Summer Reading Group: "Love and Boundaries"

This is the fourth 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.

Ostensibly, this chapter was written for me: the critic who thinks Beck's argument is grounded on a false dichotomy between disgust/sacrifice/boundaries/holiness/priestly tradition and love/mercy/justice/prophetic tradition. Unfortunately, I find his answers to that charge not only failed to answer my critique but indeed strengthened my dissatisfaction with his analysis. While I laud his attempts to address the way Christians have generally responded to LGBT individuals and other outcasts, I find his argument in this book simplistic and ill-informed. Admittedly, my concerns may be addressed later in the book, but, at this point, all indications are to the contrary. In this article, I will outline my concerns and present an alternate framework for negotiating "love and boundaries."

To begin with, while I appreciate his attempt to address the underlying logic of Christ's encounter with the Pharisees in Matthew 9:10-13 in terms of a fear of contamination, his analysis has begun to do violence to scripture itself. While Beck rightfully points out a tension at play in the passage, he argues that it is a dichotomy, a zero-sum game. He reads Christ's quotation of Hosea 6:6 as literally choosing a side in a dichotomy. Yet, this reading neglects the context of Hosea 6 which is concerned with how Judah has polluted and defiled itself with idolatry—thus undermining the dichotomy (unless we are to read the Old Testament and the New separate from and even in opposition to each other).

Furthermore, he disregards Christ's expulsive actions at the temple; the significance of purity and holiness to both Old Testament and New Testament writers, priests and prophets alike; the expulsion of Laodicea in Revelation; and various parables which point to a cleansing or purging, even with fire. Contrary to his claim that Jesus "decisively sid[es] with the prophetic impulse" (as if the prophets never spoke of contamination or defilement), Christ's involvement with this "dichotomy," like the priests and prophets before him, is far more complex than simply choosing one or the other. Certainly, Christ is concerned by an expression of devotion which dehumanizes those deemed less devout, but this does not neatly map into Beck's dichotomy, nor align with one side against the other.

I believe much of Beck's trouble is in his wide application of disgust psychology to various issues of church practice and community. He conflates disgust with sacrifice, holiness, boundaries, the "priestly tradition" (whatever that is) and more as things to be completely overthrown in the name of mercy, love, justice and the "prophetic tradition" (an even more problematic phrase). This flattens a number of significant differences in the practice and deployment of these various terms. For instance, he fails to recognize how concerns for holiness or boundaries may be legitimate and loving, rather than mere emotional reactions grounded in disgust. He also fails to consider that holiness or identity may be grounded in anything other than a binary, bounded set.

In part, I believe this is due to an uncritical reliance on Western cultural and philosophical norms. For example, he suggests that the words Western English-speakers use to describe intimacy in terms of spatial closeness or an in/out binary reveal the inherent truth about how humans experience love. Yet, there are other ways, even in our own culture and language, to imagine the practice and/or experience of love—for instance as living alongside another, as sharing experiences, as sharing stories. None of these necessitate exclusion or boundaries in the way Beck suggests. A friend with expertise in First Nations languages explained to me that intimacy and relationships are commonly described in terms of doing things together, rather than in/out boundaries or close/distant spatial mappings. Yet, Beck fails to consider any of this, preferring to simply reiterate the (cultural) given-ness of these binary ways of conceiving the world in order to support his dichotomy.

Perhaps Beck will yet respond to my concerns, but thus far I find his analysis lacking. For myself, I appreciate Derrida's consideration of love and boundaries under the name of "hospitality." He identifies a tension in hospitality: in order to host someone, we must have a bounded and controlled place of our own to invite them into; yet hospitality also opens those boundaries and gives over control. The answer is not to escape this tension but to learn to live in it—to realize that, as Solomon said, there is a time for everything. While Beck certainly identifies this tension in his exploration of love, his answer to it is simply to privilege one aspect over the other--as if they could (and should) be separated. Within Adventism, we have recently begun to consider and respond to problems of child abuse and predation with support and better regulation, rather than falling back on old stories about "love" and "acceptance." We must exercise reasonable control to prevent predation (especially upon our children) and other forms of violence against ourselves and our communities. Certainly this introduces a difficult tension into our faith, but it remains absolutely necessary.

However, these boundaries need not become the defining aspect of our faith, identity and community. I am reminded of a sermon I once heard from Ty Gibson in which he suggested that our faith—our Adventist identity—should be a centered set rather than a bounded set. In short, we should know and be known by our focus on Christ, rather than by who or what we include or exclude. Sometimes this may mean establishing boundaries to protect the vulnerable, while sometimes it may mean tearing down boundaries to reach the vulnerable. The difficulty is in knowing when to do each. Our goal is not to be more exclusive or more inclusive, nor to be more "priestly" or "prophetic," but rather to be more Christlike—in all the beautiful, messy complexity of human existence.

David Barrett is co-producer of the Storying Life podcast, and recently completed an MA in English with a concentration in Cultural, Social and Political Thought.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

David, I appreciate you pointing out that one should be carefully in applying the “priest”/“prophet” dichotomy to cleanly–prophets cared about rituals and idolatry and priests cared about the poor. In addition to idolatry, I’m reminded of prophetic rebukes for lax Sabbath observance. And in addition to rules about ritual purity, Levitical laws include provisions for the poor, i.e. leaving gleanings behind for people to pick up.

Yet, I don’t think the distinction between the two camps is an arbitrary or artificial one or that the central concerns of the prophets and priests can’t be distinguished from each other. Prophets were very much centrally concerned with the vulnerable and marginalized–the orphan, the widow, the sojourner, and the poor–calling the people of Israel and us today and redefining justice as care of, in Jesus’ words, “the least of these.” Priests cared about rituals and notions of holiness tied to these rituals. This resulted in the people prophets card about being excluded from the temple in Jesus’ day and the episode you highlight; he went and cleaned it out. (It’s also interesting to note that aside from this visit to the temple, for the majority of his ministry, Jesus ignored the temple, the center of Jewish life and worship, entirely.) So, I find Beck’s claim that Jesus sided with the Hebrew prophets insightful and helpful, overall.

Perhaps he overstates things by claiming its an either/or and that Jesus sided with one, excluding the other. This would make Jesus guilty of the same problem Beck is trying to address. Maybe Jesus prioritizing the prophetic over the priestly would be a better way to put things? I think of Jesus admonition that while paying their tithe, the religious leaders of the day had failed to consider the “weightier matters of the law.”

Anyway, thanks for your post. Derrida’s analysis of hospitality is definitely relevant and helpful here and I look forward to upcoming chapters (Chapters 7 and 8) where Beck will attempt to better address the tension’s you highlight between boundary keeping and opening.

Zane, thank you for your response. I generally agree with you. I’m just not convinced that the position you argue for aligns with Beck’s argument. Furthermore, while I stick by my consideration of the theological issues, I believe that, for Beck, the underlying disgust/love binary framework informs his theology to a profound degree. Thus, his argument is less exegetical and more a pastoral application based upon this framework (which remains questionable).

Regarding the theology, what I find troubling is the further implications of his reading. First, he aligns purity, sacrifice, disgust and the priestly tradition; second, he imagines this in binary opposition to love, mercy, justice and the prophetic tradition; thirdly, he figures Christ as choosing the latter side against the former. Unfortunately, this seems to reiterate the old dichotomy of Old vs New Testament God. This seems to reduce the entirety of the sanctuary tradition to a sad, human footnote on the grand narrative of Christ. If sacrifice and the priesthood are to be rejected out of hand, then it seems the entire sanctuary system becomes merely an expression of the human psychology of disgust, with no divine precedent or support. Ultimately, this seems to impoverish both the priestly and the prophetic traditions–reducing a long and multi-faceted conversation to a binary opposition.

Thanks for the responding, David. I guess this gives me permission to post another comment via Spectrum’s new policy. :slight_smile: Recently, I’ve become very interested in the issue of “how Jesus interpreted the Bible,” so the issues Beck broaches in this chapter, and your critique of it, are helping me think through things a bit more carefully and clearly.

Am I correct in understanding your concern to be two-fold? You are concerned that Beck’s drawing the distinction between prophet and priestly traditions in the OT is really based on psychology rather than Biblical exegesis. Secondly, you are concerned that granting this distinction will lead to an undermining or disregard of the sacrificial and sanctuary teaching of the OT.

If so, I think these are valid concerns, but I’m not sure they apply to Beck. Sure, he’s a psychologist drawing on the work of others outside his discipline, but the OT scholar that Beck quotes as legitimizing this distinction, Walter Brueggemann, is widely recognized respected. (Him along with people like Volf and Belo.) I’m inclined to believe it’s a view accepted by others how have carefully studied the OT. I’m not saying this makes him right, but that one can give him the benefit of the doubt and that his claims are based on consensus views of Bible scholars rather than psychological conjecture.

If one grants this, the issue becomes one of if the claims Beck makes about human and social psychology (also seemingly based on expert research), maps cleanly onto the prophetic and priestly tradition distinction. Perhaps not as nicely as Beck thinks, i.e. all concerns for holiness are motivated by disgust and all call for justice are driven by love, but I think his analysis provides insight into understand some of what happens both in the Bible and church communities.

Regarding your second concern, to claim that Jesus sided with the prophetic tradition, doesn’t undermine the OT; it draws attention to a stream of the OT that, in my own experience, is often under appreciated and over shadowed by the priestly, especially in our own Adventist community. I suppose the take away one could take from this is that the prophetic is all that matters, but not necessarily and I’m not sure this is what Beck intends. Rather, it helps one understand how to two might better relate to each other and which takes priority at times when there is conflict. (I’ve just finished reading Chapters 7 and 8, where I think Beck attempts to constructively do this.)


Thanks again for your response. You have correctly understood the concern I expressed–the primacy of psychology in this ostensibly theological work and the implications of his binary structuring. I have other concerns which I may yet introduce as they are relevant, but I will try to focus on these two.

You point out that Beck cites various theologians as supporting his perspective, yet I am not convinced they are suggesting anything like the narrow binaristic analysis Beck is pursuing–particularly Brueggemann. Yes, there is a tension, but it is not necessarily a binary and it is not necessarily grounded in disgust psychology. Belo is an exception, but he seems to be working from the same perspective as Beck, and so lends an additional voice, but that doesn’t necessarily make the argument more legitimate.

I base my understanding of the primacy of psychology on Beck’s continued assertions that this is the case. For example: “Mercy and sacrifice are intrinsically incompatible, due largely to psychological factors we will illuminate shortly” (79). He attempts to further bolster his argument by reference to “live experience,” but this concept is explained as “a psychological conflict between mercy and sacrifice” (84). These references continue with great consistency–accepting the binary framework he constructs around mercy/sacrifice and/or prophetic/priestly is predicated on accepting his binary psychological framework: “Mercy and sacrifice reliably come into conflict due to the reciprocal nature of love and disgust, the psychological dynamics governing exclusion and embrace” (90). Unless you accept this framework, his entire argument falters. (Besides my own philosophical concerns, Valerie Curtis’ Don’t Look, Don’t Touch, Don’t Eat poses a serious empirical challenge to his understanding of disgust.)

While you may have a point about the “prophetic tradition” being under appreciated, I feel like Beck is doing more than drawing attention to it. He explicitly and repeatedly figures the tension as an “either/or” (89) dichotomy between “fundamentally incompatible” concerns (84). To me, this leaves serious questions about the “priestly tradition” which he does not even address. If it is fundamentally opposed to Christ’s teaching, I’m unsure how any legitimacy can be ascribed to those significant portions of the OT (and NT) which attend to and articulate the “priestly tradition.”

(I’ve just finished Chapter 7 and I find his arguments increasingly tendentious, poorly constructed and increasingly informed by Greek philosophical presuppositions which have little in common with the Biblical worldview.)

Thanks for the clarifications, David. Regardless of what one thinks about the way Beck read’s the Bible, I think it’s important to keep his broader goal in mind. The issue his trying to explore is in the end practical–why religious communities that profess love and inclusion often exclude and reject individuals. The claim is that disgust psychology sheds a lot of insight into this dynamic. Perhaps the claim that there’s a tension between impulses to exclude an ideals of inclusion in individuals and communities today, rather than the Bible, is less problematic. In other words, Beck’s providing psychological analysis of a sociological phenomena, rather than a theological one, although he’s dabbling in theology, as well.

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