By LeRoy Lawson
Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality
Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011
Turn of Mind
New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011
Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
New York: Pantheon Books, 2009
Richard Beck’s Unclean is not a nice book. It’s about the disgusting things that shape our spirituality. While most people like their religion neat and clean—it’s what we usually mean by “holy”—life isn’t neat, and many of the people Jesus sends his disciples to reach aren’t clean. What then?
The author, a professor at Abilene Christian University, is convinced that much church life is driven by a psychology of disgust. If it disgusts us, it must be sinful, even evil. If we avoid what disgusts, we must be pure.
Beck zeroes in on Jesus’ associating with tax collectors and sinners in Matthew 9:13 (“Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’”) and the man sleeping with his father’s wife in 1 Corinthians 5:2 (“put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this”). How can we be holy and not be disgusted by sin (and sinners)? How can we show mercy to those whose behavior or person repulses us?
Here’s the problem: “Sacrifice—the purity impulse—marks off a zone of holiness, admitting the ‘clean’ and expelling the ‘unclean,’” thus achieving holiness. “Mercy, by contrast, crosses those purity boundaries. Mercy blurs the distinction, bringing clean and unclean into contact. Thus the tension.” And thus the perceived loss of personal holiness. (“He is associating with sinners!”)
Disgust is not only a matter of physical repulsion; it’s also about vocabulary: “All sins may be equal, but all metaphors are not.” And emotions: “Argument is offered to justify the felt judgment of the sacred or profane.” But the judgment, based on feelings, comes first.
How then do we overcome our biases? Jesus’ example of healing a leper is instructive: “What is intriguing about this story is the sequence. Jesus touches the leper first. Then the command ‘Be clean!’ is offered. That is, Jesus’ first move is into ritual defilement.” He crosses the boundary, risking his own holiness, to act in mercy. And it gets him into trouble.
As Beck sees it, “The will to embrace [another] is a stance that is taken before any judgment of the other.”
Beck insists that natural bodily functions are not inherently disgusting. Rather, our emotions and our language make them so. We must then deal with the psychological and dehumanizing aspects of disgust if we are ever going to free ourselves from judgmentalism.
Consider what Christians in history have done to the Jew, the slave, the woman, the homosexual. The effects of that dehumanization? The Holocaust, centuries of human bondage, and every kind of legal and social discrimination. “Do we see outsiders as less than human?” If so, Beck argues, our very attempts to protect ourselves from their contamination leads not to holiness, to which we aspire, but to exclusion and cruelty—which can’t please the One who desires mercy and not sacrifice.
Surprisingly, Professor Beck sees the tension between mercy and sacrifice, exclusiveness and inclusiveness, dissolved if not resolved in the Lord’s Supper:
The Eucharist functions as a regulating ritual. That is, the Eucharist helps keep purity psychology harnessed to and in tension with the call to hospitality. My suspicion is that a church which balances these tensions within the celebration of the Eucharist will be able to retain the experience of the holy and sacred while safely regulating the disgust psychology that naturally activates when appeals to purity or holiness are made.
The real emphasis on Communion, then, is not whether we should serve with one cup or many, use wine or grape juice, or any of the many other points of contention. It is on whether it is a hospitable table, a place of mercy and not judgment.
This brief review does not do justice to Unclean. I count on Beck’s mercy—and yours. But then, can we have any relationship without it?
Mystery of the Mind
My mother died 17 years after her mind left her. Her younger sister’s dementia lasted 20 years. My wife’s mother’s Alzheimer’s lasted just five years, about the same length of time as her stepmother’s. Do I need to tell you this subject is of intense interest to us?
That’s why once I started Alice LaPlante’s debut novel Turn of Mind I couldn’t put it down. Her protagonist is Dr. Jennifer White, a 64-year-old retired orthopedic surgeon (specialty: hands) whose mind visits her occasionally, unpredictably, but seldom reliably. She keeps the journal we read. It’s very personal, the snippets revealing this highly educated, gifted professional’s character (admirable and flawed), her family relations (tense, suspicious, loving, not always honest), and her friendship with Amanda (as strong-willed, competitive, and puzzling as she is).
Dr. White is the last person you would accuse of murder. The evidence, though, is against her. Amanda is dead, murdered, four fingers of one hand surgically removed, expertly. Their loud quarrel just before Amanda’s murder was overheard.
Dr. White is now in a care facility, the subject of an intense police investigation, the object of her daughter and son’s sibling rivalry. And the reader’s eager questioning. Did she kill her friend or didn’t she? And when is she cogently present and when is she simply elsewhere at the time?
On the basis of personal experience, I trust LaPlante’s depiction of the doctor’s shattering mind. She also spins a good yarn. When she’s ready with another mystery story, I’ll be ready to listen.
Perspectives on Life
If you are a neuroscientist and a writer and you do not believe in God and do not believe in an afterlife, what kind of a book would you write? Would it be something like David Engleman’s Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives?
It might. Each very short chapter is a thought experiment, each one an alternative scientific/poetic/fictional description of a nonexistent future. Here are some samples:
“Sum,” the title chapter, reshuffles all the events of your life so you experience each kind at once: 2 months for driving the street in front of your house, 7 months for sex, 30 years for sleeping, 27 intense hours of pain, 6 days for clipping your nails, 15 months for looking for lost items . . . and so it goes. Some afterlife!
“Mirrors” presents a purgatory in which “all the people with whom you’ve ever come in contact are gathered. They are like mirrors held in front of you and for the first time you see yourself clearly.” The revelation kills you again.
“Absence” depicts an afterlife without a God of any kind. His absence doesn’t stop religious quarreling, though. People now just fight over his whereabouts.
The New Crusaders mount attacks against infidels who believe God is returning; the New Jihadis bomb those who don’t believe God has other universes to attend; the New Thirty Years War rages between those who think God is physically ailing and those who find the suggestion of fallibility sacrilegious.
Whether God is or isn’t doesn’t matter. Either way, people fight about him.
In “Will-o’-the-Wisp” the people who can see the future are the accursed ones, those who can’t—and grumble because they can’t—are blessed.
“Subjunctive” conjectures that “in the afterlife you are judged not against other people, but against yourself.” And that’s the worst judgment of all.
You aren’t far into this book before you catch on. It’s not about the afterlife—or afterlives—at all, but about this one, as seen from the future.
What kind of life is it, anyway?
LeRoy Lawson is professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee, and international consultant with CMF International. He also serves as a Christian Standard contributing editor and a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. His column appears at least monthly.