Unclean by Richard Beck (Review)

Would you drink a bottle of wine if there was a drop of urine in it? Why do we tend to assume that a tiny amount of impurity taints a huge amount of purity? Is there a deeper meaning to this “disgust” that we experience? Where does it come from?

These are some of the interesting questions Richard Beck’s book Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality and Morality touches on. Such questions would be interesting in a book that popularizes psychological research on disgust. Perhaps that could be the idea for Malcolm Gladwell’s next book! But it is not Beck’s goal simply to educate us on disgust, intriguing as this is. I mean, we’ve all been disgusted. Cleaning out the food that catches in the kitchen sink drain or cleaning rotten leftovers from the fridge leads to disgust. I never really thought about it, experiencing it for a few brief moments is enough, but apparently psychologists have thought long and studied deeply into the phenomena of disgust.

Beck brings these psychological insights to bear on theology. Specifically, he reflects on Jesus’ words “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”. Humans tend to build up walls, to divide into tribes. From this we in one tribe see ourselves as pure in contrast to other tribes who are impure. This phenomena ends up being a large and scary trait of religion in our society. Throughout the book disgust relates to religion in a variety of ways. One particularly disturbing point was studies on the relationship of physical cleansing with spiritual cleansing. Sin makes us want to take a shower. Conversely, being physically cleansed creates moral purity (the Macbeth Effect). If we think we are cleansed while others are dirty, we are going to keep the tribal walls up, remaning separated from everyone who, if they come in contact with us, could corrupt us. All of this is despite the fact that Jesus calls for inclusivism. Beck shows that it is this disgust psychology creates this boundary making in the church, a fear of contamination from those on the outside and scapegoating (a la Rene Girard).

Jesus’ call for mercy is a call to break down boundaries. Yet we are unable to eliminate disgust, we can only hope to regulate it. Beck offers the Eucharist as the practice that can show us the mercy we ought to do but that keeps the sacrifice we desire.

My brief review, these few words, do not do this book justice. It was simply amazing, one of the best books I’ve read in a while. I’ve enjoyed reading Beck’s blog and I plan to read his other books. I often feel like it is the books I like most that I have the most trouble reviewing. I want to write more, to better explain what I liked. Maybe that is the challenge. The books I like most defy a simple description. Instead they demand a rereading. They defy summary because they demand continued thinking and reflection. I finished this book a week ago but I am still thinking on its themes and trying to figure out how I can bring the lessons to bear in my life and ministry.

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