Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality
Richard Beck

“Then it happened that as Jesus was reclining at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, ‘Why is your Teacher eating with tax collectors and sinners?’ But when Jesus heard this, He said, ‘It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’” – Matthew 9

Richard Beck, and experimental psychologist, wrote this book in response to Jesus’ application of the Hosean text, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” when talking to the Pharisees. However, instead of primarily using a theological critique, he drew from his own background and evaluated the context of the passage through the lens of disgust and contamination psychology. I had no idea such a field existed until now, actually… But what interested me with this book is that he approached the passage with questions a psychologist, for example, would ask of the Church: “Why do people find particular theologies so appealing?” “Why does a theology continue to resonate with the masses when it’s rationally been debunked?” From this, Beck hones in on the passage from Matthew as he looks at the tension between Levitical sacrifice and prophetic mercy – a tension that was not only apparent in the first century and prior, but very much so now, within the lives of our own church communities. By this, I mean the often accidental dichotomies placed between social and relational purities on what Christians can do and whom they can interact with. We are told to be “holy, as your Heavenly Father is holy,” (to be complete as He is complete) correct? So does that mean we are to be sacrificial and pure in what we avoid, or to be merciful and present in what we touch?

Before I provide you with an onslaught of quotes I feel capture at least part of the message Beck is attempting to convey, I want to note what I’ve appreciated about this book. I suppose one could say I’ve become more “liberal” in my faith over the past year, and though that concept doesn’t perturb me as much as it once did, I do have fits of discomfort in thinking I’ve compromised on my faith too much. I think a considerable amount of that is due to the guilt of foregoing mainstream evangelical thought while still living within the environment, but some is in me wondering if I’ve swung too far on the pendulum. And though this book was by no means a cure to my questioning anxiety, it did provide perspective on how my supposed liberalism may in fact be liberating me to living out the Gospel in a more nuanced and beautiful way. So right now I’m simply trying to lean into that, and see where it takes me. And this book has often been in the back of my mind while doing so.

“We find magical thinking at work in Matthew 9. If sin is “contagious,” extending hospitality becomes impossible. This is the psychological dynamic at the heart of the conflict in Matthew 9. What worries the Pharisees is Jesus’ contact with sinners. This worry over proximity is symptomatic of the magical thinking imported into the religious domain through the psychology of disgust.”

“…consider the attribute of negativity dominance. The judgment of negativity dominance places all the power on the side of the pollutant. If I touch (apologies for the example I’m about to use) some feces to your cheeseburger the cheeseburger gets ruined, permanently (see above). Importantly, the cheeseburger doesn’t make the feces suddenly scrumptious. When the pure and the polluted come into contact the pollutant is the more powerful force. The negative dominates over the positive.

Negativity dominance has important missional implications for the church. For example, notice how negativity dominance is at work in Matthew 9. The Pharisees never once consider the fact that the contact between Jesus and the sinners might have a purifying, redemptive, and cleansing effect upon the sinners. Why not? The logic of contamination simply doesn’t work that way. The logic of contamination has the power of the negative dominating over the positive. Jesus doesn’t purify the sinners. The sinners make Jesus unclean.

Negativity dominance is problematic in the life of the church because, in the missional moment, when the church makes contact with the world, the power sits firmly with the world as the location of impurity. According to the logic of negativity dominance, contact with the world defiles the church. Given this logic the only move open to the church is withdrawal and quarantine, separation from the world. In short, many missional failures are simply the product of the church following the intuitive logic of disgust psychology.

What is striking about the gospel accounts is how Jesus reverses negativity dominance. Jesus is, to coin a term, positivity dominant. Contact with Jesus purifies. A missional church embraces this reversal, following Jesus into the world without fears of contamination. But it is important to note that this is a deeply counterintuitive position to take. Nothing in our experience suggests that this should be the case. The missional church will always be swimming against the tide of disgust psychology, always tempted to separate, withdraw, and quarantine.”

“What is being illustrated in Matthew 9 is the mutual incomprehensibility that can occur when individuals disagree about the applicability or appropriateness of purity metaphors. Using the purity metaphor the Pharisees see the situation one way. We, standing with Jesus and eschewing the metaphor, see the situation very differently. Moreover, we come to the exact opposite conclusion. The Pharisees, seeking purity, pull away from the sinners. This action is consistent with purity entailments (disgust is an expulsive psychology). Jesus, seeking fellowship, moves toward the sinners. One group frames the issue of table fellowship as an issue of purity, the sacrificial impulse. The other group frames the issue as one of mercy. And, thus, a religious disagreement, with important missional implications, emerges.”


~ by Chris Kyle on March 21, 2012.

One Response to “Relief”

  1. Both authors articulate well here. 🙂

    A seriously compelling post to ponder–I feel the tension of these two perspectives in my own life, and sometimes struggle to know which principle to honor in particular situations. It’s nice to hear it laid out so clearly outside of my own head…

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