucharist is a ritual that promotes what Miroslav Volf calls "the will to embrace," (hospitality) while at the same time engaging the disgust domains causing a natural reaction toward "the will to purity." The Eucharist stimulates disgust psychology in at least three ways, 1) it involves oral incorporation, which automatically triggers an examination for cleanliness; 2) it activates purity psychology as it echoes the Day of Atonement from ancient Israel; and, 3) it engages our animal nature when believers are encouraged to eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus.

In short, the Eucharist is pulling us in the direction of purity, because it activates our disgust reactions, and at the same time it is pulling us in the direction of hospitality because it is a gathering call for Christians to come together and welcome all others in.

As far as the writing goes, it is written like you'd expect a psychology professor to write. It's academic but accessible. Beck seems to be doing his best to strike a balance between writing for the academy and writing for the laity. I suppose he does a fine job. The writing is clear and concise, but not particularly captivating (after all, it did take me two months to read).

I would recommend this book to the pastor who has extra time on his hands. It has some good material for sermons regarding purity, ritual, psychological process and acceptance, especially in regards to Matthew 9 when Jesus states what seems to be the crux of Beck's thesis, "I desire mercy not sacrifice" (read hospitality not purity). 

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