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.” 

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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:

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3 Comments on “Super Duper “Unashamed”

  1. Andy Crouch nailed it. Our society has so elevated the self, that all of life orbits around self identity, not identity within community. Modern “shame” in the west is about loss of self esteem esteem to the extent that people with broken psyches define their identity for themselves in unrealistic terms.

    Sadly the very place people should find community, the church, often is less a community as it is a congregation of needy individuals who are still self seeking.

    Having lived for decades in a tribal context, I see that when people in western churches talk about building community, it is noting like what I have experienced in the Asian tribal context.

  2. I was just a part of a conference on biblical sexuality at a church in the United States and the topic of shame was front and center. Many were freed from shame and began to journey with others in healing for the first time. I have lived in a collectivist honor-shame culture for 17 years and I can clearly see the difference between collectivist shame and Western individualist shame. Yet I am not sure that we can say Western shame is entirely “distorted”. Maybe it is interpreted differently, just as the concept of “self” is interpreted differently. I think that Westerners who feel a deep sense of shame because of their own actions or the actions of others (notice that though shame is generally not ascribed to a victim by others in the West, a victim still carries a sense of shame) definitely find it difficult to live in community, care for others, or even accept others. If the Western antidote for shame is just better self-talk, this is obviously a misdirected and ineffective answer. Yet I believe the Gospel meets the Western interpretation of shame just as it meets collectivist shame. Shame keeps us from being willing to be known and causes us to run away from others. Collectivist cultures struggle with this too, the church may be a better community in many ways than the Western church, yet people still can feel intense pressure in regards to their image. Just like in the West, Christians often feel they have to hide their weaknesses. Leaders can have an especially difficult time being transparent with anyone, leading to many problems.
    I don’t think either style of shame is better, or more distorted. Shame is a distortion of God’s original design for us and the result of sin, we all need the freedom which he has provided for all of us through Christ, and this will bring us into the type of community Andy Crouch refers to: “being incorporated into a community with new, different, and better standards for honor. It’s a community where weakness is not excluded but valued…”
    I have not read these books so I can’t comment on their content, and I have no real disagreement with this article. The new abundance of books on this topic is evidence that Western culture is grappling with shame, and we can approach it by saying “your definition is wrong, you are too individualistic” or we can approach it and say, “Yes, shame is a problem. Here is why…” and, “Jesus is the answer to shame, and he brings us out of our solitary lives into a new family!”

  3. Thank you! After reading some of those books I felt that they were coming unfortunately short in their understanding of shame. Even at times completely disregarding honour in discussing shame. Glad I wasn’t totally out to lunch.

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