Steve McQueen’s 2011 film Shame is one of the most devastating movie experiences I’ve had in recent memory. I’m wading into potentially touchy Mormon territory given its NC-17 rating and subject matter, but I think it’s worth the risk. In short, the film follows Brandon (an incredible Michael Fassbender) as he struggles with his all-consuming sex addiction; one that includes frequent pornography viewing and masturbation at both work and home, casual sexual encounters (including one in a gay bar despite being quite straight), and multiple hired sex workers. In the midst of his nihilistic despair, we witness his withdrawal from those around him, including his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) who is temporarily staying with him. Yet, the underlying theme of all this is–as the title makes clear–shame.
The word shame may bring to mind a mixed set of meanings. For example, the word is obviously central to “ashamed” or even the phrase “have you no shame?” This understanding of the concept is very ancient in origin. Biblical scholars have labeled societies in antiquity (including the Greco-Roman world Jesus inhabited) as honor/shame societies (this has been discussed here at Times & Seasons before). While the modern Western world features a highly internalized, personalized morality, other cultures place stronger emphasis on the connection between personal behavior and community values. “In shame cultures,” writes one pair of biblical scholars, “people are more likely to choose right behavior on the basis of what society expects from them. It is not a matter of guilt, nor an inner voice of direction, but outer pressures and opinions that direct a person to behave a certain way. Rules and laws are less a deterrent for bad behavior than the risk of bringing shame on oneself or one’s family.” New Testament scholar David deSilva points out, “Those living or reared in Asiatic, Latin American, Mediterranean or Islamic countries have considerable advantage in their reading of the [scriptures] in this regard, since many of those cultures place a prominent emphasis on honor and shame.” Modern researchers recognize that aspects of this more ancient view of public morality can lead to “healthy attitudes that define a wholesome character.” Social pressures can establish boundaries and create context for our behavior. These constraints remind us of our limitations and can foster a sense of humility. Or, as the Lord said to Moroni, “I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things strong” (Ether 12:27).
However, this is not the type of shame addressed in the movie above or in this post. Rather, I mean shame as an identity. In his popular book Healing the Shame That Binds You, author John Bradshaw explains, “As a state of being shame takes over one’s whole identity. To have shame as an identity is to believe that one’s being is flawed, that one is defective as a human being. Once shame is transformed into an identity, it becomes toxic and dehumanizing.” Similarly, researcher and author Brené Brown defines shame as “the fear of disconnection—it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection…Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” It creates a “gnawing self-doubt” and even “inflamed self-hatred,” which “drives people toward perfectionism, withdrawal, diffidence, combativeness.” Brown makes the simple, yet helpful—if not idiosyncratic—distinction between shame and guilt: guilt says I did something bad, while shame says I am something bad. A helpful comparison would be Paul’s contrast of “godly sorrow” and “worldly sorrow” in 2 Corinthians 7:10. As President Uchtdorf proclaimed, “Godly sorrow inspires change and hope through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Worldly sorrow pulls us down, extinguishes hope, and persuades us to give in to further temptation…Yes, heartfelt regret and true remorse for disobedience are often painful and very important steps in the sacred process of repentance. But when guilt leads to self-loathing or prevents us from rising up again, it is impeding rather than promoting our repentance.” Such sorrow is not worldly because it privileges the opinions of man rather than God (as is often taught). It is worldly because it is not of God: it disconnects us from our Heavenly Father and one another. This worldly sorrow or toxic shame can cloud our vision and prevent us from seeing the inherent dignity, beauty, and potential within each person, including ourselves. In essence, shame causes us to forget that “the worth of souls is great in the sight of God” (D&C 18:10).
We’ve all experienced this in one way or another:
- The voice that tells you you’re not pretty or skinny enough as you examine your body in the mirror.
- The voice that tells you how dumb you are when you don’t get into the college of your choice.
- The voice that tells you what a terrible parent you are after you yell at your kids.
- The voice that tells you how big of a failure you are when you are laid off.
- The voice that tells you how you’ll never be loved after watching pornography yet again.
- The voice that tells you your colleagues talk behind your back because you’re such an idiot.
- The voice that tells you that you don’t belong at church because you’re not worthy enough.
Or, from my personal collection:
- You’re a skinny, gangly looking creature. No amount of exercise will change that.
- You’re a sucky writer. Why do you waste so much time doing it?
- It doesn’t matter how much you read, you’ll always be dumb and always be behind. Nothing more than a pseudo-intellectual.
- You’ve been playing guitar this long and you can’t even do that? You’re a disgrace to the instrument.
- No one at church cares what you think. You’re just the overly opinionated guy in the back. You probably don’t even have a real testimony.
(There’s a lot more, but you get the point.)
These are the stories Adam Miller so rightly suggests we lay down. All of these whispers drive us away from others and lead us to disconnection. They then leave us lonely in a crowded room. Returning to the movie, it is clear from the beginning that Brandon is detached. Sissy calls and leaves multiple messages in the first few minutes of the film, each of which is either ignored or erased (she finally just shows up, much to Brandon’s annoyance). He is disgusted and angered by his sister’s promiscuity, likely because it triggers his own self-loathing. As he berates her for sleeping with his boss and attempts to kick her out of his apartment for being “a burden,” she claims,
Sissy: If I left, I would never hear from you again! Don’t you think that’s sad?
Sissy [with more desperation in her voice]: …Don’t you think that’s sad?!?
At one point Brandon relays his negative views of commitment and marriage to a recently separated co-worker, admitting that the longest relationship he’s ever had lasted only four months. Later, he is unable to sexually perform with this same co-worker because there is too much affection and emotion involved. However, he performs easily enough with a prostitute in the very same hotel room the very same day in the very next scene. Sissy’s own shame becomes apparent. The numerous scars on her arm tell us that she has attempted suicide (as she does in the latter part of the film) and/or engages in cutting. A desperate message left for Brandon provides a brief, but ambiguous insight into why they are the way they are: “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.” Whether they come from a place of abuse, dysfunction, and/or instability is left unclear. These addictive behaviors, however, are not the cause of the detachment and shame, though they certainly entrench them in a vicious cycle. Rather, it is shame that ultimately gives rise to these self-destructive behaviors.
As I wiped the tears away at the film’s end, one of the first things that came to mind was “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). While Mormonism embraces a slightly muddled version of a Fortunate Fall, it is difficult to side step the negative reactions of the first couple following their partaking of the fruit. Terryl Givens traces the more exalted view of Eve’s initial choice back to an 1875 issue of the Woman’s Exponent. Yet, “it took three quarters of a century before a leading church authority, John Widtsoe, intimated that Eve deserved praise, not censure, for her decision…Decades later, leading Mormon intellectual Hugh Nibley returned to the theme…Soon thereafter LDS leaders were picking up that thread.” But attempts to smear Eve in some Christian traditions or even exalt her in ours can cause us to miss an important, yet subtle (cf. Gen. 3:1; Moses 4:5) element of the Fall; an element that is universal to the human experience. Prior to the serpent’s introduction, the man and woman are described as “naked” and “not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25; Moses 3:25; Abraham 5:19). I imagine that most would say shame was introduced after Adam and Eve’s disobedience: it is the natural consequence of transgression. However, I think it can be argued that shame was introduced before the partaking of the forbidden fruit. As psychiatrist Curt Thompson illustrates in his new book The Soul of Shame,
In stating flatly that the woman will not die, the serpent offers her a new rendition of the truth. A startling one, to be sure. But this is not merely a factual sleight of hand. To be told that you will be like God may seem like a good thing…But the subtle corollary to this idea is that, given the prohibition to the fruit of this particular tree, by implication God does not want you to be like him. God does not want you to have what he has. He does not want you to be as close and as connected to him as you might think he does. And by further implication, therefore, you are not as important as you think. You, as it turns out, are less than you think. You. Are. Not. Enough.
It is interesting that Satan (according to the temple depiction) approaches Eve while she is alone in order to further isolate her and place her feelings of love and security in doubt. Even prior to the breaking of commandments, the idea that “it is not good that [wo]man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18; Moses 3:18; Abraham 5:14) was under assault. The image of God in which man and woman were created was being torn apart. And all by exploiting the mind’s sense of shame. By itself, shame is simply “our system’s way of warning of possible impending abandonment.” However, we “tend to respond to it by relationally moving away from others rather than toward them, while experiencing within our own minds a similar phenomenon of internal disintegration.” Thompson writes, “When an individual, relationship or community is touched by [shame], the mind moves toward a more disintegrated state. Sensations, images, feelings, thoughts and behaviors have a more difficult time flowing as a coherent whole…In the same way that a destructive weather system…disrupts the connected infrastructure of power supply and people, so shame does to the mind and relationships.” This “process of disintegration…follows a predictable, inevitable trajectory, one that begins with separation and ends in the hell of utter isolation.” As Eve became more convinced of her loneliness with a growing sense of vulnerability, she reached out for something “to be desired to make one wise” (Gen. 3:6); something to distract her from or help buffer the gnawing emptiness of shame. Yet, as both Adam and Eve partook, it locked in a continuous cycle in which all they could do was grab fig leaves in an attempt to cover their shame (a suggestion, of course, made by Satan himself). Perhaps this story isn’t about moments of weakness, selfish disobedience, or even wise, future-oriented decisions. Perhaps it is about the way we tend to experience the world and often react to it. Perhaps it is about how shame infects the creation (including our relationships) like a virus, deteriorating anything that is virtuous, lovely, or of good report.
Yet, as Lehi told his sons, “all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things” (2 Nephi 2:24). It is interesting that Lehi mentions that Adam and Eve “would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good for they knew no sin” (vs. 23). While Lehi’s main thrust is the nature of opposition, the passing remark about children and thus the outcome of “multiply and replenish the earth” (Gen. 1:28; Moses 2:28; Abraham 4:28) should not be overlooked. Because what follows is the famous declaration that Adam fell so that humanity could exist; and humanity exists to have and experience joy (see 2 Ne. 2:25). In some sense, the multiplying of persons (not merely reproduction) and the increased potential for relationships brings about joy. Drawing on the Hebb’s axiom “Neurons that fire together wire together” and Daniel Siegel’s research on integration, Thompson offers this description of joy:
Joy can be understood as the primary positive developmental affect in whose presence the process [of integration] is grounded…[I]ntegration is a contingent process, one in which the mind of the child is working interdependently and in response to the intentions of the adult, a process out of which joy emerges…It is not simply joy for joy’s sake but rather that joy is the signature indication of deep, mindful, intentional connection. It is contingent on an interpersonal process in which the infant essentially hears from the parent, among other things, “I am glad to be with you!”
Of course, this goes far beyond a parent/child relationship: “[A] secure base, no matter how old a “child” is, creates the context for exploration, proper risk and extension into realms of imagined experience that is, as the Victorian poet Robert Browning hints in Andrea del Sarto, beyond the child’s and then the adult’s grasp.” Continual research in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, primatology, and others find that we are wired to connect. Supportive, loving relationships help us to flourish because they help us become more of what we are: social beings. When we explore the theology of Joseph Smith and the rituals and practices of Mormonism, we find that God is plural and indwelling and that salvation is about kinship. In essence, as Blake Ostler put it, “I’m not saved unless you are. My exaltation depends on your exaltation. So when it comes down to it, it doesn’t really mean a thing unless you’re all there with me. Because if a single one of us isn’t there we’re all diminished by your absence.” This is perhaps why the risen Lord told the Nephites that he experienced “a fulness of joy” because “none of them [were] lost” (3 Nephi 27:30-31). He took joy in his connection with others. He was “lifted up upon the cross, that [he] might draw all men unto [him]” (3 Nephi 27:14). Philosopher Robin Collins explores the meaning of Christ’s vulnerability as he was “lifted up upon the cross”:
[M]ost of us try to avoid confronting our own vulnerability, dependence, alienation, and brokenness. Indeed, thinkers as diverse as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, (1941), Pulitzer Prize winning author Ernest Becker (1973), and psychologist M. Scott Peck (1983), have claimed that this unwillingness to confront our own vulnerability and other “threatening” aspects of our human condition is one of the prime roots of human sin, wickedness, sickness, and neurosis, along with the world-system of status, domination, and oppression. Instead of recognizing that we are vulnerable, dependent and insecure human beings, for example, we attempt to possess, dominate, and control people and things, to give ourselves the illusion of invulnerability, security, and status; and instead of acknowledging our own shadow, we project it on to others and then demonize them. In fact, it has become a common thesis among thinkers in this century–for example, René Girard and Michel Foucault, in addition to the thinkers mentioned above–that the world-system of psychic and social domination, oppression, bondage, and its associated values, rests on expulsion, scapegoating, and marginalization of both aspects of our own psychic lives and the subjectivity of various individuals in society. Given that these thinkers are at least partly correct, it follows that the “fallen” human subjectivity characteristic of the world-system is largely based on the denial of the subjectivity established in Christ on the Cross. Consequently, mimetically participating in this new subjectivity established in Christ will tend, as yeast leavens a lump of bread, to undercut the entire world-system of psychic, spiritual, and social bondage both in our personal and social lives.
The ending of the film Shame leaves Brandon’s fate unknown. As temptation presents itself once more, the screen goes black. But the message of the film is similar to a point recently made by British journalist Johann Hair: “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.” I don’t suffer from the same problems as Brandon, but I recognized far too many similarities for comfort. I recognized the numbing, the seemingly cool but ultimately protective detachment, and the constant looks of defeat. I think we all would. And this is why we all need each other. The Atonement is not a magic spirit cleanser or something that must simply be believed intellectually. It is at-one-ment. It is becoming one with God, with Christ, and with each other. It is to follow Jesus, who “endured the cross, despising the shame” of it (Heb. 12:2). It is about faith as it was originally meant: loyalty, commitment, fidelity, faithfulness; all of which are relational in nature.
Perhaps as we begin to reconnect, that sense of shame introduced in the garden long ago can finally begin to recede and the creation can begin to heal.
1. E. Randolph Richards, Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 116.
2. David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 25.
3. Robert Karen, “Shame,” The Atlantic Monthly (February 1992): 42.
4. John Bradshaw, Healing the Shame That Binds You: Expanded and Updated Edition (Deerfield Beach: Health Communications, Inc., 2005), xvii.
5. Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York: Gotham Books, 2012), 68-69.
6. Karen, 1992: 42.
7. Brown, 2012, 71.
8. For the obstacles to what is known as the Wise Choice Theory of the Fall, see Julie M. Smith, “Paradoxes in Paradise,” in Fleeing the Garden: Reading Genesis 2-3 (Provo: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, BYU, forthcoming).
9. Terryl L. Givens, Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity (New York: Oxford University Press), 188.
10. Curt Thompson, The Soul of Shame: Retelling The Stories We Believe About Ourselves (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 130.
11. Ibid., 62.
12. Ibid., 66.
13. Ibid., 67.
14. I do not pretend that this interpretation is the meaning of the Eden story. I merely present it as one theological angle that could be explored. For example, from a historical critical approach, God in the Yahwist (J) account doesn’t want mankind to become like him, which contradicts the Priestly (P) account’s depiction of deity. See David Bokovoy, Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis-Deuteronomy (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2014), 51-54.
15. “The first problem with remaining in the garden is that Adam and Eve would have had no children. While this is a crucial theological point, it is not Lehi’s main point. Rather, the important problem is the lack of opposition in Eden, leaving Adam and Eve without the power to achieve exaltation. Lehi’s use of “joy” will become more significant in verse 25″ (Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon: Volume 2a: Second Nephi 1-20. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007, Kindle edition. Commentary on 2 Ne. 2:23).
16. Thompson, 2015, 61.
18. Robin Collins, “Girard and Atonement: An Incarnational Theory of Mimetic Participation,” in Violence Renounced: René Girard, Biblical Studies, and Peacemaking, ed. Willard Swartley (Telford, PA: Pandora Press U.S., 2000), 10 (online version). Download here.
19. See Zeba A. Crook, “BTB Readers’ Guide: Loyalty,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 34:4 (Nov. 2004): 167-177.