Tiswango - Hurricane Katrina
Mark Twain once stumbled across a French translation of his short story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. He decided to convert the French version back into English, word for word, retaining the French grammatical structure and syntax. There were, predictably, quite notable and humorous differences between the original and the back-translated versions. The latter was clunky, indecipherable and bore little resemblance to the original story. Finally, in 1903, the three versions were published together under the title The Jumping Frog: in English, then in French, and then Clawed Back into a Civilised Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil.
Back-translating a document, from one language to another, and back to the original, is a perilous undertaking; a good deal may be lost in the process, and you’ve got to wonder what you’ve gained over simply using the original document!?
I can’t help but feel that the question of how to communicate the Gospel in an honour/shame culture has the potential to fall foul to the hazards of back-translation. The audience to whom Jesus spoke was, after all, entrenched in an honour/shame worldview. And so here am I, not particularly au fait with the intricacies of the honour/shame worldview, trying to back-translate my own interpretation of the gospel into its original form!
I say this not to claim it is an impossible or unfruitful task, but simply to highlight a slight peculiarity about the task in hand, and also to admit that I know very little about honour/shame cultures. I should like to know more, and given that Britain is becoming increasingly multicultural, our interaction with people who hold this worldview is only likely to increase.
A short while ago I had to write an essay on how the gospel could be communicated in an honour/shame culture. It was a challenge and I fear my own observations, given their lack of intricate knowledge, may prove to be as clunky and indecipherable as version three of the Jumping Frog! Reading Carson’s article reminded me that I wanted to revisit the subject and give it some further thought.
Given that the New Testament was written to people in an honour/shame culture, is no great surprise to find that it contains not a few elements, metaphors, stories and concepts that lend themselves to communicating the gospel to these cultures. In these next few blog posts I propose to make a few tentative observations about honour/shame cultures, followed bare-bone structures for how one might present the gospel from six passages of Scripture.
One of the elements of honour/shame cultures that works in favour of communicating the gospel is that there is already an established understanding of sin. People recognise that some actions are good, and others bad, or at least that certain actions have good or bad outcomes. The concept of sinfulness is therefore relatively familiar to individuals in honour/shame cultures. People will hardly need convincing of the existence and effect of sin, as it is experienced on a regular basis.
However, there are a number of differences between our understandings of the effect sin has. In our culture, which one might call a ‘guilt culture’, the issue with sin is that it leaves us with a sense of guilt for the wrongs we have committed. What we require, in order to appease that guilt, is forgiveness. In honour/shame cultures, guilt is not so much a consideration, as alienation; as a result of your shame, you will be shunned by those you have hurt, and particularly your family. What you need, therefore, is not so much forgiveness – although that will no doubt be a part of it – but reconciliation to your family through the removal of shame.
Sinfulness is often determined in honour/shame cultures by the effect your actions have upon your relationships. What constitutes sin is often defined by how other people perceive your actions, rather than the inherent goodness or wrongness of the action itself. Thus what constitutes a shameful action could vary significantly according to the crowd with whom you interact. 
What’s more, the fact that sin is defined as something that brings shame upon the community, may actually prove to be a hindrance to someone making a response to the gospel. In shame cultures, it may be considered a seriously shameful thing to convert to Christianity. Hence many converts who come from Islamic backgrounds find themselves disowned by their family members, or in extreme circumstances threatened with death. The belief that conversion will bring shame upon your family may prove to be a significant stumbling block for a potential convert in a shame culture.
Another potential hindrance raised by the honour/shame understanding of sin is that it has the potential to create self-reliance and promote a works-righteousness mentality. If your actions have the potential to bring honour or shame upon you, then the way in which you obtain greater honour is by performing more honourable actions. This has the potential to create self-reliance and legalism.
Related is the concern that allowing someone to die in your place is a hugely shameful thing to do. Substitutionary atonement will not sit will with someone who believes it is shameful for someone else to take the blame for your iniquities, or that requiring rescue is a sign of weakness, and thus shameful. Of course, pride is not unique to honour/shame cultures, and is likely to be a universally recognised stumbling block, but it is perhaps worth noting.
There is also an inherent and perhaps unhelpful aspect to the concept of shamefulness that produces an inward-looking approach to morality. Take the example of a man who is faced with the potential to exploit someone else’s weakness for their own gain; perhaps stealing from an old lady. In an honour/shame culture the imperative that causes you to resist such a crime is that taking advantage of your strength and someone else’s weakness brings shame upon you. In our culture, presumably, the motivating factor for resisting would be that mugging an old lady is either (i) illegal or (ii) unfair on the lady. In option (i) an appeal is made to an objective morality that exists apart from us and in option (ii) it is the victim’s wellbeing that is put first. In the honour/shame culture abstaining from robbery has the potential to be a predominately selfish act, motivated by the concern of how your actions will be perceived by others, and what ramifications that will have upon you.
Of course, it is conceivable that the would-be-mugger in our culture may be motivated by the fear that (iii) his actions will leave him unable to sleep at night, a selfish motivation or (iv) the objective morality (in the form of the British legal system) will catch up with him, a selfish motivation which still appeals to an objective moral imperative. But I think the observation stands that actions in honour/shame cultures are more likely to be motivated by selfish ambition than out of respect for the wellbeing of the victim.
Our two cultures are not entirely distinct. There are common elements in each, and it’s not easy to polarise them into neat packages. But nonetheless, with some of these comments in mind, the next two posts aim to summarise six passages of Scripture that appear to address the particular notions of honour and shame, showing how the Gospel could be communicated from each example.
 Of course, this is not unique to honour/shame cultures, and in many areas of the western world relativism is still rife. The motivating factor may be different, (honour/shame = what will people think of me if I do this? Western postmodern = ‘it feels good to me so it can’t be wrong!!”) but the effect is the same; a rejection of moral absolutes in favour of a more flexible morality. Additionally, in honour/shame cultures, they still have a law to which they need to abide, and breaking that law will have judicial consequences; imprisonment, mutilation, death. But in the arena of day-to-day life, the sinfulness of the words you say and the way you treat people will be determined not by a perception of ‘what is good and proper’ but ‘what will cause people to think positively or negatively of me.’