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Review of Daniel Y. Wu, Honor, Shame, and Guilt: Social-Scientific Approaches to the Book of Ezekiel

Author: Melinda L. Thompson
Published: 2020

MD 11

Article Type: Review Article

Daniel Y. Wu. Honor, Shame, and Guilt: Social-Scientific Approaches to the Book of Ezekiel. Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplements 14. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2016. 219 pp. Hardcover. $47.50.

Wu is Lecturer in Old Testament and Biblical Languages at Moore College in New South Wales, Australia. He states his purpose clearly: “In this study, I explore how the concepts honor, shame, and guilt function in the book of Ezekiel, as well as in the wider contexts of their general use in anthropological or social-scientific approaches to biblical studies” (1). The book is a revision of his doctoral dissertation, which should provide sufficient warning about the technical, complicated material that is addressed. This book is intended for specialists.

In true dissertation style, Wu spends the first three chapters outlining his methodology. He assumes that his readers are familiar with the process and terminology used in social-scientific criticism while providing the usual literature review and critique of the major authors who have gone before him. Both anthropology and psychology are brought to bear on contemporary understandings of “shame cultures” and “guilt cultures,” with helpful reminders to “preserve the ‘otherness’—in a positive sense—of the text over the researcher” (27). Wu’s summary of social-scientific approaches and their usefulness for interpreting biblical texts is solid: “Thus, the goal in biblical studies should not be to escape the ‘culture gap’ between us and the biblical world, but to embrace it” (29). His prioritizing of the text over historical-critical methods like social-scientific criticism for the purpose of biblical interpretation is refreshing, though he seems to make just as much use of cultural categories as the anthropologists and psychologists he critiques.

Wu calls his approach to the text “contextual semantic analysis,” a form of critical realism with ethical implications:

It is therefore incumbent on researchers to make sure that we know responsibly—which includes attempting, as far as possible, to hear an author’s communication as they would want it to be heard, before we offer our own assessments and labels. . . . Readers and researchers must pay careful attention to their tendency not to listen hard enough before speaking, to assume mastery over the subject. The critical realism I am advocating seeks to move toward this by recognizing the reality of the text—it exists independently of me, my perceptions, and my opinions, and thus my perceptions and opinions of it are subject to its objectivity. (34–35; emphasis original)

After such promising statements, chapters 4–6 are somewhat disappointing. Wu’s “contextual semantic analysis” becomes a generic word study, revisiting standard lexicons and theological dictionaries as so many Hebrew and Greek students have done. Instead of starting with Ezekiel (per his description above), each chapter’s focus-word (honor, shame, guilt) begins with a standard review of how the unpointed Hebrew term has been used in the wider Old Testament (especially the Torah) before turning to specific instances in Ezekiel and a brief consideration of related terms. Each chapter ends by highlighting areas of agreement and disagreement between how the biblical text understands each term (according to Wu) and how social-scientific critics (specifically, a set of anthropologists known as the Context Group) view them. The most helpful aspect of these chapters is Wu’s suggestion to use more contemporary terms to better retain the larger semantic sphere indicated by his word studies (glory for honor, disappointment for shame, sin/consequences for guilt). Wu’s conclusions in Chapter 7 regarding how the Hebrew terms honor, shame, and guilt function in Ezekiel are similar to many (more approachable) commentaries.

Overall, Wu does not accomplish his stated goal. His summary is especially telling: “In essence, then, this study may best be summed up in the following terms: there are no guilt cultures or shame cultures. Or, perhaps more accurately, all cultures are shame cultures, and all cultures are guilt cultures” (178; emphasis original). It would appear that Wu’s real goal in the dissertation was to disprove the distinctions made by social-scientists between guilt and shame. Ezekiel’s use of the terms is simply a very detailed case-in-point. To further drive home this reality, Wu includes an appendix with a much shorter example of how the same approach can be used to interpret contemporary Evangelical understandings of atonement. Perhaps Wu is really trying to demonstrate how word study is more helpful than anthropology for biblical interpretation.

Melinda L. Thompson

Associate Professor of Old Testament

Graduate School of Theology

Abilene Christian University

Abilene, TX, USA

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