Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes: Honor and Shame in Paul’s Message and Mission by Jackson W. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic Press, 2019.
Christianity is a Western religion. We Chinese have our own traditions. It’s ok for you to be a Christian because you are a Westerner, but I am Chinese and the Bible is not for Chinese.
I have heard this type of response countless times from Chinese (strangers and friends) when I share the gospel and about my Christian faith with them. I have often walked away from such conversations mentally rehashing what I could have said differently. How could I have explained and better connected Scripture to the context? Did I miss some cultural cue? Did I not see something in Scripture to begin with?
These are the types of questions that Jackson W. attempts to address in his book, Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes. “This book,” W. says, “demonstrates how we might read the Bible with a broader cultural lens. By reading Romans with Eastern eyes, we can discern key ideas and applications often overlooked or underemphasized by Western interpreters. An Eastern lens equips readers to see the significance of honor and shame in Paul’s message and mission.” (p. 2) W. walks through Paul’s letter to the Romans chapter by chapter, helping the reader to uncover themes of honor and shame common to East Asian culture that Westerners easily miss.
W. states upfront that this is not a technical commentary, yet the book does provide ample exegesis and commentary of scriptural texts combined with analysis of scholarly research on honor-shame cultures.
The first chapter sketches out what it means to read with “Eastern eyes” and describes common values in honor-shame cultures in East Asia. The remaining eleven chapters walk through the book of Romans using Eastern eyes. Along the way, W. attempts to rotate the gem of the gospel message, as it were, so that themes of honor and shame common in Paul’s day are brought to light from Scripture.
As a theological educator in East Asia, I found W.’s study rich and thought-provoking. W. offers several challenges to “traditional Western theology.” The doctrine of justification, for example, is one on which W. spends an ample amount of ink (both here and in previous journal articles) to explain from an honor-shame perspective. He challenges the traditional law court metaphor of declaring a sinner innocent before a just judge and instead wants to expand the scope of the doctrine. W. says:
Justification in Romans is a way of recognizing a person’s honorable status, that is, one’s identity as Abraham’s offspring. The justified person belongs to Abraham’s family because she is “in Christ.” Works (of the law) and faith serve as proxies for group honor using different measures of worth. Justification by faith creates a new community whose ascribed honor does not stem from standard social distinctions. (p. 85)
It’s the who and not just the how of justification on which Paul and the Roman church (and in turn so should we) primarily focus. Using Eastern eyes, W. says, we can better see the dual emphases of justification for the individual and for the church. This explanation of justification is one prominent example of reading with Eastern eyes that takes both the text and honor-shame culture seriously. The result makes this traditional Western reader uncomfortable, but perhaps that is precisely the point.
W. also challenges traditional readings of Romans passages in general, but some of his “Eastern” readings of certain passages, such as Romans 1:18-32, 2:14, 2:23-24, Romans 4, Romans 7, and Romans 13, are of particular note. Similarly, there are elements of W.’s reading with Eastern eyes that seem to incorporate or are friendly to interpretations from the new perspective on Paul (NPP) with which some readers (again, including this one) may be uncomfortable.
I was also keen to read this book in order to glean practical applications for ministry in my own context. Even though this is not a book on evangelism per se, at many points in the book W. pauses and addresses missions and evangelism questions relevant to the scriptural text at hand. Of particular note for a Chinese context, for example, is how W. advocates for better evangelistic presentations that underscore the necessity of suffering in salvation over escape from pain. Similarly, he describes why our evangelistic presentations in honor-shame cultures ought to affirm the importance of the physical world and our physical bodies in this present world and in relation to the resurrection.
I was excited to read W.’s chapter on Romans 13 where Paul instructs the Roman church to submit to the ruling authorities. How might W. apply this to a Chinese context today when more pressure has been exerted recently against Christians? Would an honor-shame perspective have anything different to say? Indeed, W. says, “An honor-shame perspective is inherently political. We make a political statement when choosing whom to honor” (p. 172). I was not disappointed to read and gain fresh insight on suffering and endurance for Christians from his analysis in this chapter.
However, my favorite chapter in this book is chapter 8, “The Hope of Glory through Shame,” in which W. unpacks Romans chapters 5-8. In this chapter, perhaps more than others, the gospel comes through so clearly, particularly from an honor-shame perspective. W. helps the reader move from a potential partial understanding of the gospel to a glorious and more rich understanding of salvation from an honor-shame perspective.
Throughout the book, W. covers many honor-shames themes that all missionaries in honor-shame cultures ought to become more familiar with, such as face, reciprocity and relational debt, authority, hierarchy, benefaction, influence, harmony, peace, ascribed and achieved honor and shame (of course), and others. At the same time, W. uses both Western and Eastern everyday examples of these themes in order to help the reader see that honor-shame is present and familiar to some degree in every context. By doing so, he achieves his goal of helping readers breakout of their established worldviews when reading the Bible.
This book also includes a helpful discussion guide with four to seven questions for each chapter in the back. The discussion guide would be a helpful tool, for example, for a group of theological or church trainers working in East Asia to first read and study together in order to begin to teach through Eastern eyes.
With plentiful exegesis and missiological analysis, this book would be most accessible for those with at least some introductory training in those areas. W. aims to uncover our blind spots in reading Scripture, particularly for those unfamiliar with honor-shame cultures. After reading this book, I now cannot read Romans (and Paul) and not help but see honor-shame themes pop off the page.
Our thanks to IVP Academic for providing a copy of Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes: Honor and Shame in Paul’s Message and Mission for this review.
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