Unclean by Richard Beck (Review)

Would you drink a bottle of wine if there was a drop of urine in it? Why do we tend to assume that a tiny amount of impurity taints a huge amount of purity? Is there a deeper meaning to this “disgust” that we experience? Where does it come from?

These are some of the interesting questions Richard Beck’s book Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality and Morality touches on. Such questions would be interesting in a book that popularizes psychological research on disgust. Perhaps that could be the idea for Malcolm Gladwell’s next book! But it is not Beck’s goal simply to educate us on disgust, intriguing as this is. I mean, we’ve all been disgusted. Cleaning out the food that catches in the kitchen sink drain or cleaning rotten leftovers from the fridge leads to disgust. I never really thought about it, experiencing it for a few brief moments is enough, but apparently psychologists have thought long and studied deeply into the phenomena of disgust.

Beck brings these psychological insights to bear on theology. Specifically, he reflects on Jesus’ words “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”. Humans tend to build up walls, to divide into tribes. From this we in one tribe see ourselves as pure in contrast to other tribes who are impure. This phenomena ends up being a large and scary trait of religion in our society. Throughout the book disgust relates to religion in a variety of ways. One particularly disturbing point was studies on the relationship of physical cleansing with spiritual cleansing. Sin makes us want to take a shower. Conversely, being physically cleansed creates moral purity (the Macbeth Effect). If we think we are cleansed while others are dirty, we are going to keep the tribal walls up, remaning separated from everyone who, if they come in contact with us, could corrupt us. All of this is despite the fact that Jesus calls for inclusivism. Beck shows that it is this disgust psychology creates this boundary making in the church, a fear of contamination from those on the outside and scapegoating (a la Rene Girard).

Jesus’ call for mercy is a call to break down boundaries. Yet we are unable to eliminate disgust, we can only hope to regulate it. Beck offers the Eucharist as the practice that can show us the mercy we ought to do but that keeps the sacrifice we desire.

My brief review, these few words, do not do this book justice. It was simply amazing, one of the best books I’ve read in a while. I’ve enjoyed reading Beck’s blog and I plan to read his other books. I often feel like it is the books I like most that I have the most trouble reviewing. I want to write more, to better explain what I liked. Maybe that is the challenge. The books I like most defy a simple description. Instead they demand a rereading. They defy summary because they demand continued thinking and reflection. I finished this book a week ago but I am still thinking on its themes and trying to figure out how I can bring the lessons to bear in my life and ministry.


Laziness – The Rule of St. Benedict

Idleness is the enemy of the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to be employed in manual labor at certain times, at others, in devout reading.

St. Benedict (2011-04-30). The Rule of St. Benedict (Kindle Locations 707-708). PlanetMonk Books. Kindle Edition.

I’ve often wondered what “free time” was like in the ancient or medieval world.  When I was a teenager, and many times since, I have heard people guilt-trip Christians by asking them to compare the time they watch tv with the time they read the Bible.  I wonder if such a question fails to take changes in culture into consideration.  I am certainly in favor of reading the Bible more.  But I don’t know if the hours we spend watching tv, or other things, instead of reading the Bible constitutes automatic laziness.

There are so many devices which make our lives easier, from stoves and microwaves to cars and refrigerators.  I believe that before all these things were invented people spent a lot more time traveling from place to place and finding and preparing food.  One result of these devices, I would think, is that we have more “free” time.  We tend to fill that time with entertainment, primarily television (or if you’e like the college students I know, binging on youtube videos).  Of course there was entertainment in the ancient and medieval world, from gladiatorial contests to stage plays to bear-baiting.  But I find it hard not to believe that our amount of free time dwarfs theirs.

I am trying to write very tentatively, with lots of “I imagines” or “I believes”.  As I have thought about what Benedict said, and guilt-trips I’ve heard about people being too lazy and not reading the Bible enough, I’ve wondered how a day in the life of a 21st century Christian compares to one in the 12th or 4th century.  There are lots of history books on the big issues of Christian history, from the Arian controversy in the 300s to the crusades in the 1100s.  If anyone out there knows of a book that tells the story of how normal, everyday Christians lived in these eras, I’d love to read it.

Back to The Rule of Benedict, the questions I am left with from this passage are:

What does balancing life between work and spiritual reading, between doing our physical labor and daily jobs and pursuing spiritual growth, look like when we have more free time?  Should we go right from work to dinner to hours of what Benedict calls “devout reading”?  Is watching one hour of tv too much?  Five hours?  When have we gone from just relaxing to being lazy?

I am sure, at the very least, that many people would benefit from turning the television off and reading a book instead (says a huge book lover!).

The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes (Review)

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Two iconic characters whose stories, until recently, I was totally unfamiliar with. Growing up I remember knowing there was a Sherlock Holmes but I never saw any movies or tv shows with him in it. It wasn’t until the movies with Robert Downey Jr. came out that Sherlock seemed to return to greater public consciousness.

(As a sidenote my recollections are about right. The most recent Holmes movie prior to the Downey one was in 1988, when I was 8, so I never would have heard of it. There was no television series for about as long.)

While the Downey movies were exciting, it was the BBC show Sherlock that got me hooked. Fantastic story-telling with compelling characters. While waiting around for season three of Sherlock, and surfing for free or cheap books on my e-reader, I decided to give the works of Holmes (by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, by the way) a shot.

Immediately I was impressed by how easy to read these stories are. Many people, myself included, seem to have a fear of reading old literature. Perhaps it is memories of assigned reading in high school. Whatever reason, old books tend to be harder to read then current bestsellers. Such old, difficult books are thus all the more worth reading then easy contemporary bestsellers, but that’s another story. The Sherlock stories, at any rate, are not difficult to read. Anyone who enjoys the Sherlock shows and movies and who wants to read more could certainly dive in.

I began reading these stories back in the fall. The nice thing about Sherlock is that most of the stories are short stories. So I read a few here and there and finally finished a few days ago. The four novels are the highlights (especially the first three, Study in Scarlet, Sign of the Four, Hounds of the Baskervilles). Many of the short stories are fantastic too. As you read them you will note some are disappointing and others seem familiar, as if Doyle was echoing himself. But overall, they are a treat.

Besides, you have two more years to wait for more Sherlock on BBC!

Eucatastrophe – Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories

Most of my earliest reading on my own was novels.  After reading a lot of John Grisham and Michael Crichton, I started to get into sci-fi and fantasy.  I read more Star Wars novels than I care to remember.  Eventually I got into The Wheel of Time and Game of Thrones (before it was cool).  Then I went to college and seminary and began reading theology, history and philosophy.  I still read novels occasionally, but most of my reading for the last decade has not been fiction.

This year that is changing.  I’ve already read two novels (The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak), as well as continuing the complete Sherlock Holmes.  And I’ve read a good bit of Tolkien.  His work On Fairy Stories, while not fiction itself, gives a strong philosophy of fantasy literature.

First, fantasy literature is not just for children.

“Among those who still have enough wisdom not to think fairy-stories pernicious, the common opinion seems to be that there is a natural connection between the minds of children and fairy-stories, of the same order as the connexion between children’s bodies and milk.  I think this is an error; at best an error of false sentiment, and one that is therefore most often made by those who, for whatever private reason (such as childlessness), tend to think of children as a special kind of creatre, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immautre, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large…Fairy-stories have in the modern lettered world been relegated to the ‘nursery,’ as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the playproom, primarily because the adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misued” (58)

“If fairy-stories as a kind is worth reading at all, it is worthy to be written for and read by adults” (67)

I don’t know if I thought I had out-grown fantasy novels as I moved into “serious” works of theology and history.  But it is interesting that so many of the best stories are fantasy stories, taking place in mythical realms.  And those who read such stories are often seen as less serious.  Oh, you’re reading Harry Potter…why not try Dickens?

Yet, according to Tolkien, a good fairy story is entirely believable within its universe, or as he calls it, sub-creation:

“What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator.’ He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside” (60).

“Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary.  The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will make it…If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen” (74-75)

All writers write from within their own worldview.  Tolkien wrote as a Christian.  This does not mean his stories are fronts for evangelism or simple allegories where such-and-such character stands in for a biblical character.  Tolkien’s world is more complex than that.  Yet we see in On Fairy Stories how his Christian faith relates to his writing, with the term Eucatastrophe:

Escape is a key part of fairy-stories – escape from death – “the consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it.  At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-Story.  Since we do not posses a word that expresses this opposite – I will call it Eucatastrophe.  The eucatastrophe tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function” (85)

Why do the good guys always win?  Because there are other forces at work, forces for good and justice that work behind the scenes, that have a hand in things.  When seen in this light, even a depressing Tolkien story, like that of Turin Turambar, can be seen in a larger context of hope and the setting right of all things.

Further, when we see good win out we feel joy, for we are cheering for this.  This is how we hope our world turns out, even if in our day-to-day lives we are so unsure of it.  Tolkien writes, “The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ is successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth” (88)

Ultimately, the story of this world as Christians tell it is the greatest Eucatastrophe:

“Approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature.  The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essences of fairy-stories.  They contain many marvels – peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: ‘mythincal’ in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world: the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.  The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history.  The resurrection is the Eucatastrophe of the Incarnation.  This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’ There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.  For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation.  To reject it leads either to sadness or wrath” (88-89)

As I read this work, I couldn’t help but think about other popular fantasy stories and how they include or don’t include this idea of eucatastrophe.  But that’s for another post.

The Tolkien Reader and Unfinished Tales (Review)

The Tolkien Reader is a great little book for fans of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings who want to get a taste of stories he wrote that take place outside of Middle Earth. One such story, Farmer Giles of Ham, is entertaining and funny, introducing us to a simple Farmer who through various twists and turns ends up representing his village in a fight with a dragon.

The other great story here, Leaf by Niggle, may just be the best thing I’ve read on the goodness of work. We meet a man named Niggle who loves to paint but can never quite put on canvas the beauty in his head. The good news for Niggle is that there is a place where the beauty he only dreamed of is made real. If this is Tolkien’s vision of heaven or the afterlife, it would do good for more Christians to read it. Whatever heaven is, Tolkien understood, correctly I would say, that from a Christian perspective it is not just an endless song-service of praise to God. Humans were created to work in the first place, we work now, and we will have work to do then.

When originally released, Leaf by Niggle was paired with On Fairy Stories. On Fairy Stories is Tolkien’s philosophy of fantasy literature (i.e., fairy stories). He defends fantasy literature as not just something for children which adults outgrow when we become more rational. Instead, fairy stories take place within a world (a sub-creation) where all that takes place ought to be entirely credible, within that world. In this essay Tolkien introduced the word, eucatastrophe, the joy of a happy ending. The concept of eucatastrophe is certainly rooted in Tolkien’s Christian faith, trusting that no matter how bad things get there will be a good ending to the story.

I’m going to write 1-2 more posts solely on On Fairy Stories.  For now, I offer my review of another book from Tolkien, Unfinished Tales:

You’ve read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings many times. You’ve worked your way through The Silmarillion. Then you enjoyed the fantastic Children of Hurin. Now you want to read more from Middle Earth. Unfinished Tales seems to be the next place to go.

For me, it will probably be the last place. These are a collection of writings in various degrees of completion. Some, such as the Coming of Tuor to Gondolin, give only a glimpse of what could have been a fantastic, epic story. Sadly, the glimpse is boring. Others give Christopher Tolkien, JRR’s son, the opportunity to parse various copies of the same story, comparing differences into the minutiae. It reminds me of a Bible scholar comparing ancient manuscripts. The clearest example of this is the story of Galadriel which, while interesting, was nearly unreadable.

There are some gems though. The story of Aldarion’s love for the sea competing with his love for Erendis was fantastic. The stories that provide background for Lord of the Rings, such as the Quest for Erebor, and the history of the Istari where we get a lot on Gandalf, were treats.

So if you’re a Tolkien fan, I recommend this book. But beware. If you thought The Silmarillion was difficult, and I did, this will really give you a hard time.

Excommunication? The Rule of St. Benedict

Benedict writes a lot about when and how to excommunicate people from the monastery, whether those kicked out ought ever be welcomed back, and how to correct faults.  Like much of what he writes, this just seems foreign to contemporary readers.  Excommunication?  Kicking people out?  It seems so intolerant, we say.  It illustrates all the problems with religion, we say.

After talking about excommunication, he moves on to talk about serving in the kitchen and caring for the sick:

Let the brethren serve each other so that no one be excused from the work in the kitchen, except on account of sickness or more necessary work, because greater merit and more charity is thereby acquired. Let help be given to the weak, however, that they may not do this work with sadness; but let all have help according to the size of the community and the circumstances of the place.

St. Benedict (2011-04-30). The Rule of St. Benedict (Kindle Locations 582-585). PlanetMonk Books. Kindle Edition.

Before and above all things, care must be taken of the sick, that they be served in very truth as Christ is served; because He hath said, “I was sick and you visited Me.” And “As long as you did it to one of these My least brethren, you did it to Me.” But let the sick themselves also consider that they are served for the honor of God, and let them not grieve their brethren who serve them by unnecessary demands.

St. Benedict (2011-04-30). The Rule of St. Benedict (Kindle Locations 597-600). PlanetMonk Books. Kindle Edition.

It is easy for me to read what Benedict writes on excommunication and instantly forget it as outmoded and close-minded.  But these words on serving others and caring for the sick, this is the best of religion.  This is what makes the world smile, what we want more of.

I think this is the context where excommunication might fit in.  Benedict is not writing to a contemporary church where people show up on Sunday (maybe) and don’t know each other well.  He is writing to a close-knit group of men who live and work and pray together.  They take turns working in the kitchen and they provide care when a brother is sick.  Brother is the right word, for they truly are a family.  Whatever excommunication looked like, it was not something to be celebrated or taken pleasure in.  In the context of a family, excommunication is as heart-breaking as a divorce or the wandering of a prodigal.  It did not happen because some faceless member in a large group broke a rule and was kicked out, it happened when a beloved brother acted in such ways to poison the community and the only way to heal was amputation.

Amputation hurts.

So what does this excommunication talk mean for us?

I don’t know.  I still don’t like it, it still sounds mean-spirited and overly-harsh.  But maybe if we focus on the other aspects – serve each other in the kitchen and care for the sick – then it might make sense.  If we build close-knit communities which exist not just to gather together and sing some catchy songs once a week but instead exist to bring healing to the world then maybe…I don’t know, maybe we’ll see there is a time and a place to tell someone they are loved but it is better for both parties that a separation occur for a time.

Maybe if someone only wants the benefits of being in the community but does not want to do the hard work of serving others, maybe that is a time to ask them to go elsewhere?

Maybe if a person enjoys the glamorous work of the community but does not want to do the behind-the-scenes work that gets no accolades, maybe it is time to ask them to go elsewhere?

This is not a casting out beyond hope, there is always hope as long as there is Jesus and grace.  Even in Benedict’s work, people are always welcomed back into the community if they make restitution.  Excommunication may sound bad and has certainly been abused in myriad ways, but to go too far in the other direction into a community where anything goes and there is no discipline whatsoever is equally bad both for the community and the world around.

I am wrestling with this and still not sure what I think…just one more reason I like reading the classics.