Honor-Shame Cuture: Introduction (Jackson Wu)

Honor-Shame Cuture: Introduction (Jackson Wu) February 17, 2015

Jackson Wu:

At the link you can read the full article and be introduced to Jackson Wu’s forthcoming book.

As various scholars have observed, honor/shame (H/S) is “the pivotal cultural value” of the Bible.1 Figure 1 lists a variety of words in Scripture related to H/S. With just a glance, we see that H/S lies beneath the surface of countless biblical passages, relating directly to reputation, respect for authority, group identity, and the gospel itself. And yet the biblical presence and significance of H/S is widely overlooked in the Western theology embraced around the world. This essay seeks to explain why this blindspot exists.

It is not sufficient simply to write off ignorance of H/S in the Bible to “cultural differences” in general. We need to understand the reasons for this oversight. And in removing this blindspot, we will better grasp both the Bible and how it addresses the needs of the people we serve. In what follows, we distinguish culture, theology, and biblical truth to give perspective on why this blindspot exists. We then identify fears that make people reluctant to treat H/S with the same seriousness as the parallel biblical framework of Innocence/Guilt. Finally, we consider the consequences of this H/S blind to the Bible’s teaching on honor-shame? What happens when we maintain a superficial view of H/S? …

Here are four consequences of our H/S blindspot, which I’ll address further in my forthcoming book, due out in January.12

First, anxieties about H/S may lead missionaries into practices that are counter-productive for long-term fruitfulness in H/S contexts. For example, people in traditional H/S cultures have a high respect for authority and tradition. We may confuse mere conformity to a teacher’s request with obedience resulting from a changed heart. Missionaries can also easily forget that many non- Westerners will pray a “prayer of salvation” simply to preserve friendships and save “face.”

Second, if we neglect to give attention to H/S, we are less likely to see worldview transformation. After all, H/S is a holistic concept, concerning every aspect of a person’s life. One’s identity transcends legal metaphors. The gospel transforms how we see God, ourselves, and others. It reshapes how we understand authority, reputation, and every human relationship.

Third, by overlooking the importance of H/S, missionaries unintentionally foster “theological syncretism.” We may be content with doctrines that our denomination, organization or church affirms but that may not reflect the emphasis of the original authors in their context. Yet, emphasis too is an integral part of the biblical authors’ meaning. Christians can easily “compromise the gospel by settling for truth.”13 Rather than elevating specific truths beyond their biblical emphasis, we must seek to understand the truths of God’s Word in balance with one another and not settle for pulling truths out of their context.

Without H/S, one’s theology can become abstract and less integrated. We can overemphasize systematic theology at the expense of biblical theology and exegesis. When this happens, Christian theology devolves into mere philosophy and we miss the grand narrative of scripture.

Finally, missionaries risk the danger of “judaizing” their listeners. That is, if missionaries do not remove this H/S blindspot from their own thinking, they will unconsciously present the gospel in a way that requires listeners to think like Westerners (e.g. as individualists who emphasize law) before they can understand the message and believe the gospel. Sadly, such new believers become functionally “Western” Christians even though they may culturally be African, Indian, Chinese, or Thai.

May God’s Word be a lamp unto our feet, exposing the blindspots that encumber gospel ministry.

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  • JL Schafer

    This is great. But I am a rare bird: a westerner who was evangelized and discipled by eastern missionaries who (from my perspective) had the opposite blindspot; they were so mired in H/S thinking that the judaizing influences flowed in the opposite direction, from east to west. I would love to hear what Jackson would say to those missionaries and to me. I realize that this is off topic and don’t wish to hijack the discussion. But if anyone is interested in the reverse-flow mission problem, you can take a look at this recent book by an acquaintance of mine, Rebecca Kim, a sociologist at Pepperdine:. http://www.amazon.com/The-Spirit-Moves-West-Missionaries/dp/0199942129#customerReviews

  • Nate Sparks

    Even for Westerners ministering in a Western context, the importance of recognizing this blindspot is huge, especially when you get to the latter two points. When I read: “Christians can easily ‘compromise the gospel by settling for truth.'” it immediately took me back to my formative years growing up fundamentalist and being educated in private Christian schools. It was a difficult process going from finding “truths” in Scripture to learning to find God through it by careful exegetical/theological study.

  • JL Shafer–– As you’ll see in my forthcoming book (in April), I would suggest two things (whether for you or anyone else).

    First, become well acquainted with biblical theology, not just systematic theology. This will instill a more biblical grounded balance when drawing from the grand biblical narrative, whereas people normally isolate select emphases according to their cultural background or denomination.

    Second, continue to learn about other cultures. As we become more familiar with cultures around the world (not to mention in history), we will have a broader lens to both see biblical themes that actually exist in the text and thus communicate ideas in a way that is culturally meaningful.

    I think grasping how covenants worked is a great way to internalize how law works in conjunction with a more relational, honor-shame perspective.

  • Alastair J Roberts

    Is this really a Western/non-Western thing? Or does it owe something to inattention to the differences between European cultural blocs. Much of the prominence of honour and shame as cultural values seems to have arisen from anthropological research on Mediterranean societies, societies which are often Western and European. We shouldn’t just equate ‘Western’ with North European/North American (which we are particularly at risk of doing as Protestants).

  • Alastair, great observation. It’s one I’ve been preaching for a while. All cultures are “honor-shame” cultures in some way. The issue is simply whether one realizes it. People acknowledge H/S in the East while overlooking it and its impact in the West.