adam-eve-shameAs a relatively new missionary working in Thailand, I’ve become aware of differences between my home culture and the culture of the country in which I work. One of these differences is that the West is a guilt-based culture, where-as Asia generally, including Thailand, is honour and shame (HS) based. To help me think more about these differences I’ve read Jackson Wu’s Saving God’s Face – a “Chinese contextualisation of salvation through Honour and Shame.”

Wu’s primary concern is that the gospel is not being clearly communicated to the Chinese. The reason for this is that most gospel outlines or evangelistic tracts were developed in the West and therefore focus on categories of “law, guilt, justification and judgement” (p. 14), which do not connect with a Chinese worldview.

Wu traces the problem to faulty contextualisation. He argues that most contextualisation is wrong because it already assumes the gospel (p. 10, 23). By this, Wu means that missionaries or those communicating the gospel cross culturally, assume that they know what the gospel message is for that culture. Instead, Wu suggests that the missionary should study the target culture first and then though this lens study the Bible (p. 68). This will enable the missionary to understand commonalities and differences between the Biblical cultures and the culture in which they work, and in doing so bring the gospel to bear on the local culture.

In the next two chapters Wu considers Chinese culture, and highlights aspects that need to be addressed by the gospel. He starts by summarising HS in a Chinese context. Broadly speaking, much of what he says applies to a Thai context too. He also briefly looks at HS within the Bible and concludes that “there is a tremendous thematic overlap between Chinese culture and ancient biblical cultures” (p. 192).

The final chapter (which is also the longest) is a soteriology of HS. Wu considers the atonement from the point of view of HS, before interpreting Romans from an HS perspective.

Helpful Insights

There is much to commend in this book. Wu writes from a generally conservative evangelical position and engages with people like John Piper, Greg Gilbert, Mark Dever, and John Murray. While not always convinced by his arguments, his criticisms are helpful and thought provoking.

I also appreciated Wu explaining the concepts of HS within a Chinese culture. While I’m not particularly familiar with this worldview, I found his explanations also helped me to think about and better understand Thai culture.

Having not previously thought that much about HS, this book was beneficial in helping me to see HS in the Bible, and the implications of this. For example, Wu writes, “It is insufficient for sinners simply to know their guilt. They must also sense the weight of shame proper to sin. The awareness of shame is not in itself atoning; rather it should spur repentance. If a person knows his or her shame before the King and Father, who is worthy of all honor, then repentance and conversion are anything but a mechanical decision to conform to a legal standard” (p. 29). This is a helpful and corrective critique. Wu discussions at this point are also beneficial in helping missionaries to begin to think about how we should communicate the gospel to people whose cultures are HS based.

Lastly, since HS is implicitly group oriented this leads Wu to consider the gospel, and the life of believers, from a group perspective. There was much here that was a helpful corrective to Western individualism.

Concerns

Despite these helpful insights, I have some concerns about this book. Wu’s starting point is that most contextualisation is wrong-footed from the beginning. According to Wu this is because it assumes what the gospel is, that is, the message to be proclaimed is assumed before the culture has been considered and understood. Thus, if I understand Wu correctly, it seems that he denies that there is a gospel that transcends culture. While I broadly agree with Wu’s gospel outline,[1] his understanding of contextualisation is concerning as it gives the impression that the message of the gospel changes depending upon the cultural context.

Second, Wu fails to sufficiently consider HS in the Bible. He gives a brief survey and concludes that Chinese and the biblical cultures are very similar. But if they are so similar why does the Bible extensively focus on law and guilt (consider Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), when Chinese culture does not? This suggests that the overlap might not be so great after all. Therefore, my fear is that Wu reads Chinese HS back into the Bible, rather than letting the Bible speak for itself – is this an example of my first concern, that the cultural context is driving the understanding of the gospel?

Third, Wu seems to want to minimise law, because it is a Western category. However, ironically, HS relies on law (or at least social constructs which effectively function as law). For example, in a given culture a woman might experience shame if she becomes pregnant while unmarried. However, this relies on the unwritten cultural “law” that it’s wrong to have a child outside of marriage. Therefore, the concept of law, to some extent at least, must be familiar to those in HS cultures. Maybe in these settings law is seen to be more relational, than we might think of it in the West. But in Scripture law is relational: it is the commands of the King to his people (just have a read of Psalm 119!). So maybe the Biblical category of law is not so alien to Chinese or Thais, when understood in this way.

Fourth, this leads to Wu’s understanding of sin. He asserts that “at its heart, sin is publically shaming God” (p. 182). However, this seems to confuse sin with the effects of sin. If we read Genesis 2-3, we see that God gives Adam his law “do not eat” (2:17). When Adam does eat the fruit, he sins. This has two results: guilt and shame. Adam is objectively guilty before God and therefore must be punished (3:17-19), but he is also objectively shamed before God and cast out. Wu might criticise Western theologians for ignoring shame, however it seems Wu does the same by ignoring guilt!

All of this points to the importance of Biblical Theology. We are not free to chose our own themes from Scripture and ignore others. Rather, we must work hard at understanding the whole Bible story with all the richness of different themes and concepts.[2] Yes, it may be ok to use certain themes to initially connect with people of a certain culture, but we always want to go beyond that so that they can understand the full counsel of God in all its richness.

Conclusion

Despite my concerns I would still recommend reading Saving God’s Face. It is a helpful book and does explore issues that missionaries from the West may be unaware of, or may be lacking in their understanding. However, ironically, I think Ed Welch (a Western theologian!), in his book Shame Interrupted, actually does a better job at explaining shame from a Biblical perspective than Wu does. Additionally, Welch shows that shame is very prevalent in the West too (though to some extent in different ways from the East), and so maybe there is a false dichotomy between guilt in the West and shame in the East. If shame in the West is as common as Welch suggests (and I’m inclined to agree with him), then whether we minister in the East or the West we all need to better understand honour and shame, and how the gospel addresses both of these issues.

 

[1] See https://jacksonwu.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/the-promises-of-god-designed-tract-full-english.pdf (accessed 15/05/2015).

[2] Donald A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 43.

Be Sociable, Share!
Honour and Shame: A Review of “Saving God’s Face” by Jackson Wu

8 thoughts on “Honour and Shame: A Review of “Saving God’s Face” by Jackson Wu

  • June 2, 2015 at 5:44 am
    Permalink

    Very helpful, honest, and discerning review. Thanks.

    Reply
  • June 22, 2015 at 1:55 pm
    Permalink

    Thank you for this review of my book. Your commendations are very kind.

    I must add however that the review does misrepresent my views on a number of points. For example, I firmly believe in one gospel that does not change. Like the biblical authors however, our presentation of it can vary depending on context. Also, I dedicate a substantial section to honor-shame in the Bible (contrary to the comments in this review). I actually think the Law is a very big deal when understood as a covenant, contrary to the manner of most gospel tracts. Finally, the critique of my view of sin is misleading. The reviewer does not distinguish between shame as the root of sin and its also being a fruit of sin.

    I say all this to give pause to readers of this review who may think I actually hold to the mistaken characterization made in latter half of the review.

    Thank you again for interacting with my work.

    Reply
  • June 23, 2015 at 3:54 am
    Permalink

    I previously posted a brief response to this review but it is not showing on your website. Did you receive it or should I resend it?

    Thank you for your help.

    JW

    Reply
    • June 23, 2015 at 4:39 am
      Permalink

      Hi Jackson,
      We did receive it and it should now be displaying on the site. Thank you for your response to this review. We are not checking the site for commments everyday so sometimes there is a delay in comments being approved. We apologize for this but have found it necessary in order to prevent spam comments. Thanks for understanding.

      Reply
  • June 23, 2015 at 7:28 am
    Permalink

    Dear Jackson,

    Thanks for your comments. If I have misrepresented you then I would like to apologise – that certainly wasn’t my intention.

    Where I wasn’t certain of exactly of what you thought, I did try to caveat my comments: for example regarding the point you raise about the gospel not changing, I did say “if I understand Wu correctly, it seems…” As I read your book, I genuinely wasn’t clear on your position at this point.

    My comment regarding not paying sufficient attention to HS in the Bible was specifically related to your survey in the section “Honour and Shame in Scripture” in chapter 4. I’m sorry that I failed to make that point more clearly.

    Thanks for the clarification on your thoughts concerning law. Lastly, I disagree with you regarding the nature of sin, that shame is the root of sin.

    Thank you for your comments.

    Reply
    • June 24, 2015 at 2:14 am
      Permalink

      Thank you James for your gracious response. I sincerely appreciate your desire to accurately reflect the ideas of the book.

      On a separate point, I admit the word “shame” sometimes causes confusion. When I use “shame” in an objective sense, I mean “dishonor”, as in Rom 2:23, “You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. ” Or, as when unrighteousness is explained in Rom 1:21, “they did not honor him as God.”

      I agree with you that sin includes breaking God’s Law but disagree that sin can be reduced to that one metaphor. Among various possible examples, Rom 5:13 makes a distinction when Paul writes, “sin indeed was in the world before the law was given” (Rom 5:13).

      I hope that helps clarify my idea for your blog readers. Thanks again James for your thoughtful review.

      For the Joy of His Glory,
      Jackson

      Reply
  • July 31, 2015 at 2:08 am
    Permalink

    Thank you guys for such wonderful job. I read Jackson Wu and your reviews. It is really helpful for young learners like us. Please recommend us some more books or resources on Guilt and HS.

    Reply
    • August 2, 2015 at 10:54 am
      Permalink

      Thanks for your comments. I’d very much call myself a “young learner” too especially is aspects of missiology. I’ve not read very widely on the topic of honour and shame, and so I can’t recommend any other particular books. However, here are a couple of other titles that look interesting (but as I’ve said, I’ve not read them so cannot vouch for their content): Werner Mischke, The Global Gospel; Jayson Georges, The 3D Gospel.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *