Summer Reading Group: "Darwin and Disgust"

This is the first post in a ten-part series for Spectrum’s 2015 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of the book Unclean by Richard Beck. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.

Chapter One of Richard Beck’s Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality is titled “Darwin and Disgust.” Beck is not referring to Darwin’s theory of natural selection but rather to a simple anthropological observation Darwin makes in his book, Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Our feelings of disgust are often linked with the prospect of eating something toxic or polluted, and people across widely different cultures all show disgust the same way: by wrinkling their noses and raising their upper lips. Disgust is a biological necessity that protects us from dangerous substances yet it is also a behavior that is culturally conditioned in ways that often make little rational sense from a purely nutritional standpoint. According to Beck (building on the work of psychologist Paul Rozin), our natural though also frequently arbitrary food aversions represent the most basic or “core” form of disgust.

Beck believes that the phenomenon of “core disgust” illuminates the dynamics of disgust more generally. What we are dealing with, whether in its innate biological or more elaborate and socially constructed forms, is a “boundary psychology.” Beyond keeping us from ingesting unhealthy matter, the emotion of disgust serves “to mark and monitor interpersonal boundaries.” “From dawn to dusk, disgust regulates much of our lives: biologically, socially, morally, and religiously.” Just as we spit out food that we fear may be polluted or contaminated, social disgust is built upon an “expulsive psychology.” We might think of it as a kind of communal gag reflex aimed at maintaining group purity through various purging, exclusionary, or scapegoating mechanisms.

Beck does not discuss the possibility of necessary social disgust analogous to the protective role played by instinctive food aversions. Nor does he consider in this brief opening chapter the curious ways in which disgust is often mingled with feelings of fascination and attraction. Why is it, for example, that we take a strange pleasure from scenes in films (or, for that matter, in Christian art) that include elements of blood and gore, playing on our emotions of disgust? Instead, he sketches the outlines of a reading of the New Testament in which Christ emerges as at once the victim of, and the victor over, social disgust.

In the Gospel narratives, Beck points out, much of Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees centers upon questions of purity and who should and should not be included, embraced, or welcomed within the community. Christ repeatedly challenges the exclusionary practices of the religious gatekeepers of his day through his contact with “disgusting” and ritually unclean persons, including lepers, bleeding women, and persons possessed by demons. Where the guardians of “right” religion seek to safeguard the purity of Israel by rigorously monitoring and regulating the boundaries of who is and who is not a “true” insider and member of the tribe, Christ promiscuously mingles with “sinners,” untouchables, and “polluted” ones of every stripe. In doing so, he becomes himself polluted in the eyes of the religious authorities, an object of social disgust whose very presence is deemed a dangerous threat to the social body.

Even more provocatively, Beck suggests that the Lord’s Supper systematically “maps” onto many of our biological as well as social “disgust domains”. At the center of Christian liturgy is the consumption of Christ’s body and blood in the emblems of the bread and wine. The Eucharistic meal is a “gritty” reminder of the earthiness of Christ’s incarnation, and it carries “scandalous, cannibalistic overtones”. The language and symbols of communion seem almost deliberately aimed at provoking our feelings of disgust, for they confront us with the brutal realities not only of Christ’s death but also of our own mortality, which so much of our individual as well as social nose-wrinkling is a desperate attempt to stave off. What is more, when we gather round the communion table we are forced to face the dangerous implications of following a Lord of the outcasts who was himself an outcast, despised and scapegoated by his own people.

There is a paradoxical fact of disgust that Beck does not consider in this chapter that seems to me to also be highly significant in Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees: disgust, the Gospels reveal, can itself be disgusting. In George Orwell’s novel, Burmese Days, the beautiful young Englishwoman Elizabeth Lackersteen is viscerally revolted by nearly everything she encounters in Asia—its food, its customs, its thinking, its dress. Yet Elizabeth’s judgments on Burma and its “uncivilized” people stands as a damning indictment of her own racism and provincialism, and more broadly of the casual barbarism of British imperialism (which its administrators are incapable of seeing, inured as they are by colonialism’s self-insulating and self-flattering language rules). We are left disgusted by her disgust.

Similarly, in the New Testament it is the keepers of purity and order—laboring tirelessly and no doubt sincerely to draw their circles of righteousness and purity ever clearer and tighter—who we find truly appalling. It is they, not Jesus, who are ironically corrupting and destroying Israel from within. And Christ’s disgust at the Pharisees is unmistakable:

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in…Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves…Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness…Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Matthew 23)

Beck’s reflections on Darwin and disgust leave members of the Adventist tradition with an urgent and unsettling question: What does Christ say to us in response to the triumphalist rhetoric and exclusionary logic that has come to define and disfigure so much of our church life? Can the Adventist story only, inevitably, be a glorious forward march, ever onward and upward? Or can the Adventist “house” no less than the house of Israel in the end be left desolate by God’s Spirit, abandoned to those gatekeepers who would have us believe that they alone are faithful readers of Scripture and disciples of Jesus? Can Adventism come to be stamped with the mark of a terrible and even revolting tragedy?

To any outside observer, the sight of a person self-purging is disgusting. It is disgusting too when an entire community comes to exhibit a kind of institutional and spiritual bulimia, glutting itself with new members while at the same time intentionally vomiting out many of its own children in a manic attempt to make itself more beautiful. Administrators lament the fact that the church has lost approximately 40% of its members over the past 50 years—and they then proceed with renewed enthusiasm and even seeming relish to ratchet the screws ever tighter on anyone who does not think the “correct” thoughts according to the narrowest rules of biblical interpretation. Career bureaucrats audaciously announce that this, their tenure in high office, might well be the final chapter in human history, the last General Conference session before the eschaton—apparently imagining that they possess the wisdom of saints and the courage of martyrs to lead God’s vanguard into the millennium. They are chiefly disgusted by the evolutionists and homosexuals in their midst, and they are determined to make sure the world knows it. What more does God require of us, after all, than that we purge ourselves of the Other who is the corrupting source of our impurity?

Adventist officials are not disgusted in any visible way by the things that most obviously stirred the righteous anger of the Hebrew prophets and of Jesus: poverty, injustice, oppression, religious hypocrisy, human suffering, abuse of power, and violence. They were not, and they are not, shaken to their bones by the memory of Seventh-day Adventists hacking their fellow Adventists to death with purging zeal during the Rwandan genocide, pausing to rest on the Sabbath (in what was perhaps the most Adventist country in the world by share of the total population). There is not, and there cannot be, a post-Rwanda eschatology for Adventists, for the script is already etched in stone and our own capacity for “expulsive psychology” and persecuting violence is no part of it—no matter how many facts of history prove otherwise.

There is much in Adventism that I fear can only be cause for divine disgust. In candor, though, disgust is not the emotion I feel any longer when I hear reports of the latest pronouncements and power plays of Adventist officialdom. What I feel above all is growing distance and tedium. In the eschatological imaginings of Adventist fundamentalists, it is “lukewarm,” “liberal” believers—those lacking in sufficient evangelistic fervor and enthusiasm for what “we have always said”—who are corrupting the Remnant and thwarting Christ’s return. Yet what is more enervating, more lukewarm, more insipidly Laodicean, than a people that collectively buries its theological talents in sands of nostalgia, imagining that the Master will one day return and praise them for their prudential caution? Will he say, “Well done, good and faithful servants, you have been repetitive unto the end”? Or will the Master be appalled and disgusted at those whose highest prophetic imagination is to fantasize decade after decade that they are the Last Generation Heroes of Salvation history—already possessing all of the theological riches they need for the final push to Zion, with everything to teach and nothing to learn from other Christians—when to all the world they are scandalously naked, impoverished, blind, and brutal in their utterly boring conceit? Does Christ say to us, “Enter into my kingdom”? Or does he say, “I will spit you out of My mouth”?

Ronald E. Osborn is a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Burma/Myanmar and a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the Peace and Justice Studies Program at Wellesley College. He is the author of Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (IVP Academic, 2014) and Anarchy and Apocalypse: Essays on Faith, Violence, and Theodicy (Cascade Books, 2010).

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Shortly after reading this first chapter with a housemate, on of the cats jumped on the ledge, its tail waving in my face. I faked biting it but did not, defending, “Not because of disgust!” while the mucous developed in my mouth with which to spit the cat hairs out.

Yes, disgust is a perfectly normal physical response, not just a human emotion. But that does not prevent the manipulators from using it to accomplish their nefarious aims.

Trust BEing!


In short- The Gospel is about trust in a finished work. Adventism is a call to finish what Christ started… The emotions range from Fear to disgust to loathing. the numbers voting with their feet is the best indicator of the frustration of people seeking assurance to be confronted by an impossible dream. The skinny of Adventist is Yes Rightousbess by faith but now comes the assignment. The solution is to deep six all the Red Books and broadcast the Letter to the Churches in Galatica.Tom Z


“They were not, and they are not, shaken to their bones by the memory of Seventh-day Adventists hacking their fellow Adventists to death with purging zeal during the Rwandan genocide, pausing to rest on the Sabbath (in what was perhaps the most Adventist country in the world by share of the total population).”

Ron, I think I must be doing better. I felt visceral disgust–and not of the lukewarm variety–when I read these words. Thanks for a probing and prescient piece.

Humble assurance brings joy and peace. The antithesis of Christianity is triumphalism.


Adventists seem so absorbed with themselves and organization that few involve themselves with those of the “world” while theologizing and arguing over ecclesiastical offices and church publishing more books for internal consumption on hermeneutics and the meaning of esoteric prophetic symbols and doctrine. Does the world care? Does the majority of the church care?


I have known these stories all my life, but until tying them to social disgust, I hand not experienced the full meaning of the stories of Jesus and his contact with these people They were not just the downtrodden, they were the socially impure and socially disgusting ones.

The experience of missionaries going out into cultures with different living and eating experiences likely engendered similar reactions. To this day, when I eat goat meat from an intact male, the meat is disgusting to me and it is hard to swallow. Why try it, you ask? Because it is disrespectful to do otherwise. Sharing someone’s food is important to sharing in their humanity.

Not too long ago, I wrote a poem that this subject made me think of: The metaphor of disgusting water for self-destructive ideas was a strong image in my mind.

My eyes water
yes, definitely ammonia

My hand fights me as I extend it towards
the water.
Twice it jumps back
as if I had
no control.

Touching the surface
it seemed warmer
than I remembered.

I scoop some liquid
and drink it.

I bow my head, and
close my eyes tightly.


For about a couple of years, my bookmarked tab for the Spectrum Blog has been Ron Osborn’s thought-provoking essay, “No Sanctuary in Mugonero: Notes on Rwanda, Revival, and Reform.” I have purposed in my heart to be continually reminded of that atrocity.

The butchering of Seventh-day Adventists by other Seventh-day Adventists is a well-known phenomenon in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. We have seen scientists and science teachers attacked for the alleged sin of teaching science in science class. We have witnessed a broad-based and well-coordinated effort to destroy La Sierra University. We have read the libel of The Record Keeper and heard the screeching cries of opposition to dramatists, actors, and artists. In the crumbling Seventh-day Adventist churches in the NAD, we know of too many instances of young people and their new ideas being rejected. And during the last forty-plus years, we have observed the ugly disparagement of women.

What will be the next target for destruction? My prediction is that a future onslaught will target Andrews University. Church administrators and the leaders of various independent ministries are itching to find some way to humble the University, the Seminary, and smart people in general. I vividly recall Ted Wilson chortling like he had just hit the Lotto as he talked about how he forced the Seminary to make language changes in its spiritual formation curriculum and as he implied in his statements that the Seminary had been misbehaving. The opportune time for attack will probably be when a new president is chosen after Dr. Andreasen retires.


Excellent work by an excellent academic. Well-founded and developed. And written. As always. The penultimate paragraph brings up a topic few Adventists want to talk about—make public statements of abhorrence (“disgust”), yes, but not to find ways to incorporate it into the history of the Denomination in Africa let alone take time to explain it.

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I am not sure what you are saying here. The reference to not finding ways to incorporate it into the history… What are the issues to be addressed or incorporated?

These events are not incorporated into the history of the Denomination in Africa—last I heard (admittedly, this is no longer Sabbath afternoon discussion) is that one or two people are held responsible and that that had nothing to do with the Denomination, generally. But it does—not entirely unlike the Southern mentality that allowed or encouraged the young man who opened fire in the AME church in Charleston: “It’s not us, it’s him.” We were careful enough to get the Sabbath issue across but not what would have prevented that. Those central Christian beliefs did not prevail. How and why did this happen? Ron’s point about halting the massacre over the Sabbath hours is a telling one. We should be in conversation about this—what the nature of the message is that we take and encourage overseas, what we put central and how we monitor how it’s worked out. When Sabbath-breaking is more of an abomination than hacking people into pieces, we have a problem. When importing lambs to new geography so that converts wouldn’t have to eat pigs but would destroy the local ecology, we have a problem (and I greatly admired Prof. Österwal in other ways).


Sorry, I was confused about which comment you were replying to.

…a perfect description of institutional narcissism.

I have often thought the theology that comes from the Adventist pulpit is one of hopelessness. We can never be good enough, but we are forever bound to struggle for perfection; and are making an entire church structure around that fact - an endless trek on a treadmill.

Now what do we do?


which can only be matched by the narcissism of its members…

The question is right - any answer will be wrong.

And yet, I would like to thank Ron Osborn for a disturbing essay.


True. It is totally irrelevant on a number of levels. The theology is out to lunch, the eschatology is fanciful, the literalism is a joke. The only relevance is a church body that ignores all this and lives the truer Adventism of progressive and present truth. Luckily I am associated with such.


Whether one agrees with this exceptionally thoughtful and eloquent piece or not, church leadership at every level needs to hear this contemporary, prophetic voice in Adventism. Anyone who has met Ron understands he feels deeply about what he writes because he cares deeply about his faith.


But what are the odds that leaders will ever read Spectrum?

Some of the most meaningful lessons I’ve had to learn in dealing with social disgust came from being a victim advocate for sexual assault and/or domestic assault victims. My task in these situations was to be there for the victim–no judging, no preaching, no disgust allowed. Nothing allowed but pure and simple acceptance during those moments of advocacy.

Many victims were less than loveable–drug addicts, dirty, smelly, drunk, criminals, mean–but my job was to be there for them–and NO one else. I had to learn more lessons in humility, acceptance and Christlike-behavior than I EVER learned while attending church and 16 years of SDA schools or 20 years of working in SDA institutions.


Your “goat meat” statement reminded me an experience when I was in the Navy in Guam in 1968. I was friends with the SDA missionaries there. Actually, besides my job as a Navy Nurse [full time] I worked part-time at the SDA clinic many day during the month from 4:30 pm to Midnight after getting off work from the Navy at 3pm.
I was invited by them to Western Carolina Islands [Palau] for a week to Bible Conference. One of our Missionary group activities was to take an all day boat trip to another island, spend the night, sight see and return the next day. On the way our local group caught a barracuda [Supper! for them].
After fixing it over a fire, they offered some to us. We ate what they shared, even though we were Vege’s. Because in doing so it was Accepting Them.

Our reading for Sunday was the story in Mark 6 when Jesus arrives at Gennesaret. And he is recognized. All those who have been isolated because of disease, illnesses, have had to create their OWN community of cast outs because of Impurity flock to Jesus. It is a short few verses of how a whole community has been destroyed, by bringing back into the whole community.
A whole disgusting community is now embraced because Jesus arrived.
BOTH communities have been transformed because Jesus arrived.
Jesus, by allowing himself to become “ritually unclean” provides cleansing of body and mind and soul.


Thank you, Ron Osborn, for a highly interesting and relevant piece of eloquent writing. The way you contextualize Beck’s concept of disgust, speaks volumes to the pathologies that has become more visible within the church body of Adventism lately.

One such disgusting feature is its demonstrated inability, as a global church, to handle the social fact of cultural and cognitive pluralism by retreating behind even tighter and more absolutist denominational boundaries. The pathology is not the fact of pluralism, which could be viewed as a resource, but the attempt by the present leadership in collaboration with fundamentalist interest groups to cut the church at sectarian-cultic joints.

One of the greatest challenges for the church as an institution is that of being hijacked by one interest group, claiming “God’s point of view”.

Kant’s condition for freedom comes to mind: “no one can bind another, without also being bound in the same way by the other”.


Maybe we as individuals should learn the same lessons as you did during that time and apply them to our own lives until they become 2nd nature and then by example show these traits to the church and give opportunities where such traits can be practiced and learned.