We’re considering Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien — an excellent book. For additional reading on the subject, here’s an excellent article by a native of China explaining shame culture and how it affects his reading of the Bible. (It’s just so very foreign to how we Americans think!) I also came across an excellent essay by Steve Tibbert on guilt, shame, and fear cultures and how the gospel should be presented in each type of culture. It’s well worth taking the time to read. We’ve not considered fear cultures up to this point. These are typically relatively primitive cultures in which behavior is governed by fear of gods and spirits who may not have your best interests at heart at all. Of course, those in guilt or shame based cultures have to deal with fear, but in those cultures, it’s mainly fear of punishment by the authorities or fear of feeling guilty or fear of ostracism. In a fear-based culture, doing the wrong thing would be perceived as leading to disease or other punishment brought on by an angry deity. Western missionaries often have great success in fear-based cultures because the story of a loving God who sends his Son to redeem his children speaks directly into their fears. However, an honor-based culture often struggles mightily to accept Jesus. Not only does the collectivist mindset make it very difficult for a single person to come to faith, but faith in Jesus can be perceived as shaming the family by declaring them wrong — going back for generations. To accuse one’s parents and grandparents and great-grandparents of having worshipped in error could be perceived as dishonoring them — and dishonor is often dealt with by an honor killing of the new convert. It’s a difficult culture for missionaries, indeed. On the other hand, the Jewish people were part of an honor culture during biblical times, and so God and his prophets often spoke to them in terms of honor. This can be very confusing to Western readers of the text. Thus, an Easterner sees the Exodus as being about God lifting the Israelites from shame to honor. It’s understood in shame cultures that only a superior can lift someone to higher status. Israel could not gain honor by itself. It needed a greater person — God — to lift it from slavery to freedom, from dishonor to honor. Just so, on the cross, Jesus as seen as bearing not only our sins but our shame. By bringing us into God’s family, we are given greater honor by God.
(Rom 10:11 ESV) 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.”
Or recall this familiar lesson —
(Luk 14:7-11 ESV) 7 Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, 9 and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. 11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The lesson doesn’t really speak to the Western mind. Who’s been to a party where seats were arranged based on honor? We just don’t think in those terms (except at some political events, where closeness to the President, for example, symbolizes influence and power, that is, honor. But you aren’t surprised to learn that American politics tends more toward an honor culture than a guilt culture. It is, after all, very often about not getting caught). In an honor culture, it’s important not to shame a guest at your party. Therefore, you must bestow honor based on each person’s place in society. Jesus tells his disciples to reject pride and not claim a high station. Pick the lowest seat and make no demands. If your host elevates you, say “thank you,” but accept the lowest seat if that’s the result. Don’t demand honor at the expense of others. Or consider Moses’ intercession with God when he wanted to destroy the Israelites and start a new nation from the descendants of Moses —
(Exo 32:11-12 ESV) 11 But Moses implored the LORD his God and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people.”
Moses argues that God would be shamed in the eyes of the Egyptians if he were to give up on Israel. Why should God care about the feelings of the Egyptians? Well, he probably didn’t, but in Moses’ eyes, God’s reputation must not be dishonored. To Moses, this was a very powerful argument. (Moses next argues based on God’s promises to Abraham and the other patriarchs — which I suspect was the better argument in God’s eyes.) David speaks to God in similar terms in the Psalms —
(Psa 79:9-10 ESV) 9 Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and atone for our sins, for your name’s sake! 10 Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants be known among the nations before our eyes!
The psalmist is begging God to intervene to preserve his reputation among the nations. It’s a plea to God to act to preserve his honor. Notice that God’s honor is spoken of in terms of “his name’s sake.” Language about God’s name is typically honor-culture language. Just so, David pleads with God to preserve his personal honor —
(Psa 4:1-2 ESV) Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have given me relief when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer! 2 O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame? How long will you love vain words and seek after lies? Selah
Consider this passage from Isaiah —
(Isa 52:5-6 ESV) 5 Now therefore what have I here,” declares the LORD, “seeing that my people are taken away for nothing? Their rulers wail,” declares the LORD, “and continually all the day my name is despised. 6 Therefore my people shall know my name. Therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here I am.”
God declares himself unhappy that “my name is despised.” He’ll take actions to make sure that “my people shall know my name.” He will cause his people to no longer shame him by forgetting his name. He’ll make certain that they “know my name.” God is speaking to Israel in honor-culture terms because this is their language. It’s what they understand. He’s not accusing them of being guilty by sinning against Torah. He’s accusing them of shaming him by forgetting to honor him. The passage continues —
(Isa 52:7-10 ESV) 7 How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” 8 The voice of your watchmen — they lift up their voice; together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see the return of the LORD to Zion. 9 Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem. 10 The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
This is, of course, a famous gospel passage. The good news is “Your God reigns.” God has returned to Zion (a mountain on which Jerusalem sits). The result will be God’s honor before the nations. God presents the gospel, through Isaiah, in terms of how others will react to his actions. It’s not that God is all that worried about what the other nations think. Rather, God knows that Israel wants honor, and it will receive honor when God is shown to reign over the world, even over the nations. This will bring honor to God by elevating him to the heights of heaven in the eyes of mankind, and so it will bring honor to Israel because God is Israel’s God. Thus, when the scriptures promise “glory and honor,” the text is speaking in honor-culture terms. Just as we guilty-culture Christians seek forgiveness, our honor-culture brothers and sisters seek honor. God promises both — but both come only on God’s terms.