Part 1. Unclean

"Disgust regulates much of our lives..."

While it is admittedly an odd subject and an odd starting place, nevertheless, disgust is an innate psychological factor within human psychology. Although to some degree disgust can be culturally conditioned (eating animal "X" may be disgusting in one culture but not in another culture), the psychology of disgust is more or less universal. For instance, we all, regardless of culture, make the same face when we are disgusted and usually have the desire or impulse to spit or vomit.

In this light he makes several baseline observations about disgust psychology:
  1. Disgust is a boundary psychology. Disgust monitors and determines how to keep the body safe from contaminants/harmful things, how to keep those unclean things from entering.
  2. Disgust is an expulsive psychology. In addition to keeping us safe, it also motivates our responses aimed at expelling/eliminating things that are disgustingly offensive.
  3. Disgust has a high degree of plasticity. While the disgust psychology and reactions are universal, the objects of disgust are culturally conditioned. 
  4. Disgust monitors the environment for contaminants. We make sure that our environment is healthy and safe.
Beck writes that "revulsion is very often triggered by a judgment or appraisal of contamination or pollution." While judgments about contamination and pollution are essential in many cases for survival (don't eat that poison), the "logic" by which contamination judgments are made plays by no systematic set of rules--instead, judgements of contamination operate by means of sympathetic magic:
  • Similarity - Similarity between two objects creates a connection between the two objects (ex: a voodoo doll and the person it looks like). Often we treat things that look like one another the same way, even if we know that is logically unfair or inconsistent (brownies shaped like poop are undesirable even if we know they are brownies).
  • Contact - Contact between two objects creates an indissoluble connection between them (ex: a voodoo doll that is in contact with a person's hair). The rule here seems to be that once something is in contact with a contaminant, it is always in contact with this contaminant.
To further elucidate the magical element to contamination judgments, Beck includes four principles of contagion: to which I have applied the example of finding a hair in one's salad at lunch.
  1. Contact: Contamination is caused by contact or physical proximity. This would be like finding a hair in your lunch--definitely grounds for not finishing the salad. 
  2. Dose Insensitivity: Minimal, even micro, amounts of the pollutant confer harm. The classic example cited is "A drop of urine in a bottle of wine will ruin the bottle of wine." The point is not how much of a contaminant is present. The point is that something is either contaminated or it is not. One hair on one piece of lettuce has made all of the salad repulsive.
  3. Permanence: Once deemed contaminated nothing can be done to rehabilitate or purify the object. Having found the hair, we will not eat the salad--it is a lost cause. Even if the hair is removed, we will not want to eat the salad. Many of us would not even exchange it or replace it. Some would even boycott the restaurant forever because of the hair--their salads can never be clean again.
  4. Negativity Dominance: When a pollutant and a pure object come into contact the pollutant is "stronger" and ruins the pure object. The pure object doesn't render the pollutant acceptable or palatable. To finish the axiom about wine and urine above it would say: "A drop of urine in a bottle of wine will ruin the bottle of wine. But a drop of wine in a bottle of urine will do nothing to make the urine drinkable." The salad dressing does not make the hair enjoyable food. 

Okay, that's great (and gross), but what's the point? What is the theological relevance of this grossness?

As Beck concisely unpacks the pieces of disgust psychology, he continually makes reference to how we export disgust psychology from physical categories (what foods are safe to eat and things safe to touch) to spiritual and moral categories (what kind of people are unclean and unsafe for us to associate with).
  1. Disgust is also a social boundary psychology. Christians and churches monitor and determine how to keep the body safe from contaminants/harmful things, and invest a good deal of time determining how to keep those unclean things from entering.
  2. Disgust is a socially expulsive psychology. In addition to identifying threats for contagion, Christians and churches expel things/persons that are determined to be dangerous/offensive.
  3. Social disgust has a high degree of plasticity. Faith communities often identify contaminants through culturally conditioned means and points of view. In one place something may be offensive and worthy of expulsion, in others it may not be considered as such (ex: women teaching publicly).
  4. Disgust monitors the social environment for contaminants. We make sure that our environment is healthy and safe by keeping our eyes and ears peeled for the wrong people who are dangerous.
The sympathetic magic of contamination works itself out in our churches. The primary object of disgust for churches is evil. So we tend to think of evil or bad as if it were a virus or disease--as Beck writes, "Evil is sticky or contagious. So we stay away." Beck utilizes the small narrative exchange in Matthew 9 to help illustrate how the four principles of contagion discussed above work themselves out socially on moral grounds.
9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
 10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
 12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
  1. Contact: Contamination is caused by contact or physical proximity. Notice that the Pharisees--the religious insiders--see Jesus as in danger because of his contact with tax collectors and sinners.
  2. Dose Insensitivity: Minimal, even micro, amounts of the pollutant confer harm. Jesus spent lots of time with lots of people, but any time with these contagions contaminates him.
  3. Permanence: Once deemed contaminated nothing can be done to rehabilitate or purify the object. The Pharisees cannot conceive of how Jesus could be religiously pure since he has spent time with these contagious people.
  4. Negativity Dominance: When a pollutant and a pure object come into contact the pollutant is "stronger" and ruins the pure object. The pure object doesn't render the pollutant acceptable or palatable. The Pharisees cannot see Jesus purifying the tax collectors and sinners; rather, the evil ones have drug Jesus down into their evil with them. 
Now how about our churches... how do we deal with outsiders, contagions, or threats that disgust us?

 Some churches frequently hermit away from contact with the sinful world. Some churches often fear any small change as a full scale infection that will corrupt the whole. Some churches certainly seem to portray some sins as irredeemable and some sinners as permanently stained. Some churches often act in such a way that suggests that when bad comes into contact with good, bad will always win.

The choice is not whether we will incorporate this way of thinking and living into our churches. It is already there. So what do we do about it?


So here are the questions/points that I am asking our team to respond to (one or all is fine, but try not to do too much in one response--like I have done in this one post):
  • What are the practical implications of the church's use of disgust psychology--especially sympathetic magic and the four principles of contagion--in terms of communal holiness and life in Christ?  
  • Playing devil's advocate here (or rather saint's advocate as the case may be), is there reason, biblical support or practical justification for utilizing disgust psychology in the church?
  • In what ways does disgust psychology compromise or support the gospel of Jesus? 
If you have any other thoughts that will elicit dialogue and thoughtful interaction, please feel free to include that as well.


  1. Adam- good summary. Way to take the easy part!

    "Is there reason, biblical support or practical justification for utilizing disgust psychology in the church?"

    There is a genuine need for Christians to have separation from things that are unholy (one of the things I've wrestled with a lot in reading this book). I talk with several friends who are drug/alcohol addicts; separation from the holy (unclean) is a primary way they are able to manage their addiction. There is (some) value in keeping children from seeing all kinds of evil in their developmental years. The disciple who allows him or herself to be surrounded by evil all day long is allowing Satan to have a foothold.

    To that extent, yes, there is absolutely value in the church deploying disgust psychology. We should find sin to be repulsive! [Sidenote: God himself finds sin repulsive.] Disgust psychology allows Christians to maintain a purity that is holy to God. Christ-followers should feel moral outrage at abuse, greed, poor stewardship, etc.

    As you're reading this, you may have some common axioms given in the Christian faith. "Bad company corrupts good character" (I Corinthians 15:33). "Keep oneself from being polluted by the world" (James 1:27).

    I'm convinced that Christians have too often used these principles as an excuse to sequester themselves, hiding from the difficult tasks God has asked of us: sharing the gospel, serving the unlovable, and more. We Christians (particularly Protestants) have too often used these principles as justification for withdrawing from "the world," creating for ourselves a safe bubble. Then we pat ourselves on the back for having done a good thing! We ARE the Pharisees Jesus castigated in Matthew 9!

    Here's the worst part of it. If we create a safe bubble to protect ourselves from evil, we prove that we implicitly believe that sin is more powerful than God! [read: negativity dominance] We show that we don't think God is powerful enough to address the unholy.

    I'd like to propose the Christian leaders approach in Acts 15 as a good example of how churches should employ disgust psychology. The church is trying to figure out how to bring two cultures together that each found things disgusting in the other. The Jewish culture, in particular, was offended by many things in the daily life and practice of Non-Jewish believers. The Christian leaders were rather permissive in addressing the things that elicted disgust in the Jewish Christians, drawing the line only at the things that were most disgusting and offensive. They expected that the ones who were disgusted (Jewish Christians) would learn to get over their baises, but asked the Gentile Christians to eliminate the most egregious of their potential practices.

    We, as Christian leaders today, should equip and empower those around us to choose not to be offended by evil, but to critically engage it so that God's redeptive power and presence can have effect. We need to teach and practice that disgust at evil should never be used as an excuse to withdraw God's presence.

    1. Brian,

      Thanks for your thoughts, and your willingness to engage that difficult tension of Christians "being in the world, but not of the world." The passage that came to my mind in reading your post, which also deals with this tension, was Matthew 5:13-16 where Jesus says to his listeners that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

      This declaration comes in the midst of a sermon where one of Jesus' overall aims is to redefine, or more accurately refine, God's intentions about righteousness (Matt 5:17-20). When he tells the listeners they are salt and light, he makes sure to include "of the earth" and "of the world." There is something about Jesus' definition of righteousness that pushes us outward, at least it should. And in pushing us outward, then our definitions of external disgust must be re-worked.

      But, more to the point, there is also something about his redefinition of righteousness the initially pushes us inward...to our hearts. And as we redefine what it means for our hearts to be righteous, then it seems like we will have to deal with the disgust of our hearts. We will have to admit and wrestle with the things that are within us, that need to be made right by the power of God.

      In this sense, maybe the Sermon on the Mount could be read afresh through this lens of internal disgust. In other words, according to the words of Jesus what are the disgusting places of our hearts that need to be made right by the power of God? By realizing first the places within ourselves that need to be reworked and redefined, then that might change our posture towards the kinds of things we consider disgusting "in the world." Adam, maybe preaching a sermon with this text in mind might communicate to a larger congregation.

      Important, though, in taking this kind of approach to the Sermon on the Mount is to keep in mind how Jesus begins his sermon...with blessing. Any wrestling with the disgust in our hearts must be done in the context of hearing God's blessing on us. And as I read through the list of people he calls blessed, I cannot help but wonder how many of these people groups would have been considered disgusting by first century standards. Hmmm. Adam, maybe you are going to need to preach more than one sermon.


    2. Wilson,

      Interestingly enough, I am currently preaching a series through the beatitudes and our Wednesday evening study is through the Sermon on the Mount--we just covered the salt and light text in fact. In many ways in that sermon Jesus is trying to educate them on how not to be a Pharisee. Righteousness is in the spirit of the law, not simply its letter. Yet so many of our churches find it in a new law.

      But I think that our desire for a new law is not even as simple as we make it out to be. We tend to always return to the hackneyed argument against law on Lutheran forensic justification grounds, but most of our people do not use law to receive justification. Most of our churches use law to set social identity markers--to identify the faithful from the not so faithful, the insiders from the outsiders, the clean from the unclean.

      Clean folks are the regular Sunday attenders... the Wednesday nighters... the ones who don't sleep around... the ones who don't swear too much... the ones who give regularly... the ones who pray daily... the ones who were baptized for the right reasons... the ones who go to the right churches...

      It's not that these things save people--provide justification. I think very few people would say that. It's more that these things reveal the saved by witnessing their cleanness, their saved-ness. Law as social identity marker makes for easy clean and unclean identification. At least the Pharisees thought so.

      Thanks for your good thoughts.

  2. What are the practical implications of the church’s use of disgust psychology—especially sympathetic magic and the four principles of contagion—in terms of communal holiness and life in Christ?

    One implication of disgust psychology, hinted at by Beck in his introduction (3), concerns how we conceive of and practice spiritual formation in the life of the church. More specifically, my “aha moment” in this first section of reading concerned Beck’s discussion of the plasticity of disgust. In other words, in the same way a child is more sensitive to acquiring language when they are younger so individuals experience more sensitive periods in regards to what they consider disgusting (17-8). Eventually there arrives a point where disgust is solidified.

    Therefore, as a minister, I wonder if one aim of spiritual formation might be an attempt to recreate this sensitive period in the development of a faith community. In other words, in my attempts to help in the process of formation can I guide the members of my church backwards, so to speak? Can I guide them to a place where their disgust sensitivity is opened again to being reshaped in new, Jesus-like ways?

    There seems to be two primary groups in church that are addressed with this aim of spiritual formation: long-time Christians and new converts. The latter group, in general, seems to be the easier of the two to shape. They are new to faith and typically more open to being guided in the ways of Jesus. There is a freshness to them that makes them inherently more malleable. The clay is softer, so to speak. In contrast, long-time Christians are often, though not always, set in their ways when it comes to assumptions about things like disgust.

    So what would it look like to practically begin to implement this new aim of spiritual formation? Two ideas come to mind. First, in service of reforming long-time Christians, an assembly should incorporate more regular opportunities for testimony from newer converts. Hearing stories from individuals who recently came to Christ, especially when their stories include experiences “from the margins,” powerfully reshapes the faith of long-time believers. They begin to see that what was previously "disgusting" may not be as "off-limits" as they initially thought.

    Second, for newly converted individuals, churches must increasingly implement experiential mentoring as a way to help guide new converts in the ways of Jesus. New converts join with mature Christians in practicing together what Jesus modeled, especially when it comes to entering into “disgusting” places. This seems to be another aspect to Matthew 9 that is quite instructive. Here we find Jesus lingering at the margins (a.k.a. eating at a table filled with tax collectors) with his disciples. In other words, this newly forming faith community receives experiential mentoring from Jesus.

    I am sure there are other practical strategies, but these two above, I think, assist various members of a faith community back to a place where they can have their disgust impulses, principles of contagion, and assumptions about evil reopened and reshaped. What is key for the life of a church, in order that they stay fresh in their disgust impulses, is that these kinds of moments are continually implemented and practiced.

  3. In response to Adam’s first question, I’ll share a specific example within church life that I lived through and participated in. To begin with, however, I’ll share something of an axiom.

    Axiom: the way a church handles sin (publically as well as privately within the community) says a lot about what that church believes about God and grace.

    My example:
    I was a member of a church during what I would consider a rather “typical” sin scandal. I’ll try to keep the back story as brief as possible – a tall task in this case.
    A husband who was still a relatively new Christian was discovered to have engaged in several different forms of immoral behavior; the pinnacle of which was meeting up with a man he came to know online for sexual relations. It was revealed during the aftermath that he had been abused as an adolescent by a male religious authority figure – he had actually shared this with his wife previous to all this, so it wasn’t just made up. While no one wanted to let his childhood abuse be an excuse for his behavior, it was clear that many if not most of his behaviors and problems were significantly connected to this personal history. After a good deal of lying and denial, the man entered a significant path of counseling, discipling/mentoring, and recovery.

    What I found most disturbing during the episode both early and later was the lack of response of the church (particularly leadership). First, the minister was so repulsed by the behavior of the man that he didn’t even want to talk with him. He simply chose to support (in a limited way) the wife and step-son involved and played no other constructive role in the response to the situation. Never touched any part of it from the pulpit in any way. Second, under the reasoning of sparing the man’s step-son embarrassment, the man was asked to immediately cease attending any assemblies at the church building. That was perhaps not completely unreasonable in the immediate aftermath but it simply morphed into a defacto position that would never be discussed or changed.

    Thirdly, although virtually everyone in the 300 member church knew about the basics of the scandal (and most knew the bulk of the gory details), nothing was said publically or in any organized fashion (letter or anything) to the church. No communication at all. It was all just left to trickle down the grape-vine in whatever forms of information and interpretation that occurred “naturally.” One member of the church did spend some time with the man in a discipling/spiritual mentor role for 6 months or more. And a couple of the elders did follow up occasionally with that mentor figure with concern for the man’s well-being and life with God. But when that member called on the elders to actually address the situation both with the "sinner" and the church to allow for repair of relations and repentence, the leaders demurred – again behind the logic of the pain and embarrassment it would cause to the wife and step-son. Again, that’s a legitimate concern to be addressed but I never bought that it was really the operative concern.

    I did my own theological critique built around the axiom I started with. But at least at the subconscious level, I wonder if this isn’t better explained by some of the things Beck is helping us to name.

    How’s that for a case study of practical implications? Anyone else want to weigh in on this or with similar things they’ve observed?

    I’ll hold off on the other questions since I went long on this one.

    1. Aubrey,

      I think you are onto something with a lot of mass here. The axiom you start with is critical: "the way a church handles sin (publically as well as privately within the community) says a lot about what that church believes about God and grace."

      In one sense, it is quite right to see the church as a hospital for the broken--a place where all sinners are welcome and find grace. This is gospel, indeed, and it is true. At the same time, it is also right to see the people of God as those who are called to live holy lives. So we cannot tolerate sin, and we must practice some form of discipline as instructed by Christ.

      But we are so much better at shame than we are at discipline. Today I read this and it reminded me of your post: http://matthewpaulturner.net/jesus-needs-new-pr/mark-driscolls-church-discipline-contract-looking-for-true-repentance-at-mars-hill-church-sign-on-the-dotted-line/.

      There are two parts, but essentially a man confessed to some sexual involvement with some women, and was put through a series of meetings and community group changes, but then after a month of this actively working with the church to overcome his sinful past--to repent and change--he was given a discipline contract giving him requirements he must follow to show the church that he had "gospel shame." This is a phrase I am quite sure is not in our Bible--and for good reason.

      I am not trying to castigate Driscoll, Mars Hill in Seattle, or any other church. I am simply pointing up the real experiences that many have with churches when it comes to sin. I think that we are so scared of sin that we freeze up in its presence--we try to hide or act like it is not there. We are so scared of sin that we do not honestly talk about it or discuss it--especially if it calls for discipline. It becomes something the professionals must handle--pastoral staff and elders in hazmat suits run in to rescue others from the contaminant.

      But if we do discuss it and interact with it, how? How can we discuss it without making it a public forum on just how awful a fellow this guy was? How can we talk through discipline and grace in ways that do not become gossip sessions (if the guy is not present) or kangaroo courts or simply dismissive and soft on holiness.

      Obviously, there is not a single answer that becomes our monolithic way of handling church discipline. But I think that there is an idea we must come to grips with--and I don't think that this is heretical, but tell me if it is...

      Under the Mosaic Law, there was a distinction between clean and unclean, but there was never the command to always be clean. It was expected that at some point, you would be unclean. For instance, women would menstruate--thereby making themselves unclean. This doesn't mean they were doing wrong by having their period, it just meant they got some alone time. You might walk over a grave (which is kind of a jerk move, but how could you know?) and thereby be unclean. Some other unclean person might touch you. Being unclean was actually part of life. You couldn't be clean all the time.

      I will readily admit that being unclean and sinning are also separate things. For instance, coming into contact with a dead body is not a sin--unless it was your contact that made the body dead (that is murder, and murder is sin). Still, it is hard not to draw the connection that many times in our churches when we encounter the unclean, we react as if this has no place in our midst. But what if uncleanness is occasionally a part of life. I'm not saying shrug at sin and act like it is no big deal. But I am saying, what if we allow sinners to find repentance, discipline, and grace in ways that are affirming of their personhood and belonging in spite of their mistakes. Now if they are unrepentant, okay... there is further discipline to give. But if they seek to be cleansed, can we do anything besides public and private grace? Is there another gospel?

  4. The “negativity dominance” principle of contagion was the idea that most resonated with my church experience, and the idea what was most dangerous. Reinforcing the idea that a pollutant is always stronger than a pure object is a way of maintaining communal holiness that is primarily motivated by fear, as if we are all so weak that any amount of negative input will push us over the edge, really will dominate any positive habits or lifestyles we may have developed. It seems obvious to us that the Pharisees were wrong to assume that sinners made Jesus unclean, without considering that the relationship could function the other direction. It is not so obvious that the same is true with us, that strong Christians could have a positive influence on things that are perceived to be “disgusting.” So the concept of negativity dominance rang true with my experience, and struck me as a dangerous idea to reinforce.

    But another concept from this section struck me as simultaneously dangerous and hopeful: the plasticity of disgust. As Brian said, there is certainly biblical support/practical justification for disgust psychology’s presence in the church. If there weren’t, it would not be as entrenched as it is in our way of thinking. On the surface, keeping out things that you perceive to be disgusting (or expelling them, once they have already entered) seems like a good and necessary impulse. The problem is, this perception of disgust changes based on culture and/or experience.

    Beck mentioned that the feeling of rightness dominates any logical, intellectual reflection on the situation. And, frankly, this intuition is all a lot of our church members have to go on. Without tools for critically reflecting on scripture and the principles in it, it is actually easier to trust your instinct when making decisions, or to attempt not to make any decisions at all and retreat. However, this is also dangerous, especially when it pertains to the idea of the permanence of “big sins” – sins that, when confessed, cannot be recovered from. Categorization of sins seems to be particularly impervious to logic or reason; “private” sins (such as pride, greed, etc) are considered to be relatively “safe,” whereas sexual sin is disgusting and permanent.

    The hopeful aspect of the concept of plasticity, however, is what Wilson mentioned: It may be possible to recreate that sensitive period in a faith community, to help a church rethink their concept of what is disgusting. Of course, if we can achieve that goal – through mentoring, member testimony, etc – then we have to be very intentional with what we do with this freshly malleable perception, very careful about the tools we give people to reshape their idea of what is disgusting. Otherwise, a similar “drift” toward intuitively right positions will reassert itself. (I guess that's where, ideally, good preaching comes in - creating and filling a "sensitivity period.")

    Our churches seem to be very familiar with “proverbs” regarding exclusion for the sake of purity, but less familiar with the biblical support for inclusion for the sake of the gospel. For instance: Paul became all things to all people (infuriating Jews for breaking their boundaries of holiness) for the sake of the gospel. Paul preached differently to Jews and Gentiles. As Brian mentioned, the Jerusalem Council "changed the rules" based on God's new work in the world. Jesus’ incarnation demonstrates this very principle of inclusion for the sake of the kingdom, of course. So these two theological principles fight for balance. And, if it’s impossible to strike the right balance between exclusion and inclusion, I think I’d rather help our churches err to the side of inclusion.

  5. Good thoughts.

    I would elaborate a little further about how I think that it might be possible to also have to recognize the complexity each person brings to discussions like this. For instance, some people may be unable to do what others are perfectly capable of. So we get to something of a strong and weak sort of position. I think that we must learn as a church that not everyone is strong and not everyone is weak. Still, some could eat meat sacrificed to idols and some could not. Paul seems to hold each accountable to their own standard. Can our churches?