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Summer Reading Group: Purity, Moral Reasoning, Shame and Guilt


This is the third 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.

A few weeks ago I experienced a thunderstorm—a real treat for a mountain girl residing in the desert.  As I stood gazing at the dark clouds emitting by turn elephant-size rain drops and subtle rumbles of thunder, I couldn’t help thinking of how the storm’s resemblance to my life must be part of why it held me spellbound.  Peaking out behind the billowing, tumultuous-looking gray clouds were patches of bright blue sky—a reminder that even in the midst of the storm, the calm is never far away.  The downpour was over just as quickly as it had drenched the unsuspecting exercisers on the sidewalk.  Storms of life may come unexpectedly or at inconvenient times, but when we just keep walking, we inevitably emerge on the other side and we may even have been cleansed or renewed in the process. This is a rather loose example of our human tendency to understand abstract concepts in terms of the physical. But whether or not one sees symbolism easily in daily life, metaphor is part of the very fabric of our existence. Our language reveals this—“I’m feeling down today,” or “She is on top of it.”  George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in their seminal work Metaphors we Live By, explore this tendency and point out that metaphor influences not only our language, but our thoughts and actions as well.1

Richard Beck takes up this theme in chapters 3 and 4 of his book Unclean, exploring how purity metaphors play an integral, and sometimes even privileged, role in Christian descriptions of salvation and life as a disciple of Christ. Consider these well-known lyrics: “Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing power? Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?” Ironically, as Lakoff and Johnson point out, what may appear on the surface to function simply as vivid language to symbolize or illustrate a larger truth actually plays a formative role in shaping our thinking and acting. Beck explains the Levitical roots of purity/pollution and clean/unclean metaphors and points out that purity metaphors are indeed an effective way to capture the “malevolent invasive danger of sin” (37). As is true for most metaphors, however, purity metaphors are only helpful to a certain extent.2 If taken too far, there are serious implications, ranging from over-simplifying our understanding of salvation to inadvertently shutting ourselves off from the very people Jesus came to save.  

In exploring purity metaphors in the context of disgust psychology, Beck’s primary concern is how purity metaphors influence moral reasoning. Not only do people associate moral failings with physical dirtiness; they also tend to feel a sense of moral superiority if they are physically clean.3 These trends are true across religious boundaries, revealing a human tendency as pervasive as our use of metaphor.  This causal link between physical cleaning and moral purity has been termed the Macbeth Effect, based on Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth who attempted to get rid of her guilt by washing her hands.  When we are disgusted by something, we want to purify ourselves.  But issues arise when we act on our disgust reactions without carefully thinking through the implications of what we are doing and upon what our understanding of a situation is truly based (our hermeneutic).  

When put this way—that moral purity can be achieved through physical washing—our initial reaction may be to assert the absurdity of this notion.  But it nevertheless has a certain appeal and there are a number of ways this reasoning finds its way into how we see ourselves.  One of the ways protection from contagions is put into place is through quarantine.  This makes sense when dealing with infectious diseases.  But the concept is problematic when applied to maintaining moral purity—i.e., if I avoid contact with possible contaminants (people who think differently than me, people who are committing outright sins, etc.), it will be easier for me to remain pure.  This builds upon the “negativity dominance” rule of impurity (one drop of urine in a pot of soup, renders the entire pot unclean), which is certainly widely applicable.  But when seeking to live as disciples of Christ, its applicability should not be assumed.  In contrast to the religious people of his day, Jesus operated within a “positivity dominant” framework.  Rather than being contaminated by contact with the “unclean,” Jesus functioned as the drop of bleach in the water, so-to-speak, offering cleansing without fear of contracting impurity.  If we are infilled (“Christ in me, the hope of glory” Col. 1:27; “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” Gal. 2:20) we cannot settle for a life lived in fear of contamination.  Safety and certainty provided by hard and fast lines between pure and impure may be appealing, but Jesus calls us to step out of the safety of the boat into the water—even if it’s a bit mirky.    

Jesus also confronted the prioritization of the physical when making judgments of purity, arguing that “what goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them” (Matthew 15:11).  This difference in focus highlights another one of the implications of taking the purity metaphor too far. We sing, “There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel’s veins, and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.” And without realizing it, we can settle into a state of moral laxity. After all, if all my guilty stains are gone, I’m pretty much set…as long as I do my best to protect myself from contaminants. But this thinking is catastrophic in the dynamic process of growth in Christlikeness. If there is not a self-centered or non-Christlike thought in my head this moment, I will only have to wait a moment or two for one to appear. And if I am looking to Jesus as my model, I can grow for all eternity (in love and in sensitivity to the Spirit) without arriving.  

The use of purity metaphors in moral reasoning also impacts how we see other people, as well as how difficult it can be to understand where people with different beliefs regarding what is right are coming from.  Beyond the connotations of negativity dominance, where a little impurity goes a long way, there is also a connotation of permanence inherent in viewing sin as an impurity that needs to be washed away. The problem here is that our application of this permanence (once the pot is contaminated, it is never made edible again) is often applied unevenly in our assessment of morality. For instance, many sins are considered simply as a “fall” from which one can “get back up.” But sexual sins are often categorized as a purity violation. One of the implications of this association is that rehabilitation does not simply involve getting back up.  There is often a certain permanence associated with this kind of “fall.” And while we say with our mouths that all sins are equal before God, this selective application of purity metaphors in our understanding of certain sins inevitably impacts how we think of, treat, and talk about people who have not conformed to our understanding of purity.  

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with employing purity metaphors as one way to illustrate facets of salvation or sexuality. The issue is that the metaphor, which represents only one slice of the pie, may come to be viewed as the whole picture.  In this oversimplification, we risk missing out on the complex and nuanced nature of God and His interactions with His people. For instance, it is true that we stand as sinners unclean before God and that we do need to be washed clean by the blood of the Lamb. But as Beck points out, over-emphasis on this one aspect of salvation can cause us to ignore the “communal, cosmic and developmental facets of salvation” (41). In the same way, purity metaphors are useful to an extent in discussions of sexuality, and because of the strong connotations of permanence and non-rehabilitation the metaphor can be an effective way to motivate appropriate behavior. But over-application of the metaphor is problematic in that it skews the reality that our sexuality represents only one part of who we are.  If we believe a miss-step in the sexuality arena can render us permanently damaged and less able to sense the nudges of the Spirit, we may either throw in the towel completely or be overwhelmed with shame to the point of being unable to continue to grow in Christ or thrive within our community.  

One area of the discussion that could be expanded upon is the differences between guilt and shame and how these play out in our selective application of purity metaphors. Brene Brown, known for her research on shame and vulnerability, points out that guilt and shame are significantly different.4 Guilt is about behavior; shame is about our identity. Ironically, Brown points out that they are both equally powerful, but that guilt tends to be constructive, while shame tends to be destructive. In other words, when we feel guilty (i.e., we recognize something we have done or failed to do does not match with who we want to be) we are motivated to act—make a change, apologize, etc. When we feel shame, we feel that who we are is simply not enough. And feeling shame (“I am bad” vs. “I did something bad”) actually eats away at our dignity and the strength we need to believe we can change and do better. Recognizing these differences is essential in wisely determining when purity metaphors are useful and when they are not, since the very physicality of purity metaphors makes them potentially dangerous in the level of shame they can ignite in a human heart.  

The two most important points I believe we can take away from Beck’s insightful reflections on purity metaphors and morality, or our “divinity ethic,” are 1) we would do well to be mindful of how the metaphor impacts our understanding of sin and salvation, and to “stop while we’re ahead” in our acceptance of the various implications; and 2) understanding how purity metaphors are applied differently by different people is a ticket to being aware of when we are “talking past one another,” or, as Beck puts it, “dumbfounded” by each other’s interpretations and beliefs. Jesus said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” and He pointed out in His references to “white-washed tombs” the danger of shallow purity when our very being is in continual need of grace and transformation. May we be “positivity dominant” as we live as conduits of God’s grace each day in our communities!



1. They explain that while many people relegate metaphor to poetic imagination or linguistic analysis, it actually plays out in our lives much more broadly.  “We have found…that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action.  Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.”  Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 3. 

2. In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor points out the inherent limits of a given metaphor in the context of another common metaphor—light and dark, taken in many Christian contexts to be synonymous with Good and Evil or God’s presence and the presence of the adversary.  She notes: “At the theological level, however, this language creates all sorts of problems.  It divides every day in two, pitting the light part against the dark part.  It tucks all the sinister stuff into the dark part, identifying God with the sunny part and leaving you to deal with the rest on your own time.  It implies things about dark-skinned people and sight-impaired people that are not true.  Worst of all, it offers people of faith a giant closet in which they can store everything that threatens or frightens them without thinking too much about those things.  It rewards them for their unconsciousness, offering spiritual justification for turning away from those things, for ‘God is light and in him there is no darkness at all’ (1 John 1:5).” 

3. Here Beck cites Chen-Bo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist, “Washing Away Your Sins: Threatened Morality and Physical Cleansing” (Science 313: 2006), 1451-52.

4. Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection (Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden, 2010), 72.


Jody Washburn is currently studying Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of California Los Angeles.  One of her research interests involves the anthropomorphic representations of God in the Hebrew Bible, and metaphors such as God “hiding his face,” or “making his face shine upon ___.”  Jody’s dissertation focuses on Hebrew cave inscriptions from ancient Israel.  


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