As 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.
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.
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, 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. 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.
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.
 See https://jacksonwu.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/the-promises-of-god-designed-tract-full-english.pdf (accessed 15/05/2015).
 Donald A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 43.