Book Review: Georges, Jayson & Baker, Mark D. 2016. Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures: Biblical Foundations and Practical Essentials

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Georges (MDiv, Talbot) and Baker (Ph.D, Duke University) can draw on their own missiological experience on the topic. Georges spent nine years working in Central Asia and Baker ten in Honduras. Right at the beginning, they make it clear that their approach can only be a tendency-representing approximation between different conscience orientations. It is not entirely clear where they locate their research, however, they seem to understand their experiences as ethnographic studies from a cultural anthropology (ethnology) perspective (Chapter 1 paragraphs 2 and 3). In each case, the findings cited are supported at the beginning by a practical ethnographic observation.

As an introduction, the authors use ISIS propaganda to examine the references to honor and shame (honor-shame) contained therein (p. 15). This contrasts with the North American-North European orientation of conscience, which is oriented toward innocence/justice and guilt (p. 37). The example of the American War Department, for the study of Japanese culture, by anthropologist Ruth Benedict, in order to understand Japanese conscience orientation, illustrates the deep cognitive divide between cultural imprints (p. 16).

The authors state that each ideological-theological school of thought is based in its values on a fundamental imprint of conscience. Therefore, they understand their approach as complementary and not absolute (p. 23).

In specific steps they introduce the thought structures of societies oriented on honor and shame. What is right and what is wrong is decided there collectively and relevant to the relationship. In contrast to this is the philosophical-legal perception in guilt-oriented social groups. Their summary is: guilt-orientation teaches, “I made a mistake, I have to admit it”, shame, on the other hand, says, “I am a mistake, I have to hide it” (pp. 37-38).

Values determine behavior and thus are fundamental cues. Using the following sets of themes, this is explained in more detail for honor and shame oriented societies:

the dynamics of patronage as a societal phenomenon,
indirect communication,
at collectivism oriented in individual occasions,
the purity-impurity paradigm,
the social role system, and lastly,
host-friendship (p. 50).
Specifically: The patronage or paternalism (not corruption) of guilt-oriented societies is based on a reciprocal relationship of unequal partners. The patron guarantees the physical provision of material resources (food, building and defense materials) and receives loyalty, bondage and allegiance in return. The gain of prestige (honor) is threatened by the simultaneous loss of the same through misconduct, caused by not sharing available resources. Indirect communication is a harmony and relationship-oriented form of communication. It does not expose anyone and is respectful and loyal to the interlocutor (p. 53). In the one-to-one social event, the respect relationship is brought to the fore. Thus, respect is also paramount in relation to waiting, e.g., for higher-ups at a wedding, even if the bride and groom, or wedding guests, have to wait (not to be confused with convenience). Purity represents order, the right thing in the right place, whereas impurity signals the wrong thing in the wrong place (no legalism! p. 55). Hospitality always seeks to give the quantitatively and qualitatively best for the guests (no obligation!). Feasts represent social honor events in which food is used as a counter value in the framework of reciprocal expectations (see above) (p. 58).

In the theological realm, the second part, the values and interpretations of guilt and justice oriented (Western) societies are compared with those of honor and shame oriented societies. Since the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament were anchored in the latter societies, the gap with today’s Western interpretation becomes clear. Financial, individual and social independence lead to egalitarian, respect-independent, enrichment-oriented, law-and-order, rational and punctuality-oriented communities and churches (p. 60). In contrast, the biblical emphasis is on the glory of God reflected in the likeness of man (Ps 8:5). Sin becomes a denial of this honor to God and man. Honor, therefore, is based on status. This is dependent on physical, spiritual and psychological factors. Here the authors refer to the disabled Mephi-Bosheth of Jonathan’s descendants, to whom King David paid respect out of compassion and his descent (2 Sam 3:9; p. 83). Unfortunately, the authors lack an inclusive approach here.

Next, Georges and Baker consider the biblical episode of the sinner woman oiling Jesus’ feet with her hair in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50). Apparently Simon had not followed the practice of washing his feet, a grievance that the woman picked up on, thereby exposing Simon according to Jesus (pp. 98-99). Georges and Baker give another example with the parable of the “prodigal son” (Luke 15:12-32). Impressively, Jesus took up the shame and honor orientation of his environment to point out abuse and transgression. He repeatedly exposed his disciples, the Pharisees or even official rulers to illustrate the values of the Kingdom of God. This has cumulated in the overcoming of death through the cross, which was declared as a great shame – curse (Dt 21:23; p. 175). In their retelling, they emphasize the possibility of overcoming the loss of face before God in relationship to Jesus the Christ.

Georges and Baker introduce practical consequences of the described orientations of conscience in the third part of their treatise. They address spiritual orientation, relational relationships, evangelism, conversion, ethical consequences, and community in such contexts. As appendices, they offer a bible passage index (Appendix 1), bible stories (Appendix 2) and references to further resources on the subject (Appendix 3). From Georges’ wealth of experience come re-interpretations of biblical stories he worked out with people on the spectrum of conscience discussed, which are incorporated into this third part.

The theme of conscience orientation has a certain tradition in anthropology and missiology. It has been critically questioned in research, e.g., whether it would not be better to assume a purity vs. impurity orientation in certain contexts (e.g., Wheatcroft 2005). The elaboration here does not address this, which is a point of criticism. As a source of ideas and also for understanding biblical contexts in terms of an honor and shame orientation, this work offers deep practical insights.


conscience orientation ; elenctics ; shame ; honor ; collectivism ; purity ; impurity ; evangelism ; Islam ; Buddhism ; religious studies ; anthropology ; ethnography ; disability ; disability studies