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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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.

Posted in Culture, Honor, Resources, Shame, Theology Tagged with: , , , ,

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.

Read more ›

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

Atonement for Honor-Shame Cultures

In terms of honor and shame, how does Christ’s death atone for sin? This question got answered 1,000 years ago by Anselm, a Benedictine monk and archbishop of Canterbury who developed the “satisfaction” atonement theory.

Anselm’s work Cur Deus Homo employs Scholastic rationalism to explain the atonement for the honor-shame context of medieval Europe. Anselm’s social context sheds light on his theology of the cross.

“The social history of Anselm was characterized by feudalism, with the landowner, or “lord,” living in peace with his vassals (or serfs) at the intersection of a carefully managed series of reciprocal obligations. The lord provided capital and protection; the serf provided honor, loyalty, and tribute. The stability of this social world rested on slavish fidelity and allegiance. In this context, Anselm’s understanding of the atonement reads as a kind of allegory, with the lord as the Lord and the serfs as the human family. “Satisfaction” for us, in our criminal-justice system, has to do with the apprehension and punishment of the guilty, while for Anselm and his contemporaries, satisfaction hinged on the fulfillment of certain obligations related to loyalty and honor. (Baker and Green, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, p. 22)

The remainder of this post summarizes Anselm’s honor-shame atonement theory.

Failing Our Obligation

For Anselm, the natural debt “which angels and men owe to God” is to “be subordinate to the will of God” (I:11). “When a rational nature wills what it ought to, it honors God— not because it confers anything on Him but because it willingly submits itself to His will and governance. But when it does not will what it ought, then it dishonors God from its own point of view” (I:15). Man honors God when he “keeps his proper place” by obeying (I:15).

Man owes glory and honor to God, but fails in this obligation. “Whoever does not pay to God this honor due Him, dishonors Him and removes from Him what belongs to Him; and this removal, or this dishonoring, constitutes a sin” (I:11).

Repaying Our Honor Debt

Sin creates this problem for man—“Everyone who sins is obliged to repay to God the honor which he has stolen” (I:11). Honor repayment is essential because “nothing ought less to be tolerated in the order of things than that the creature remove the honor owed to the Creator and not repay what he removes” (I:13). To clarify, human sin does not diminish God’s honor. “Nothing can be added to or subtracted from His honor, considered in itself. For His honor is, in itself, incorruptible and altogether immutable. … no one can honor or dishonor God as He is in Himself” (I:15).

The honor debt of our sin must be satisfactorily repaid because “God keeps nothing more justly than the honor of His dignity” (I:13). God is morally just because he rightly demands honor (not because he appeases wrath or punishes as required). God must save because he is “under the necessity of maintaining His honor. Indeed, this necessity is nothing other than the immutability of His honor—an immutability which He has from Himself and not from another” (II:4). God cannot forgive sin “apart from any repayment of the honor stolen from Him” (I:12). God is just and righteous because he requires the restoration of his honor. Justice for Anselm is when God rightly honors.

God can be honored through man in three ways, listed in order of divine preference: one, man perfectly submits to God’s will (the original plan); two, man somehow repays the dishonor caused by sin; or three, the sinner is punished. Though God desires perfect obedience, man is now under Satan’s bondage and incapable of obeying. Consequently, the honor debt of our sin that must be repaid, or “satisfied.”  

Christ Satisfies Our Honor Debt to God

Man is incapable of repaying his own honor debt because the good deeds or worship we offer to God is what we always owe him anyhow. Those honor payments can not be used to pay off previous honor debts. “If even when I do not sin I owe to God—in order to keep from sinning—myself and whatever I can do, I have nothing with which to make payment [of honor] for my sin” (I:20). For this reason, the coming of Jesus Christ, the God-man (i.e., deus homo) “was necessary for man’s salvation” (I:20). “This debt [of man] was so great that only God was able to pay it, although only a man ought to pay it; and, thus, the same [individual] who was divine was also human” (II:18).

Jesus Christ is a “complete satisfaction for sin” (II:4). For Anselm, this means Jesus’ sacrificial life pays off our debt of honor. “His life is paid to God for the sins of men” (II:18) as a gift that brings honor to God (not as a victim that absorbs wrath). Because Jesus was sinless he could “make payment for what is owed for the sins of the whole world” (II:18). So, he freely “gave Himself over to death for the honor of God” (II:18). Jesus was not required to die because his perfect obedience fulfilled his own duty of honoring God. Therefore, Jesus could voluntarily give to God his very own life as an above-and-beyond honor payment (II:11). “He paid on behalf of sinners that which He did not already owe for Himself” (II:18), namely the honor debt due to our Master. The giving of his own life was the highest honor he could offer to God. “A man cannot at all give himself to God to any greater extent than when he hands himself over to death for the honor of God” (II:11). Jesus’ life was an infinite gift of honoring sacrifice.

God Credits Jesus’ Honor to Us

Most of Cur Deus Homo explains why Jesus must save us (i.e., to repay the honor debt) and why Jesus could save us (i.e., he had extra honor to offer God). Anselm does briefly explain how Jesus’ honor-satisfying life accomplishes our forgiveness and salvation.

Because Jesus freely offered the great gift of his own life to God, the Father is obligated to reciprocate. “[I]t is necessary for the Father to reward the Son. Otherwise, the Father would seem to be either unjust…or powerless” (II:19). But since the Son needs nothing, God bestows the reward/return of Jesus’ gift upon man in the form of forgiveness of sin. Anselm asks rhetorically, “Or whom will [Jesus] more justly make to be heirs of the reward He does not need, and heirs of His overflowing fullness, than His own kinsmen and brethren (whom—bound by such numerous and great debts—He sees languishing with need in the depth of miseries), so that what they owe for their sins may be forgiven them and what they lack on account of their sins may be given to them?” (II:19) Jesus’ sacrificial life generates an excess of infinite honor which overflows into our accounts.

Anselm also sees the death of Christ as an example that inspires us to give our own lives for the honor of God: “it is much more the case that He gave an example, in order that no single human being would hesitate (when reason demands it) to render to God on behalf of himself that which one day he will summarily lose” (II:18; cf. II:19).


Anselm explained the atonement in an honor-shame culture. Though 1,000 years old, his theological ideas continue to offer insights for theology today. The next post will discuss how we might improve upon Anselm’s satisfaction theory.


Posted in Christology, Honor, Jesus, Jesus Christ, salvation, Shame, Sin, Theology Tagged with: , , , ,

Does God Shame Christians?

God’s salvation causes shame. After God atones for your sins, then you will have shame. God wants his people to feel shame. 

In Ezekiel 16, God denounces Israel for becoming vile sluts and shameless whores. Then he says to them:

I will restore your [Judah’s] own fortunes along with theirs [Samaria’s], in order that you may bear your disgrace and be ashamed of all that you have done. (Ezek 16:53–54)

I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord, that you may remember and be ashamed, and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I atone for you for all that you have done, declares the Lord God” (Ezek 16:62-63, see all translations).

Atonement Causes Shame

God’s salvation is primarily “shameful ➡ unashamed.” People outside of Christ have shame (Rom 1:21–23; 2:23; 3:23), and people who are in Christ have no shame (Zech 3:18–20; Rom 10:11; 1 Peter 2:7). This is great news! But, it is not the entire story. Biblical salvation is also “shameless ➡ ashamed.”

According to Ezekiel 16, God makes atonement, and then you will be ashamed. Our shame is the purpose and consequence of the atonement. Israel will feel disgraced after God renews the covenant relationship. Read more ›

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Can You Shame God?

Can you shame God? The biblical answer is yes.

Though this may initially sound sacrilegious, the fact that people shame God pervades scripture and profoundly impacts your relationship with God. People despise and scorn God. In other words, we fail to honor and glorify God. This idea appears throughout the Bible.

Torah (about Israel)

  • And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs I have done among them?” (Num. 14:11; cf. 14:222-23)
  • If you do not carefully follow all the words of this law, which are written in this book, and do not revere this glorious and awesome name—the Lord your God. (Deut. 28:58)
  • Then will they turn unto other gods, and serve them, and despise me, and break my covenant. (Deut. 31:20)

Excursus: The Meaning of “Despise.” The Hebrew word naats means to “show contempt,” (NIV) “spurn,” (NAS) or “reject.” David deSilva explains, “assigning a low value to something or someone, then treating that thing or person according to the standards appropriate for that assigned value, stands behind the term despise” (IVPDOTP, p 435). The word basically means, “to treat with low value.” It is our failure to recognize God as the King worthy of ultimate honor (Mal 1:14; cf. 1 Sam 2:30).

David (Sinning with Bathsheba)

  • You have despised Me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. (2 Sam. 11:27)
  • Because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child that is born to you shall die. (2 Sam. 12:14)


  • Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of the my God. (Proverbs 30:9)
  • Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God. (Proverbs 14:31; cf. 17:5)
  • Whoever fears the Lord walks uprightly, but those who despise him are devious in their ways. (Proverbs 14:2)


  • They have abandoned the LORD. They have despised the Holy One of Israel. They have turned away from him. (Isa 1:4)
  • “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. Then if I am a father, where is My honor? And if I am a master, where is My respect?” says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests who despise My name. But you say, “How have we despised Thy name?”  (Mal. 1:6)
  • For my name will be great among the nations, says the LORD of hosts. But you profane it [God’s name] when you say that the Lord’s table is polluted. (Mal. 1:11)


Read more ›

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Super Duper “Unashamed”

Last year Christian publishers released 4 books titled “Unashamed.” These are Christian efforts to speak to a popular topic in Western culture—the longing to be free of shame and to “be myself.” 

While inspiring and encouraging, these books assume the distorted, Western definition of shame—i.e., an individual’s low self-esteem. Their solution could be summarized as, “don’t worry about other’s judgments.” But, unfortunately and ironically, this message fosters the very individualism that causes our shame-inducing isolation. The antidote to shame is not isolation, but community. This is where a collectivistic view of shame points towards to a fuller (and biblical) sense of salvation.

This 4-post series Exposing Shame will explore the complexity of biblical shame. 

The first post introduces an excellent article at Christianity Today by Tish Harrison Warren: “We’re So Unashamed We Wrote a Book on It. Three of Them, Actually: Christians still need a better understanding of the complexity of shame.” 

Screen Shot 2017-01-25 at 12.34.31 PM

Her comments offer many great insights. Here are 4 key paragraphs from the heart of the article.

As Christians, we need a more nuanced definition of shame that acknowledges and resists the destructive aspect of false shame and self-hatred, but that also rejects defining shame solely within the moral framework of what Philip Rieff and Robert Bellah called “therapeutic individualism.” As Bellah noted several decades ago, this sort of “therapeutic attitude denies all forms of obligation and commitment in relationships.” A more nuanced definition of shame is necessary for the flourishing of both individuals and the rich communities necessary for their formation.

There is more than mere semantics at stake here. If we as a church do not learn to discuss shame properly, we will either fall into creating a church culture of destructive shame (as Christian communities have certainly done in the past) or, on the other hand, we will end up endorsing a wholesale moral autonomy and radical individualism.

Understanding shame as solely a negative interior experience of the individual can feed a hyper-individualism that leaves us isolated and, consequently, more prone to unhealthy shame. The primary solution to shame that is offered by many Christians is gospel-focused “self-talk,” and we see this solution in this year’s Unashamed books. We speak “good news” of our belovedness to ourselves, and in some cases, this can start to seem like a more spiritual version of the old SNL Stuart Smalley sketch: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me.”

But as Andy Crouch reminds us, as helpful as positive self-talk may be, the solution to shame can’t be found in the individual. The remedy to shame is “being incorporated into a community with new, different, and better standards for honor. It’s a community where weakness is not excluded but valued; where honor-seeking and ‘boasting’ of all kinds are repudiated; where servants are raised up to sit at the table with those they once served; where even the ultimate dishonor of the cross is transformed into glory, the ultimate participation in honor.”

Posts in this series Exposing Shame explore the complexity of biblical shame:

Posted in Culture, ethics, Resources, salvation, Shame, Spirituality, Theology, Wesetern Tagged with: , , ,

Lausanne Article: “Honor & Shame in God’s Mission”

The latest issue of the Lausanne Global Analysis includes my article “Honor & Shame in God’s Mission.”

This short primer (1,600 words) is available online for free, so functions as a 5-minute introduction to honor-shame. The article explains: (1) the meaning of honor & shame, (2) how honor & shame feature in missio Dei/salvation-history, and (3) how honor & shame can inform contemporary ministry.


For other free, online articles about honor and shame, visit the recommended resource page.


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A Better Definition of Honor-Shame Cultures—”Connection”

How might we define “honor-shame cultures”?

Many people implicitly associate “honor-shame culture” with “violence.” Westerners perceive honor-shame cultures as aggressive and combative. This reason (proposed in my prior post) is because the Western mind perceives honor-based violence as “senseless” and “incomprehensible,” unlike the legalized violence of Western cultures.

A better definition of “honor-shame culture” would be “connection.” The reality that “everything is connected” offers a fruitful way to understand how honor-shame cultures actually work. The word connection means: link, relationship, interconnection, interdependence, bond, attachment, contact, friend, ally, relative.

The worldview of every culture must address three areas: identity, causality, and morality. Honor-shame cultures approach each worldview question through the prism of connection, an approach that is quite different than Western culture.

1. Identity: Who Am I?

Every culture must define the meaning of “human.” What is our fundamental basis of a person? Read more ›

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New Site: RealHonour.com

RealHonour.com is a new website/ministry. The free site is a secure digital forum for Christians from a Muslim background to fellowship with each other globally and locally. Learn more from their extensive FAQs.

Screen Shot 2017-01-24 at 4.42.37 PM


I highlight RealHonour.com because it an innovative ministry example that purposefully addresses honor-shame issues. Here is their explanation of the name “Real Honour”:

Muslims normally grow up in an honour-shame culture. They receive honour from fellow believers if they conform to the expectations of their Muslim community. Accordingly, great shame is associated with leaving Islam.

The Bible’s message of love and justice was revealed into an honour-shame culture. God desires all humans to live in a unique honour-shame culture on His terms. When Adam and Eve broke God’s terms, shame entered their lives, accompanied by spiritual death. That death led to suffering, pain and physical death.

Out of a profound love for His creation, God initiated a way for people to be cleansed of their sins, to have shame removed and honour restored. Since this unique way originates from God and is not dependant on people, it leads to real honour.

The site is currently pre-registering participants and will launch in spring 2017. So feel free to pass the world along to Muslim background believers.

Read more such examples of “Putting Honor Into Action.”


Posted in Ministry, Relationships, Resources Tagged with: ,

A Western Bias: “Honor-Shame Cultures are Violent”

“Cultures of honor and shame are violent.” This common assumption is a myth rooted in a pejorative cultural bias.


Westerners often define honor-shame cultures by their violent retaliation against personal slights. People in honor-shame cultures are sensitive about their reputation, so they use aggression to maintain honor. This violent portrayal of honor-shame is widespread. Here are two examples:

  • The book Honor Bound (written by a research sociologist and published by Oxford University Press) portrays honor cultures as dominated by male violence, such as domestic abuse and aggressive revenge.
  • Some NT scholars (esp. Malina, Neyrey) have popularized anthropological models to explain honor andshame. But their models—e.g., limited good, philotimeo, challenge-riposte, envy, male-female divisions—assume honor-shame cultures are highly agonistic and competitive, as though all of life is an aggressive, unbridled honor-grab.
  • An influential sociology article explains, “members of honor societies are expected to display their bravery by engaging in violent retaliation against those who offend them . . . Not to fight back is itself a kind of moral failing.”

The reductionist definition of honor-shame culture as singularly violent reflects a Western cultural bias. To say “honor-shame cultures are violent” is ridiculous stereotype, akin to saying, “Black people are thugs” or “Muslims are terrorists.”

Yes, violence is an aspect of honor-shame cultures, but violence is not the defining feature of their moral system, as many a Westerner supposes. It is dangerous and unjust to define an entire social group by a few extreme outliers. Remember, violence is present it all cultures. Violence is ultimately rooted in spiritual separation from God, not merely in cultural or psychological dynamics. Read more ›

Posted in Culture, Honor, Shame, Wesetern Tagged with: , ,

New Training Video about Ethics and Discipleship

Transforming Honor” is a new training video about biblical ethics, morality, and discipleship in honor-shame cultures.

My aim with this video is to (1) transform Western misconceptions about honor cultures and (2) transform honor into a positive source for moral change. The 33-minute resource is geared for Christians in cross-cultural ministry, and draws from chapters 10 & 11 of Ministering in Honor-Shame CulturesEnjoy!

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 To download, click here. For more free videos related to honor & shame, visit the Video Gallery


Posted in Communication, Culture, ethics, Honor, Ministry, Missiology, Resources, Spirituality, Wesetern Tagged with: , , , ,

Stetzer, Moreau, & Kärkkäinen at the Honor-Shame Conference

Three leading missiologists will join us at the Honor-Shame Conference (June 19-21) at Wheaton.


Ed Stetzer is the Billy Graham Professor of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, Executive Director of the Billy Graham School of Evangelism, and blogs at The Exchange at ChristianityToday.com. He will offer the Opening Welcome.

Scott Moreau the Academic Dean of Wheaton College Graduate School, Professor of Intercultural Studies, and editor of Evangelical Missions Quarterly. He will join us during an evening event. 

Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen is the Professor of  Systematic Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, and prolific author in missions and theology. He will join us remotely with a short video and prepare a theology paper for attenders.

Because of their commitments, they can only join us for a brief period (not the entire event). Nevertheless, were grateful for their visible affirmation of our gathering. Their willingness to participate, albeit briefly, affirms the importance of honor and shame.

Register for the Honor-Shame Conference here.


Posted in Communication, Culture Tagged with: , ,

Giving Indirect Advice (A Folktale)

Screen Shot 2017-01-24 at 4.08.41 PMA great way to acquire wisdom for cross-cultural wisdom is to watch the wise. I’m always amazed by Central Asians who handle problems with cultural savvy—they can influence people in such honoring ways. Unfortunately, Westerners often struggle to navigate thorny issues in relationships: How to say “no”? How to give indirect advice? How to response to people who abuse your generosity?

This book Once There Was, Once Twice There Wasn’t includes 50 folktales about Nasreddin Hodja. He is a “wise fool” who talks his way out of a problem in culturally savvy ways. As I read it, I thought to myself, “This is a great resource for learning about honor-shame cultures!” The humorous stories offer insights about relational issues common in collectivistic cultures. The author Michael Shelton kindly allowed me to share the folktale “One is More than Two,” about giving indirect advice. 

“One is More than Two”

“The drum sounds sweeter from a distance” ~ Turkish proverb

It has been said that a wise counselor is honored but the wisest counselor is unnoticed. And so it was when the clever Nasreddin Hodja managed to cloak his advice in such a way as to preserve the domestic happiness of his friend Mehmet.

The sharp-eyed Hodja was the first to notice when the thrifty Mehmet began spending long afternoons at the bazaar instead of at home in his fields. “Wherever the leaf flutters, there is wind,” he reasoned, “There must be a reason behind this new habit.” And it wasn’t long before Hodja discovered that reason in the looks that he saw passing between Mehmet and the young daughter of a certain merchant. Read more ›

Posted in Culture, Relationships, Resources Tagged with: ,

5 Reasons the West is Becoming More Shame Based

“Young people these days are becoming more shame based.” The previous post showed how data from TheCultureTest.com collaborates this common observation. But this observation naturally evokes the “why?” question. Why is Western culture becoming more shame based? Here I identify are five factors.


  1. Multiculturalism. Since 1965 most immigrants have been from non-European background, especially Latin America and Asia. In 2010, forty million people in American were foreign born. So, the face of America is no longer white. New cultures introduce new values, such as honor and shame, into the melting pot. Whether through personal relationships or popular media, Americans today encounter people from honor-shame cultures more frequently than in previous decades. The migration of honor-shame cultures into the West would naturally impact Western culture and morality.
  1. Postmodernism has transformed our perception of knowledge and morality in the 20th century. Postmodernists look upon ideologies, truth claims, and narratives with skepticism and distrust. Postmodernism deconstructs “laws” and “rules” as dominating and oppressive cultural systems. When people view moral codes as culturally relative or politically motivated, then their conscience does not feel “guilty” for transgressing moral codes. Moral relativity undermines notions of absolute guilt or moral standards.

Public confidence in the American justice system and law enforcement has been undermined by recent attention on videos of police brutality and documentaries like O.J.: Made in America or 13th. This attention leads to guilt by association—all notions of law, including biblical commandments, are viewed with suspicion and relativized.

  1. Civil Rights Movements have employed shame to influence public policy. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. sought to expose the moral hypocrisy of Southern leaders during the civil rights movement. He wanted people to see the images of white police harming Negros, because that would undermine the moral credibility of segregationists. The civil rights movement shamed shameful racism by exposing the immorality of Jim Crow laws.

More recently, the lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender (LBGT) community has used shame to spur political and social change. The pride movement has labeled acts of intolerance as shameful. People who do not accept the sexual orientation of others are denounced as “bigots” and “homophobes.” With many Americans in favor of LBGT rights, people increasingly experience a greater sense of shame (both personally and publicly) for such “intolerance” and “exclusion.”

  1. Identity Politics gets people to support policies based on the interests of their social group. Identity politics creates tribalism—people supporting “their person” simply because he will help “us.” Though many people denounce identity politics as divisive, history proves it is a strategic tool for rallying the masses and getting power.

Donald Trump embodies identity politics (as have liberals). His campaign platform invigorated white nationalism. The tribe of white evangelicals by in large supported him as well. The tribalism of identity politics is about securing honor for your own clan and diminishing the status of outsiders; the tribalism of identity politics is not about moral rightness or the innate merit of public policies.

  1. Social Media creates an ever-present digital community before whom we must manage our face. Social media extends Satan’s oldest lie—we are what others think we are, not who God made us to be—into more of our life. To cover their shame, people project a “face,” get new “friends,” build “community,” or “make a name for ourselves” (Gen 11:4), and even degrade others. Lives have been ruined by the outrageous shaming ploys of internet bullying or Twitter takedowns. Through social media we experience new levels of humiliation in the court of public opinion. The dawn of social media has introduced new sources of shame in our lives.

These five realities have introduced shame into American culture, for both good and bad. These contribute to the general shift away from guilt and toward shame in Western morality.

What Will the Future Hold?

I suspect these factors–multiculturalism, postmodernism, civil/human rights movements, identity politics, and social media–will only become more prominent in Western culture. If that hypothesis proves true, the need for explaining the gospel as release from shame (both objective and subjective) will become more missiologically strategic for ministry in the West.

What do you think—why is the West become more shame-prone?

Posted in Culture, Honor, Shame, Wesetern Tagged with: , , ,

The Rise of Shame in America

Younger people in the West are becoming more sensitive to shame.


Western culture as a whole, not just particular segments, appears to be shifting from guilt and toward shame. The Christianity Today cover article “The Return of Shame” noted how “shame is becoming a dominant force in the West.” This observation is not entirely new. In 1946 Ruth Benedict, the WWII anthropologist who popularized the “West=guilt; East=shame” distinction, observed, “But shame is an increasingly heavy burden in the United States and guilt is less extremely felt than in earlier generations.”

Is The West Becoming More Shame-Prone?

But, is this observation true? Yes. Data from TheCultureTest.com collaborates that shame is becoming a more dominant factor among younger people. The chart below shows how shame increases as age decreases.

ascent_of_shame Read more ›

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Microaggressions and “Reverse Honor”: America’s Latest Moral System

A new moral system has emerged in America. It is shaped by the language of privilege, class, bias, inequality, tolerance, and inclusion. This new moral system has taken definitive expression in the issue of microaggressions.


Microaggressions are “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.” Microaggressions are indignities that communicate insults. They are unintentional put-downs, an action or word that suggests otherness or abnormality, a reminder that you are different. Microaggressions subtly shame others. Following are some common examples:


  • To an Asian, “Where are you really from?”
  • To a bi-racial person, “What are you?”
  • To a black person, “Wow, you don’t talk like a black person!”


  • A ministry video that features only white people.
  • Non-Hispanics wearing sombreros (aka “cultural appropriation.”)
  • A building named after Woodrow Wilson.

You may be thinking, “Seriously! When did those become wrong?” To get a better sense of microagressions, watch this skit: “What kind of Asian are you?”


The New Moral Culture

Microaggressions began as a topic of sociological study in 1973. But within the last few years microaggressions have evolved into “an approach to morality that is relatively new to modern America” (p. 3). Every “moral system” has a way of defining and correcting deviant behavior. Here is how microaggression morality works as a moral system.   Read more ›

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Spring Courses for Honor & Shame

Screen Shot 2017-01-20 at 4.35.46 PMI will be teaching an intensive course “Theology of Honor & Shame,” May 15-17 at Eternity Bible College (Simi Valley, CA). This 2-unit course is also listed for credit through Western Seminary. The morning session (9am-2pm) will be seminar discussions on various topics related to honor and shame: e.g., patronage, HS in historical theology, “face,” Romans, 1 Peter, HS in American culture, spirituality. The evening session (6pm-9pm) will be general lecture about honor-shame in cultures, Scripture, and ministry. For more info, visit http://www.eternitybiblecollege.com/3dgospel.


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Also this spring, Dr. Tom Steffen is teaching a course “Honor & Shame” at Moody Bible Institute-Spokane, on Tuesdays, Jan 31–May 23. 



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Set of 30 Bible Stories about Honor & Shame

Biblical writers communicated God’s honor for the shamed through stories. Narratives recount how God saves his people from disgrace and displays honor.

screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-5-11-10-pmHere is a story set of 30 biblical narratives that address honor and shame. For a more complete list , see “Appendix 2: Biblical Stories Addressing Honor-Shame” in Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures.


Creation (Gen 1-2)—God creates his honored vice-regents from lowly dust, crowing them with honor and glory (cf. Ps 8).

Adam and Eve (Gen 3)—God’s children disobey him, inducing feelings of shame and expulsion from God’s presence.

Cain (Gen 4)—After being disregarded by God, Cain’s face falls and status envy prompts him to kill his own brother.

Babel (Gen 11)—Humanity strives to build a name for themselves and exalt themselves to the heavens.

Job (Job 19, 42)—After Job’s entire family rejects and alienates him, God restores his fortunes and social standing.

Abraham (Gen 12:1-3)—God calls Abram to a position of grand prominence: a great nation, abundant family, divine blessing, mediation of universal blessing, etc.

Read more ›

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Guilt-Innocence Cultures are WEIRD

Guilt-innocence cultures are W.E.I.R.D.—Western, Education, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.

In 2010, three cultural psychologists published an article titled “The Weirdest People in the World?” The authors explain that most psychological research in conducted on a small, unrepresentative subset of human population—W.E.I.R.D people.

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The article shows how behavioral scientists have published claims about human psychology and behavior, but their samples are drawn mostly from WEIRD people, whom researchers assume represent of all human populations. This subpopulation hardly represents humanity; they are unusual—frequent global outliers. So, we should not project social truth about WEIRD people upon all people in all cultures.

This fascinating article is long and technical, but has definite implications for global theology and cross-cultural ministry. Here is the main take away—WEIRD people are…weird, because they are both numerically rare and culturally different. Follow along to trace the implications.

1. WEIRD people are numerically rare (like guilt-innocence cultures).

People from WEIRD societies are “among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans.” In the maps below, you notice that WEIRDness (education, industrialization, wealth, and democracy) is limited to North America, Western Europe, and the Aussies/Kiwis down under.

Educated—Dark Green (UN education index, 2007. Black=no data)

Industrialized—Blue (CIA list of “developed countries”)


Rich—Dark Blue (per capita GDP, IMF)



Democratic—Dark Green (Democracy Index, 2015.)


These maps show that high levels of education, wealth, and democracy is concentrated in a few places on the globe—mostly “Western” countries. You also notice the four maps above correspond to guilt-innocence cultures, displayed in blue in the map below.

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 9.43.59 AM

This shows that guilt-innocence cultures are WEIRD (i.e., Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) and weird (by virtue of being globally rare).

2. WEIRD people are culturally different (like guilt-innocence cultures).

WEIRD people think and behave differently. Their cognitive and moral processes are rather peculiar. They hardly represent standard human thinking or behavior. WEIRD subcultures “may often be the worst populations from which to make generalizations” (p. 79). Empirical data from diverse disciplines indicates the WEIRD “sub-population is highly unusual along many important psychological and behavioral dimensions” (79). Basically, they don’t represent the typical human being.

Here is why WEIRD people are weird—they are independent, autonomous, and analytical. Jonathon Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, offers this generalization: The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships (p 96).

Consequently WEIRD philosophers have “mostly generated moral systems that are individualistic, rule-based, and universalist. That’s the morality you need to govern a society of autonomous individuals” (p 97). Since WEIRD and non-WEIRD people perceive and interpret the world differently, it makes sense they have different moral orientations. WEIRD morality is based on individual rights and fairness; non-WEIRD morality is more socio-centric and community-based, focusing on people’s obligation to play assigned roles in a group. In short, the moral reasoning of WEIRD people is rather peculiar in a global context.

Conclusions & Applications

This critique of the behavioral sciences—generalizing aspects of a one subculture to all of humanity—is also true of Christian theology. Both fields over-confidently universalize their own experience.

The authors of “The Weirdest People in the World?” conclude with several suggestions that apply to global theology and missiology.

  1. Include voices from across diverse populations. Don’t assume “they” think like “us”; go find out. Don’t generalize or assume representativeness. The conversation must broaden. This means creating new structures to facilitate this new conversation.
  2. Label particularity, lest you imply universality. People must identify the specific group about which they are making statements. For example, The NIV Study Bible or ESV Study Bible could take their cue from the African Study Bible, and rename A Western Study Bible or A Study Bible For First-World Problems. Another example: there has been a proliferation of books about global theology, but they treat Western theology as “historical theology,” not an “ethnic theology.” Why do Western theologians write Systematic Theology, but Asian theologians write Water Buffalo Theology? Suppose the seminary course “Systematic Theology” was relabeled “Western Theology.”

To summarize, if you are Western, then recognize that your culture, your theology, and your gospel are…WEIRD. 


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