Sunday, September 29, 2013

Disgusting Communion

At the recommendation of a colleague, I've started reading Richard Beck's book, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality (Cascade Books, 2011). Beck, an experimental psychologist (= social scientist, not a theologian or biblical scholar), brings the psychology of disgust to bear on questions of purity (food, sex), hospitality (social acceptability), and mortality (death).

My interest in the topic is primarily sexual. A few years ago I read Donna Freitas's book, Sex and the Soul (Oxford University Press, 2008), which aroused in me a deep concern that we are raising a/nother generation without providing any guidance or wisdom regarding the connection between one of our most basic physical urges (sex) and one of our most basic spiritual urges (communion with God/the divine). In a profession such as mine (equipping, training, educating people for ministry), that lack of guidance and wisdom is scandalous, or it would be if we weren't so used to it.

Chapter 1 presents some basic thoughts on the psychology of disgust. Beck reproduces a three-fold typology of disgust (p. 19):

  1. core disgust: revulsion centered on eating and oral incorporation;
  2. sociomoral disgust: revulsion centered on moral and social judgments;
  3. animal-reminder disgust: revulsion centered on stimuli that function as death/mortality reminders.
Beck also suggestively maps this typology onto the Eucharist, an intriguing move that he will return to in his final chapter.

I'm enjoying the book already, but I'm not quite sure what to think. On the one hand, I want to defend "disgust" as a physical and even social concept. The expulsive impulse triggered by disgust is healthy, even life-preserving, as when we eat rancid meat or encounter a pedophile on a school yard. On the other hand, there are things that are not, intrinsically, disgusting that still curl my stomach. I eat the flesh of dead cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, etc., but never no never of dogs, pigs, cats, rats, or horses. I accept that every person in church on Sunday is a sinner, but if I find out about their sin (especially if it's sexual in nature) I am driven to passages such as 1 Corinthians 5 ("Remove the evil person from among you").

If I accept that disgust, as an emotion, is culturally determined in a way not true of other emotions (Beck, pp. 16–18), how do we distinguish between healthy and proper manifestations of disgust and those that block and run counter to the redemptive work of Christ? I do not have an answer. But I do have a suspicion. Some things, people, and ideas genuinely and urgently need expulsion from the body physical, political, ecclesial. Those things represent real and present dangers to life and health. But this is the scandal of the gospel, of a Jesus who not only heals the leper but touches him, of a God who not only redeems humanity but becomes her. That which is disgusting, which needs expulsion, is not expelled but redeemed. This is the shocking story of Ezekiel 16 (warning: this chapter is NOT.FOR.CHILDREN, but you absolutely must read all the way to the end of this long chapter). This is the good news (= gospel) of God: I was disgusting and revolting, but God called me to his table, offered me his own flesh ("Disgusting!"), and invited me, saying, "Take, eat. This is my body, broken for you."

Disgust is real. Revulsion is appropriate. If we truly believe in the gospel, disgust leads not to ejection (vomiting, shunning, excommunication) but to gratitude and humility. I once was filthy but now am cleansed. Who am I, then, to push you away in your noxious, grungy, stained rags. I know the One who clothes others like kings and queens, and he has asked me to bring you to him. He offers you the Cup that sates, but be careful. This is His Blood, poured out for you, too. Please don't be disgusted.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

teaching and research: resisting the tyranny of either/or

Over at PEJE IESOUS, Christopher Skinner has linked to a very good reflection piece from Inside Higher Ed on the challenges (and methods) of balancing the aspirations of an active research agenda with the demands of a heavy teaching load. Dr. Hollis Phelps offers some very helpful thoughts (and tips!) for those of us who are carrying a significant teaching load and trying to keep up with and contribute to the larger academic discipline to which we belong.

Speaking for myself, I am currently preparing to shop a book proposal for what I hope will be a fairly significant work on Romans. I only ventured into Pauline and Romans studies because my university assigned me to develop a course on Romans for our graduate students. Among the potential synthetic consequences of the tug-o-war between teaching and research, I would identify the following:

  • my research deepens the content of my in-class lecture and discussion materials;
  • my research strengthens my identification with and passion for my field, which communicates directly to my students as they wrestle to decide whether my field matters to them;
  • my teaching broadens the scope of my reading and knowledge, which directly affects the quality of my research and writing;
  • my teaching forces me to improve my writing and thinking (especially since I encounter so much bad writing and thinking in [Father, forgive me] student papers).
While not all researchers would be good teachers, and not all good teachers would be good researchers, in the Venn diagram of higher education, there is more overlap between the two than not.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

in this river, swimming, nearly drowning

These are hard days. They're good days; don't get me wrong. But I find myself in a season of my faith where I am especially aware of being unworthy of the God I worship. Today—right now—as I sit in church surrounded by people who don't appear on the surface to struggle as I do, I am tempted to look down on these, my brothers and sisters, for seeming to feel so confident of their relationship with the Almighty Creator of the world. If I come off as condescending or elitist, please see through it. Please see through to the small little man who is terrified of his faith.

Some of you who read this blog don't share my faith. I understand that. Honestly, I often envy you. If I felt the choice were truly open to me, I might also choose a different belief.
But faith, as I experience it, is like swimming in a swiftly raging river. I choose how to swim or where (whether with the current or against). Perhaps I even chose to jump into this torrent, once upon a time. But now it has me, and I go where it directs, no matter my choices. I feel the apostles words down deep in my bowels, somewhere deeper than my heart and lungs: "I am not my own; I have been bought at a price."

Sometimes, I hate this river. I long for the peace and calm of the shore, or I envy those who seem to ride these waves so leisurely. But I am drowning. My head sometimes rises above the waters, but usually it thrashes just below the surface, sometimes banging against the rocks and threatening me with unconsciousness.

Other times, however, I realize that this river is taking me somewhere I cannot reach on my own, somewhere I could not get to from the safety of river's edge. If I fought long enough, hard enough, I could remove myself from this flow. But the only thing that scares me more than this river is the loss of the feel of its current driving me forward, closer to the One who directs its course. So I continue to struggle, not to remove myself from this river, but to keep myself from drowning in its furious foam.

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