Five Simple Ways to Explain Honor and Shame

Five Simple Ways to Explain Honor and Shame December 10, 2014

How do we explain honor and shame to others in a simple, conversational way?

Credit: Michael Mandiberg/flickr
Credit: Michael Mandiberg/flickr

In the previous post, I highlighted a handful of ways that people misunderstand honor and shame. Today, I will suggest a few simple ideas to make your conversations about honor/shame go a bit more smooth.

I especially have in mind Western Christians, though much could be applied to others as well.

1. Simplify Your Language

Try to use as much day-to-day language as possible. Although the meaning of common phrases and idiom may not be exact, it will help people get the sense of your idea. So, among Westerners, we might choose to talk about “people pleasing” or getting people to “like” you.

Similarly, college and professional sports provide excellent illustrations of collective honor/shame. For example, people everyday wear the clothing of their favorite team and talk about how “we” won (or lost) a recent game.

Credit: CC 2.0/commons.wikimedia

Movie stars demonstrate one might be “famous” but not necessarily have character. Thus, they may have one form of (superficial) honor but not another kind based on moral behavior.

Of course, it’s always ideal to say things simply. However, that’s not always realistic. At times, you may need to use more anthropological terms to capture your broader meaning and help people connect diverse themes.

2. Start with familiar books

Sooner or later, you will want to take people to the Bible. Honor and shame are everywhere. Since you have a lot of places to choose from, I suggest quoting more familiar books and passages. Rather that quoting one of the minor prophets, show them Romans.

This was a big reason I focus on Romans in my book Saving God’s Face.

On the one hand, it will get people’s attention since they may have read some passages “a hundred times” but never noticed the presence of honor/shame. On the other hand, I figured that if I can show that Romans is an honor/shame book (despite its legal reputation), then I take away the biggest book that someone might try to use against me in conversation.

3. Start with familiar doctrines

Likewise, begin with big topics that others are comfortable discussing. Many Christians will not have a developed opinion on covenantal theology, spiritual gifts or certain ideas about eschatology. However, nearly everyone has given thought to other subjects like sin.

In a previous post about the “Romans 23 principle,” I show how Rom 1:23, 2:23, and 3:23 all explain unrighteousness and sin in terms of honor/glory/dishonor/shame.

In case it helps you, check out You will find a Theology Guide for Guilt, Shame, and Fear cultures. (My Chinese translation of it can be found HERE.)

4. Show the variety of metaphors in the Bible

It is not too difficult to prove that the biblical writers use the variety of metaphors to describe key topics such as salvation. By the way, even that term itself is a metaphor. People will readily agree that salvation is explained via redemption, adoption, new birth, justification, atonement, election, glorification, freedom, new life, resurrection, sight (not blindness) and others.

The point is simply this: point out the fact that the Bible not only uses a range of metaphors; furthermore, they serve diverse purposes. We should be wary of privileging any one metaphor at the expense of others without clear exegetical (interpretive) reasons.

Humility demands we and others be open to consider God’s purpose for including honor/shame, despite the fact that Western Christianity historically emphasizes legal language.

5. Show Related Themes and Terms

Let people know that honor/shame exist even in places where those two terms never actually appear. In particular, explain that an “honor-shame cultures” have a number of common characteristics.

For example, those who emphasize honor & shame will have a more collectivistic perspective. Their sense of identity will derive more from their group than from their individual distinctives. Thus, honor-shame cultures are traditionally concerned with boundary markers that distinguish insiders from outsiders.

Credit: geralt via pixaby

Naturally, people will give greater respect to external authorities than will those who rely more on individual conscience to enforce adherence to universally applicable laws.

In addition, other terms are related to honor-shame, such as glory, someone’s “name,” disgrace, humiliated, boasting, praise, blaspheme, among others. Anytime we talk about glorifying God, we are at the same time talking about honoring God.

What Else?

We need to keep in mind that honor/shame concerns worldview. People normally will not quickly grasp the magnitude and significance of the topic.

In some respect, explaining honor-shame is like talking about grammar…yes, grammar.

Why? Every English-speaking 5-year-old already grasp the main points of English grammar. This is because he or she uses it everyday! Of course, young kids don’t know that they intuitively learned grammar by virtue of their life experience.

In the same way, honor/shame are human concepts. We intuitively “get” their meaning even if we can’t articulate them as clearly as we might want. Yet, by making this knowledge explicit, we can make better use of it.

In the next blog post, I’ll offer suggestions for using the Bible to introduce people to honor/shame as theological concepts.

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