Defending Shame: Its Formative Power in Paul’s Letters

Written by Te-Li Lau Reviewed By Jackson Wu

I might have found my new favorite book on honor and shame: Te-Li Lau’s Defending Shame: The Formative Power in Paul’s Letter. Most books relating honor, shame, and ethics come from philosophers and historians; this is the most extensive treatment by a theologian on the work of Paul. Lau is an associate professor in New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He summarizes the goal of his project in this way: “My interest lies in the ethical significance of shame, not so much in the phenomenology, sociology, or psychology of shame. These other approaches will be examined only insofar as it helps elucidate the rationale underlying Paul’s use of shame for Christic formation” (p. 10).

In part 1, he outlines the framework for the discussion. It highlights the function of shame in its ancient Greco-Roman and Jewish contexts. In part 2, Lau engages Paul’s letters. He specifically focuses on 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon, though he touches on other letters here and there. In part 3, he compares and contrasts Pauline shaming with contemporary and ancient voices.

Readers might be tempted to skip the first section (chs. 1–3), eager to get to his study on Paul. Lau’s survey, however, provides invaluable insight into the underlying logic that affects shame dynamics. Rather than focus on social shame, he focuses more on psychological and ethical (or “dispositional”) shame. Lau’s distinction and explanation of “retrospective shame” and “prospective shame” is critical for making sense of Paul’s use of shame.

Part 2 is the heart of the book and consists of three chapters. In chapter 4, Lau shows how Paul uses retrospective shame in 1 Corinthians and Galatians. Several key characteristics mark Paul’s shaming tactics. First, he does not merely berate his readers; he gives thoughtful reasons to buttress his rebuff. Second, Lau notes, “Effective shaming rebuke also requires solid ethos or unimpeachable character on the part of the speaker” (p. 104). Paul highlights his own character and efforts as “a foil demonstrating the shameful character of the agitators” (p. 104). Third, “Like a skillful doctor, Paul balances his shaming refutation with gentle words so that the bitter pill of correction is more easily swallowed” (p. 104). Fourth, Paul’s purpose or goal in shaming is to “engage them in the core of their being” in order to “transform the mind” (pp. 104–5). They must know that “within the divine court of opinion, the Galatians are shameworthy” (p. 106).

Chapter 5 explores Paul’s use of prospective shame within Philippians and Philemon. According to Lau, “Paul uses honor and shame categories in Philippians to cultivate a dispositional sense of shame in his readers” (p. 123). He wants to shape their conscience so that they can persevere in the faith, resisting temptation and fruitless disputes. For the church, the cross and humility no longer are “social markers of shame.” They are “nullified and transformed in God’s economy” for the sake of glory (p. 128). Paul points to Christ and others as moral exemplars, who can guide them forwarded to true honor. Christ is the new standard that must shape one’s conscience.

Paul’s use of honor and shame in Philemon is breathtaking. He keenly alternates between the roles of superior and inferior. Paul ensures that Philemon grasps the way Christ transform our identity and thus his relationship to Onesimus. Lau astutely points out that the letter to Philemon actually is a public letter, a detail that’s easily overlooked.

Chapter 6 synthesizes Lau’s findings. Prospective shame is not independent of retrospective shame; rather, they are intertwined. In Lau’s study, this point becomes increasing evident. It is also quite useful. Lau states, “Paul may engage in specific acts of shaming so as to evoke the occurrent experience of shame not for a past or present transgression but for a potential bad act in the future. He brings about the experience of prospective shame to forestall the performance of bad acts” (p. 158). The experience of shame does not that cause a pain rather than pleasure response. It reflects and modulates one’s values. It moves our morality.

Paul understands that “Virtue is not just doing virtuous things but doing virtuous things virtuously” (p. 162). Accordingly, shaming acts are not punitive for punishment’s sake; they aim at restoration. In fact, Lau observes that the converse can be true, as when Israel finally felt shame once they were restored. This form of shame is healthy and healing for those who suffer from shamelessness.

Part 3 consists of chapters 7–8, where Lau explore several practical implications of his study. To do this, he brings Paul into conversation with Confucius and John Braithwaite’s reintegrative shaming theory. This discussion is especially valuable for discerning ways the contemporary church can apply Paul’s teaching and follow his example. Chapter 8 responds to potential challenges posed against Paul’s use of shame. For example, Lau speaks to the inadequacy of guilt as a moral emotion to be used for moral transformation. He says, “Shame gets at the root of the problem, focusing on the imperfections in our character that prompt us to go astray. Guilt is sufficient if we narrowly focus only on moral responsibility and blame. Shame, however, is needed if we extend our focus toward moral character and values” (p. 214).

The book’s strength is also its greatest limitation. Lau has written a scholarly book. It is not so technical so as only to be helpful for a select few scholars. Still, it’s not a fast read simply because of its density. I found myself having to stop again and again because I could not cram another idea into my brain. I needed to let them simmer in my mind. Defending Shame is not terribly long. He does not waste one of its 233 pages. For these reasons, the book unfortunately will likely have a limited readership.

Lau makes a distinct contribution to the study of Paul and the biblical use of shame. I recommend people read Defending Shame slowly, thoughtfully, and in conversation with others. Paul demonstrates a healthy way of using shame as a way of honoring people. In order to internalize such insights, we need time and opportunity to process with other people.


Jackson Wu

Jackson Wu is the theologian-in-residence for Mission One, serves as Mission and Culture book reviews editor for Themelios, and regularly blogs at jacksonwu.org.

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