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.”
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: