The Problem of “Grace” in English Bibles

All Bible translations face a problem—the cultural gap between the Bible and contemporary readers. English words evoke Western assumptions and values that are unlike those of biblical writers.

The word “grace” (Greek: charis) is a good example of this problem of cross-cultural interpretation. To understand “grace,” we must understand patronage, but even that can be difficult for Westerners because of cultural reasons.

Patronage

In biblical times, patronage was a dominant social-economic system for managing relationships and resources. The cultural assumptions of patron-client relationships pervade NT texts. But, the English language fails to evoke those nuances of patronage in the Bible. The reason is because patron-client relationships are hardly present in the English-speaking cultures; the English language is not naturally used in contexts of patronage. And since words derive their meaning from social contexts, English words inadequately express the dynamics of patronage.

Discussing patronage in English is like using a tribal language in Papua New Guinea to explain nanotechnology—the words are not meant for such a task. Yes, there are terms in English like patron, client, benefactor. But those academic terms do not evoke the moral obligations of generosity, gratitude, or reciprocity that define patron-client relationships.

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Africa Study Bible: “Honour & Respect”

The new Africa Bible Study (NLT) illuminates the truth of Scripture with a unique, African perspective. This article “Honor and Respect” (p. 1283) explains the spiritual importance of social honour. 


Honour and Respect

What is the secret of a long life on earth? Is it a healthy diet, access to medical care, or a modern system of public safety and protection? An elderly man in Africa would give a very different answer—and so do the Scriptures. While remembering that a good diet and medical care are important, one of the secrets to a long life treasured by Africans is living a life of honour and respect.

An essential part of many initiation rites in Africa is the teaching of honour and respect. Traditionally in Africa, this was such an important virtue that any young man who was disrespectful or did not honour his elders could be subject to harsh punishment, including the ultimate penalty. A tradition of the Sara people in Chad was that a disrespectful youth would be condemned to be buried alive and must dig his grave with his own hands before entering it. Those responsible for his punishment sang and danced to the beat of drums as the disrespected parents watched.

God’s law, as given to the ancient Jews, also teaches honour with seriousness. “Anyone who dishonours father or mother must be put to death” (Exodus 21:17). Today, no Christian would be justified to physically harm another person like in this story or even in this Exodus law. As Christians, we no longer follow laws like this, but Jesus did stress the great importance of treating parents with honour when he was challenged by the religious leaders (Matthew 15:3-5).

When young people in Africa show respect and honour by obeying their parents, they receive promises of long life. A Sara elder will wet his hands with his spit, lay them on the young man, and bless him saying, “May your hair become completely white and may your eyes see your grandchildren’s hair become white.” Such traditions remind us of the teaching of God’s Word. The fifth commandment states, “Honour your father and mother. Then you will live a long, full life in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12; Ephesians 6:1-3).

Does the practice of honour and respect apply only to our biological father and mother? Of course not! It also applies to our elders, family, brothers and sisters in Christ, spiritual leaders, and those in authority over us in government. When we do not treat others with honour and respect, we dishonour God and can bring shame to our parents (Proverbs 28:7). Paul advised his spiritual son Timothy to “never speak harshly to an older man, but appeal to him respectfully as you would to your own father” (1 Timothy 5:1). The apostle Peter taught that “for the Lord’s sake, respect all human authority—whether the king as head of state, or the officials he has appointed” (1 Peter 2:13-14).

But what do we do when our parents or leaders misuse their authority? Perhaps they even abuse us or others. Although we are not their judge, these parents or leaders sit under God’s judgement. While showing respect, we must also protect our- selves or others from abuse. Protecting someone from abuse is honouring to them and even to the abuser when done with respect and without bitterness. A person should not continue in the kind of relationship with a parent or elder that allows or encourages a pattern of abuse. Pastors and elders should work to protect any person who is being harmed, even taking the case to the authorities if needed.

Although Peter does not speak directly of an abusive husband, he does say that wives “must accept the authority of your husbands . . . even if some refuse to obey the Good News.” The husband might then “be won over by observing your pure and reverent lives” (1 Peter 3:1-2). It is also instructive to read about how Peter and Paul both showed respect and truth to those who abused them (Acts 4:18-22; 5:26-31; 16:35-40; 19:35-41; 22:24-29; 23:1-5; 25:9-12). Our responsibility is to act with mature love in our treatment of others (1 Corinthians 13), even when they do wrong to us—but in a way that protects ourselves or others as people made in God’s image.

As Christians, we first owe honour to God. “If we live, it’s to honour the Lord” (Romans 14:8). Next, we are to practise honour and respect, first to our parents, then to others. Showing such honour does not require us to give all our financial wealth to those we honour; however, it does increase both our spiritual and physical wealth. When we honour our parents, God promises to reward us with a long life. Combined with our respect for God, “true humility and fear of the Lord lead to riches, honour, and long life” (Proverbs 22:4).

God’s Word and African wisdom teach us to live lives that show honour to others, regardless of whether we know them or not. We are wise in the Lord’s eyes and have understood one of life’s secrets when we have learned to “respect everyone, and love the family of believers. Fear God, and respect the king” (1 Peter 2:17). We are losing some of our traditional values. May God use each of us to teach the next generation of Africans how to respect their elders by the way we publicly respect and honour our elders.


Used by permission from Oasis International Ltd, copyright 2016. Visit www.africastudybible.com for more information.

For resources about honor and shame in Africa, see http://honorshame.com/honor-shame-in-africa/.

 

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Guilt, Shame, and Fear in Secular Research

When I wrote The 3D Gospel and developed www.TheCultureTest.com in 2014, I thought that the concept of guilt/shame/fear cultures was unique to Christian missiology. But recently, I encountered a very similar cultural model by a secular psychologist.

Richard Shweder is a professor of cultural psychology at the University of Chicago. He researches the cross-cultural concepts of self and moral reasoning. In 2003 he co-authored an article “The ‘Big Three’ of Morality (Autonomy, Community, and Divinity) and the ‘Big Three’ Explanations of Suffering.” They analyzed hundreds of interviews from India and noticed three clusters of “moral themes”: autonomy, community, and divinity. Here is an explanation using Shweder’s own language.

Ethics of Autonomy (≈Guilt-Innocence)

The main concern in this ethical system is individual autonomy. We should not interfere with another person’s wants and preferences. The ethics of autonomy reasons in terms of harm, rights, and justice. Don’t infringe upon the rights of other people and do not harm anyone else. Westerners have even extended the idea of “rights” to many areas, e.g., education and health care. Even animals have rights.

In a rather prophetic word, Shweder et al. say about Americans: “We wish to be protected from every imaginable harm, protected from secondary cigarette smoke, protected from psychologically offensive work environments. … We have stretched the notions of rights, autonomy, and harm, even as we wonder nostalgically how we lost our sense of community and divinity” (p 142).

Ethics of Community (≈Shame-Honor)

This moral paradigm is about obligations to the community. People maintain roles and statuses in relation to other members of the group. An ethic of community prioritizes duty, hierarchy, and interdependence. There is a moral obligation to “take care of one’s own.” People rely upon the hierarchy to satisfy their needs—the powerful protect and provide, and subordinates respond with gratitude and loyalty. Life is interdependent. So if an action weakens someone connected with you, then it also weakens you. In this ethic, “personal identity is more closely associated with its statuses and relationships than with its individuality and distinctness” (p 145).

Ethics of Divinity (≈Fear-Power)

A sacred order pervades the entire world. A spiritual force permeates the social and natural world. Humans are always communicating with the realm of the divine world. So morality is following the sacred order of the world and maintaining the sacred traditions. The natural and the sacred are not different orders of reality; rather, the natural world expresses the spiritual world. Our actions directly affect the sacred order. “Persons communicate with the divine and the divine communicates with persons through actions in the world, whether special rituals, work, or ordinary domestic services.”

Below is their summary chart (click to make larger).

The Comparison

Shweder’s three categories (autonomy, community, and divinity) mirror my explanation of guilt, shame, and fear cultures, though with a slight difference. Shweder’s three “moral discourses” focus on the basis of personhood (whereas guilt/shame/fear focuses on moral emotions). The labels explain how cultures define the value and essence of human beings. The three options are: rights and freedoms, status and connection, or spiritual harmony and sacredness. Then by extension, cultures develop an appropriate moral system to protect and preserve their definition of “truly human.” I appreciate Schewer’s model because it highlights an important reality—morality is shaped by identity (as I’ve noted here and here). 


Schweder’s full article is available here. His moral paradigm was popularized in The Righteous Mind by Jonathon Haidt, who also developed an online survey that measures your moral orientation: the “Moral Foundations Questionnaire” at www.YourMorals.com.

 

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Shame and Guilt in Racial Reconciliation

The post is adapted from chapter #3 of  The Bridge to Racial Unity: Discussion Guide 2.0 from Be the Bridge ministries.


A personal awareness of racism and racial injustice can generate uncomfortable feelings of shame and guilt. In America’s individualistic and therapeutic culture, shame and guilt tend to be regarded with suspicion—or as tools for controlling others. Viewed this way, they can hinder the process of relational restoration. In the Bible, however, shame and guilt have redemptive potential. But our ability to appreciate such redemption requires a closer look at how culture shapes our responses to shame and guilt.

Our Cultural Responses

Western morality is based on individual guilt and innocence (for instance, a person who obeys the law is “good,” but one who breaks the law is “bad” and deserves to be punished). It reflects the assumption that the individual is the primary unit and source of identity, accountability, and status. For this reason, people from individualistic cultures struggle to grasp the concept of collective shame, or a morality based on communal honor. This is where individuals share responsibility in the preservation of a community’s integrity and reputation.

Communal honor exists somewhat in American culture. If your toddler pushes a kid at the park, for example, you apologize on his or her behalf. If a father makes a scene at a high-school football game in front of his daughter and her peers, she feels embarrassed. In general, however, when communal shame is aroused beyond the level of familial association, which frequently happens in conversations about racial inequality, it is rapidly countered with proclamations of individual innocence—“I didn’t do anything wrong! I’m not a racist!” The following story illustrates cultural differences in the way people handle collective shame and guilt.

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Videos from the Honor-Shame Conference

We are excited to announce that the videos from the 2017 Honor-Shame Conference are now available on this YouTube playlist

The plenary sessions and featured workshops are full-length videos (~1 hour). The majority of the workshops are short trailers (3–5 minutes) of the presenter’s main point. 

We are grateful for the opportunity to capture and share these significant contributions from our gathering in Chicago last month. The 28 videos will be on YouTube for public use, so feel free to share the word. 

 

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8 Tips for Doing “Honor-Shame Theology”

How can we develop an “honor-shame theology” for today? How might be better explain the gospel in honor-shame contexts? Here are 8 practical tips to help you better utilize honor-shame in global ministry.

This post summarizes part of my plenary talk at the 2017 Honor-Shame Conference. A full-length webinar video is available here.

1. Missions: From Evangelism to Discipleship.

Many Christian workers engage honor-shame for its evangelistic utility. Honor-shame most certainly does impact evangelism, but limiting its value to evangelism truncates our theology and undermines the important task of making disciples. Honor and shame transform our understanding of the gospel, from conversion message to discipleship life. As we understand the gospel rightly, honor-shame is not merely about cross-cultural communication, but a matter of ethics and kingdom living.  An honor-shame perspective enhances our gospel presentations by emphasizing the ethical and communal dimensions inherent to the gospel. So, use honor-shame to make disciples, not just more converts.

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New Infographics

In 2016 the ministry Global Mapping International released the missiographic “Culture’s Color, God’s Light,” which featured a global map of culture types (guilt, shame, and fear). The infographic has become GMI’s #2 most viewed infographic and has appeared in many resources. (In large part because they did an excellent job visualizing cultural dynamics!) 

Updated Map

I’m pleased to share that GMI has updated the map (see below) to include an additional 5,000 respondents (13,000 total) from www.TheCultureTest.com. Click here to read my original explanation and qualifications, which remain valid.

 Hi-res images of this map in PDF and PNG are available at MissioNexus’ website

Translations

There are now Spanish and Portuguese translations of the infographic at Missio Nexus’ website also. Both available for free to use and share with others.

Your Help with Data Visualization?

Over 20,000 around the world have taken The Culture Test, and ~500 new people take the test every month. My desire is to steward this data by making it available in a secure, accessible, and aesthetic manner for missions research and strategizing. This means developing an online map where people can interactively segment and analyze the anonymous data (with Tableau Public, DataSeed, or a similar program).

So, do you have skills in “interactive data visualization”? I would love to collaborate with you on this project. Send me an email at info@honorshame.com. Thanks!

 

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6 Ways Honor and Shame Make Disciples (Not Converts)

Jackson Wu (Ph.D., SEBTS) teaches theology and missiology to Chinese leaders. He blogs at www.JacksonWu.org.


Honor and shame are essential for being and making disciples. They are more than mere labels used to describe culture and improve cross-cultural communication.

To explain my meaning, I wrote an article last year called “Does the ‘Plan of Salvation’ Make Disciples: Why Honor and Shame are Essential for Christian Ministry.” An honor-shame lens exposes potential blind spots in discipleship that can result from traditional gospel presentations. After all, our initial view of the gospel has disproportionate influence on the trajectory of our Christian life.

Here are six practical implications for ministry. How can understanding honor and shame improve efforts to make disciples, not mere “converts”?

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The Meaning of “Faith”

The latest issue of the magazine Modern Reformation includes my article “Talking About Faith in Non-Western Contexts.” This article explains the biblical meaning of “faith” in terms of patron-client relationships and recent New Testament scholarship.

The opening paragraphs are included below, and Modern Reformation has kindly unlocked the full article for 30 days for the general public, so click here to access and read the full article.  


Many Western Christians have a sub-biblical understanding of faith. “Faith” has been reduced to a person’s religious beliefs. Faith has become the mere intellectual assent of an individual to a specific set of religious doctrines or dogmas. This view of faith is not only incomplete when compared to how the Bible speaks of faith, it also is difficult for non-Westerners to understand when they are presented with the claims of Christ by missionaries.

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Communion, from an Honor-Shame Perspective

God is the “King of Glory.” God does not have honor. He is honor. Glory radiates from his very being. He is the One who bestows and grants honor upon us. God is the only source of honor.

David says, “My salvation and honor depend upon God” (Ps 62:7). Psalm 75 says, “It is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another.” God alone ascribes status.

Our only hope for honor is from Jesus Christ—the Eucharist declares this subversive and radical fact. In taking the bread and cup, we say to each other and to the world, “My core identity and status does not depend upon gender, race, family, ethnicity, or any other cultural reckoning.” At the cross, all that is nullified. There is zero place for boasting or claiming status.

But the Corinthian church failed to understand that. Their pursuit of status distinction caused divisions and demeaned others. They claimed status based on oratory skills, benefactions, giftings, wealth and more. Their twisted pursuit of world honor destroyed community and nullified the cross of Jesus. And Paul tells them they are missing the entire point of the Lord’s Supper:

“When you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; …When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.” (1 Cor 11:21)

In the Corinthian church, richer Christians were not breaking bread with lower-class folks. Paul tells them, “You show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” (1 Cor 11: 22). Their behavior was dishonoring. This runs counter to the very work of God in the Church. So Paul declares:

“The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”  On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member.” (1 Cor 12:21–24).

The bread and wine declare the supremacy and ultimacy of God’s honor. We cast aside our false notions of worth and cling to the glory conferred by God. This enables unity in the Church (John 17:22). Communion is the most tangible expression of that unity. Communion—a tangible expression of our allegiance to a crucified (yet risen) person—counteracts all false boasting with Gods’ sovereign, shame-erasing grace. Paul explains this radical subversion of status:

[In his son Jesus and in us] God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, … in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor 1:27–31)

In sharing the bread and cup of Jesus, we publicly declare our allegiance to Jesus Christ, and his cruciform redefinition of power, status, and victory. Communion is our boast in a humiliated savior.

 

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Posted in Bible, Honor, Jesus, NT, salvation, Shame, Theology

Raising Support in Honor-Shame Cultures: 5 Tips

As the global Church expands, there is a growing need for money to fund ministry. The Church in Asia, Africa, and Latin America has a vision for global missions, and this vision requires financial resources.

Traditional fund-raising models are often rooted in a white, Western cultural context, so might not suitably fund ministries in the rest of the World. These 5 tips could help with fund-raising in honor-shame cultures. These are just some ideas, not gaurantees.

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1 Peter 2:1–12 (HSP)

Here is an honor-shame paraphrase of 1 Peter 2:1–12. This is excerpted from the new book 1 Peter: An Honor-Shame Paraphrase, available as Kindle or PDF for $2.99.


Put away the habits of your shameful past: degrading speech, manipulation, wearing a mask, status envy, and belittling gossip. As new people, grow into your honorable identity. Crave the truth that will sustain you. You know the Lord will always be true to you.1-3

Identify with Jesus, a reliable rock. Though people rejected and humiliated him, God selected and honored him. As his followers, you are “bricks” in God’s new temple. You are esteemed people with special access to God; your sacrificial lives are gifts that bring honor to God through Jesus. This is what God foretold, “I’m building a new temple upon an honored cornerstone, and whoever stands with the cornerstone—Jesus—will never be ashamed.” In fact, those who hope in him receive true honor.4-7a

Some withhold their allegiance and reject Jesus as the foundational cornerstone of God’s new work in the world. The scandalous notion of a “crucified Lord” trips them up. They fall because they disregard his words and reject his royal proclamation, as expected.7b-8

But you are a specially chosen group, esteemed royalty with direct access to the king, an honored nation, and the people of God’s very own family! God has honored you beyond all measure so that you can publicly honor him before all people. He has given you eyes to see the truth of his glories. God has radically reversed your status! You used to be nobodies, complete rejects and disgraceful outcasts. But now, you are God’s own people, members of his prestigious family! You used to be completely disconnected from God’s benevolence. But now he has showered lavish favors upon you!9-10

You are cherished and honored by God. So even as outcasts in the minority, you must refrain from the fleshly impulse to establish your own reputation
 before others (because that actually demeans your worth before God).
Rather, make sure your behavior among the pagans is honorable.
 So, even though they scorn you and spoil your reputation, eventually they will see your respectable behavior and honor God
when he returns to publicly evaluate all people. Let me explain how you should act as the honorable people of God.11–12

 

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1 Peter: An Honor-Shame Paraphrase

My newest book is now available1 Peter: An Honor-Shame Paraphrase ($2.99).

Previous posts explain the cultural problem of all translations and how an Honor-Shame Paraphrase helps overcome the cultural gap

The epistle of 1 Peter explains the gospel in terms of honor and shame, perhaps better than any book in the Bible. In profound and practical ways, the apostle Peter teaches persecuted Christians how to follow and honor Jesus in the face of shame.

1 Peter: An Honor-Shame Paraphrase uncovers the social situation and theology of Peter’s letter. This paraphrase helps you discern anew Peter’s insights for theology, ethics, and ministry in today’s world. The book also includes a socio-historical introduction, theological summary, outline, and further resources. 

Buy now for just $2.99 on Kindle or PDF. You can click here to request a free review (for Amazon review, a journal, your blog, etc.) or exam (for classroom purposes) copy. 

 Endorsements:

“Here is an imaginative approach to First Peter . . . Georges captures well the cultural overtones and undertones of this ancient pastoral letter and its language of honor and shame. Lively paraphrase and imaginative dialogue between First Peter and two putative letters of a pastoral colleague in Cappadocia tease out the honor-shame nuances of this Petrine gem.”
—Dr. John H. Elliott, Professor Emeritus, University of San Francisco, author of 1 Peter, Anchor Bible Commentary

“Georges’ paraphrase helps us read 1 Peter from a fresh perspective. The Bible does not change, but our perspective on the biblical message can change. Georges understand this. His clear and simple prose sheds light on the pervasive influence of honor and shame within Peter’s letter. As a result, readers will gain a new appreciation for the relevance of 1 Peter for our daily lives.”
—Dr. Jackson Wu, professor to Chinese pastors, author of Saving God’s Face.

Your Response?

I am eager to hear your response, both positive and negative, to the Honor-Shame Paraphrase. So after you read the book please email at info@honorshame.com with your thoughts. 

This idea of an honor-shame paraphrase arose from the countless times I have heard Westerners says, “Wow, honor-shame cultures are soooo different…that blows my mind!” When I hear a comment like that, I wonder whether they realize the same cross-cultural dynamics occur in reading Scripture. I sense that people miss a lot when they read Scripture because they remain aware of the socio-cultural context, much like a short-term visitor to a foreign country.

People have positively received my previous attempts to paraphrase passages of Scripture (such as Matthew 5 in Ministering in HS Cultures). So this book is an effort to apply that approach to more of Scripture so people can grasp the cultural nuances. I feel like I am still working out the genre and form of “honor-shame paraphrase,” and that is why I’m eager to hear your responses. Thanks! 

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Last Call to Register: The Honor-Shame Conference

Final call to register for the Honor-Shame Conference, June 19–21 in Chicago. Because of space constants at Wheaton College, registration is capped at 270 people. Limited spots remain, so register now if you would like to join us. 

Check out the great line-up of workshop and plenary presenters

 

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The Honor-Shame Paraphrase

Reading the Bible across cultures can be difficult; however, the task is certainly not impossible. With cultural awareness, people today can accurately interpret the Bible by bridging the cultural gap between our world and the biblical world.

The Honor-Shame Paraphrase is a forthcoming book series that highlights the honor-shame dynamics of the Bible for modern readers. Each title makes explicit the implicit cultural assumptions of the Bible. This helps readers overcome cultural blindness. We show how original audiences heard the message in light of their shared cultural assumptions. This series will be ideal for personal devotions, teaching preparation, discipleship lessons, Bible studies, and ministry training.

The Paraphrase Method 

The Honor-Shame Paraphrase uses several strategies to express the cultural values and implications of the Bible. For example, we avoid clichéd religious words such as holy, Christ, and faith. These words are like dull knives: over usage has blunted their effect. So instead we use terms like entirely acceptable (holy), God’s exalted king (Christ), and complete loyalty (faith). These re-definitions rescue truth from familiarity and accentuate the honor-shame nuances of the original words.

The Honor-Shame Paraphrase also amplifies certain passages. This means inserting words or phrases in order to clarify the author’s main point or logical connection. The goal throughout is to make the original, honor-shame meaning of the Bible more obvious for readers who do not share the same cultural assumptions. This is similar to how Ezra and the Levites “helped the people to understand the law…They read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Neh 8:7b–8, NRSV).

Please do not equate this Honor-Shame Paraphrase with the actual Bible. This paraphrase is a socio-cultural exposition that seeks to illuminate (not translate) the Bible. The genre of paraphrase weaves together commentary and application to capture the message of the Bible in a fresh way (akin to Eugene Peterson’s The Message). In this way, we make academic research about biblical cultures accessible and informative for people today.

Before the actual paraphrase, we first explain the socio-cultural context of the biblical book. This section will introduce the key cultural dynamics—e.g., honor, purity, covenant, patronage, obligation, ancestors, hierarchy, hospitality—that are essential for understanding the book’s rhetorical, social, and theological strategy. These cultural nuances shed light on the meaning of the biblical message.

Something New, or Old?

The concept of honor-shame is not a “new lens” for reading the Bible but more like a shovel that removes centuries of residue. Honor and shame are inherent aspects of ancient cultures and biblical theology, not merely categories from modern anthropology. The Honor-Shame Paraphrase does not contextualize the Bible for a new setting. Rather it seeks to make the original meaning of the Bible more apparent for contemporary readers from a different culture. Nevertheless, the Honor-Shame Paraphrase does offer new biblical insights for life, ministry, and theology in today’s world.

The next post will introduce the first book in the Honor-Shame Paraphrase series—1 Peter.

 

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The Problem with Bible Translations: Your Culture

Anyone who reads the Bible today faces an unavoidable fact—Scripture was originally written in and for a culture different than our own culture. This makes the Bible difficult to understand.

Consider the meaning of these words: He whistled at her, and she winked back. This sentence probably brought to mind an image of two people flirting. Your mind intuitively used cultural assumptions to interpret the facial gestures as innuendos. But depending on your cultural context, winking could mean something entirely different: in Asia, it is an offensive gesture; in West Africa, parents wink at children as a signal for them to leave the room. Interpretation is based on cultural assumptions, so we must recognize that the cultural gap between the biblical world and us may cause different interpretations.

Different Assumptions

You’ve heard this statistic: 90 percent of communication is non-verbal. This suggests that most meaning is implicit. Every writer assumes the reader can “read between the lines,” so there is no need to state the obvious. As the example about winking illustrates, the sender and receiver of a message must share common cultural assumptions for communication to be effective. But when people from two different cultures try to communicate, meaning gets lost in translation. This explains why readers today might misinterpret aspects of the Bible—we don’t share a common culture.

Biblical Social Values

Biblical writers assumed their readers understood the implicit social values of honor-shame cultures, such as: patronage, hospitality, purity, ethnicity, family, reciprocity, etc. But modern readers don’t intuitively know the assumed cultural nuances of ancient societies. So we misunderstand (or simply miss) aspects of the Bible because of cultural blindness. This problem is acute for Westerners because their guilt-innocence culture differs significantly from biblical cultures. Modern Western values such as legality, individualism, egalitarianism, and rationalism influence how we read the Bible, but they were not prominent in ancient cultures. (Christians in the Majority World do live in honor-shame cultures that are similar to biblical cultures. But, unfortunately, the traditions of Western Christianity unduly influence their theology.)

Example: The Meaning of “Faith”

Cultural assumptions even affect the meaning of individual words. For example, the English word “faith” refers to someone’s personal belief about something. This meaning reflects the rationalistic and individualistic values of Western culture. However, the biblical notion of “faith” reflects relational and collectivistic cultural values. In the Old Testament, an Israelite’s “faith” is a commitment to their covenant obligation to honor Yahweh. Likewise, the New Testament word translated “faith” (Greek: pistis) suggests loyalty and fidelity to a relationship. Biblical faith is not merely “belief about God,” but “allegiance to God.” Western cultural values give the word “faith” a cognitive, individualistic meaning that distracts readers from the relational connotations of the biblical concept.

The next post will suggest how we might bridge the cultural gap—an Honor-Shame Paraphrase of the Bible.

 

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“Silence” and the Shame of the Cross

Dr. Philip D. Jamieson is President of the United Methodist Foundation (Memphis and Tennessee Conferences) and author of The Face of Forgiveness: A Pastoral Theology of Shame and Redemption (IVP, 2016).


I recently saw Martin Scorsese’s new movie, Silence (based on Shusaku Endo’s novel). It tells the story of the brutal suppression of Christianity in Japan during the seventeenth century.  Over 300,000 converts to Christianity had occurred by the end of the sixteenth century.  But Japanese leaders began to resist the faith when they began to perceive it as a threat to Japanese unity and as a cover for western imperialism.  The story follows the work of two young Jesuits who have secretly entered Japan in order to locate an older Jesuit missionary priest who is said to have renounced the faith.  The young priests refuse to believe the rumors and perhaps the climax of the story comes when one of them finally meets the older priest.  Muc h to the young priest’s (Father Rodrigues) horror, the elder Father Ferreira has indeed become apostate.  Ferreira tells Rodrigues that Christianity should never have been brought to Japan.  It had no place there and that the “swamp” of Japanese culture had rotted the young root of Christianity causing something else to grow which was not the true faith.  In spite of Ferreira’s assertion, there is much evidence to the contrary.  A number of Japanese Christians accept martyrdom for the truth of Jesus and sing hymns to him even as they are dying. 

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Posted in Christology, Evangelism, Honor, Missiology, Shame

Teaching in Honor-Shame Cultures: 5 Must Knows

In 2001 I taught American literature at a university in Central Asia. It was my first year living overseas, and the experience of teaching cross-culturally caused many instances of culture shock.

I enjoyed the friendships with students, but I resented their ongoing attempts to honor me as a teacher. They always stood when I entered the room, called me “Dr. Professor,” and declined to answer my questions—these are all gestures of respect, but I didn’t receive them well! I was a typical young guy from California; my wardrobe was t-shirts, shorts, and sandals. But in Central Asian culture, teachers’ clothing should reflect their social importance—this means a three-piece suit, even in July. I begrudged these Central Asian habits of “social maintenance” in the classroom.

These small examples of culture shock are normal when teaching cross-culturally. With time, a better cultural understanding improved my relationships with students and increased my enjoyment of teaching. Here are five examples to help you understand and educate students.

  1. Education is for reputation.

In honor-shame cultures, people study to acquire status, not just information. Education is one of the best ways to “gain face.” People boast about their educational degrees, and parents gain prominence from their children’s academic achievements. The motive for many students (and their families) is to enhance reputation. This explains some of the pressure to attend prestigious schools.

  1. Teachers are revered.

In honor-shame cultures, teachers are near the top of the social hierarchy. Read more ›

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Posted in Culture, Honor, Relationships, Shame

Exposing the Truth about Honor and Shame: The 4 Dimensions Christians Must Understand

This article, co-authored with Jackson Wu, was originally posted at Christianity Today on Ed Stetzer’s blog (Feb 16).


Shame is getting exposed, finally.

Commentators now observe how Western culture, especially the millennial generation, is becoming more shame-prone. Consequently, more Westerners are seeking release from the dis-ease of shame—that dreadful feeling of unworthiness and isolation.

Building on the popular books and TED talks from shame-researcher Brene Brown, evangelical authors like Christine Caine, Lecrae, and others have written books about becoming Unashamed. They share a common message: You shouldn’t feel ashamed, so stop listening to the condemning voices of others. For Christians who have known the gospel as simply the forgiveness of trespasses (i.e., salvation from our guilt), this news about salvation from shame can be truly liberating.

While this “gospel for shame” is true, it not entirely true.

The assumptions of Western psychology shape the common perception of shame as a negative, internal emotion of low self-esteem. This individualistic, subjective view of shame limits our reading of Scripture. So if we are going to expose shame, let’s expose it for what it really is.

In the Bible, honor and shame have multiple dimensions.

Shame, subjective and objective

Shame sucks. We humans often feel inferior for the wrong reasons: an abnormality, an embarrassing incident, or an abusive comment. God heals us from that subjective, personal experience of disgrace. But interestingly, sometimes shame can be good.

A sanctified conscience has a proper sense of shame (Mal 1:6–9). God wanted Israel to feel shame (Ezek 16:60–63), and Paul deliberately evoked shame among the Corinthians (1 Cor 6:5; 15:34). So, people aren’t created to be entirely shameless.

But, there is another, far more serious type of shame—objective, theological shame. As disloyal children, our sin despises (Num 14:11; 1 Sam 2:30; Mal 1:6), scorns (2 Sam 12:14; Prov 14:31), and dishonors (Prov 30:9; Rom 1:21–23; 2:23) our heavenly Father. People fail to honor God (Rom 3:23).

Moreover, our dishonoring sin brings shame upon ourselves. Recall Adam and Eve. They were naked yet unashamed, but then their disobedience made them feel unworthy of God’s presence. God said about Israel, “They sinned against Me; I will change their glory into shame” (Hos 4:7). In the Bible, shame is far more than a psychological issue; it is a theological problem: God’s honor has been robbed, and humans are in shame.

The crippling shame we feel before other people is ultimately rooted in our objective shame before God.

Fortunately, Jesus solves the entire problem of shame. As a faithful son who honored the Father, he atones for our objective shame before God and liberates us from subjective shame. Paul and Peter both declare, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame” (Rom 10:13; 1 Pet 2:6; cf. Isa 28:26; 45:17).

Honor, objective and subjective

Not only does Christ remove our shame, he also restores our honor.

To use Reformed language, God imputes his own glory to us. Jesus said, “I have given them the glory that you have given me” (John 17:22; cf. Rom 2:10). Believers will be glorified and honored with Jesus (2 Thess 1:12; 2:14). Our status is transformed. God turns our “shame into praise and renown in all the earth” (Zeph 3:19). As Peter summarizes, “So the honor is for you who believe” (1 Pet 2:7).

The gospel changes believers’ group identity; we now belong to the people of God (Eph 2:10–20). This transforms our subjective sense of honor. We no longer need to “build a name for ourselves” (Gen 11:4) or do shameful things (Rom 6:21). Rather, we seek glory, honor, and praise from God (Rom 2:7, 29). Even Jesus explains true faith in terms of glory:

“How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44)

Theological Implications

A fuller perspective on honor and shame makes our worldview more biblical. At the one level, understanding honor and shame as cultural values helps us interpret Scripture according to its original social context. In light of honor and shame, we can make better sense David’s adultery, the prodigal Son, and even Paul’s purpose in writing Romans.

But honor and shame are not just merely anthropological categories; they are foremost theological realities essential for an fully biblical view of theological doctrines, such as like the image of God, sin, Christ’s death, atonement, justification, and eternal judgment.

Practical Applications

A broader, more biblical perspective of honor-shame enables more holistic ministries. For example, honor and shame can influence the following areas of ministry:

Countless applications exist. As you look around, how might honor and shame influence your life and ministry?


To learn more, we invite you to join us at the 2017 Honor-Shame Conference at Wheaton College, June 19–21. This event brings together biblical scholars, theologians, missiologists, and practitioners for learning and collaboration on the topic of honor-shame.

Jackson Wu is a professor of theology and missiology for Chinese pastors in East Asia. He blogs at jacksonwu.org. His books include Saving God’s Face and One Gospel for All Nations.

Jayson Georges is founding editor of www.HonorShame.com. His most recent book is Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures.

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Improving Anselm’s Atonement Theory

Anselm’s satisfaction theory (explanation here) has shaped Western atonement theory. Unfortunately, Anselm’s theology “went wrong” in two ways: (1) Anselm himself overlooked key parts of biblical theology, and (2) then latter theologians misinterpreted Anselm. 

Making Anselm More Biblical

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo provides a helpful starting point for contextualizing the atonement in terms of honor-shame, but his satisfaction theory could be more biblical in key ways.

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Posted in Bible, Honor, Jesus, NT, OT, salvation, Shame, Sin, Theology, Wesetern

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