Seeking God’s Face: Practical Reflections on Honor and Shame in ScriptureWritten by Jackson Wu and Ryan Jensen Reviewed By Chris Flanders
In Seeking God’s Face, two able scholars have provided the church with a practical resource for considering the biblical concepts of honor and shame. Brad Vaughn (formerly Jackson Wu) is a former cross-cultural servant and instructor in China and author of many books related to issues of honor and shame. Ryan Jensen is also a writer and scholar with several years of his own experience in East Asia. This gem of a book consists of 101 practical reflections on honor and shame from Scripture. Following a similar pattern throughout, the two-page reflections serve as a sort of devotional book. Each chapter includes a brief discussion of a specific biblical text that deals with honor and shame. Rather than importing mere sociological definitions of these concepts, the authors allow the Bible to define and use these terms within its own horizons. The authors reflect briefly on the texts through what they title a “Parting Reflection,” which guides readers to consider the implications of the text for their own life. Finally, a “Parting Prayer” closes each reflection with doxology and devotion.
What the authors provide is not a work that enters the various debates involving honor and shame issues. Neither is it a commentary that carefully explicates honor-shame through exegetical insights mined from the various texts they highlight. Instead, it is primarily a theologically-informed devotional guide that attunes readers to the biblical concepts of honor and shame (along with other notions that carry strong honor-shame connotations such as face, purity, belonging and group membership, reciprocity, hospitality, and status reversal). While devotional in tone, as I scribbled notes and vigorously underlined throughout this book, I was struck by the profundity of these honor- and shame-related insights. The gravity of their contribution was apparent both in the various texts the authors chose to engage and—perhaps more importantly—powerful through the challenges that often deeply moved me and made me consider personally the important points the authors were presenting. In other words, the theological depth and biblical insight contained in this more “practical” work are apparent from the beginning.
Throughout, the authors make these profound and theologically-deep comments directly related to issues of honor and shame. For example, they are keen to point out that biblically speaking, life and worship begin in awe and God’s awe-someness. Likewise, they point out the simple-yet-expansive reality that sin is inextricably connected to dishonor. And, Christ’s followers need to “lose face” by admitting sin and weakness to give God face and honor, a proper sense of shame is a major tool God uses to draw us to the cross. As one might expect, some of the applications and insights involve direct challenges to a Western Christian’s inherited way of living. For example, they push readers to ask, “How often do I seek recognition and honor? How much am I centered in divine enoughness rather than seeking honor and respect through personal comparisons? Do I make God’s honor a significant motivation for my pursuit of holiness and discipleship? Do I take my feelings of shame directly to God in prayer? How often do I make it a point to give God glory in public and in front of others?” One particularly impressive section comes through a meditation upon Jesus’s use of rehabilitative and constructive shame with Peter in John 21. There the chapter notes, “Jesus Lovingly Shames Peter.” Finally, and perhaps counterintuitively, the authors ponder what it might look like to engage in “Christian boasting” (see the chapter with reflections on 2 Cor 12:6).
While this is a critical review, there is little to critique here. One could wish that the authors had covered some of the expected and important texts related to honor and shame issues. For example, Luke 15 and the parable of the father and two sons is conspicuously absent from the book along with the many honor-shame related texts from the book of Revelation. But what Vaughn and Jensen seem to do, rather, is take many texts that would not obviously contain honor-shame resonances and demonstrate how these in fact lead to significant honor-shame spiritual lessons. This is merely a hypothesis, however, as no explanation is given for the criteria for passage selection.
What I wish to emphasize most is that this book is not simply for cross-cultural servants who engage in ostensibly “honor-shame” contexts. In fact, I can see at least four potential uses for this helpful resource. First, and perhaps most obviously, Seeking God’s Face is perfect for personal devotions. Each discrete chapter draws a reader deeper into the biblical text with penetrating insights but also issues real spiritual challenges to examine one’s life and implement these insights. The closing “Parting Prayer” is generally on theme with the chapter contents and forms a nice ending to each chapter. This would also provide an excellent set of resources for small group bible studies, especially for those that might be interested in going deeper into the areas of honor and shame. Additionally, for anyone who engages in teaching, this book would be an immensely helpful resource for highlighting honor-shame dynamics in scripture and how these can impact our personal lives. Finally, this volume might provide an excellent way to nudge those who might question or be resistant to recognizing the importance of honor-shame issues into considering the contemporary and scriptural relevance of such.
Seeking God’s Face demonstrates the authors’ clear and deep understanding of theology, the Bible, and honor-shame issues. Bringing these together, the book creates discrete learning opportunities that also contain a deeply personal, spiritual focus. What Jensen and Vaughn ultimately offer is a guidebook for how to embrace a biblical spirituality of honor and shame. Those who invest time into this book will surely experience the honor-laden blessings of the Priestly Blessing of Numbers 6:24–26, that God’s face would shine brightly upon them, and his face would turn toward them.
Abilene Christian University
Abilene, Texas, USA
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