He sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But he turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village.
(Luke 9:52-56, ESV)
This passage has always fascinated me. I would love to have been a fly on the inside of James and John’s brains when they hatched this idea. When had they ever seen Jesus propose fire from heaven as the answer? What gave them the impression it was worth a shot this time?
Looking closer, what concerns me about this passage isn’t in these verses. Instead, it’s in the first verses of the chapter. In Luke 9:1-6, Jesus sends the disciples out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. Matthew includes the instruction, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no towns of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6).
As Jesus sends them out, he instructs them, “Wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them” (Luke 9:5). But that was at the beginning of chapter 9. Things are different here at the end.
Could it be that we’ve limited our definition of “faith” to our hopes and feelings? Could it be that by doing so we’ve limited our understanding of what the gospel is and what it calls us to?
Reading Gospel Allegiance
I’ll be the first to admit, this book is a little out of my wheelhouse. I likely wouldn’t have picked up a copy of Gospel Allegiance on my own, but when a free book shows up, you read it!
Note: This should not be taken as a request to send me more free books. But who am I to stop you?
In our world today, the word “gospel” has become shorthand for any truth that seems so apparent no one could miss it. In the church today, “gospel” is often a nebulous and smarmy word that defines everything from music to message, but far too often misses our mission. Add to that, the word “faith” has been relegated to the heart at the expense of the head, and Bates concludes, “we need better language and a new model to more accurately convey what Scripture teaches about salvation”(page 15).
I found the opening sentence to Unclean, by Richard Beck, to be revolting. But that was kind of the point. He begins his book with a thought exercise. “Imagine spitting into a Dixie cup. After doing so, how would you feel if you were asked to drink the contents of the cup?” (page 1).
And We’re Off!
Unclean, by Richard Beck attacks both the senses and sensibilities as Beck delves into the psychology of disgust in an attempt to understand Jesus’ quote of Hosea in Matthew 9:13, where he tells the Pharisees, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but the sinners.” Beck is very clear on his purpose and plan for writing. On page 3, he states “The central argument of this book is that the psychology of disgust and contamination regulates how many Christians reason with and experience notions of holiness, atonement, and sin.”
In other words, we are far more moved by what “ewwwwws” us than what “awes” us. Everyone swallows the saliva in their mouths, but once removed from the body, it’s no longer saliva but spit. The “otherness” disgusts us and influences us far more than we realize.
This expulsive act of disgust is also worrisome. Whenever disgust regulates our experience of holiness or purity we will find this expulsive element.
“I Am Not a Theologian”
Beck is upfront about who he is and isn’t. On page 4, he makes it clear, “I am not a theologian or biblical scholar. I am an experimental psychologist.” Beck chairs the psychology department at Abilene Christian University. He spends a solid page offering explanation for his approach, but his apology is far from necessary. He handles all aspects of the material with aplomb.
Beck builds a solid case; moving easily from evolutionary psychology, to biblical texts, to modern proclivities. All with a view of what Jesus’ call to what mercy should look like in the church. His examples are wide enough that I think everyone will find something they relate to. His points are solid enough that they hit hard.
The word for “differences” is haireseis, from which we get the word heresy. The later technical definition of heresy was a difference of belief, but the original and more primitive notion of heresy was sociological division and exclusion. The Corinthian Christians were heretical in how they were erecting divisions between themselves.
The Corinthian Issue
I’m reading the book as a preacher, of course, looking for sermon material. There are numerous useful illustrations (though, given the disgust factor, many might be best suited to an audience of junior high boys). Beck cites various studies that uncover our notions of disgust and purity. They are all easily understandable and many are far too relatable. Again, though he confesses to not being a Bible scholar, Beck does some excellent exegesis of his passages.
Chapter 7 focuses on the issues surrounding the divisions in the Corinthian church. Beck’s explanations of Corinth’s divided community and Paul’s call for mutual love is amazing. His exploration of Paul’s “body of Christ” motif from 1 Corinthians 12, with its talk of honor and shame, is very well done.
It could be argued that hospitality—the welcoming of strangers—is the quintessential Christian practice. Welcoming sinners to table fellowship was a central, distinctive, and perhaps the most inflammatory aspect of Jesus’ ministry and teaching.
Bringing it Back to the Table
Beck makes a solid case for recognizing that notions of disgust and contamination determine our acceptance and rejection of others rather than rationality. Our repulsion is far too often based on feelings of wrongness rather than any logical thought process. He refers to this process as “moral dumbfounding.” We know something is wrong . . . we simply can’t defend our judgment with words.
The four “moral situations” scenarios detailed in chapter 4 will leave you dumbfounded . . . and they’re likely to bother you a lot.
When moral dumbfounding comes to church, it causes us to determine who is in and out by our own visceral reactions rather than any biblical call to holiness and grace. In doing so, we miss Jesus’ call to mercy rather than sacrifice. Beck finds the correction and common ground we all need in an understanding of the call to hospitality and an invitation to table fellowship.
Beck’s remedy to our reactive repulsion is the Eucharist. He does a wonderful job in the final chapters identifying the place and need of the Lord’s Supper as a “regulating ritual in the life of the church” (pages 193-194), explaining how the Eucharist counters the “four disgust domains” detailed within the book.
As one of those Christians who weekly comes to the table, viewing communion as the centerpiece of the Sunday worship experience, I found Beck’s concluding focus both confirming and convicting. I cannot allow my gut feelings on sin and disgust to be the limiting factor to who I welcome to the table. There is nothing of Christ’s call to mercy in that reaction.
I will confess, I anticipated a much lighter read; a notion I based upon the use of the word “Meditations” in the title. These are not short devotional thoughts with which to start your mornings. This book demands digestion and time to process.
Beck seems to write with the understanding that most of us are out of our element here. He’s patient with his readers; gently bringing us along with plenty of recaps of material previously covered and warnings about what lay ahead. Busyness forced me to take a week-long break from reading; I worried that I would be lost when I returned to the book but found it surprisingly easy to pick back up where I left off.
Unclean, by Richard Beck contains plenty of fodder for sermons, Bible lessons, communion meditations, and self-study. Prepare to have your assumptions about the source of your notions of morality confronted.
And be prepared to never view a Dixie cup the same way again.
Several years ago I was on the phone with an adman in Los Angeles, hashing out the details of a promotion I was helping with. Now, the California coast is about as far removed from small-town Illinois as you could get. As we talked through the plans he asked me where I was from.
“It’s a little town in Illinois called ‘Kansas.’ You’ve never heard of it.”
“Wait,” he said. “Is that near Moonshine?”
Moonshine, Illinois. Population 2
Moonshine Illinois is absolutely the happiest little crossroads you’ll ever find. It’s the kind of place about which people say, “You can’t get there from here.” But once you find your way there you’re in for a treat in the finest hamburger you’ll ever eat–a Moonburger.
When I was 16 years old, I gave my life to Christ and was baptized. My new church family gave me a Bible as a gift for my commitment. I remember the morning one of the deacons handed it to me. My youth group friends, sitting together as we always did, feigned “oohs” and “aahs” over my gift and I played it up, displaying the crisp white pages.
Trust me, they were impressed.
Then, purely out of goofiness, I slipped my finger between a couple of pages and declared, “I’d like to read something that has meant a lot to me.” Turning to the random passage and placing my finger at the top of the page, I read from Proverbs 30:2-3 (in the 1984 NIV, mind you. My generation’s KJV), “I am the most ignorant of men; I do not have a man’s understanding. I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the Holy One.”
Completely random, mind you! We all got a great laugh out of it and I learned the dangers of playing “pin the tail on the donkey” Bible study. It made me look like the donkey!