Book Review: Honor and Shame by Roland Muller

The text Honor and Shame by Roland Muller was an eye-opener for this writer. Muller has over 30 years of missionary experience and this experience is evident in the text. Here he gives an basic introduction to cultures that are honor, shame or fear based and how this can pose difficulties for a traditional Gospel presentation. Muller then looks closer at Islam and how its culture base is dominated by shame and honor. 

The reality of sin results in the sending of missionaries to enter other cultures. If there were no sin then even the Christian attending church in padded pews would not feel the need to present the good news about Jesus Christ. Why would he if there is no sin?

The influence of sin brings about one of three emotional responses: guilt, shame and fear. Adam and Eve once confronted with the knowledge of their sin knew the pull of guilt upon their conscience. This is typified today in much of western culture which is a guilt-based culture. Our focus in the West is upon guilt and innocence.

Adam and Eve were capable of knowing right and wrong but they also exhibited shame. Genesis 3:8 records that when “they heard the sound of the LORD” Adam and Eve “hid themselves” from the LORD. The Roman accusers of Christ knew that crucifixion was a shameful death. Yet, Christ whose joy it was to disarm sin and death endured the cross despising the shame (Hebrews 12:2).

Muller notes that the “guilt aspect of salvation is due in part to our preoccupation with guilt as a western culture…the shame-based cultures of the world span an area from Morocco to Korea, and cover much of what is known today in mission circles as the 10/40 window.” (Muller, pg. 18) Even Judas after betraying Christ felt guilt and shame and took back the money he had taken for betraying the Lord of Glory (See Matthew 27:1-5) Guilt and shame are not the only emotions experienced however because there is a third.

Adam and Eve came to understand and feel the presence of fear. They knew their guilt, felt shame and feared being exposed by God. So, they hid themselves. Adam and Eve no longer stood erect and walked with God in the Garden, perhaps as other times, but hid themselves from His face. Even Peter feared to be identified with Christ after his capture. Matthew 26 records his denying the Lord three times. In Matthew 26:75 after denying Jesus three times Peter “went out and wept bitterly”. Clearly Peter knew the guilt, the shame and the fear of sin.

One of the negatives of Muller’s text is the lack of footnoting. The book has an excellent bibliography and suggested reading section but footnoting would have helped this writer more. That said he does make some interesting conclusions.

Muller notes that “fear-based cultures are found in Africa, Central and South America, and some islands in the Far East.” (Muller, pg. 19) He also notes that the Church has done better in some areas than in others. “In the shame-based cultures of the 10/40 window, we have done much poorer. Where there has been a blend of shame and fear-based cultures, the church has done reasonably well, but in the Muslim cultures of the Middle East which are primarily shame-based, the church has struggled to communicate the gospel in an effective manner.” (Muller, pg. 20)

Muller points out that there are “three basic planes on which worldview, function.” (Muller, pg. 69). They are extremes or tensions. He lists them as 1) guilt and innocence 2) shame and honor 3) fear and power. He suggests that typically an individual or culture who exists under one of those extremes operates somewhere in between, e.g. guilt and innocence. Muller notes that it is also possible to find all three in most cultures but usually one or two are more dominate.

Muller also writes about the clash of cultures. The North American Indian chose to die rather than face the shame of living on a reservation. Muller attributes this to a clash of guilt/innocence with shame/honor cultures.

In chapter nine Muller more closely discusses Islam and shame. The Arab culture is made up of system of “rival relationships” (Muller, pg. 80). As in tribal situations the Arabs value and emphasize dominance over others. The tensions between these rivals is never quite suppressed but always surviving in order to maintain dominance.

Muller also indicates that there are many types of shame in Arab culture. In the West individualism is accepted and admired whereas in the East conformity to the group is predominant. He notes, “The very meaning of Islam is to conform to the point of submission. The very object of public prayers and universal fasting is to force conformity on all.” (Muller, pg. 81). Muller notes that the other side of shame is honor. Every Arab desires to be honorable. To the Muslim conforming to the group identity is a method to retain one’s honor.

Sin exists wherever man exists. Guilt, shame and fear then permeate every part of our globe. Is there a one size fits all presentation of the Gospel? Is there a one size fits all when it comes to communicating the Gospel effectively and comprehensibly? Muller suggests the answer is in the negative. A Gospel presentation should address all three areas: guilt, shame and fear. Muller suggests that with these in mind we should address five different areas regarding God’s plan of salvation:

1. Repentance.

Repentance is the act of turning from our way and accepting God’s way. It is to turn from pursuing human honor and accept the honorable sacrifice of God.

2. Sacrifice.

The sacrifice of Calvary answers guilt, shame and fear. It takes away our guilt, releases us from the shame of sin and teaches us that we can overcome fear and walk in victory. All because of His singular sacrifice.

3. Redemption.

Redemption here need not only reference sin or guilt but one who makes the payment when we cannot. It is a reference to the one who can redeem those who are unable to redeem themselves.

4. Propitiation.

Muller notes that “If propitiation is the removal of wrath by the offering of a gift, then propitiation can be explained in terms of God’s wrath being removed by Jesus’ work on the cross.” (Muller, pg. 103). The shame or fear can be removed because God’s wrath is quelled by the death of the Son of God.

5. Reconciliation.

Muller suggests that this step is restoring the relationship between man and God. 2 Corinthians 5:19 tell us “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” Reconciliation is the act of God bringing lost sons and daughters into a personal relationship with Himself.

1) Muller, Roland. (2000) Honor and Shame: Unlocking the Door. Xlibris Corporation.

2) All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV) unless indicated otherwise.

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Adversus Trinitas

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