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Review: Unclean

Does our focus on purity hinder us from showing mercy

The concept of purity in relation to sexual integrity is under scrutiny. 

While most of us, especially people of faith, understand purity as a positive quality, the messages of the purity culture, according to critics, can be quite harmful, particularly to teenage girls.


Related: Review: Pure


Richard Beck. Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality. Portland, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2011. 212 pages.

Richard Beck. Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality. Portland, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2011. 212 pages.

In the midst of this debate, Richard Beck’s Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality is a valuable resource. Beck, professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University, delves into the human psyche, the psychology of concepts such as purity and disgust and the ways we are wired to respond to things we find unclean.

Beck connects his findings to the way these responses negatively affect the life of the church.

He acknowledges that he is an experimental psychologist — not a theologian or biblical scholar — but he writes this book for the church. His intent is to make a case for the way psychological factors affect the way we reflect on God. 

Centering his argument on the tension between mercy and sacrifice illustrated in the Pharisees’ criticism of Jesus in Matthew 9, Beck digs into what lies at the heart of this tension. In the case of the Pharisees’ judgment against Jesus for associating with sinners, purity (a sacrificial impulse) replaces morality (a mercy impulse). 

In short, purity winds up on the wrong side of what Jesus desires. 

Beck points out that words such as “impure” and “impurity” today are typically only used to describe sexual sin. (If a friend confesses to you that he has been having impure thoughts, you probably don’t assume he’s been thinking about robbing a bank.) Because sexual sin receives this special treatment in churches, a much stronger sense of shame is attached to these sins — regardless of how much we believe that all sins are equal in the eyes of God. 

Deana Nall

Deana Nall | What we’re reading

All sins might be equal, Beck writes, but all metaphors are not.

Readers should be prepared for a crash course in the psychology of the key concepts of Beck’s argument. He pulls in a significant amount of academic research on disgust and the way humans respond to things we label “unclean.” 

But stay with him because he clearly connects these ideas to the church in order to illustrate the way these metaphors can distort the experiences of sin and salvation — and ultimately override mercy in our churches. 

We like to think our responses to certain sins are rooted in our allegiance to scripture. But could it be that we are also reacting in accordance to the ways our brains are wired to respond to disgust? 

All sins might be equal, Beck writes, but all metaphors are not.

It’s worth examining our innate responses to things that we consider impure and the harm those responses can cause to others, ourselves and the church as a whole. After all, we are only human.

Deana Nall works in corporate advertising in Little Rock, Ark. She studied journalism at Abilene Christian University. She and her family worship with the Little Rock Church.

Filed under: Mortality Opinion purity Reviews

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