Tim Keller & TGC Video on Shame

In this Gospel Coalition video, Tim Keller offers some reflections about the role of shame in evangelism.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 6.09.24 PMI’m obviously delighted that Keller and TGC discuss honor-shame cultures in their gospel conversation. And Keller and the other folks at TGC are brilliant guys doing great work, for which I’m grateful. Nevertheless, I noticed a very common shortcoming in their thinking about shame and the gospel–they interpret honor-shame cultures and the dynamics of shame through Western paradigms. 

According to their conversation, the problem with the human condition is the guilt of wrong behavior. Our problem is the “the Law” (defined as “moral absolutes,” not the Jewish Torah). For theologian Michael Horton (guy on right side), the question is how we use the Law in a way that “deeply troubles” people, but “doesn’t shame them.” He assumes people’s conscious must be plagued by guilt (because, apparently, shame is not a valid form of conviction in people). At another point, Keller states that shame is just a manifestation of deeper guilt (not a fundamental problem in and of itself). In these ways, they filter honor and shame through the paradigms of “law/gospel” and other Reformation thinking, in which sin is defined as law-breaking and wrong behavior.  

Two other observations. One, there are some interesting characterizations of honor-shame cultures (e.g., repentance is easy for people is honor-shame cultures). Two, there is no mention of the positive aspect of honor. It’s curious how shame is part of the law/problem, but honor is overlooked as part of the gospel/solution. For example, three new Christians books are titled, “Unashamed,” but non are titled “Honored.” 

To emphasize, I’m not trying be controversial or nit-picky, but these shortcomings are extremely common in Western perceptions of shame. I point them out because they hinder the development of a robust, complete, biblical theology for honor-shame cultures. For this to happen, we must read the Bible on it’s own terms, and not just through the evangelistic question of “How do we use the law?”

And also, Tim Challies’ recent post “Shame, Fear, and Guilt” was an excellent presentation of similar topics. Though also a Reformed theologian, Challies addresses the 3 cultures with balance and nuance by addressing each culture from the vantage point of biblical theology. 


resources for Majority World ministry

4 Comments on “Tim Keller & TGC Video on Shame

  1. Excellent comment and observation. I wonder if a key reason for this lack of recognition of shame as valid in and of itself is the individualistic nature of our western culture. Shame is dependent upon the community, not the individual. It is not what we have done that is the issue, but how it is perceived by and experienced by the community. Therefore comments that “we don’t want to shame them” actually mean “I don’t want that person to feel embarrassed”. Westerners focus on the individual’s experience of life wrt personal identity rather than group identity. Thus salvation is conceived of as personal guilt before a law, shame as embarrassment and salvation as a personal, individual redemption between one person and God.

    • Yes Mark, I think that is a key factor for sure. It is very hard for Westerners to view sin as breaking relationship, or to view salvation as restoration to God’s community. You observed that even when Western theologians speak about shame, it is the individual, psychological type of shame of Western psychology, not the collectivistic variety found in most cultures.

  2. In my view, all other issues are ignored but Substitutionary Atonement which places everything on True Moral Guilt. Shame is essentially ignored by most Evangelicals as is Bondage and Rebellion. This leaves us in a narrow and flat world when it comes to Pastoral Care.

    It is not necessary to live in a tribal culture to understand the collective nature of Shame. Shame is first individual and personal and later collective as each person is infected with the virus of Shame.

    In Pastoral Care each person has areas that are in Bondage and cannot simply be changed by trying harder. The result of fallen nature leads us to rebel in Pride and self-will. True Moral Guilt is a continuing reality for pre Christians and Christians so we are commanded to “Confess to each other and be healed”. Shame of course is the individual and corporate loss of Identity and Inheritance that being “placed as a son” resolves. Keller, like almost all Evangelicals, focuses on Rebellion and Guilt.

  3. I like what Keller says, as he is focusing on an actual standard in western culture (an honour shame culture would be different he points out).

    He notes the guilt that people feel, and without condemning people or distracting people with ‘an abstract absolute moral standard’ helps them to realise why they are feeling that. This is an effective use of western culture, I think.

    Could the issue of seeking to prove yourself in this way be a universal ‘hook’ regardless of culture? Not quite I think, as it would work differently.

    The question is though what would the hook be- in a western culture it might be falling short of achieving success, whereas in an honour-shame culture it might be failing to honour your family or elders perhaps.

    The argument seems to be that this success-failure paradigm is a hook for westerners, but that of course could fall short in terms of seeing a whole group of people accepting Christ, since then the shame and honour aspect of leadership and hierarchy would be more vital and apparent.

    The difference between the two cultures may not be so great however, the similarity being that guilt and shame are generally felt individually, as well as collectively, although to a different degree and in different respects.

    Perhaps this is the greatest consideration- how to find ways of using the culture that grip larger numbers of people at once, rather than a more conversational and intellectual style of evangelism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.