Summary: Moving our psychological revulsion (based around food) to morality, ethics and people, fundamentally distorts our Christianity.
I appreciate Richard Beck’s outsider perspective on theology. Beck is a psychologist who writes theology. While he is not untrained in theology, that training is not formal and it is not his primary academic areas.
Beck approaches practical areas of theology in ways that many academic theologians do not. Previously I read The Slavery of Death which is probably the best book I have read about the power of sin and the practical understanding of how sin controls us.
In Unclean, Beck takes his understanding of psychology to help us as Christians understand how our faith becomes distorted when we allow the concept of revulsion (which is a natural feeling around unclean food) and apply it to people and/or ethics.
This book is full of insights into how we unconsciously avoid doing the work that we (as the church) are called to, by avoiding the messy people that are around us. What this book is not, is a simple prescription on how to change our own perception of those around us. Beck says that this is too personal of a problem for him to proscribe simple steps.
Beck does suggest that two things help to orient the church as a whole toward those that are ‘unclean’. The first is the eucharist. This act that all churches participate in, that places all of us together regardless of our status. While Beck does not talk about it, some church’s methods of participating in the eucharist do more to highlight the common humanity of all than other methods do. But we are all separated from God because we have all sinned and fallen short.
I read this with a group of friends and one of the friends talked about how purity violations of the Old Testament (which Beck discusses well) was not about individual offences against one another, but offences against God. I think that while we know that our sin has effects on those around us, thinking about sin as primarily an offense against God can be helpful in understanding the common distance that we all have from God and can prevent us from seeing different sins as having different levels of offense.
Which brings us to the second method Beck highlights, common confession. The general confession of the Anglican church or the variations in other Christian streams is one of those things that I have come to think is very much missing in standard Evangelical worship. For all of Evangelical’s focus on sin and repentance, corporate confession is usually absent.
On the whole Unclean is a very helpful book, but there are times when I think Beck is too carefully building his argument and becomes repetitive. But this is a book that I think would be helpful to many and would generate some good discussion if read in a group.