Last year was my first year teaching the Old Testament in Gospel Doctrine, and I benefited a ton from Ben Spackman’s Patheos blog. So I’m starting off this year by reading some of his recommended books for teaching the New Testament (list continues here and here). First up? Misreading the Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible.
The point of Misreading the Scripture is that the Biblical authors left certain cultural assumptions unspoken because they took them for granted. When we read the Bible today, we fill in those gaps with our own cultural assumptions. This process is often unconscious because, using the metaphor of an iceberg, most cultural assumptions lurk below the surface. So we don’t even realize that we’re imposing our own cultural paradigm on the scripture when we do it. Problems arise when the cultural context provided by a 21st century American deviates significantly from that provided by (for example) a 1st century Jew.
The authors, Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien, summarize nine cultural differences in the book. The most interesting for me is the difference between guilt-based and shame-based cultures. The United States is a guilt-based culture where private introspection (guilt) and individualism are seen as the primary guides of right behavior. Japan is the most oft-cited example of a modern shame-based culture where public dishonor (shame) and collectivism are seen as the primary guides of right behavior. Japan is not the only shame-based culture, however. Richards and O’Brien use several examples from their own time in Indonesia and—most importantly—the authors of the Bible come from a staunchly shame-based culture.
The difference between shame- and guilt-based cultures is a perfect example of the way that we can accidentally supply the wrong cultural context to our understanding of the Bible. Richards and O’Brien point out that modern readers of the Bible tend to invent an internal story for David’s repentance that is totally absent from the text. To a member of a guilt-based culture, it seems plain that Nathan’s role in the story is to jump-start guilty introspection on the part of David who, seeing his own actions mirrored in Nathan’s story, would be convicted by his own guilty conscience of his misdeeds. But none of that is actually present in the text and, Richards and O’Brien point out, the entire point of sending the prophet to David at all is to shame him with an external authority figure, not to catalyze an internal process.
The goal of Misreading the Scripture is to help readers better understand the Bible, and supplying the shame-based cultural context definitely does that. In a shame-based culture, public questioning is always a contest of honor. This puts Nicodemus’ night-time questioning of Christ in a different light: coming under cover of dark seems less a signifier of cowardice and more a signifier of sincere inquiry. Richards and O’Brien also argue that it was honor, not a question of blasphemy or a political threat to power, that ultimately led Christ’s persecutors to arrange His death.
So far so good, but Richards and O’Brien understand that reading the scriptures through the cultural context of shame causes some serious problems for members of a guilt-based culture. The problem is that shame-based culture appears not only different but inferior from the perspective of a guilt-based culture. As Richards and O’Brian point out repeatedly, it’s very difficult to even describe a shame-based cultural outlook within a guilt-based context without seeming to condemn it. For example, shame-based cultures seem to make right and wrong depend on whether actions are known or unknown. Since unknown actions can’t incur shame, they can’t—in a sense—be wrong. Additionally, the role of authority figures or communal consensus in shame-based cultures seems immature and weak to a guilt-based culture, which holds that a person ought to be true to their convictions in spite of peer pressure. Isn’t the entire point of a play like A Man for All Seasons or Cyrano de Begerac to denounce shame-based culture and appeal to the supremacy of the individual, private conscience? Thus, for someone from a guilt-culture, the overwhelming temptation is to see shame-culture as a kind of crude precursor to guilt-culture: a phase to be grown out of.
Richards and O’Brien conspicuously avoid that approach, however. Partially this can be seen as a pragmatic consideration: why would they want to introduce strife into the Christian community which includes an awful lot of modern, shame-based cultures? But there’s more at work than pragmatic diplomacy or reflexive multiculturalism. The reality is that, while not necessarily impossible, attempting to separate the Word of God from scripture that takes shame-based culture for granted is, at minimum, a daunting and formidable task. Once you recognize that the prophets and apostles of the Old and New Testaments were operating from a shame-based perspective, it’s not clear that one can attack or dismiss that perspective without undermining the Biblical text itself.
The solution Richards and O’Brien rely on is to simply argue that guilt and shame are mere tools, either of which can be used by God for His purposes. The Gospel, they argue, translates equally well into either paradigm.
That approach is just fine, given the focus of their book, but it’s ultimately unsatisfying because it assumes a third alternative without giving us any sense at all for what that third alternative looks like. It also papers over the very real conflicts between shame-based and guilt-based cultural outlooks. After all, it’s not just a matter of shame-based culture appearing inferior to guilt-based cultures. Guilt-based cultures appear inferior to shame-based cultures. For example, the guilt-based cultural obsession with individualism seems inhumane and selfish. Additionally, and this is where I start to add my own critique to that of Richards and O’Brian, the privileging of rational analysis in guilt-based culture can seem unrealistic and immature. A shame-based critique of guilt-based culture may be strongest in the simple observation that guilt-based culture denies the reality of human nature and therefore exists only within a state of perpetual delusion and dishonesty. We think we can self-regulate based on private adherence to principles, but we are lying to ourselves. We need shame and honor to keep ourselves in line.
Given the strength of the mutual critiques shame-based and guilt-based cultures offer of each other and the general undesirability of inventing a vacuous third alternative merely to paper over real conflicts, the better approach is to try and reconcile guilt- and shame-based cultures. Can it be done? I think so. Here are some first-pass thoughts I have about how it might be accomplished.
The most important thought experiment for discussing shame- and guilt-based cultures is the Ring of Gyges from Plato’s Republic. In that text, Glaucon argues that the ring, which has the power to make one invisible, would be universally corrupting:
Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.
Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust.
This thought experiment does two things. First, it focuses the conflict on an empirical question. If, when given something like the Ring of Gyges, the distinction between just and unjust action disappears, then the shame-culture has proven to be a more realistic assessment of human nature and the reliance on guilt revealed to be, at the very best, an unrealistic aspiration rather than an equally valid alternative basis for structuring society.
However, before we address that empirical question, it’s important to note the second thing this example does: it suggests that shame-based culture is a means to an end. This is a subtle but vital observation, because if shame-based culture is striving towards some other end beyond itself (e.g. if it is a system for guiding groups and individuals towards virtue), then we have spotted a possible common ground on the horizon.
Let us return to the empirical question for a moment, however. In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt brings up the Ring of Gyges as it relates to psychology experiments on human honesty. He summarizes a variety of experiments that show that when people have the opportunity to cheat without being caught (as if they possessed the Ring of Gyges) they take it: “The bottom line is that in lab experiments that give people invisibility combined with plausible deniability, most people cheat.” However, while they cheat with great frequency, they do not cheat to the fullest extent possible. Haidt quotes Dan Ariely from Predictably Irrational:
When given the opportunity, many honest people will cheat. In fact, rather than finding a few bad apples weighted the averages, we discovered that the majority of people cheated, and that they cheated just a little bit.
The emphasis is original: Ariely and Haidt are interested in the fact that most people cheat. My interest is a little different: “they cheated just a little bit.” Why?
If by guilt we mean a private conception of deviance from ideal principle—and that seems to be the meaning of the word in a religious context—then guilt doesn’t seem like the best explanation for this behavior. Widespread but limited cheating seems more compatible with the maintenance of self-image, that is to say, with a sense of internal shame. That’s not the same thing as guilt because it is based on appearance rather than on principle. As Haidt concludes: people cheat not as much as they can get away with without being caught by others, but as much as they can get away with and still manage to “leave the experiment as convinced of their own virtue as they were when they walked in.” In other words, they cheat as much as they can get away with without being caught by anyone, including themselves. Glaucon suggested it would take time for the just person to succumb to temptation and become unjust, but it doesn’t appear as though dedication to the ideal of justice plays a significant role at all. It’s all about preservation of self-esteem. Of honor.
This goes a long way towards unifying shame- and guilt-based cultural outlooks. Ring of Gyges-type experiments show that people (even people in guilt-based cultures) are easily corrupted by invisibility and plausible deniability. Point for shame-based cultures. But that cheating is constrained by self-regulation. Point for guilt-based cultures. But that self-regulation has more to do with positive self-image (e.g. honor) than it does with principle, which is a kind of fusion of shame- and guilt-based perspectives.
The key insight is that the individualistic, rational model of human beings implicit in guilt-based cultures and the communal, nonrational model of human beings implicit in shame-based cultures are both accurate. Human beings are, to use Haidt’s metaphor, 90% chimp (individualistic) and 10% bee (communal). For the rational / non-rational dichotomy the numbers reverse: we’re primarily and fundamentally emotional creatures, and use reason only secondarily. Haidt describes this as the rider (our rational mind) on the elephant (our emotional nature). Thus, shame- and guilt-based cultures appeal to the two sides of our dual nature.
Moreover, as I alluded to earlier, it’s possible to reconcile the apparently cynical nature of shame-based culture, which treats honor and shame as carrot and stick to regulate human behavior, with the deontological concerns of a guilt-based cultural outlook. In simple terms, all ethical systems have to be concerned with both pragmatic and ideal considerations. Pure consequentialism is impossible, because consequences can only be evaluated by applying principles. Pure deontology is amoral, because without considering the impact of rules on people there is no moral consideration. Shame culture may place more emphasis on the consequentialist side of the question, but it does not preclude deontological considerations. Seen this way, shame-based culture is a precursor, but it is now a precursor to virtue itself, not a precursor to guilt-based culture. Shame-based culture can therefore be reconciled to guilt-based culture.
I imagine something similar can be done going the other way, although—as a native of guilt-based culture—I’m probably not the best-suited to do so. I would hazard that treating individualism as a precursor to communal integration (e.g. individual then and for community as opposed to individual instead of community) might be a step in that direction.
In the end, I’m supremely grateful for Richards and O’Brien and their attempt to unveil the cultural assumptions that can warp our reading of the Bible, and I think that their basic conclusion (that neither cultural approach is superior) is correct. The outline I’ve sketched here might be a good start at actually making the reconciliation happen.
 Perhaps another way of saying this would be that it was the threat to honor that created the political threat as opposed or in addition to, in modern Western eyes, the raw fact of Jesus’ growing popularity.
 Ariely’s research was conducted in a guilt-based culture. I would be very interested to see a cross-cultural version of the study spanning guilt- and shame-based cultures to see if there are any differences. I was unable to find any such studies so far, but if my readers know of any I’d love to see them.
That was quite enlightening. Thank you. Given the shape of various internet movements lately, I wonder if Internet culture is inherently more shame-based than guilt-based, given the now generally accepted maxim that anonymity on the internet inevitably leads to anti-social (trollish) behavior.
I’ve heard lots of good things about this book, so I guess I’m going to have to read it.
Until then, though, do they discuss how Psalm 51 fits in this narrative of shame/guilt? Whether it was written by David or not, it’s clearly what ancient readers would have imagined as David’s thoughts, and it certainly seems very guilt based, rather than shame based. It may be my cultural blinders, though.
I’m going to have to read through this a couple of times more carefully. While I am really interested in parsing out the distinctions between shame and guilt, this approach to describing the two is very different than what I’m used to. It’s hard to keep my previous ideas about shame and guilt separate from the ideas here. Sometimes I wish there were more words in the English language.
I’m curious how you think this Shame-Guilt paradigm fits with the one that says Guilt=”I did bad” and Shame=”I am bad.” This is the general idea Brene Brown confronts in her popular work on shame and vulnerability.
Do Shame-/Guilt-based cultures influence whether a person is likely to feel guilt or shame on an individual level? Or are these two formulations completely unrelated?
Actually, they do go right into Psalm 51 in the text as one of the major examples that this is a shame culture, not a guilt culture. This is off the top of my head (from listening to the audiobook last night), but here are a couple of the examples:
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
Note that David is saying that he has sinned exclusively against God. That’s actually very counterintuitive. A modern American would think that Uziah had been wronged, right? And maybe Bathsheba as well. But not so, in the shame-based culture of David. By the standards of a Mediterranean king, he offered payment to Uziah so that he could save face, and Uziah turned him down, so it’s Uziah’s problem for getting killed by crossing the king. The calculus of honor was balanced between David and Uziah, but not between David and his own liege: God.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
This was the second one they pointed out. To a modern reader, David’s sin wasn’t from birth. It was a specific night when he decided to call of Uziah’s wife and have sex with her. But, again, that matter of honor was already resolved (he brought her into his house after Uziah was killed), so the shame/honor component of that specific incident was already resolved.
I’m sorry that you’re just getting it second-hand from me here. But the gist of it is that they did, in fact, cover Psalm 51 directly and argued that we’re misunderstanding it because we’re reading it with a guilt-based paradigm that makes us overlook these oddities and incongruities.
I did a little reading this morning in some of the academic literature about shame vs. guilt, and there is no one, single, accepted definition. The guilt = event = did bad and shame = person = am bad is one of the common ways of looking at it, but that’s different from the concept of guilt-based and shame-based cultures. There, the emphasis is on the idea that guilt is (1) private/internal and (2) individualistic whereas shame is (1) public/external and (2) social.
I’m honestly not sure what the relationship between those two perspectives on shame / guilt may be. In some ways, they are almost opposite because shame = external seems to be the antithesis of shame = “I am bad.” In any case, in my piece I was focusing on the second category (internal vs. external and individualistic vs. social).
There’s definitely more to dig into here, however. This post is really just my initial reaction to something I listened to yesterday.
I remember being uncomfortable with that chapter, new ideas and such. It was one where I wished they’d cited more sources I could follow up on, since these are really cultural/anthropological topics, not philological, which was my specialty.
I have nothing to add in terms of reconciliation or analysis, but glad to see someone picking up both the book and the gauntlet.
I’m definitely not trying to say the authors, or you, are wrong. I do get the impression that “shame” and “guilt” are being used differently in the context of a cultural vs. a more intrapersonal level. There’s nothing wrong with that, it is just hard when two (potentially overlapping) fields use the same words to describe different constructs.
From a mental health perspective, the trend seems to be moving toward encouraging people to reject shame while continuing to experience and honor feelings of guilt. We say that guilt moves people toward change, where shame is paralyzing. Shame moves us to hide from others and isolate, believing that if they knew the truth about us, they would reject us. Guilt moves us to connect with others through reconciliation and restoration. When integrating the gospel, shame is seen as a tool of the Devil to manipulate/coerce people. Guilt is more like “Godly sorrow.” So I often talk about a “shame-based culture” within some parts of the Church, where leaders or parents, often with the best of intentions, say things that make others feel that unless they meet a certain level of goodness, they are not acceptable. Individuals with perfectionistic tendencies tend to be more vulnerable to interpret these messages as shame-inducing.
So maybe that does relate to the idea of shame being external, or at least an internal prediction of external judgments. Where as the idea of guilt=bad action focuses on any action that violates an individual’s internal value system. If that is the case, I would argue that while guilt-based cultures may not be morally superior to shame-based cultures-in terms of ability to lead to virtue; perhaps the utility of shame/guilt based cultures depends largely on the nature of the individual. Maybe guilt-based cultures run a high risk of individuals developing self-serving values, while shame-based cultures run a higher risk of discouraging individuals who are striving, but not yet perfect.
The mental health definitions of shame and guilt seem to be a much more recent phenomenon. (Recent being the last 20-30 years, at least based on my reading.) Those mental health definitions also depend on English as a primary language. I would suggest looking more into collectivist vs individualist cultures and their sociological and anthropological definitions to better understand where the OP is coming from.
This is particularly interesting relating to the gospel: that our end-goal is a social/collectivist culture (if you are not one, you are not mine.)
That would seem to indicate that collectivist/shame culture is superior in a communal sense, but that it must be buttressed by individualist/guilt culture in order to possess true integrity.
Couldn’t you consider New Testament teachings as encouraging people to at least consider a guilt-based perspective? In Jesus’ view, thoughts of adultery were sinful even if a physical act was never committed (discovery of the physical act would be necessary for the shame element to become active). There were many other instances where Jesus bucked the shame trend (which would dictate avoiding and condemning ritually unclean persons) in order to highlight the hypocrisy of those who were publicly clean yet internally impure. I’m not necessarily arguing that guilt-based is superior, but there appears to be doctrinal support for elements in both types of systems.
Well, just to be clear, I’m not saying that shame-based is superior to guilt-based. If I’m right and the two can be reconciled, then the Gospel ends up being the same in both cases, although it might be approached differently.
To your exact question: Christ certainly does seem to be moving towards an internal perspective from the purely external perspective. But I guess it’s not clear that internal is always guilt vs. shame. As I pointed out in the article, if people are self-regulating (which is internal) but they are doing so based on self-image (which is closely related to external), then it’s kind of a hybrid guilt/shame approach. And that might be what Christ was getting at.
In any case, however, it seems clear that the Paul and Peter (based on what Richardson and O’Brien write in their book) were still speaking firmly from shame-based cultural perspective in their epistles. This would indicate that, even if Christ emphasized internal asepcts more, the early Christian disciples were still living a form of Christianity that was natively shame-based instead of guilt-based. This would suggest that, at a minimum, Christ’s teachings were still compatible with shame-based culture and He didn’t actually require his disciples to transition from shame-based to guilt-based. I’m not actually sure that would have been possible.
I would also hazard that, as Christ had to learn what He learned in the flesh, He himself would likely have had a shame-based cultural outlook, at least initially. My guess would be that by the time His ministry was concluded he had transcended the either/or distinction, but that earlier in His life He would have taught and thought in a shame-based cultural outlook for the same reason that he taught and thought in Aramaic: it’s what He had learned.
It’s quite easy to understand some of Jesus teachings in terms of shame-but-moving-towards-built.
(Luk 12:2-3 NRS) ” 2 Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.
3 Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.”
I think that while these proposed mental health definitions are indeed quite new, the phenomena have been central to psychotherapy since Freud. And while there is a significant difference in focus when describing cultures, I have a hunch the two are actually very closely related.
I want to believe that the two can be reconciled. I’m starting to get an idea of how I might do so, but trying to work it out all the way and get it into words can be tricky. I realized how under-developed the last sentence of my second post is. I like the connection you made with the Savior’s personal life. It helped me expand the thought more. It got me wondering about the intersection of cultures. In other words, what happens when someone living in a shame-based community, joins a guilt-based church? Or the other way around. Or if someone from a guilt-based culture immigrates to an area where shame-based culture is dominant? In these cases, multi-cultural theory proposes stages of acculturation in which, to some degree or another, individuals adopt parts of the new culture while retaining parts of the old. Would it matter what parts of each were adopted?
If there are beneficial and detrimental aspects of both shame-based and guilt-based approaches, couldn’t some combinations of the two be especially helpful and some combinations especially harmful?
A fellow in Elder’s quorum yesterday made the comment (about styles of member missionary work) that “God uses both types. Very effectively.” I think that comment is applicable here as well. Sometimes, God uses very stern and terrifying language to prompt repentance. Other times He issues a loving plea. Both approaches have been mis-used. Some individuals carry the stern approach to condemning or even hating “sinners.” Others promote love and tolerance to the point that no repentance or change is necessary. But if a leader, parent, or friend is in tune with the Spirit, they can be prompted to balance the two approaches in an optimal way for each individual.
The thing that really intrigues me is that God seems to understand that neither approach is really, truly, accurate. D&C 19 suggests that God uses language to touch hearts rather than to define Truth. It may depend on the situation and the person.
Nathaniel and Ben S – So I guess it depends if you view that internal perspective as the guilt/shame hybrid (per the OP) or if it’s just a delayed shame system. In the biblical quote by Ben S., you could still theoretically view it as a shame system, just with delayed consequences — “You may not be found out now, but God will out you in the end.” In that case, it’s not solely a matter of personal honor, the motivation could also still be based in a fear of eventual punishment. Thanks for the OP, this is has been an interesting perspective to consider.
Right, Mary Ann, in essence it’s a “you should act as if everything you do is public, because it will be.”
I think its a question of degree of pressure put on the individual. If an institution or family demands impossible results then shame and guilt seem to lead to depression or a state of learned helplessness.
Like Kevin, I was having a little trouble breaking my head out of the Brene Brown guilt/shame dichotomy (which I don’t think originated with her, but she seems to be its most prominent proponent these days). It is somewhat applicable, but perhaps only if properly put into context.
If we see “guilt” vs. “shame” less as “I did bad” vs. “I am bad,” and more as “I harmed God and/or another and must privately atone to them” vs. “I transgressed society’s code and must publicly atone to it,” then the vs. almost goes away and is replaced by an and. Perhaps that’s another angle at reconciling the two viewpoints, or perhaps I’m paraphrasing or extending what Nate was getting at.
It seems to me that once we break the Brene paradigm, so to speak (and that’s still a speedbump in my brain), at some level “guilt” implies private recognition and repair, and “shame” implies public recognition and repair. Both are possible and perhaps necessary, and Psalm 51 may (subject to my cultural context) be something of an example – as Nate explains from the book, David met the public requirements, but also felt a personal responsibility toward God after having fulfilled those requirements.
Parenthetically, David’s actions in the Bathsheba situation remind me of practices like ancient Germanic weregild and, for that matter, the relatively-recent practice of shotgun weddings in the case of unintended pregnancies (he done right by the gal, after all). Is it possible that the Western move to a guilt-based society is fairly recent, and that effective and widely-available birth control contributed to the transformation? :)
Another example that comes to mind in the NT is the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). Ignoring its suspect authorship, we have the Pharisees enquiring of the Savior whether or not the woman should be reconciled to the community by paying the shame price (death by stoning); he does not condemn her after establishing that no one is willing to witness against her, thus squaring the shame account. Finally he says, “Go and sin no more,” in effect admonishing her to reconcile her own guilt account. (This has often been misread, of course, by the “sola gratia” crowd as him forgiving her.)
Am I on something like the right track? This is an attempt to structure some developing thinking, so I beg your forgiveness for the unintended incoherence.
A very interesting post Nathaniel.
Doesn’t it boil down to free-agency? Are your sins an inherent and unavoidable tragedy, like Oedipus’ unwitting killing his father and marrying his mother, shameful but no guilt? Or are your sins avoidable, based on choices to do wickedly, so you should feel guilty for it?
There is a fair amount of pre-destination type thinking in the Bible, “who sinned this man or his parents that he was born blind?” There are “chosen” people. Grace is unmerited. Adam’s transgression curses all mankind. God “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart. God “shuts their eyes and stops their ears.” “I will curse them up to the seventh generation.”
So when did the idea of free-agency enter civilization? It is clearly in the Book of Mormon, because that was translated by Joseph Smith, who had a strong sense of free-agency. So I would say the Book of Mormon is extremely guilt-based. But is there any free-agency in the Bible, along with accompanying guilt? I don’t know the history of the idea of free-will, and would be interested for any insights you might have as to when and where exactly guilt entered the Western Christian mindset.
As a guilt-based cultural adherent living in a shame-based culure (the Middle East), this was an enlightening discussion.