November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
“There’s only a little bit of dog poop in the brownies,” says the evangelical father as he hands his teenagers a tray of gooey chocolate and feces. The teens had protested his limiting their viewing of a movie with just a little sex and violence, and he had baked them this object lesson. As they look at him in disgust, the dad observes that if they won’t allow even a trace of dog poop in their brownies, why would they allow a trace of immorality in their movies.
This anecdote reflects the way in which purity has been framed for many an evangelical Sunday school class. Humans are created in the image of God, and it is thus our responsibility to not let the sin and filth of the world tarnish that image. God can abide no sin, so neither should we. The logic of the metaphor relies heavily on our natural disgust reaction. Sin is framed as disgusting and as morally and spiritually contaminating. But this not the only way to understand Christian purity and disgust. In fact, as we will explore here, the Eucharist subverts the logic of disgust and the common application of purity and holiness, challenging common notions of fragility, power, and contamination.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the global concern for purity has been on full display. We have created liturgies of cleanliness, separation, and sterilization as we practice self-isolation and social distancing. Now, more than ever, we have developed rituals of thorough hand-washing. We have drained millions of bottles of hand sanitizer. We wear masks outside, standing six feet apart from each other, and we religiously wipe down our groceries with disinfectant from fear of the unclean. Our implicit understanding of purity plays a crucial part in our survival during these times. It provides us with a tangible way to protect us and our loved ones from the unseen, ever-present threat of a virus that seems to lurk behind every cough, doorknob, or milk carton.
Biblically, it is not hard to find purity metaphors throughout both Testaments. From Levitical laws to the proclamation of the gospel, words like holy, clean, and pure are ubiquitous in the mouths of prophets, kings, and priests. They are also concepts that can be traced throughout church history. It has been Christian tradition to maintain the sanctity of holy places, sacraments, individuals, and even empires. More recently, schools, universities, and church campuses have become holy places of refuge for “truth”; it offends parishioners or students to have someone speak, or even attend, who is too far outside their tribal allegiance or group, too impure.1
Yet, interestingly, the more important the purity of an object, the more fragile that purity is. To return to brownies for a moment, it is not the smidge of dog poop that we perceive as impacted by being baked into the treat. It is the brownies. Despite being much more significant and taking up much more of the physical mass in the tray, the brownies are at the mercy of the dog poop. By their mere contact with the excrement, they have become inedible. What then has the power in this instance? What is more fragile, and what is in need of protecting?
The flipside of purity or sanctity is the emotion of disgust.2 Disgust is primarily concerned with boundaries, with what is acceptable and can be allowed into the body, to become a part of us. It helps us differentiate what is vile from what we can consume. It is the emotion that helps us experience what is pure and what isn’t. Reading the previous section, many of you were well in tune with your sense of disgust at the notion of a tray of dog poop brownies. Disgust protects you from thinking “it’s not that much poop.”
Disgust is often associated with bodily functions and fluids. Consider the fluids and processes involved in eating, procreating, and digestion. They are gross. This was highlighted in a study in which researchers asked participants to spit in a cup and then asked them to drink their spit—the majority of the participants refused.3 Somehow saliva becomes disgusting the moment it exits the body. We swallow our spit all day in our mouth, but as soon as we spit, it transforms into something vile. Most bodily fluids elicit this same reaction, even though they are necessarily flowing constantly through our body, keeping us alive. The moment they leave us, they become disgusting.4
Disgust is related to but very different from fear. Fear can be rationalized, whereas disgust is visceral. If a bear were loose in your house, you would be afraid. It would be terrifying. But if that same bear were accompanied by its trainer, you might feel better about your safety. You still wouldn’t want to cozy up to the bear; you would likely calm down. The same is not true for bodily fluids. Consider the study with the spit—even though we swallow our own saliva all day long, something makes us unwilling to drink it again after we have spit it into a sterile cup. This repulsion only grows if it is our partner’s spit, despite the fact that saliva swapping doesn’t bother us when we are kissing them. Disgust doesn’t respond to reason.
And yet disgust plays a significant role in our lives. Take that kissing, for example—disgust fuels the moral codes that govern our sexual behavior.5 We react in disgust at the thought of various sexual acts done the “wrong way,” with the “wrong person,” or at the “wrong time.”6 For social, evolutionary, and health reasons, strict codes of practice exist in almost every society, and these codes are governed by both external police forces and our own internal sense of disgust. This is strongly evident in the impact that purity culture has had on many young people in the evangelical church over the past decades.7
This same disgust can also be seen in our characterization of social groups. Just as our individual boundaries are guarded by disgust, so too are our group allegiances. The classic and most striking example of this might be Nazi antisemitism, but we can see disgust playing this role in modern political discourse as well. Metaphors of germs and disease are often invoked when speaking of the other—as then-candidate Donald Trump wrote in his statement on immigration in July 2016: “Likewise, tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border. The United States has become a dumping ground for Mexico and, in fact, for many other parts of the world.”8 These boundaries are often drawn on racial or ethnic lines, but they can also fall along political, ideological, or religious lines. The emotional reaction we might experience after learning that our child is dating someone who voted for the other party is a clear indication that there is far more at work than mere economic or foreign policy disputes.9
Returning to the father and his inedible object lesson, we find that purity and its partner, disgust, reign as powerful enforcers of the moral and social boundaries of the modern, predominantly white, North American, evangelical community. They help protect a strict delineation between the in-group and out-crowd, daring anyone to switch sides and clearly differentiating between an us (that is special) and a them (which is other). This naturally results in prejudice and preferences for segregation. Indeed, back in 1960, Martin Luther King Jr. noted that Sunday morning was the most segregated time in America, a trend which has continued into 2020. Likewise, purity and disgust have nudged white evangelicals and their fundamentalist precursors in the United States to consistently side with the majority, create or defend divisions and hierarchies, and embrace white supremacist ideologies and policies, including supporting slavery and the genocide of Native Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, opposing the civil rights movement and interracial marriages in the twentieth century, and spewing vitriol against antiracist movements in our current era.10
Disgust then prevents us from acknowledging the truth of our own familial, communal, and personal connection to the oppression and discrimination in which we have participated and with which we have been associated. Even when we try to take steps toward racial conciliation, the logic of disgust and contamination dogs our steps.11 As a Potawotami citizen, Christian, and poet, Kaitlin B. Curtice recently observed, “Many Christians who are embedded in white supremacist systems within the church, when confronted with those systems of racism, would rather give away money and look at it from a distance, or, as has often been done, send in missionaries to fix the problem.”12 These strategies—providing aid from a distance and designating specialists to deal with the issues—are standard disgust reactions, as we unconsciously seek to avoid contamination. As a result, we live in divided communities and worlds, unable to acknowledge or even hear the stories of those who are marginalized by our way of life.
Since the Enlightenment, group identity in Western cultures—and not just conservative Christians—has been closely associated with right belief. Within evangelicalism, ideas are annexed into the realm of disgust as they become the flags of group identity in the evangelical subculture, helping evangelicals to sort the world into different categories. Sinful thoughts, ungodly ideas, and impure motives are all, in that way, first-class tickets out of the culture or group. As the pastor Rob Bell experienced after publishing his now infamous book Love Wins, asking the wrong questions and entertaining the wrong thoughts cannot be tolerated. Instead, ideas that fall outside the purity boundaries must be silenced and opposed with force, as many people of color and other marginalized groups have experienced. In this way, certain ideas, like an eternal hell, American exceptionalism, and attitudes toward sexual orientation and gender identity, become litmus tests for gauging a person’s membership in and commitment to the church or faith community because certain beliefs are a threat to the social order and the self of the group. As individuals realize that holding certain views will result in their expulsion through the disgust mechanism, the church community often becomes the least safe place for authentic engagement.13
This isn’t an encouraging story. As humans, we grasp at the illusion of certainty to try and negate our doubt, but we still have questions. We put purity rings on ourselves and our children, and we still feel unclean. We claim to embrace our neighbor, but our churches remain segregated. No matter what we do or how much we try, the smallest infraction of our moral codes continues to haunt us, leaving us feeling impure.
But is there another way to view purity?
Before his death, Jesus asks his disciples to drink of his blood and eat of his flesh. He tells them that his blood purifies. These words have become routine to our modern ears, but early Christians who took them to heart were accused of cannibalism.14 Indeed, the Eucharist, with its bodily emphasis on blood and flesh, touches up against our sense of disgust.
As Richard Beck explains in his book Unclean, the disgust reaction is triggered when what we perceive as “lower” contaminates what we perceive as “higher.”15 Yet in the case of the Eucharist, we are presented with the unusual invasion of the lower (our physical bodies) by the higher (Christ’s life and being). Participation in the Eucharist is a Christian’s regular reminder that while we may view ourselves as vulnerable to contamination, we do not occupy the highest ontological position; instead, our interaction with the Highest has the counterintuitive effect of decontaminating us (John 13:6–17). Moreover, contrary to our implicit notions of disgust, the divine being is not polluted by this interaction with us.
The contamination principle is not, therefore, violated by the Eucharist; instead the physical, spiritual, and/or symbolic conversion of wine and bread into the body and blood of Christ achieves a transformation. By virtue of our union with the divine person who cannot be contaminated, both in the specific context of the Eucharist and, more broadly, in our daily lives as Christians, we are decontaminated or cleansed.
This contamination-of-a-good-sort demands a term, and as none has seemed able to fit the need directly. But there is a precedent for coining terms like this. In his genre-defining essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J. R. R. Tolkien coined the term eucatastrophe (the eu being the Greek prefix for good) as a term to describe the almost unimaginably good ending to a story—the fairy tale’s counterpart to the catastrophe of a tragedy.16 Thus, we propose the term eucontamination to express the eucharistic counterpart to the contamination of ordinary disgust.
Through the Eucharist, we are invited to understand ourselves as agents of this eucontamination, agents of antidisgust. Insofar as we are in Christ, we are proof against any form of moral or spiritual pollution. The idea that we could be contaminated by the world is the exact inverse of the truth which arises from our being in Christ—we are to be in the world but we are not of it (see John 17:14–19). This means we are not subject to the world’s inverted logic of disgust and contamination; rather, by being in the world we eucontaminate it. More than that, anything we engage with is itself subject to eucontamination, by virtue of engaging with us who are in Christ.
Of course, the New Testament is well stocked with evidence for this outlook. The logic of eucontaminants is present in our transformation into the image and likeness of Christ (2 Cor 3:18), in Christ’s assertion that we are the salt and light of the world (Matthew 5:13), his parable of the yeast (Matthew 13), and his admonition to Peter against calling “unclean” that which God has made clean (Acts 10). Likewise, at the heart of Jesus’s miracles was a reprimand for those who show disgust. By touching and cleansing lepers (Matthew 8) or smearing spit-mud on the eyes of a blind man (John 9), he demonstrates that the power of God is a eucontaminant. His actions were also criticized based on his association with groups of people who were understood to be disgusting—tax collectors, prostitutes, and gentiles—a critique he parried by stating that it is the sick rather than the healthy who need a doctor (Mark 2), showing his clear understanding that through agape, the love with which God is characterized, he holds healing eucontaminate power over sin. As the Apostle Paul reminds us, “love [agape] never fails” (1 Cor 13:8).
Therefore, while most discussions of purity consider sin or other worldly things pollutants, we argue that a different way to understand Jesus’s teaching is to realize that love is the perfect eucontaminant. Just as the believer is contaminated by Christ through the act of taking the Eucharist, so too the world is at risk of being infected by love. This shift in emphasis suggests that love is not in a precarious or fragile state of becoming unclean; love is instead the eucontaminant. It holds a deeper power than any human concept of purity. Followers of Jesus do not need to be concerned or fearful of being made unclean because they have become the contagion. To return to the brownie story, it is not the fragile brownie but rather the contaminating dog poop that is Jesus. However, in this case, as with his blood, it is the poop that makes the brownies edible and clean. As a eucontaminant, Christ inverts the story and our natural disgust reactions.
This means that as Christians we are called to reject disgust and embrace our role as eucontaminants in our moral and spiritual orientation toward the world. Insofar as we participate in moral or spiritual disgust, we deny the power of the Eucharist and—at a basic level—the power of Christ’s death and resurrection. To subvert a pop culture reference, we are not trapped in a world with sin; sin is trapped in a world with us.
The ramifications of eucontamination are broad. The ekklesia, or Christian church, is not a fragile country club to be kept separate from the world but a provocative, subversive group of the infected, spreading the eucontaminant of love. Likewise, God’s truth is not some sacred piece of knowledge to be defended through apologetics and segregated institutions; rather, it is the love that subverts and infects every discipline that humans develop.
Purity is still an important concept with significant meaning, but when we think of purity, let us remember that Jesus rewrote the script on it and called his followers to eucontaminate the world with his love and spirit (see Matthew 13:33 and Luke 13:20–21). The gospel of Christ is not fragile. Christianity is a yeast, a parasite, a eucontaminant, prophetically calling out abuse and injustice wherever it is found.17
This point likely cannot be overemphasized and requires some careful clarification, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Humans, we are reminded, look at the outward appearance whereas God looks to the heart (1 Sam. 16), and at the level of the outward appearance, it is important to remember that a judicious use of disgust logic is a natural and useful impulse for guarding the outward self from infection and disease. Although this impulse is often exaggerated and distorted, the core desire to guard one’s physical boundaries from contamination is a healthy one—hands should be washed before eating and, during a pandemic, prudent social distancing measures should be followed.
However, at the level of the heart, the locus of our moral, spiritual, and relational selves, eucontamination and a logic of antidisgust must rule the day. In the recent acts of hostility, abuse, and hate toward people of Asian descent, we have already seen the catastrophic, sinful, and racist effects of what flows from allowing a logic of disgust to infiltrate our relational selves.18 That mental act, which associates a disease with a population and treats a person like a contaminant, pulls us back into postures of racism, sexism, nationalism, ethnocentrism and all the other us-versus-them views that continue to oppress others and plague our world. When disgust enters the realm of relationship, something has gone terribly wrong.
What we need, then, is to engage in what James K. A. Smith might want to call “liturgies” of eucontamination: practices that remind and recenter us in the reality of our own eucontamination and of our status, in Christ, as eucontaminants.19 The Eucharist is naturally one of the strongest of these liturgies, and when taking it, Christians are well advised to contemplate the ways in which it ought to be but isn’t—namely, that it ought to be disgusting. Moreover, in welcoming and engaging with outsiders with opposing views and in other uncomfortable situations, we can participate in moments where we are confronted with our own disgust reaction. This is often something that we strive to hide away and ignore about ourselves, but in quieting our mind and paying attention to our reactions, we can recognize our sense of disgust and allow for a moment of transformation. The goal of these liturgies is for us to learn to keep our physical disgust reactions moderated and beneficial (e.g., social distancing and hand washing, etc.) while allowing the eucontamination of the Spirit to invert the disgust response in our spiritual, moral, and relational lives. Disgust can be helpful in knowing what to eat, but it has no place in deciding with whom to eat.
Just as Peter was told to “kill and eat”—a disgusting notion for Jews in that day—and in so doing was shown how gentiles were invited in to the kingdom of God, so too are modern-day followers of Christ called to rethink their notions of purity and ask what is fragile in our situation. This creates the space for each of us to begin to acknowledge the split-off aspects of ourselves and our communities. Growing, maturing, and healing are all acts of accepting and transforming as opposed to dissecting and removing.
This reframing of purity metaphors obviously has profound implications for many aspects of a person’s life, but perhaps most notably in the arena of sexuality and shame. Recent works have focused extensively on the damage that “purity culture” in evangelical circles has caused those raised in the midst of “true love waits” and other abstinence programs.20 However, by reexamining the way that purity is understood, sexuality and shame are able to be restructured. Where there was once a case of a fragile, virgin body (typically female) needing protection from being made unclean through dress, words, and behavior, there now stands a person valued and loved by their Creator, a person whose worth is not affected by the experiences of their body. Instead, the love for that person and value of their being is what has the power to transform and heal whatever shame and pain they experience from abuse, rejection, or scorn. A person’s value is robust and not fragile; it is a eucontaminant.
We can also stop playing in the fragile fantasy of who we think we ought to be and start living in the robust reality of who we are (see Rev. 2:17). We can face and not minimize or deny the historic atrocities of racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia, and transphobia that are a part of our stories and our communities. We can begin to acknowledge the pain that we have endured at the hands of those we have loved and trusted. We can begin to acknowledge the pain and trauma that we have caused through our refusal to see the pain of others, our participation in unjust systems, and our intentional oppression of others. We can look ourselves and each other in the eyes, moving toward conciliation instead of hiding in the shame and fear of being found out.21
With the fear of contamination taken off the table, we are suddenly immune from the shame that stands in the way of embracing more. We are free to allow more of ourselves to be seen by the other. In our institutions and churches, we can be more open to allowing more in—more of who we really are and more of who our neighbors really are. The church community can be the safest place on earth. We can put down our masks—even as we keep our facial coverings on—and find our true faces (2 Cor. 3:17–18), as that which is the most precious is also the most contagious and most powerful. Sin is trapped in the world with us.
This way of viewing what Christ was doing begins to transform all of the various purity metaphors that have come to dominate mainstream evangelicalism. The shame of sexual purity culture can be transformed as we stop seeing someone’s value as a vulnerable, fragile, physical part of their body and experience and start viewing it as a powerful, healing force. Sanctification, then, becomes less about all of the things that one is or is not doing and more about integrating and accepting all the disparate, dissociated, and discarded aspects of oneself.
Followers of Christ need not fear the world. We infect it. We are the dog poop.
Paul R. Hoard
Paul R. Hoard is a professional counselor, clinical supervisor, and assistant professor in the Department of Counselor Education at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kansas. He has published and spoken internationally on topics related to problematic sexual behavior, adolescent mental health, perpetration-induced traumatic stress, and sexual trauma. He has taught, lived, and provided mental health counseling in the United States and abroad.
William (Bill) Hoard is a high school history teacher, author, and something of an Anabaptist radical. A consummate generalist, he holds an MA in liberal arts from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, and he writes on topics ranging from fairy tales and C. S. Lewis to theology and philosophy.