Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 11 (2020)

JACKSON WU. Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes: Honor and Shame in Paul’s Message and Mission. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2019. 248pp. Paperback. $14.66.

Many Western scholars, through the traditional lens of theologians like Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther, and Karl Barth, have largely argued that the chief emphasis in Romans is justification by faith. Jackson Wu (pseudonym) in his new book Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes provokes readers to question whether, by making justification the central point of Romans, Western academics have projected their individualistic cultural norms as well as Augustine’s and Luther’s moral struggles back onto Paul. Wu presents a fresh and broadened cultural outlook of Romans using an Eastern viewpoint, specifically the honor-shame dynamic inherent in East Asian cultures. He believes ancient biblical societies share more in common today with East Asia’s sensitivity to honor and shame than with Western individualism and equality. An East Asian perspective helps us see Romans as a circumstantial letter rather than only a piece of systematic theology—Paul garnering support for his Spanish mission, addressing issues of disunity and discrimination, and proclaiming the supremacy of Christ, amongst others.

Wu’s work is elaborately researched and extensively referenced, including Mainland Chinese illustrations only available from someone who understands the region from living there over a prolonged period. Even though Wu disclaims this is not a commentary (3), the Greek exegetical portions and brief discussions of the New Perspective on Paul complementing his Eastern approach could render some portions inaccessible to a lay reader. Other segments, however, are written like thought-provoking devotional reflections with homiletic and pastoral application, especially the concluding pages of most chapters and some of the discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Wu’s interdisciplinary work is a contribution to missiology, hermeneutics, cultural anthropology, and Pauline theology. This book is for the scholar or pastor interested in Paul’s magnum opus, the missionary trying to reach an East Asian people group, or even a curious Westerner, since “the desire for honour is basic to being human” (108). Personally, reading this book as a Chinese Malaysian trained in Western theological studies has caused me to rethink the perspectives and views taught to me.

After introducing the honor-shame framework in Chapter 1, Wu posits that instead of one central argument on justification, Paul has four main objectives in writing Romans. These are, (1) rebuking ethnocentrism, (2) addressing the Jew-Gentile and Greek-Barbarian divide, and (3) calling for unity in Christ, while (4) concurrently urging Spanish-mission support. Wu demonstrates how Paul calls the Gentiles and Jews to humility with tactful sensitivity to the Mediterranean culture using indirect speech to keep their honor without losing “face” (26). In the ensuing chapters, Wu re-orients the doctrines of sin, grace, law, salvation, atonement, sacrifice, and justification from a Western to a more nuanced Eastern understanding. For one, the doctrine of sin should be understood beyond the legal-guilt view that is so pervasive in Western thought; sin is more than just the legal-guilt aspect, but how it brings shame and removes honour. Paul is not just interested in “how” one is justified but “who” can be justified (86).

Wu provides a robust gospel when he poignantly highlights how Paul communicates God’s reversal and subversion in the world within an honor-shame framework. Paul “usurps conventional notions of honor-shame. . . . He reorients them” (35) according to God himself, who is the new standard of honor and shame instead of the world’s standards (45). Because we are saved from shame and for glory (127) and because justification is not only about the individual but also our social identity (94), Christians have compelling reasons for ethical living. Such a gospel is effective in countering the prosperity gospel or other forms of a partial gospel that do not demand sacrifice but only promise to bless.

Wu presents a gospel that is relatable to the East Asian person who typically finds foreign and unacceptable the typical Western desire to proselytize individuals to Christianity. In my brief missionary stint in East Asia, I received countless gentle rejections on the basis that Christianity is a Western religion incompatible with local culture. This book astutely displays how one book of the Bible is better understood by the Asian notion of “face,” honor/shame, filial piety, loyalty, tradition, hierarchy, collectivist identity, and reading between lines. To be able to explain the Christian narrative beyond a Western legal-guilt framework would be a better starting point for sharing the Christian faith in East Asian cultures.

Despite the book’s many important contributions, I was first marginally disappointed when Wu did not make further recommendations to replace the inadequately translated Chinese word for “sin” (罪 zui) in Chapter 3. Having been intrigued that zui insufficiently explains a wider understanding of shame, I was anticipating suggested words for consideration. Also, Chapter 11’s recommendation to submit to governing authorities is questionable since, as I write, chaotic protests against the Central Government are ongoing in Hong Kong. I am curious how a Hong Konger would respond to this chapter given the combination of the Chinese roots of tradition, relationship, and hierarchy with the Western influence of liberty and rights.

Finally, in Chapter 12, I was hoping that Wu would examine each Greek name and adjectival phrase attached to the individuals in Romans 16, as he does with certain words and phrases in other chapters. One paragraph highlights the prominence of women in Paul’s greetings as he “greets people across the economic and social spectrum—men/women, slave/free, Jew/Gentile” (187). A detailed exegesis of names would have further substantiated his overall thesis about inclusion. From the origins of the recipients’ names we can make educated guesses that some were born Jews and are now Jewish Christians while some are Gentile Christians; or that some names hold no affinity to circles of slave origin while others reveal otherwise. Such an examination could have further emphasized Paul’s insistence that there is neither Jew nor Gentile, rich nor poor, slave nor free in the early Christian community.

Overall, Wu has cogently achieved what he set out to do: “by reading Romans with Eastern eyes, we can discern key ideas and applications often overlooked or underemphasized by Western interpreters” (2). He has demonstrated how key Christian doctrines must include Eastern values, how Romans is to be read with a collectivist mindset, and how Paul wrote with considerations of “face” for his recipients. It has caused me to realize that, though Asian, I have read Romans and the rest of the Bible with myopic lenses that unquestionably assume Paul was a Western individualist. I have started to test and apply Wu’s honor-shame framework to other Biblical texts consciously and subconsciously. Now, I cannot unsee the biblical worldview that Wu has led me to appreciate, and it will likely affect the next Romans sermon I preach. These are marks of a successful book.

MAK Sue Ann

MPhil Candidate in Theology (New Testament)

Lady Margaret Hall

University of Oxford

Oxford, UK