Understanding the context to which we are ministering is one of the most important aspects of mission–and other–work. Jayson Georges and Mark D. Baker have provided, in Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, a way to understand cultural practices that are far from what many in the West experience. I found it to be enlightening, and a little alarming, because it showed many times where I may have given offense without even realizing it.
Georges and Baker utilized a number of stories to illustrate some of the difficulties in understanding honor-shame cultures when one’s background is not in that culture. For those, like me, with a limited grasp of the topic, honor-shame cultures ought to be defined, but that itself is difficult. Basically, these cultures have a system where the community is valued more highly than the individual, and shame, rather than guilt, is the result of violations of the strictures of society. Such a perspective means that, for example, the core problem with one’s violation of the codes of society is not that we make mistakes (as in our individualistic societies) but rather that our very being has been corrupted. Thus, rather than trying to justify or apologize for our mistake, it is more important to cover that mistake (see especially the table on page 38).
We often see honor-shame cultures as silly or backwards–possibly even morally wrong or bankrupt–because our very understanding of human interaction is built upon a different system. Why should we have to highlight someone else’s importance in order to get what we deserve? Just as easily, the other could ask why we refuse to honor them with the standing in society that they possess? These stories help highlight both the strangeness of the “other” in the honor-shame culture and the way that we may be equally seen as brusque at best to people of other cultures. The early chapters, in particular, highlight these points.
Even more importantly–and the above is certainly vital–we may be misreading the Bible due to our misunderstanding of honor-shame cultures. For example, the many rules about purity and what makes someone unclean are almost impossible to understand without some grasp of honor-shame culture. The chapters on biblical background for understanding this and other aspects of Christianity that can really only be fully understood in honor-shame contexts.
Finally, Georges and Baker provide a number of practical applications for what they highlighted in the first 100 or so pages. These applications range across spirituality, relationships, evangelism, conversion, ethics, and community. Three appendices provide (lots of) key scripture passages on honor-shame, biblical stories that address honor-shame cultures, and resources for further reading.
Throughout the book, smart use of tables and graphs helps readers visualize the differences in cultures that lead to many misunderstandings. If there is one complaint I have the book it is that I desired more exegetical considerations, which is basically to say that I’d love a follow-up work that focuses on understanding critical biblical passages. In other words, there’s little to complain about here. It is a book full of insights that are both practical and engaging.
Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures is one of those rare books that makes you sit back and think–really think–about how you understand the “other.” For that alone, it is worth the read. Set that alongside a good helping of practical applications and biblical theology, and the book is a must-read. It comes highly recommended.
+Provides numerous examples to help think through the issues
+Use of graphics smartly done
+Highlights very important, but often misunderstood topics
+Encourages critical interaction
-More exegesis of some key passages would be helpful
Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the publisher for review. I was not obligated to provide any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
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