The Bible is loaded with honor and shame. This makes sense since the societies of the Ancient Near East had honor and shame as their pivotal cultural value.
So understanding honor and shame in the Bible is vitally important because 1) it helps us to properly interpret the Bible, and 2) it helps us understand and relate to our multicultural world. This issue is magnified when we realize that the vast majority of the world’s unreached peoples are from honor/shame cultures.
But we in the West can hardly recognize the honor/shame dynamics in Scripture—even though there are more than twice as many references in the Bible to the word shame and its derivatives than the word guilt and its derivatives (see graph at right).
Why this blind spot? John Forrester writes as a pastor:
We Western pastors have a blind spot. In a word, that blind spot is shame. We don’t learn about shame in seminary. We don’t find it in our theological reading. We don’t recognize it on the pages of Scripture. We don’t see it in our people. Shame is just not part of our pastoral perspective.
Why do so many pastors have this blind spot? Because shame has not been a subject of theological inquiry.
One way to examine the degree of theological importance of a particular word is by looking at theological dictionaries. I went to Phoenix Seminary and did a little research at the library. My question was simple: In the available theological dictionaries, is there an entry for guilt and also an entry for shame?
Here’s what I found. The dictionaries are listed in order of the year they were published.
This survey shows that it was 1996 when shame appeared as an entry in Elwell’s redo of his 1984 version. Interestingly, neither of the dictionaries published in 2000 had an entry for shame. The massive Global Dictionary of Theology by Dyrness and Kärkkäinen has an extensive entry for shame. But (sadly) the vast majority of Western pastors would not likely use a theological dictionary with a global scope.
What can we do to remove this blind spot in Western theology? Five suggestions:
1. Look for honor/shame as you read the Bible. You must read the Bible extensively in order to see how pervasive is honor and shame in the Bible. Regular reading of Scripture is essential. I started on my own journey of understanding honor/shame in the Bible by simply underlining and highlighting words and verses that included words or dynamics about honor and shame. You, too, can be on this learning journey, whenever you read your Bible.
2. Check out my free resources. You’ll find a variety of free stuff in various media: Gospel booklets, video, PowerPoint, articles, and even a skit—all focused on honor/shame dynamics and how it relates to cross-cultural ministry.
3. Subscribe to blogs about honor/shame written by evangelical mission leaders. In addition to my site, I especially recommend these two:
These sites have a wonderful growing array of free resources.
4. Read my book, THE GLOBAL GOSPEL: Achieving Missional Impact in Our Multicultural World. I break down nine honor/shame dynamics in the Bible societies—and one motif—and show how these dynamics overlap with verses about the gospel, the atonement of Christ, and salvation. This book attempts a comprehensive understanding of honor/shame in the Bible and what it means for the world Christian movement. It is a book for educators, thought leaders, trainers and key leaders. It is not an easy read, but if you take it slow, it might transform how you read the Bible, how you preach and teach, how you communicate the gospel, and how you collaborate with others in the global church.
5. Check out the Jan/Feb issue of Mission Frontiers magazine. The magazine is devoted to the subject of honor and shame and features a variety of authors and perspectives.
If we want our gospel message to better resonate with honor/shame peoples—so many of whom remain resistant to Christianity and remain unreached—we MUST contextualize that glorious message in the language of honor and shame.
1. Diagram adapted from “Figure 1.05: Words in the Bible derived from ‘guilt’—versus ‘shame’”, The Global Gospel, p. 47. Original research by Bruce Nicholls, “The Role of Shame and Guilt in a Theology of Cross-Cultural Mission,” Evangelical Review of Theology 25, no. 3, (2001): 232; as quoted by Timothy C. Tennent in Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think About and Discuss Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 92–93.
2. John A. Forrester, Grace for Shame: The Forgotten Gospel (Toronto: Pastor’s Attic Press, 2010), 9.
3. This chart is taken from my book, The Global Gospel, p. 46: “Figure 1.04: Entries for “guilt” and “shame” in theological dictionaries”.
Parts of this blog post were excerpted from THE GLOBAL GOSPEL: Achieving Missional Impact in Our Multicultural World.