Part 2: Purity

Metaphors are helpful little guys. We use them all the time…

Naomi’s down with the flu.

Adam’s life is a mess.

Wilson is wound pretty tightly.

Metaphors help us make sense of things. Citing research from by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Beck begins Part 2 of his book discussing the link between metaphors and morality. The biblical writers employ a number of different metaphors to approach the experience of sin and grace. Purity, freedom, nation, military, and family are just a few of the 22 sin/grace metaphors that Beck points. The great thing about each of these metaphors is that they provide illumination to a fairly abstract idea. The problem, however, is that metaphors can distort just as much as they illuminate. This is why multiple metaphors are used to explain something as complex as the issue of sin/grace. Each metaphor provides a small part to the whole and thus, no single metaphor accurately captures the idea at hand. The problem, Beck contends, is that the purity metaphor (clean vs. unclean) has dominated the soteriological landscape and left us with a thin experience of salvation that lacks the complexity provided in scripture.This “thin” experience of salvation is highlighted in the recent conversations that surround the notion of penal substitutionary atonement. In compressed form, Beck defines the core feature of this doctrine as such:

“Jesus ‘substitutes’ himself for sinners on the cross, taking upon himself the punishment of sin…the sacrificial shedding of Christ’s blood – seen as a perfect and thus, final sin-offering – washes, cleanses or ‘covers’ the sins of believers.” (39)

The purity metaphor that contributes to penal substitutionary atonement is where Beck begins to highlight how metaphors impact morality in powerful ways. If we are “washed clean” by the blood of Jesus than what more is there to do? Once we are “saved,” once we are found “clean” before God than the pursuit of social and political engagement no longer has any claim on our lives. As Beck states:

“…physical purity replaces moral action…given that the church is awash in purity metaphors, particularly those churches who privilege penal substitutionary thinking, there exists a constant danger that the church will exchange the private experience of salvation, being washed in the blood of the Lamb, for passionate missional engagement with the world.” (47)

In addition to regulating morality, purity metaphors also activate aspects of disgust psychology. If something pure has been “contaminated” – especially those things linked to the divine (i.e. corporate worship, church doctrine, congregational polity) – the initial response to the violation is often an immediate, visceral disgust. This dynamic creates profound social and communal conflict that is not easily resolved. The reason for this, Beck contends, is that purity violations in the divine domain can often have no clear warrants as to why they feel the way they do. They can’t tell you why they’re disgusted, they just are. This is what Jonathan Haidt calls “moral dumbfounding.” This feeling of being wronged, but unclear as to why, leads us to search for rational warrants to explain why you feel the way you do. Given that a church is made up of individuals with differing notions of what is and isn’t a purity violation, when a person (or group of people) feel something has been contaminated, logic and theology will often take a back seat to emotion. Here is a recent example from the congregation I currently serve:

Over the past few years the leadership of the church has pursued gender equality in our public worship. On any given Sunday, you will find both genders leading prayers, offering benedictions, reading scripture, and leading our communal practice of “Dwelling in the Word.” A few months ago, the leadership invited both male and female to pass the communion elements during Sunday morning worship. Of all the ways our tradition has prohibited women from serving, refusing to let them pass the communion trays seemed to be the most ridiculous. There is no biblical, theological, or reasonable argument that can be made. This would be an easy transition…or so we thought…

While the majority of the congregation was relieved and excited at the transition, there were a few congregants who not only threatened to leave, they refused to take communion when a woman passed it to them. When asked to discuss the issue, they openly admitted that there is no biblical or theological support for their feelings, they just know (intuitively) that it is wrong and not appropriate for worship. The purity of their worship had been violated and the proof of this violation was not found in logic, scripture, or theology…it was found in their immediate, visceral response.

What followed is what Beck believes is the most worrisome aspect of disgust (I’ll end with this so smarter people can jump in). The feeling of disgust brought on by the contamination of our worship purity soon became attached to people. These individuals weren’t just disgusted at the act, they were disgusted with those who participated in it. Brothers and sisters in Christ were now seen as inferior. This, Beck claims, is the most disturbing aspect of Matthew 9:

“In the end, the real problem in Matthew 9 isn’t the moral reasoning of the Pharisees, that they shouldn’t have framed the situation using a purity metaphor. No, the real problem in Matthew 9 is that the Pharisees saw human beings as vectors of contamination and pollution” (69-70).

A few questions:

-I did not cover everything Beck said in this section (a bit obvious, I know). What should be added to this conversation from Part 2 of Beck’s book? Anything jump out at you?

-When we consider the spiritual formation of communities and individuals, how do we create dialogue that helps people (ourselves included) move past moral dumbfounding? Is it even possible?

-What are your own experiences with how purity metaphors regulate morality and how disgust psychology is activated when the divine domain feels “contaminated”?


  1. I referenced this link in a previous comment to the last section of the book, but think it is again relevant here. Check out both parts:


    Here is a good example of how church discipline for a purity judgment that has led to moral dumbfounding (as the comment fields below the article reveal).

    The dumbfounding only gets deeper once we move out of the realm of obvious sin--sexual impurity--and into the realm of preferences, such as the inclusion of women in a traditionally male dominated church's practice (Yes, I realize that many on the conservative side would argue this is immoral, but there is not universal or even consistent scriptural warrant for such thoughts).

    Ben, I completely understand your experience and sympathize. We are currently also searching again our theology, practices, and motives as we seek to live into our egalitarian (complimentarian for a few) beliefs regarding women in public worship.

    What I find at work within our group is that once we get morally dumbfounded, our practice has been to utilize harm/care reasoning to reach a conclusion--do what will provide a safe and caring environment for all, so we make the first service complimentarian and the second service egalitarian.

    I wonder if others have made this same move out of desperation/necessity.

    1. The problem I see with utilizing harm/care reasoning to reach a conclusion on matters that pertain to purity is that it still has moral dumbfounding as its basis. In the example I gave from my congregation, harm/care reasoning would lead us to say, "Women passing communion creates a certain amount of emotional harm to some and so in an effort to care for them we should make concessions towards them." The conclusion isn't based on good theology or reason, it's based on people's visceral response and in the end, I'm not sure that's the best way to care for people.

      I suppose the issue of women serving communion is less sticky than the one you reference. You've just brought up a good point that I'd be curious to explore: Is it possible to reach a conclusion on matters that pertain to purity by appealing to other warrants?

    2. I was going to include this as a part of my comment, but it seems to fit here (maybe):

      Regarding the “five moral foundations” – I found this distinction very helpful. In terms of these categories, Beck asked on p.62: “When, if ever, should concerns over purity and sanctity be allowed to trump concerns over harm and injustice?”

      Beyond that, is there a point at which harm/injustice are considered to be, themselves, impure (making an action immoral on three foundations)? Or, again, can we help people in our churches realize that harm/injustice (oppression) are a detriment to community concerns (making an action wrong on four moral foundations)?

      Stated another way – what if I find your disgust to be disgusting? Specifically, what if I think your thinking that homosexuality is a sin, is itself, a sin?

      Or, more personally (in line with topic you both mentioned is on the table in your churches), what do we do when I think that your oppression of women is unfair, harmful, impure, detrimental to the community, and ultimately disobedient to Jesus’ authority (wrong on all five moral foundations), but you think that a woman speaking is wrong for all of those reasons?

    3. I want to be abundantly clear about what I was writing... your excellent comments make me think I may have come off differently than intended. So here goes:

      When I said that we appeal to a second warrant because we are dumbfounded on the first warrant, I was not trying to imply that we have done the right thing. Instead, I was trying to identify that we have done this, I think, out of necessity--our leadership had hit one dead end, so we appealed to another.

      To speak directly, and I have to my elders, on this particular topic--women in leadership and teaching roles--I think that our appeal to the harm/safety warrant has been wrong. I think that hiding behind a secondary argument to justify an irrational dumbfounding seems wrongheaded. I was trying to ask the question that Ben stated much better: "Is it possible to reach a conclusion on matters that pertain to purity by appealing to other warrants?"

      I think not, but it seems to be what we have done.

    4. And now I think I should clarify that when I said "you" I didn't mean you (Ben and Adam), but you (universal - "one").

    5. Naomi - your questions regarding whether an action can be wrong on more than just one moral foundation is a really good question - especially your question, "Is there a point at which harm/injustice are considered to be, themselves, impure?"

      It made me wonder about how interdependent the five moral foundations are in the life of a church and - to be more specific - how each of the first four (care, reciprocity, loyalty, and respect) are intimately connected to the last one (purity/sanctity). In other words, if harm is done to another human being, we don't see this as a violation of that person alone, we see it as a violation of the divine. And as you point out so well, communal concerns are - I think - divine concerns. The good news is that this may provide for a more holistic soteriological view. The bad news is that it gives moral dumbfounding more room to grow. No matter how harmful, disloyal, disrespectful, and destructive to community something might be, with this religious interdependence we get to say, "Sorry you feel that way [about gender equality, homosexuality, etc.] the bible is clear...[cue moral dumbfounding]."

      Side note: I really wish I had something to clarify just to fit in with this thread.

  2. Yes, a second comment. Obviously I either do not have enough to do or I am passionate about this. I'm going with the latter even if the former could be true.

    The part that jumped off the page at me and made me anxious was when Beck explained the MacBeth Effect, which makes a literal connection between physical washing and spiritual purity being inferred by the act of physical washing. What Restorationist would not make clear application to baptism for remission of sins? But this was not the part that bothered me.

    The part that got to me was the study that showed that the people who had confessed and discussed shameful sins and then used an antiseptic wipe (which according tot he MacBeth Effect not only physically cleaned their hands but also psychologically assuaged their guilt cleansing their conscience), then had much less empathy for those in need and were much less likely to serve or help others.

    The question I could not shake was: Is this why so many of our people do almost nothing to help others and live out grace? Are we so comfortable that our sins have been washed away that we have lost empathetic connection with those who are still in need?

    1. I don't have anything else to do either, Adam. You're in good company.

      I think this is the reason we do so little to help others. As Beck suggests, if we're already clean before Jesus, why should we do anything else? It makes me think of the MacBeth Effect on a communal level. Referencing the situation at our congregation once again, as long as we do the appropriate rituals in the right way, we're washed clean and absolved from missional engagement. An example of this was an individual at our church who barely attends and openly lives a rather wild lifestyle. This person has made it clear they will do what they want, how they want, and to whom they want (this person would have already received a number of different church discipline contracts had they been a part of ol' Driscoll's church). Anyway, this individual sent a very disparaging email to a church leader expressing disappointment that the church had gone astray and wasn't following the biblical path - since there's such a clear biblical path on who can and can't serve communion, right? Regardless of being slightly misinformed as to how scripture speaks to men or women passing communion trays, it is interesting to me that the Lord's Supper is a purity ritual for many. We see the Lord's Supper more as an altar than as a table. If that purity ritual is contaminated, we will go out of our way to right the ship. Nevermind throwing a fit about not feeding the poor, caring for orphans, or welcoming the stranger.

      Is that a fair connection? Am I stretching too much? The whole MacBeth Effect stuff is fascinating, isn't it?

    2. Again, something that was going to be a part of my comment, but seems to fit here:

      Beck discusses the lack of a missional impulse due to the ubiquitous and dichotomous nature of purity metaphors for salvation. If salvation is an “all or nothing” status, then we lose missional motivation because we are already “done” (Why bother?). I would expand this to say that it’s not only that missional motivation is lost because we are done, but that it is replaced by the fear that we could be un-done. In that case, why wouldn’t a person want to be “better safe than sorry?” Beck mentions this as the “good news” about purity metaphors – they create emotional taboos that can be harnessed by religious communities. I'm not sure I think it is good news, because of the problems you both mention.

      I thought of the stock TV/movie characters who is anti-religious, but a “better person” than everyone else around (with a stronger moral compass) – her guilt/tension drives her outward, a missional impulse/motivation of sorts.

    3. Oh - more on Macbeth - I also thought about realized what a prevalent trope the Macbeth Effect is in movies/TV. One way a director can show that a person feels guilty (or at least ambiguous) about their actions, especially their sexual actions, is to show that person showering.

    4. Good question. As I was reading this section of Beck I too considered the Restoration value of baptism, and how this “salvific activity” often leads to “salvific inactivity.” I appreciated Beck’s psychological insight into this dilemma. However, another part of this dilemma, I think, is rooted in particular understandings of words like “baptism” and “salvation.”

      Baptism is often subconsciously equated with a finish line in the journey of salvation instead of a starting line (a well worn metaphor, I know). And so we scratch our heads when Paul says things like “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Such a way of thinking is hard for us to compute within our default theological structures we have operating in our heads.
      We get quite nervous about venturing into any territory that might mess with our “assuredness.”

      Being a faithful pastor is dealing in a sensitive manner to these desires for assuredness. But being a faithful pastor is also not allowing assuredness to ever lead into complacency for a church. Ultimately, I think a healthy theology of baptism will involve missional implications (Adam, insert your next sermon here). And maybe that means we start employing some new metaphors for this sacred act.

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  4. (this is in response to the first post)
    A 17 year old teenager walks in the youth group room, obviously pregnant. Is she welcome? A homosexual couple wants to bring their children to kids worship and assist with the teacher rotation. How will they be treated? A long time committed member is found guilty of embezzling from her company and is now being released from completing a prison sentence. How will she be embraced?

    Or, a wealthy brother drives a Mercedes to church while another sister struggles to put food on the table. Is disgust appropriate here? What purity metaphors regulate our morality in regards to money?

    I believe the heart of the matter, as Ben brings to light, is how this aspect of disgust psychology – the use or misuse of purity metaphors and the power of moral dumbfounding – isn’t ultimately the problem. The dangerous issue here is how and why we can look at another human being and see only sin or pollution or a moment that has wrongfully defined another forever. As proven by Beck, this seems to be a natural response. And yet here is where the gospel challenges and transforms our natural responses. How do we partner with the Holy Spirit in challenging our visceral response and instead ask for eyes to see and ears to hear like Jesus? How do we become spiritually attentive and attune to the image of God in others before we know anything else about their story. Just as disgust regulated by purity metaphors can easily forget theology or reason, a love that crosses those boundaries is indeed beyond reason and can only manifest itself in a people attune to the Spirit of God and willing to discipline their hearts and minds to see differently. Perhaps understanding the power and limitations of the use of metaphor would be a starting place? This might be one way to help guide others to work through some of our long held and thin understandings of gospel. Push back? Thanks Ben for a great post!

  5. I tend to lean toward the progressive (by which I mean “in progress,” not “liberal”) metaphors for sin/salvation (lost/found, ignorance/knowledge, orphan/adoption, infancy/maturity, stumbling/walking, falling/standing). But that is not because I was raised in a church that emphasized those metaphors (from the pulpit or in Bible classes). Like many in our churches, I was raised on a diet of dichotomous (“all or nothing”) metaphors (contaminated/pure, dirty/clean, dark/light, illness/health, death/life).

    These “all or nothing” metaphors seem hopeless – and therefore unhelpful – pastorally. It struck me, in reading this section, that Jesus telling the woman at the well to “go and sin no more” is actually a quite hopeful statement. I think I’ve always read it as a “I knew you were promiscuous, even though you tried to hide it; so knock it off,” I-told-you-so kind of statement. But, reflecting on the ways that sin – especially sexual sin – is considered unrecoverable when a purity metaphor is at play, I heard Jesus’ injunction differently. That he considered it possible for her to be other than she had previously been was likely profoundly counter-intuitive to her.

    As Beck mentions, grace/salvation cannot be capture by one metaphor (or matrix of metaphors) alone; we need to balance the metaphors used. [I can’t help but become partially sidetracked here and mention that this is not only true with salvation metaphors, but also true in terms of the metaphors we use to describe God – we are heavily unbalanced toward “God as Father” metaphors, which leads to a lot of problems regarding sexism in church. Not just (or even primarily) in terms of “women’s roles,” but also in the Wild At Heart/Captivating, manly church trajectory. Anyway…]
    --What do we do when our text is biased toward one set of metaphors? As Beck said, the purity metaphors are ubiquitous in our text.
    --Additionally, if the psychological draw of purity metaphors is innate, how do we fight it?
    --Further – Beck discusses, again, the “impervious to logic” nature of moral judgments. If moral judgment is largely emotional/intuitive, what is the goal? Meaning, can we change people’s bad intuition (disclaimer: some intuition is good), through preaching or teaching or example? Or is the goal to help people use logic/reason to overcome their bad intuition? I think the goal is to change people’s bad intuition; but is that possible? Should we settle for allowing people their immediate reactions, and hope to at least override those reactions with logic? Or, is that an “in the meantime” type of provision – if we can at first help people override bad intuition with logic, then ultimately their good logic will become good intuition, which will replace the old, bad intuition?

  6. -When we consider the spiritual formation of communities and individuals, how do we create dialogue that helps people (ourselves included) move past moral dumbfounding? Is it even possible?

    Ben’s post got me thinking about the spiritual formation dimension of this conversation. More specifically, how do we help people move from certain, thin concepts of salvation, which inevitably influence our moral dumbfounding? One way we might begin to reshape our churches (and maybe the issue of moral dumbfounding) is to reconsider our pedagogy, rituals, and the relation between these two avenues of spiritual formation.

    Part of what seems underneath this conversation is a default way of thinking about things like holiness and salvation. Yes, part of this default is rooted in emotion, but not exclusively. I wonder how a congregation might respond, for example, if they were just shown the robust list of metaphors for salvation that Beck gives in his opening chapter. If they begin to have their salvation horizons expanded, so to speak, then that might become an avenue for reshaping some of those default ways of responding. Just showing them the list might create some “aha moments” for a church. But showing a list will not be sufficient.

    In addition, I think the rituals we perform in our churches must influence the work of pedagogy. More specifically, one way we might help communicate a more robust understanding of salvation would be to incorporate rituals into the assembly that “flesh out” the metaphor. One example that comes to mind are records from the early church where they would baptize a congregant naked and then literally put on them a white robe to symbolize their being clothed in Christ. Granted, this ritual reinforces the purity metaphor for salvation, but it is a snapshot of the power of ritual to communicate salvific metaphors.

    Another example that comes to mind, though not exclusively in relation to salvation metaphors, is a ritual that Redeemer Presbyterian in NYC (Tim Keller’s church) performs. There they regularly call on stage men and women of all professions and have elders and ministers lay hands on and bless them to be missionaries in the setting in which they find themselves. The pedagogy concept is that everyone is a missionary. The ritual is the laying on of hands and empowering/recognizing them as such.

    I wonder if anyone else has incorporated salvific rituals into your assembly times, or if you have any ideas about rituals that could help expand a church’s vision of what it means to be saved. Thoughts?