Review: Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes: Honor and shame in Paul’s message and mission by Jackson Wu. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic Press, 2019

Eastern culture is a high context culture. What this usually means is that Eastern culture is very relational and communal, often described by the honor-shame framework. Within this framework, people in the East interacts with one another through the context of ‘face’ which is reciprocal and debt relationships within a power structure of hierarchy, loyalty, sacrifice, ascribed and achieved honor, and shame. This is often contrasted to the Western guilt-innocence framework. Jackson Wu (not his real name), a Westerner who have lived two decades in East Asia, examined Paul’s message and mission in Romans through the Eastern honor-shame framework. Jackson seeks to find “[h]ow did Paul’s theology serve the purpose of his mission within an honor-shame context?”(p.3).

Recent scholarship in ancient Near East (ANE) studies, and the new perspective on Paul (NPP) have placed Paul solidly in the Eastern honor-shame cultural context. East Mediterranean cultures are closer to the eastern cultures than to the present day Western cultures. The bible is rich with honor and shame narratives. Jackson’s project was to place Paul’s Romans into this honor-shame narrative. He identifies numerous passages that Paul’s overview of sin carries “far more honor-shame overtones than is often recognized.” (p.3). Jackson argues that it is the communal aspects of the Roman church that Paul is appealing to. And that in salvation “God’s reputation is at stake…if Christ did not die, God will be dishonored.” (p.3). Jackson argues that Christ is the filial son who restores honor to God’s kingdom and remove the shame from the human family.

While much of Romans can be understood from the aspect of relationship and community, and many passages do support that, the main concern is how Jackson deals with justification in Romans. Jackson suggests that justification may be explained by relationship as in the loyalty due to a king and to be justified means to restore back into the kingdom. However, in Romans 4-6, Paul’s understanding of justification was based on covenant keeping. Covenant is a metaphor more for a law court rather than a honor-shame setting. It will be difficult to understand justification in Romans without legal concepts of guilt and punishment. Credit must be given to Jackson for his attempt to explain justification as the process by which Christ regains God’s honor and glory. The honor-shame framework is based on privilege and power. To explain justification using the honor-shame framework is imply that Paul’s understanding of justification was just a process of manipulating privilege and power. Scot McKnight, in his contextual reading of Romans in Reading Romans Backwards, argues that Paul’s gospel was to deconstruct privilege and power in the lived theology of the church in Rome at that time.[1]

Jackson has contributed much to help the West to understand the Eastern worldview of honor-shame framework and his insights are invaluable. To study Paul and Romans through cultural and worldview perspectives are challenging.  Paul, though a well-trained Pharisee, grew up in a Greco-Roman world. He moves through both these totally different worlds with ease. The former are closer to honor-shame culture while the latter, guilt-innocence one. Paul addressed Romans to both Jews and Greek/Gentile. Jackson is helpful in guiding us to view Romans though the Eastern honor-shame lens. However, Paul’s message and mission in Romans, perhaps may be best understood only if we read it through both Eastern and Western eyes.

[1] Scot McKnight, Reading Romans Backwards: A gospel of peace in the midst of empire, Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2019 p.68-76.