(Mis)understanding Honor, Shame, or Face? (Part 1)

(Mis)understanding Honor, Shame, or Face? (Part 1) November 9, 2012

I quickly found out when writing my dissertation that Westerners have very little grasp for concepts like honor, shame, and face. Today, I begin to address this problem. Future posts will hopefully shed a little better light in the matter.

Westerner really don’t “get” honor and shame. This is really unfortunate for multiple reasons.

1. These are human ideas, not merely eastern or medieval notions.

2. The Bible is saturated with honor-shame language. To understand so much of Scripture, one has to get a hold of what these words mean.

3. Cross-cultural ministry will not only be hindered but even harmed by overlooking the central role of honor-shame in cultures around the world.

ShameHere are three half right (and half wrong) impressions common among the Westerners I’ve read or spoken to.

  • “Honor” is just something related to medieval knights or else the thing that causes suicide bombers.
  • Shame is a serous psychological problem to be gotten rid of.
  • “Face” is an Asian thing that basically boils down to sinful pride.

I kid you not. These are quite typical generalizations that people make.

In future posts, I’ll try to succinct unpack these ideas.

I’m curious to hear what you think? Agree? Disagree? Would you add anything?

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  • I’ll be interested to see where you go with this. I just signed up for email subscription.

    The Westerners in question who have the mis-impressions, I assume you are primarily talking non-missionaries, right? Though I must admit that even as a missionary, I am still thinking through how all those issues relate biblically, as I believe that there are both biblical appropriate and sinful expressions of each. A concern for “face” can be sinful pride, but it can also be simply not wanting to embarass yourself, or those whom you respect.

    • Unfortunately, I refer to missionaries as much as non-missionaries. In the past few years, I have found my self in rooms full of experienced and intelligent missionaries who couldn’t shape these narrower ways of conceiving of H/S/face. As a result, they see H/S as a relatively minor motif in Scripture and have not practical idea how the dynamic of face should affect their mission strategies, gospel presentations, and theology more generally. I’ll leave it at that for now. I will unpackage “definitions” in later posts.

  • Stephanie

    would be interested to know whether you have ever read shushaku (sp?) endo’s book called silence. its a fiction/postmodern/japanese book whose central question is what would martyrdom look like to a person who is from an honor/shame culture. its been a while since I read it, but since you have a bit more mind space now, might be an interesting read.

    • Unfortunately, no I haven’t read it yet. I would like to. There is so much good stuff out there. My reading focus mainly has been on Chinese culture and ancient biblical cultures. It is on my radar. Thanks. I’m open to any other book recommendations you might have as well.

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