Here is a Bible trivia quiz. If you have ever read Paul’s letter to the Romans, which word pair would you say best describes it? Is Romans about: A) guilt and innocence; or B) shame and honor? Most people, including myself, would take the first choice: Romans describes human guilt atoned for by Christ. And though it is true that guilt/innocence are mentioned twice, shame and honor appear forty times!
This is surprising to me. The reason we westerners miss this theme is because we are reading eastern Scriptures. The Bible was written in a culture of honor and shame, very different from our own.
Think about the most famous example, Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s not so much a story about a young man breaking the rules; it is a young man bringing shame and dishonor on his family, himself, and his community. It is a story about a loving father mercifully restoring honor to a shameful son.
The etymology of shame comes from the idea of blushing – doing something disgraceful that actually causes a physical reaction of blood rushing to the cheeks. But we don’t blush anymore, do we? The Prophet Jeremiah’s question could be asked of us: “Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush… (Jeremiah 8:12).”
We watch celebrities say and do ridiculous things with no consequences – their fame grows. Universities hide scandals. Celebrities drug and rape women. Adult protesters wear genitalia hats. We don’t bat an eye. And then, if someone does perchance cross a line, or something is caught on video, they simply apologize. Watching the apology, though, you rarely get the sense they are ashamed of their actions…they simply seem sorry they got caught and their careers took a hit.
Previous generations talked about honor much more than we do today – they prized the family name, work ethic, where they were from, their standing in the community, and charitable deeds. Soldiers lined up to enlist and world wars were won because of honor. So how did we get here?
Biblically speaking, honor and shame are determined by standards. When one lives up to or exceeds community standards, that person is honored. When they don’t, they aren’t. But if there are no standards, then what do we honor? And if there are no standards, what actions bring shame?
We just don’t know anymore. The “you’ve crossed the line” line keeps moving.
In my field of study, the jargon we use is the term cannon. In the ancient Greek world, kanon described a reed of consistent length used for measuring. The length of anything could be determined so long as you had a standard to which it could be compared. The books of the Bible are called the canon of Scripture because they serve as a standard.
In its pages God gives the standard of truth against which all other information is measured. In the Bible we find the standard of morality against which all actions and philosophies are compared. In it we find the standard of community against which all lifestyles are weighed. We may live up to these standards or fall short of them, but at least we know what the standards are and the line stays put.
If we, as a nation, continue to marginalize the measuring stick of the Bible in our society, we will continue to see the erosion of shame in our culture. It is bad enough to forget how to blush, but it will be worse when we forget what it means to honor.