As promised, I’ve ordered and read Roland Muller’s Honor and Shame: Unlocking the Door.
Muller served many years as a missionary in Islamic countries, and so understands the honor culture of the Middle East very well indeed. Most importantly, he’s wrestled with how to present the gospel in a culture that doesn’t understand personal guilt.
In Romans, Paul famously presents the gospel in forensic (courtroom), guilt, and forgiveness terms. This has defined the gospel in the minds of the West ever since — because Roman culture was largely guilt-based.
But Jesus lived in an honor-based culture, and the Old Testament is written largely in honor-based terms to people with little sense of personal guilt. Of course, God himself fully understands personal guilt and sometimes speaks in those terms to his people, but most of the time, an honor-based reading of the text fits the best.
Of course, it’s all the same gospel, just presented in different terms from differing perspectives. Paul didn’t change the gospel, nor did Jesus. Both taught the same gospel, but expressed in language that was understandable to their very different audiences.
Hence, a missionary trained in the West will find an Islamic audience utterly incapable of understanding his lessons from Romans. They feel no guilt (personal guilt), only shame (community shame). They aren’t looking for forgiveness so much as honor. Promise them forgiveness, and they’ll wonder “what for?” Promise them honor, granted by God himself, and they’ll listen.
(Lev 26:13 NIV) I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high.
Why did God redeem Israel? To provide them with honor rather than shame. God did not redeem them from sin but from shame, and yet much of the New Testament speaks of Christianity in terms of the Exodus.
And so, Christ came to rescue his people from shame –
(1Pe 2:6 NIV) For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”
In parallel, Muller explains how God moves us from defiled/unclean to clean, metaphors for shame and honor.
(Heb 9:13-14 ESV) 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
We don’t think of ourselves as “defiled” in the West. We think the old clean/unclean distinctions are entirely gone. But in the East, to be shamed is to be defiled. To be purified from the defilement of shame would be a dream come true!
Just so, the Old Testament passages dealing with the shame of nakedness speak to the heart of the honor culture. Nakedness symbolizes shame. Adam and Eve were shamed by their nudity before God — a concept that seems very odd to a Westerner. I mean, God made us naked, and likely sees us naked all the time — right?
But Leviticus 18 lists several sexual sins, always in terms of “nakedness” (lost in some translations).
(Lev 18:6-7 ESV) 6 “None of you shall approach any one of his close relatives to uncover nakedness. I am the LORD. 7 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness. …
The New Testament, in contrast, speaks of Christians being clothed by God –
(2Co 5:2-4 ESV) 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked [shamed!]. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened — not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed [honored!], so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.
Just so, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the father places a robe on the returning son — to honor him.
Muller offers other similar parallels that speak to an honor culture –
* From expelled from God’s presence to visited by God
* From weakness to strength
* From sickness to being healed
All these themes speak to Westerners, to a degree, but they speak very loudly to the East. You won’t hear many evangelicals sermons on these themes, because there are other images that speak more clearly to us.
But for a missionary to an honor culture, these are themes that will speak to the heart of his audience. You see, it’s possible to be very biblical, very true to the gospel, and yet speak in terms that speak to an honor culture.
Rather than announcing that Jesus came to forgive your sins (which is true, of course), preach that Jesus came to take away your shame and give you the highest possible honor, honor that can only come from God.
It’s astonishing to me that so much of the Bible is written in terms that seem so utterly foreign to me. I’m still struggling with all this. But as I read from more and more missionaries who’ve lived in honor cultures and talked to the people there, the more I’m convinced that their observations are surely true.
It’s hard to imagine being raised to feel no guilt but only shame, that is, to have little concern for the innate rightness or wrongness of an act but only how that act might be perceived by others. I must say I feel no envy for those in an honor culture! I’d be miserable.
But even more miserable would be a Western missionary to an Islamic land, untrained in the ways of the East, trying to preach the gospel from his seminary class notes on Romans!
In short, it’s a great book — even an essential book for anyone speaking about the gospel to someone from an honor culture. It explains why we so often utterly fail to be effective — we speak in the wrong categories to people utterly unprepared to hear what we so urgently wish to say.
[Tomorrow: Re-interpreting Acts 2 in light of honor culture. Yep: the Acts 2 that contains Acts 2:38. That one.]