In Defending Shame, Te-Li Lau presents shame as a solution, not a problem. Lau defines shame as “the painful emotion that arises from an awareness that one has fallen short of some standard, ideal, or goal” (p. 29). A brilliant contribution of his book is Lau’s careful nuancing of terms. For example, he distinguishes “occurrent experience” from “dispositional shame” and “retrospective shame” from “prospective shame.” Lau finds in Paul a more robust view of shame than most people recognize, whose implications extend beyond what he has room to state in his book. Therefore, I suggest that Lau and his readers can go even further in responding to contemporary challenges to a Pauline vision of shame, and that doing so would have enormous benefit.
Westerners seem to be ashamed of shame. But are they really? Do they talk about genuine shame? Might contemporary voices regard shame as “maladaptive” because they are not actually thinking about shame but self-disgust, low self-esteem, and the like? Whose definition do we choose? Modern psychologists’ or Lau’s? Who is talking about shame properly? In Lau’s favor, he points not only to Paul but to a Confucian tradition that speaks of shame as a moral emotion. Even historically, shame has been a richer concept in Western cultures than the one presented by modern writers. Moreover, psychological shame differs much from shame as typically discussed by anthropologists. The tension is most evident in the phrases “being shameless” “having no shame.” Psychological definitions of shame have no use for these fixtures of language.
Exposing Hidden Aspects of “Shame”
Lau exposes a fundamental flaw in modern notions of shame, a view so historically niche and provincial that we risk outsourcing the work of our consciences to public laws and policies. By implication, his work suggests a need to regain a definition of shame more consistent with historical and global cultures. Such a description would meet a few criteria, including (1) making clear why modern psychologists speak of “shame” as they do; (2) cohering with anthropological conceptions of shame; (3) facilitating greater understanding of shame-language throughout the Bible.
A robust, constructive use of shame requires the church to recover a more collective sense of identity.
A robust, constructive use of shame requires the church to recover a more collective sense of identity. Recent work by Gregg Ten Elshof complements Lau’s arguments, underscoring aspects of Defending Shame that could get lost in the details. Two points open a door for churches to apply Paul’s teaching more consistently. First, Ten Elshoff defines “shame” as “the state one is in as an object of social discrediting in a community of others.”Gregg Ten Elshoff, For Shame (Grand Rapids, MI; Zondervan, 2021), 73. More specifically, “felt shame” is “the painful emotional experience that naturally accompanies the perceived or imagined undergoing of shame in a community that matters to you.” This definition approximates Lau’s, except here, the community becomes the standard or ideal one falls short of.
Second, Ten Elshof presses at greater length than Lau against the modern tendency to equate shame with self-loathing or low self-esteem. Lau presents 2 Thessalonians 3:14 and Galatians 3:1 as public censures that “evoke our modern understanding of shame” (p. 210). He cites Paul’s use of “social rejection, isolation, abandonment, and severance of attachment bonds” as evidence. However, these tactics characterize social (or anthropological) shame, which must be distinguished from modern psychological shame. As Lau himself argues, Paul doesn’t intend to provoke self-loathing or low self-esteem. Conventional conceptions of shame are what Lau calls “faulty self-esteem” (p. 223).
Recovering Pauline Shame
These two features from Lau’s book deserve further attention. First, one wonders whether one reason we’ve overlooked Pauline shame is that modern psychology doesn’t, in fact, talk about shame, but rather something else entirely. To what degree then can we bring Pauline shame and modern shame into a meaningful conversation? Modern shame seems to be a hollow relic of ancient shame. If so, perhaps, we can “rehabilitate shame” (p. 231) by recovering its older, more robust meaning. Second, Lau’s careful analysis can help us identify what is lacking in contemporary discussions about shame. Whether focusing on Pauline shame, Braithwaite’s reintegrative shaming theory, or Confucian shame, Lau underscores the communal nature of shame. This social dimension is integral to a redemptive use of shame.
To what degree then can we bring Pauline shame and modern shame into a meaningful conversation?He elucidates the logic that entwines the individual with a community, which plays a role and bears responsibility for the moral formation of its members. From this perspective, the community’s inaction or inattention to a person’s transgression is shameful. After all, Lau says, “spiritual formation for Paul is not a private matter; it is a communal affair” (p. 165).
Likewise, identity is not private; it is intrinsically communal. Within our various groups, we understand the world, learn what we value, and make moral decisions. Naturally, “Paul exhorts the community to strengthen the social cohesion of the community, solidifying the ‘plausibility structure’ that supports the gospel worldview with its honor-shame categories” (p. 133). Lau even underscores the biblical rationale for public censure and shaming (pp. 103–07). It is the public nature of certain sins that require public redress for the sake of the entire community, not as a mere punishment for an offender. An individual’s restoration is a restoration into the community.
Lau’s masterful exposition of Philemon illustrates the point (pp. 140–47). Ostensibly, Paul’s letter is a simple exchange, a solicitation for a favor between individuals. Yet, Paul’s positive use of shame is dependent on his implicit appeal to a broader community. He frames his, Onesimus, and Philemon’s identity and position relative to others. Doing so evokes an array of values and honor-shame responses. Furthermore, Lau observes that the Philemon is not a private letter, even if its message primarily addresses his friend. In fact, both its opening and closing “reinforce the public nature of the letter” (p. 141).
Pauline shame aims to prompt right motives, not merely right actions. But how does this occur? Once again, Paul appeals to a shared sense of identity and the mutual obligation that follows from it. Philemon and Onesimus are fundamentally joined together, belonging to the family of God in Christ. Precisely for this reason, they must live and relate to one another in a way that radically contrasts the “worldly pattern of relationship based on the roles of master and slave” (p. 146).Pauline shame aims to prompt right motives, not merely right actions.These appeals to community activate the conscience, which Lau also ties closely to shame (pp. 154–55). Conscience is the capacity to discern whether a person’s life accords with one’s moral norms and internal values. Healthy shame, Lau says, “functions analogously to conscience” (p. 155). From this angle, we see how retrospective and prospective shame are integral to transforming one’s conscience. In Chapters 4–6, Lau demonstrates how Paul uses retrospective and prospective shame “to cultivate a dispositional sense of shame in his readers” (p. 123). And what do we find? Lau repeatedly shows that retrospective and prospective shame only do their magic in the context of community.
By contrast, significant references to community are vacant in popular notions of shame today. Contemporary psychologists speak of shame in terms of “me,” not “we.” Shame, then, primarily focuses on whether “I” am enough. Might these malfunctioning views of shame be a product of Western individualism, an idiosyncratic phenomenon in the context of historical global cultures? Do modern psychologists ruin shame by orienting it on the individual, removing its fundamental moral and communal orientation?
When individual identity is prioritized or virtually cut off from collective identity, what tools are we left with for moral formation? Either a faulty sense of shame or guilt. For now, it seems that guilt is the only lingering dimension of moral conversation with a public dimension. According to conventional thinking, guilt (not shame) provides an external basis for moral decision-making. Yet, this shift of focus has a detrimental effect in that it also moves attention to one’s actions, not character.
On the one hand, these observations raise questions about the popular Western understanding of shame. How might the experience of modern shame indicate one’s not being adequately integrated and identified with a community, or perhaps a lack of certainty about the values that identifies you with other people? How does this faulty sense of shame reflect a gross misunderstanding regarding whose judgment matters most to us? In a word, what idolatries are embedded within the conception and experience of modern shame?
How do the ancient and modern contexts differ such that it would prove difficult for contemporary Western churches to apply shame in Paul’s manner?
On the other hand, Lau’s presentation of Pauline shame forces us to reckon with other questions relevant to moral transformation in the church. What contextual prerequisites are lacking in contemporary Western churches that prevent them from using Pauline shame? We can ask it another way: How do the ancient and modern contexts differ such that it would prove difficult for contemporary Western churches to apply shame in Paul’s manner?Botner asks, “Do modern churches, especially in the West foster the kind of ‘communitarianism and interdependency’ (p. 200) that are prerequisite for Pauline shame?” See Max Botner, “Review of Defending Shame,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 31, no. 2 (2021): 269 [266-70].
An urgent issue stemming from this discussion is seen in Lau’s claim:
Paul envisions the community of faith as the earthy counterpart to the divine court of opinion. Its role is to maintain the plausibility structure that undergirds the gospel worldview, instilling, perpetuating, and reinforcing in each of its members the set of values that are established by God (p. 152).
A most pressing question confronts us. How do we ensure that churches give expression to the “divine court of opinion”? We are increasingly becoming aware of ways that culture, including sociological and political dynamics, influences our theology and practice. On this point, Lau’s analysis raises the stakes. Churches must take seriously the potential that they might be harbingers of non-Christian honor-shame values, presenting certain subcultural values as though they represented the “divine court of opinion.”
In summary, Lau’s contribution in Defending Shame is far-reaching. His study challenges readers to reconsider common notions of shame and particularly the role of a community, such as the church, when using shame as an instrument for moral formation. A robustly historical, global, and indeed Pauline definition of “shame” is intrinsically moral and communal, thus invalidating modern conceptions of shame as “low self-esteem.” Lau adds, “the opposite of shame is not self-respect, self-validation, or healthy self-esteem . . . the opposite of shame is honor” (p. 6). Lau’s presentation suggests a way to counter the “neutered program of moral progress” (p. 214), which results from an individualistic Christianity that discounts shame in favor of guilt.
Defending Shame is a masterclass in practical and contextual theology. Te-Li Lau demonstrates an integrative approach to biblical studies that takes the context of the reader and the contributions of other academic disciplines seriously. This brief engagement with his book ignores countless other questions that readers might raise. For example, to what degree does Paul explicitly borrow from the Old Testament’s use of shame for the sake of moral formation? How does Lau’s investigation help us interpret other parts of Scripture? These and other issues are worthy of extended discussion well beyond this short essay. That his book inspires such significant questions is a testimony to the vital contribution that is Defending Shame.