Te-Li Lau. Defending Shame: Its Formative Power in Paul’s Letters. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020. 276 pp. Paperback. $21.92.
Shame disrupts communities and assaults the individual. Conversely, our society has assaulted shame itself. The contemporary West, including Christian theology, ascribes little value to shame, dismissing it as evil and destructive. So what is a biblical view of shame and shaming?
In Defending Shame, Professor Te-Li Lau presents an extensive Pauline theology of shame. He draws upon a wide range of texts, both ancient and modern, to contextualize and hear from the apostle Paul in his honor-shame context. Lau employs moral psychology to explore Paul’s use of shame as “a pedagogical tool for Christic formation” (232). Paul uses shame to form the mind and conscience of Christians. A proper understanding of shame even accompanies biblical salvation.
Chapter 1, “Definitional Background,” introduces the key constructs employed throughout the book. Lau deconstructs the traditional bifurcation between “guilt” and “shame,” which anticipates a later point—Pauline shame involves notıons of both Western guilt and shame (207–13). In a key move, Lau distinguishes between retrospective shame (felt for past sin) and prospective shame (which restrains people from future transgressions). Paul employs retrospective shame to confront the Galatians and Corinthians, purposefully and publicly shaming them to induce moral change (Chapter 4). But in Philemon and Philippians (Chapter 5), Paul utilizes prospective shame “to inculcate in them a dispositional sense of shame that holds to a court of opinion centered on the mind of Christ” (147). Lau’s style is rather technical, drawing philosophical distinctions and tracing exegetical arguments with rigor. His insights, however, are always rewarding.
For such an expensive project, Lau is wisely selective. Two significant points were absent, however. Lau emphasizes the didactic function of shame in Greco-Roman philosophers to provide the cultural background for Paul but insufficiently discusses the Gospel traditions of early Christianity as a potential influence upon Paul’s view of shame. The teaching and actions of Jesus, embodied at the cross (151–52), shaped the early Christians’ subversive definitions of shame and honor. Lau provides no systematic discussion of Romans, a Pauline letter replete with explicit shame terminology and communal concerns.
Chapter 6, “Constructing Paul’s Use of Shame,” summarizes Paul’s understanding of shame. For Paul, shame is defined by the cross and transforms Christians’ consciences to assume the mind of Christ. Chapter 7 brings Paul into conversation with John Braithwaite’s popular criminological theory of “reintegrative shaming” and Confucian thought. Comparing and contrasting Pauline shame with these frameworks brings clarity to Paul’s theology, and offers the reader points of potential application.
The final chapter, “Contemporary Challenges,” confronts and corrects our fractured understanding of shame. With clear biblical support, Lau argues: biblical shame—not guilt—is the preferred emotion for inducing positive behavior; Pauline shaming is persuasive (not manipulative); and shame actually has the potential to sanctify believers and restore relationships by spotlighting our honor in Christ. Lau’s deft exploration of Pauline shame inspires readers towards the New Testament’s moral vision of a renewed conscience shaped by a divine court of approval. Shame must be rehabilitated as a moral emotion, lest we become shameless.
At some points, Lau seems overly bullish on shame. Before we lionize shame as a new moral hero, we must acknowledge that the fire of shame not only purifies but scorches. The prevalent misuse of shame explains the general reluctance to permit shaming. Shame is destructive, and so not a part of God’s preferred plan. Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed (Gen 2:28). Jesus scorned the shame of the cross (Heb 12:2). Paul was unashamed of the gospel (Rom 1:16). Those who believe in Christ will not be ashamed (Isa 28:16; Rom 10:11; 1 Pet 2:6). God does save with shame, as we see in the ministry of Paul. But, ultimately, he saves from shame. Lau’s insights on the former should not overshadow the latter.
Defending Shame, drawing from ancient, biblical, and contemporary literature, provides a trove of theological insights about moral shame. This biblical-philosophical theology of shame provides an indispensable framework for moral and community formation in today’s world.