Part 4: Mortality

Beck’s Unclean work is driven by a desire to explore the implications of disgust psychology in our constructions of theology. Disgust psychology, to review, is fundamentally a boundary psychology meaning we erect boundaries towards those things/people/practices that we deem “disgusting.”

In our discussions on this blog so far we have discussed the first two major domains where disgust psychology impacts our daily lives. The first is core disgust: disgust associated with eating and orality. The second is sociomoral disgust: disgust associated with morality and social interactions. And in his last section of the book (and our present topic of discussion) Beck addresses the third and final domain—animal-reminder disgust: disgust associated with stimuli related to death and mortality reminders. Beck’s basic argument is that we erect boundaries of disgust towards those things that remind us of our death, decay, and mortality as human beings.

The prime example he uses to illustrate this third disgusting impulse is the paradoxical nature of our bodily existence. While we yearn for things that are spiritual and of God (a movement we often associate with the upward direction) we are nevertheless confronted daily with our bodies as reminders of our vulnerability and weakness (a movement we often associate with the downward direction). Therefore, the mingling of these two aspects of our existence (the divine and the carnal, the up and the down, the soul and the body) creates a sense of discomfort. Beck calls this discomfort and tension “the scandal of anality.” In other words, it is scandalous for us to mix and mingle the divine things of life with the grittiness of this world (i.e., that which reminds us of our death and decay). So we erect buffering boundaries because we do not want to be reminded of our finality.

Beck fleshes out (pun intended) this scandal of anality through two examples—sex and vulgar language. While we often may refer to these two examples as merely “dirty things” Beck argues something deeper is going on with such labeling. He contends that our discomfort with sex and obscene language is rooted in a deeper anxiety with the way they draw us back towards confrontation with our mortality. Again, we have the impulse to “go up” to the divine things of life, but part of sex pulls us back down to the sweat and vulnerability of bodily existence. In a similar way, vulgar language dismantles the protective linguistic barriers we build and confronts us with the baser levels of our existence. So our uncomfortable posture to them is not just about dirt and filth, but it is also about death.

The reason Beck makes such a big deal about this animal-reminder disgust via the scandal of anality is due to the theological and missional implications for the life of the church. Theologically, since many Christians struggle with their own gritty existence, they also struggle with the gritty existence of Jesus. This “incarnational ambivalence,” as Beck calls it, implicitly creates a picture of God that is self-contained, self-sufficient, and in need of nothing. Christians struggle with a picture of Jesus in the flesh because his flesh is a haunting reminder of their finality and decay. As a result, the church builds its mission on such incarnation ambivalence, and creates a way of being in the world that is about fleeing the world. The purpose of the church thus becomes avoiding the gutters of life and evacuating to the spiritual realms “above.” Incarnation ambivalence creates missional ambivalence. The church becomes “too spiritual.”

Beck’s response is to create a renewed theological emphasis on the incarnation of Jesus. More specifically, he emphasizes the act of incarnation as an act of need and dependency and love within and on behalf of the Godhead (contra a self-sufficient God). Therefore, in the person and ministry of Jesus, we see him attempting to draw others into an awareness of need within themselves and within others because this reflects the loving nature of God (e.g., Matthew 12). The mercy of God drives the people of God into the world as agents of that mercy. As a result, the mission of the church becomes about entering into the needs of the world around them as a “fellowship of neediness” (a community aware of their need and filled with empathy on behalf of others in need). Incarnational embrace creates missional embrace. The church becomes “of God” by becoming “of the world.” And as Beck reminds us this embrace can only happen once the people of God begin to dismantle the boundaries we have created out of our fear of death.


  1. What about Beck’s final section did you find insightful or especially challenging?
  2. Key to Beck’s argument is his belief that we need a renewed view of the Incarnation to drive a healthier view of mission in the world. How might we implement such renewal in our churches? What Scriptures might we point to? What experiments might we try?
  3. Part of our resistance to viewing Jesus as fully human is rooted in our discomfort with our own mortality (170). In other words, our theology is rooted more in who we are than in who God is. Where else do you see this problem playing out in the way we do theology?
  4. Part of the task of ministers is leading our congregations into a deeper awareness of our mortality and neediness so that we can do the same with others (178-9). How do we go about better embracing the death and decay of our existence? What experiences have you had that have deepened this awareness within yourself and/or the life of your church?
  5. An aspect of this discussion that is burning with irony is that one of the most central claims of our faith and theology (i.e., the Incarnation of Jesus) is one of our most difficult to absorb and embrace (171). What other central claims of the Christian faith can you think of that burn with this irony? In other words, they are central to our faith as Christian, yet we struggle to fully embrace them.
  6. What might it look or sound like to preach a sermon on the Incarnation? What would you call the series? What texts would you use? How would you communicate a renewed theological perspective on the person of Jesus?

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Wilson. I'm not sure which question this will address (if it does at all), but I'm very intrigued about the connection between our "incarnational ambivalence" and the triumphant/superiority complex so many of our churches live out of. To put it another way, we don't want a God that suffers, weeps and dies on a cross - we want a God that always wins, destroys everyone opposed, and really kicks some ass (see Mark Driscoll)!

    Seldom do we see places of suffering, neglect, and injustice as the very place where God is and where God’s people are called to be. We see them as places to overcome. We see them as people to change. We see them as sad situations that need our help.

    What if we challenged our churches to go to those places of suffering, neglect, and injustice not simply because they need our help, but rather, through the incarnation we have discovered that these are the very places that we find God? Blessed are those that mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are the pure in heart…