Last year was my first year teaching the Old Testament in Gospel Doctrine, and I benefited a ton from Ben Spackman’s Patheos blog. So I’m starting off this year by reading some of his recommended books for teaching the New Testament (list continues here and here). First up? Misreading the Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible.
The point of Misreading the Scripture is that the Biblical authors left certain cultural assumptions unspoken because they took them for granted. When we read the Bible today, we fill in those gaps with our own cultural assumptions. This process is often unconscious because, using the metaphor of an iceberg, most cultural assumptions lurk below the surface. So we don’t even realize that we’re imposing our own cultural paradigm on the scripture when we do it. Problems arise when the cultural context provided by a 21st century American deviates significantly from that provided by (for example) a 1st century Jew.
The authors, Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien, summarize nine cultural differences in the book. The most interesting for me is the difference between guilt-based and shame-based cultures. The United States is a guilt-based culture where private introspection (guilt) and individualism are seen as the primary guides of right behavior. Japan is the most oft-cited example of a modern shame-based culture where public dishonor (shame) and collectivism are seen as the primary guides of right behavior. Japan is not the only shame-based culture, however. Richards and O’Brien use several examples from their own time in Indonesia and—most importantly—the authors of the Bible come from a staunchly shame-based culture.
The difference between shame- and guilt-based cultures is a perfect example of the way that we can accidentally supply the wrong cultural context to our understanding of the Bible. Richards and O’Brien point out that modern readers of the Bible tend to invent an internal story for David’s repentance that is totally absent from the text. To a member of a guilt-based culture, it seems plain that Nathan’s role in the story is to jump-start guilty introspection on the part of David who, seeing his own actions mirrored in Nathan’s story, would be convicted by his own guilty conscience of his misdeeds. But none of that is actually present in the text and, Richards and O’Brien point out, the entire point of sending the prophet to David at all is to shame him with an external authority figure, not to catalyze an internal process.
The goal of Misreading the Scripture is to help readers better understand the Bible, and supplying the shame-based cultural context definitely does that. In a shame-based culture, public questioning is always a contest of honor. This puts Nicodemus’ night-time questioning of Christ in a different light: coming under cover of dark seems less a signifier of cowardice and more a signifier of sincere inquiry. Richards and O’Brien also argue that it was honor, not a question of blasphemy or a political threat to power, that ultimately led Christ’s persecutors to arrange His death.
So far so good, but Richards and O’Brien understand that reading the scriptures through the cultural context of shame causes some serious problems for members of a guilt-based culture. The problem is that shame-based culture appears not only different but inferior from the perspective of a guilt-based culture. As Richards and O’Brian point out repeatedly, it’s very difficult to even describe a shame-based cultural outlook within a guilt-based context without seeming to condemn it. For example, shame-based cultures seem to make right and wrong depend on whether actions are known or unknown. Since unknown actions can’t incur shame, they can’t—in a sense—be wrong. Additionally, the role of authority figures or communal consensus in shame-based cultures seems immature and weak to a guilt-based culture, which holds that a person ought to be true to their convictions in spite of peer pressure. Isn’t the entire point of a play like A Man for All Seasons or Cyrano de Begerac to denounce shame-based culture and appeal to the supremacy of the individual, private conscience? Thus, for someone from a guilt-culture, the overwhelming temptation is to see shame-culture as a kind of crude precursor to guilt-culture: a phase to be grown out of.
Richards and O’Brien conspicuously avoid that approach, however. Partially this can be seen as a pragmatic consideration: why would they want to introduce strife into the Christian community which includes an awful lot of modern, shame-based cultures? But there’s more at work than pragmatic diplomacy or reflexive multiculturalism. The reality is that, while not necessarily impossible, attempting to separate the Word of God from scripture that takes shame-based culture for granted is, at minimum, a daunting and formidable task. Once you recognize that the prophets and apostles of the Old and New Testaments were operating from a shame-based perspective, it’s not clear that one can attack or dismiss that perspective without undermining the Biblical text itself.
The solution Richards and O’Brien rely on is to simply argue that guilt and shame are mere tools, either of which can be used by God for His purposes. The Gospel, they argue, translates equally well into either paradigm.
That approach is just fine, given the focus of their book, but it’s ultimately unsatisfying because it assumes a third alternative without giving us any sense at all for what that third alternative looks like. It also papers over the very real conflicts between shame-based and guilt-based cultural outlooks. After all, it’s not just a matter of shame-based culture appearing inferior to guilt-based cultures. Guilt-based cultures appear inferior to shame-based cultures. For example, the guilt-based cultural obsession with individualism seems inhumane and selfish. Additionally, and this is where I start to add my own critique to that of Richards and O’Brian, the privileging of rational analysis in guilt-based culture can seem unrealistic and immature. A shame-based critique of guilt-based culture may be strongest in the simple observation that guilt-based culture denies the reality of human nature and therefore exists only within a state of perpetual delusion and dishonesty. We think we can self-regulate based on private adherence to principles, but we are lying to ourselves. We need shame and honor to keep ourselves in line.
Given the strength of the mutual critiques shame-based and guilt-based cultures offer of each other and the general undesirability of inventing a vacuous third alternative merely to paper over real conflicts, the better approach is to try and reconcile guilt- and shame-based cultures. Can it be done? I think so. Here are some first-pass thoughts I have about how it might be accomplished.
The most important thought experiment for discussing shame- and guilt-based cultures is the Ring of Gyges from Plato’s Republic. In that text, Glaucon argues that the ring, which has the power to make one invisible, would be universally corrupting:
Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.
Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust.
This thought experiment does two things. First, it focuses the conflict on an empirical question. If, when given something like the Ring of Gyges, the distinction between just and unjust action disappears, then the shame-culture has proven to be a more realistic assessment of human nature and the reliance on guilt revealed to be, at the very best, an unrealistic aspiration rather than an equally valid alternative basis for structuring society.
However, before we address that empirical question, it’s important to note the second thing this example does: it suggests that shame-based culture is a means to an end. This is a subtle but vital observation, because if shame-based culture is striving towards some other end beyond itself (e.g. if it is a system for guiding groups and individuals towards virtue), then we have spotted a possible common ground on the horizon.
Let us return to the empirical question for a moment, however. In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt brings up the Ring of Gyges as it relates to psychology experiments on human honesty. He summarizes a variety of experiments that show that when people have the opportunity to cheat without being caught (as if they possessed the Ring of Gyges) they take it: “The bottom line is that in lab experiments that give people invisibility combined with plausible deniability, most people cheat.” However, while they cheat with great frequency, they do not cheat to the fullest extent possible. Haidt quotes Dan Ariely from Predictably Irrational:
When given the opportunity, many honest people will cheat. In fact, rather than finding a few bad apples weighted the averages, we discovered that the majority of people cheated, and that they cheated just a little bit.
The emphasis is original: Ariely and Haidt are interested in the fact that most people cheat. My interest is a little different: “they cheated just a little bit.” Why?
If by guilt we mean a private conception of deviance from ideal principle—and that seems to be the meaning of the word in a religious context—then guilt doesn’t seem like the best explanation for this behavior. Widespread but limited cheating seems more compatible with the maintenance of self-image, that is to say, with a sense of internal shame. That’s not the same thing as guilt because it is based on appearance rather than on principle. As Haidt concludes: people cheat not as much as they can get away with without being caught by others, but as much as they can get away with and still manage to “leave the experiment as convinced of their own virtue as they were when they walked in.” In other words, they cheat as much as they can get away with without being caught by anyone, including themselves. Glaucon suggested it would take time for the just person to succumb to temptation and become unjust, but it doesn’t appear as though dedication to the ideal of justice plays a significant role at all. It’s all about preservation of self-esteem. Of honor.
This goes a long way towards unifying shame- and guilt-based cultural outlooks. Ring of Gyges-type experiments show that people (even people in guilt-based cultures) are easily corrupted by invisibility and plausible deniability. Point for shame-based cultures. But that cheating is constrained by self-regulation. Point for guilt-based cultures. But that self-regulation has more to do with positive self-image (e.g. honor) than it does with principle, which is a kind of fusion of shame- and guilt-based perspectives.
The key insight is that the individualistic, rational model of human beings implicit in guilt-based cultures and the communal, nonrational model of human beings implicit in shame-based cultures are both accurate. Human beings are, to use Haidt’s metaphor, 90% chimp (individualistic) and 10% bee (communal). For the rational / non-rational dichotomy the numbers reverse: we’re primarily and fundamentally emotional creatures, and use reason only secondarily. Haidt describes this as the rider (our rational mind) on the elephant (our emotional nature). Thus, shame- and guilt-based cultures appeal to the two sides of our dual nature.
Moreover, as I alluded to earlier, it’s possible to reconcile the apparently cynical nature of shame-based culture, which treats honor and shame as carrot and stick to regulate human behavior, with the deontological concerns of a guilt-based cultural outlook. In simple terms, all ethical systems have to be concerned with both pragmatic and ideal considerations. Pure consequentialism is impossible, because consequences can only be evaluated by applying principles. Pure deontology is amoral, because without considering the impact of rules on people there is no moral consideration. Shame culture may place more emphasis on the consequentialist side of the question, but it does not preclude deontological considerations. Seen this way, shame-based culture is a precursor, but it is now a precursor to virtue itself, not a precursor to guilt-based culture. Shame-based culture can therefore be reconciled to guilt-based culture.
I imagine something similar can be done going the other way, although—as a native of guilt-based culture—I’m probably not the best-suited to do so. I would hazard that treating individualism as a precursor to communal integration (e.g. individual then and for community as opposed to individual instead of community) might be a step in that direction.
In the end, I’m supremely grateful for Richards and O’Brien and their attempt to unveil the cultural assumptions that can warp our reading of the Bible, and I think that their basic conclusion (that neither cultural approach is superior) is correct. The outline I’ve sketched here might be a good start at actually making the reconciliation happen.
 Perhaps another way of saying this would be that it was the threat to honor that created the political threat as opposed or in addition to, in modern Western eyes, the raw fact of Jesus’ growing popularity.
 Ariely’s research was conducted in a guilt-based culture. I would be very interested to see a cross-cultural version of the study spanning guilt- and shame-based cultures to see if there are any differences. I was unable to find any such studies so far, but if my readers know of any I’d love to see them.