Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes

Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes February 23, 2020

Jackson Wu
Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes: Honor and Shame in Paul’s Message and Mission.
Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.
Available at Koorong.

By Edwin Chow

Jackson W. (Wu) is a teacher of theology and missiology in a seminary in Asia. He is not actually of Chinese descent but an American who has two decades of experience working in East Asia. He uses this pseudonym for security reasons and in order to connect with people in his context. Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes aims to help people from a Western cultural background read Romans through an Eastern cultural lens. Wu believes that our understanding of the bible is inevitably coloured by our cultural context. In this book, Wu shows how adopting an Eastern cultural lens uncovers details in the text that would otherwise be missed from a Western reading.

Wu focuses on honour-shame as a point of contact between Eastern and biblical cultures. Honour (or “face”) is defined as “one’s perceived worth according to agreed standards of a particular social context.” Honour-shame cultures have three main distinctives. Firstly, they emphasise tradition. They prefer harmony, conformity to group standards, and prioritise blood line relationships. Secondly, they emphasise relationships. Honour-shame cultures are collectivist cultures. The group matters more than the individual, loyalty and reciprocity are obligated, and identity and honour is shared among group members. Thirdly, they emphasise hierarchy. Authority is not viewed negatively.

Instead, there is a desire for good leaders who can win honour and share it with the group. This usually is expressed in patriarchal authority, ethnocentrism and patronage. Honour-shame and Romans Wu suggests that Paul’s main purpose of Romans can be uncovered by viewing his writing through an honour-shame lens. Most Eastern cultures are ‘high-context’, where communication is not purely explicit but also involves implicit cues. Based on this understanding of communication in Roman culture, Wu believes that Paul also uses indirect or implicit communication. Therefore, it is necessary to read between the lines in order to understand Paul’s purpose. Wu uses this idea of indirect communication to harmonise the multiple purposes found in Romans. One purpose is Paul’s missionary purpose, found in the letter frame, which describes Paul’s desire for the support of the Roman church for his missionary work in Spain. Another purpose is Paul’s pastoral purpose, found in the letter body, which addresses the local concerns of division within the Roman church. By viewing Paul’s theological arguments in the letter body as indirect communication, Wu places the pastoral purpose under Paul’s missionary purpose.

According to Wu, Paul realises that social divisions would have undermined Rome’s ability to assist Paul in his journey to Spain. However, Paul’s concern was not just Jewish ethnic pride, but also Roman ethnic pride. Roman Christians prided themselves of being Greek (ἑλλην), and this had the potential to be an obstacle for the support in reaching the ‘barbarians’ of Spain. Paul implicitly addresses this pride by showing how God is against Jewish (and therefore Roman) ethno-centrism. He also reminds the Romans that they are “mere Gentiles” (ἐθνη) within God’s salvation plan. Paul uses this implicitly critique within the letter body to establish support for his missionary work to Spain.

Wu argues that the key honour-shame word in Romans is glory. A theme found throughout Romans is the glory of God, which refers to God’s status or honour as king. Humanity’s glory is restored through Christ, who unites us to the glory of God by conforming us to be in his image (Rom 8:29-30), restoring our status as children and coheirs with Christ. Wu turns to Romans 5-8 to unpack what humanity’s hope of glory entails. Wu defines this as the “glory from God given at believers’ resurrection.” Because of sin, people had given up God’s immortal glory (1:23). By turning away from God as their source of glory, they also had forsaken their own glory, receiving death in the process. God restores this glory by “freeing us from the shame of slavery to death” and granting us immortality (8:11). In Romans 8, Paul appeals to God’s love, the Spirit, and the new status as means for
persevering in order to receive the hope of glory. Wu uses the idea of boasting to distinguish whether one receives God’s glory. It is those who boast (or rejoice) in the glory of God, even in the midst of suffering, who receive glory (5:2). On the other hand, those who boast in human glory and praise cannot please God (8:8) and will not receive glory (8:17). This glory is given to us by the Spirit and involves both resurrection and adoption (8:16). It also involves a subjective transformation of the heart. This transforms the standard of honour; Christians now seek to honour God with how they live (8:4-9). Wu states “God’s people are now willing to “lose face” in order to give God “face.” ”

Paul links the ideas of glory with suffering. Firstly, God uses shame for glory. Secondly, God regards shame as glory. This is most evident in the crucifixion. The cross is considered shameful by the world, but God uses it to display his glory. Consequently, what
was shameful by the world is now considered glorious. Through Christ’s example, God transforms how Christians view honour-shame; God’s people are now honoured through their suffering and shame. Suffering is necessary as a way to express our loyalty to Christ and will be vindicated by God (8:17). Wu suggest that this has implications for how we live now. Firstly, we have a new
identity as children and co-heirs with Christ (8:17). This new identity changes where we look to for honour; we need to seek honour from God rather than the world. According to Paul, where we source our honour is a matter of life and death (8:13). This also shapes how we communicate the gospel. An honour-shame framework might focus on resurrection as freedom from the shame of sin and a new allegiance to Christ as king. While Western gospel presentations focus on what we are saved from, Romans 5-8 describes the outcome of salvation in the here and now. Believers are now part of a new family, with the power of the

Spirit to honour God their Father.

While there are risks involved with imposing cultural readings on biblical texts, Wu’s conclusions offer a unique perspective on Romans that may address some missing pieces in Western theology. Wu’s book offers useful reflections not only on discipleship but also on mission and evangelism in honour-shame contexts.

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