A Book Review of “Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures” by Jayson Georges and Mark Baker
The “Dark Ages” of Ministry for me in the 1990’s
Where was this book when I needed it over twenty years ago? At the time, I and ministry colleagues who were called to reach Asian, Latino, and African-American students were facing many organizational barriers. You see, many of our minority students could not relate to the majority-way blend of ministry that assumed (often without knowing it) a Western, guilt-based, propositionally-based ministry. In those days, ministry “toolboxes” had nothing close to an honor-shame framework, nor did we have a Biblical theology of honor-shame in our Christian books in our training. Tom Lin wrote a bible study book called “Losing Face, Finding Grace” that had a sizable impact among Asian American Bible Studies in the late 1990’s. But there was no change for my huge Christian organization. The ministry model expected of us assumed that people came from a majority culture, and that this ministry model was a “one size fits all” when it came to discipleship and evangelism. So we had to step outside the box to reach minorities on our respective campuses. The irony was that minority cultures WERE the majority culture on many of our campuses. (In a few years, more minority students will be enrolled in college than majority culture.) But since many of us had to satisfy metrics based on traditional Western culture, many of us worked overtime to spearhead reaching students who didn’t relate to Western culture. Our work was constantly questioned and often devalued. Our ministry marquee read “reaching all lost students” but in practice, our ministry was biased towards students who related to a Western model. There were breakthroughs, but by the end of the 90’s, over 90% (conservative estimate) of minority staff and students including myself, left the movement. Those were dark days for the ministry; perhaps, it would had been different if IVP published this book a couple decades earlier.
In the ‘90s, there were practically no “mainstream” books to theologically support the ministry we were doing. If anything, well-meaning ministry leaders often discredited our approach with convenient proof-texting of Bible verses. Was it just me and some of my colleagues that read the Bible differently? Something was not adding up theologically and I had to get to the bottom of this. So after resigning from CCC (today called Cru), I enrolled in seminary to access primary sources and a biblical narrative that does not necessarily assume a Western bias. I assume exegesis and learning to understand how the Bible was translated was a key, so I took every exegesis class I could. That plus the constant discussion with professors and colleagues, and my own experience of ministry to people in Central and East Asia, opened up what is now a strong honor-shame theological basis to help support much of my teaching and equipping (and I can now graciously defend my position among those who disagree). Now with “Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures,” we finally finally have an accessible volume on the biblical theology of honor and shame.
The first part of the part is “Cultural Anthropology.” Christianity is experiencing its greatest growth in the Global South and Global East, in lands long associated with an honor-shame framework. Yet, the theology to support this shift is underdeveloped and western bias continues to be the norm.
But this part of the book also highlights the fact that an honor-shame framework is a framework for everyone, not just those in faraway lands. This is not just because cities like mine are populated with dozens and dozens of people from these honor-shame cultures (about 60 nations from these places in my city alone), but every human being thirsts for honor; this is part of our DNA. That’s why this part of the book is amply titled “Cultural Anthropology.” This “world of shame” is not just overseas; it’s here, across the street, living in our social media that we carry around in our pockets and purses.
But the average Christian, even those who relate to Asian culture, will scarcely have heard of “honor-shame.” Having preached in pan-Asian and many immigrant Asian churches of Indonesian, Japanese, Filipino, and Chinese descent, I feel sad that often times, I’m the first person to preach a message with an honor-shame framework. Nor will one find “honor-shame” headings frequently in your favorite theology books. Mark and Jayson do a great job of breaking down the dynamics of honor and shame and what it looks like in honor shame cultures. Later in the book, they will unpack how these dynamics might look like in cultures we don’t think to be “honor shame cultures.”
The honor-shame narrative is strongly strung throughout the entire biblical narrative. Sadly, mainstream systematic theology texts will scarcely have honor or shame in their indexes. Makes one wonder about the Western bias in those books and/or their indices. And that’s why part two of their book called “Biblical Theology” is so pivotal. “Biblical Theology” means that the weight of Scripture by itself ought to speak for itself. Reading it, I felt it’ll take me the rest of my life to really unpack the biblical theology contained in just this one part for my own life and for those I minister to, and that’s coming from me, someone who’s known for articulating these themes everywhere I go.
Fittingly, Mark and Jayson start with the beginnings of shame from Genesis before explaining how covenantal promises are really promises of honor; this is the backbone of how God’s relates to people. “God’s covenants promise of honor is the answer to the shameful plight of humankind.” In the Old Testament (OT), we see this honor played out throughout the major characters of the OT, starting with Adam and Eve, God’s people, David the King in 1 Sam 17, Ruth, through slavery, exile, and more. In the New Testament, the book traces Jesus’ ministry of bringing honor to the shame, then onto Paul’s letters. This post of mine is just one small facet of a Pauline theme, and shows how an honor-shame framework harmonizes “problem” Scripture, in this case the whole notion of “sinful nature.” To summarize, Paul’s letters commonly assume an individualistic self-perception, which is an alien perspective in honor-shame culture where people saw themselves as part of a collective whole. The recipients of Paul’s letters relate more to the latter than the former. That post alone was the product of years of internalizing Scripture, discussion with scholars, study, and ministry experience. Yet, that post, and posts like this one are just the tip of the iceberg of what Jayson and Mark reveal in this part of their book. In reading this part, I respect not just their scholarship, but their missionary experiences and humility. All of that is brought to bear in this second part on biblical theology.
The third and last part of the book is “Practical Ministry” where Jayson and Mark cover spirituality, relationships, evangelism, conversion, ethics, and community. This makes up the bulk of the book. I’m going to highlight just a few things that stuck out to me from each chapter:
- Spirituality – It’s very fitting that this is the first chapter in this section, being that the basis of this whole framework is the honor, the acceptance that God offers everyone. A devotional reading of this chapter can really lead someone to ask God what one’s modern day “fig leaves” are, to replace such things with God’s honor and acceptance.
- Relationships – I’ve long felt that our Western world’s individualistic approach to relationships has been a huge blind spot causing lots of relationship damage, both in and out of the church. This chapter offers a great biblical alternative every believer needs in their tool bag.
- Evangelism: I’m most passionate about this chapter, which brings to bear the treasures of what an honor-shame framework could bring to evangelism. I and all my past ministries on college campuses and in churches have been employing these tactics for decades, but I’ve never read them articulated well until now.
- Conversion: A theology here employs seeing people in community. Sounds simple, but oft-times so violated. Might I say, the principles in this chapter apply normatively to Christian living.
- Ethics: In the largest San Francisco newspaper, I see “honor killings” on the front page every other month or so, and it always catches my eye. If we could understand how honor plays into the way the majority of our world operates, we’d be living in quite a different place.
A few final thoughts:
Each chapter in the whole book concludes with reflection and application questions. I can imagine a church or organic small groups studying this for a long time…not just Asian groups, but ALL groups. I know Jayson personally and can vouch for who he is as a person. We also went to the same seminary, and had many of the same professors. I’m delighted to see how he’s stewarded that education and his overseas experience for the Kingdom. I would guess the same for Mark too, though I’ve not met him yet. Together, they’ve written SUCH the gift for God’s Kingdom. I’ve been a practitioner that’s been employing many pieces of an honor-shame framework in all my evangelism and discipleship. In fact, the ministry that once marginalized this framework, Campus Crusade (today called Cru) has invited me multiple times to provide this honor shame framework to help both local and national teams to move forward. How good our God is to orchestrate redemption experiences.
Reading this book is like reading an auto-biography; I read my past hardships and victories through its pages. But these brothers have taken it way beyond what I’ve ever imagined and studied, casting even more space for me and my work to grow. I’m confident this will be a huge gift for you too, even if you’re wholly unfamiliar with the subject. Thank you Jayson and Mark! Check out Jayson’s very comprehensive blog, HonorShame.com.