Many years ago, Fats Domino (and later Cheap Trick on Live at Budokon) sang these lyrics in the song entitled, “Ain’t That a Shame”:

You made me cry, when you said goodbye

Ain't that a shame My tears fell like rain

Ain't that a shame You're the one to blame

You broke my heart, when you said we're apart

Ain't that a shame My tears fell like rain

Ain't that a shame You're the one to blame

Although these lyrics reflect the sorrows of a jilted lover, they also capture an important older concept that has relevance for today. It embraces the dynamic of shame, which is one of the greatest cultural dynamics of the New Testament. This paradigm is key in understanding other concepts and various texts accurately especially as it relates to topics such as approval, reputation, glory, and status. While these practices were prevalent in the 1st century of the Mediterranean, they also have current bearing to different segments of society today, specifically Asian-Americans in the 21st century. This blog will be the first in a series of blogs that will demonstrate the correlation of Paul’s use of shame in light of the framework of Roman cultural practices as well as how it relates to modern 21st century Asian-American spiritual tendencies.

The spread and growth of Christianity among Asian-Americans throughout the United States have been exponential. This has been witnessed through parachurches at universities, the numerous Asian-American churches, and the number of Asian-Americans enrolled in seminaries. The growth has been phenomenal. In fact, Asian-Americans are the fastest growing racial group in the United States. Church futurist DJ Chuang notes that the estimated population numbers 18.9 million Asian-Americans in 2012 with a projected growth rate of 40.6 million by 2050. Much of this is fueled by immigration and reproduction.[1] In light of this growth, there are also many questions concerning healthy church practices and spiritual maturation processes among Asian-Americans especially those who are involved in different kinds of leadership or serving capacity. Much of the complexity regarding these issues are related to the issue of shame.

An opening disclaimer is necessary in giving definition to the term Asian-American. It is a generic term that is used to describe people of Asian descent who may have either been born in the United States or came to the country at an early age. As a result, they have become Westernized through schooling and society. Typically, Asian-Americans can refer to Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and even Southeast Asians. While there are certainly many similarities between all of these groups including the collectivist mindset, the honor/shame culture, and the hierarchical social structure, there are also significant differences as well. This entry will overview the larger Asian-American culture but will cite specific examples mainly from the Korean-American spirituality context in light of the honor/shame culture.

The symptoms and manifestations of shame within Asian-American Christians will be examined from an integrated study that includes the social history of the New Testament with an emphasis on Mediterranean/Roman culture of the first century, a New Testament exegetical perspective from the writings of the Apostle Paul from select passages from his letters, and the correlation of parallel culture practices done by Asian-Americans, specifically Korean-Americans. So the examination of this blog will move from identifying different 1st century cultural practices to examples within the writings of Paul within the New Testament connecting these practices to modern Asian-American elements of religious and spiritual experiences.

Defining Shame

It would be important to begin with a working definition of shame. Shame, unlike guilt, appears as a predominant dynamic within the culture of the first century as well as in global perspective today. Joe Hellerman notes that “ideas about honor and shame can be found in virtually all societies.”[2] It can also be asserted that it is one of the main cultural dynamics of both the Old and New Testament among the respective people groups of the Bible.[3] While the West today focuses on guilt, the majority of the world today functions under the shame dynamic. This can be attributed to the other cultural dynamics that work in tandem with shame, i.e. the hierarchical nature of people groups along with the collectivist mentality of different ethnic groups around the world.[4]           

The mention of guilt in the New Testament is found but not to the degree of the dynamic of shame. It is mentioned through two main words, guilty (enochos), ten times in seven passages (Matt. 5:21; Matt. 26:26; Mark 3:29; Mark 14:14; 1 Cor. 11:27; Heb. 2:15; and James 2:10) and the word guilt/charge/reason (aitia), which is found in twenty passages (Matt. 19:3; Matt. 19:10; Matt. 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 8:47; John 18:38; John 19:4; John 19:6; Acts 10:21; Acts 13:28; Acts 22:24; Acts 23:28; Acts 25:18; Acts 25:27; Acts 28:18; Acts 28:20; 2 Tim. 1:6; 2 Tim. 1:12; Titus 1:13; Heb. 2:11).

So how are guilt and shame different from one another? It would be important then to realize that there is a significant, qualitative difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is pictured through Western lens as a court transaction which is addressed in a linear manner. Stockitt writes about how guilt “has consumed the energies of theologians—at least in the Western theological tradition—has been “guilt,” and this metaphor has defined, shaped, and molded subsequent theological reflection as a result.”[5] He further writes, in defining it, “when sin is defined principally as a transgression against an abstract law then the resultant legal status of the one who has committed the transgression is one of guilt.”[6] Stockitt contrasts shame from guilt by suggesting that the nature of shame is inherently relational. He writes “shame does not carry a legal meaning in the way guilt appears to. It sounds far more personal, more existential, more corporate.”[7] This would be consistent with how shame is typically understood by scholars of most disciplines.

So how should shame be defined? It depends on the discipline and perspective. There are multiple definitions for this term. A popular vulnerability counselor, Dr. Brene Brown, in her book Daring Greatly, defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”[8] Christian author and ethicist Lewis Smedes in his book Shame and Grace: Healing the Shame We Don’t Deserve, writes “shame is a very heavy feeling. It is a feeling that we do not measure up and maybe never will measure up to the sorts of persons we are meant to be.”[9] Robin Stockitt, a minister in the Anglican church, writes:

Shame can be understood, therefore, as arising from the external pressure of a group, where the use of shame as a social sanction is particularly effective. Shame is closely related to the reception of approval, strikes at the core of who a person is. Shame and anxiety thus become inseparable companions. The fear of being shamed leads to a state of anxious anticipation, which in turn leads to a whole range of coping mechanisms being established. [10]

Social scientist Halvor Moxnes explains that one of the main characteristics of an honor-and-shame society is that the group is more important than the individual. He states:

The individual received status from the group. Therefore, recognition and approval from others were important. Interaction between people was characterized by the competition for recognition and the defense of one’s own status and honor. To refuse a person’s claim for honor was to put the person to shame. The basic notion in all studies of honor and shame is that they represent the value of a person in her or his own eyes but also in the eyes of his or her society. [11]

Finally, Joe Hellerman writes how honor was preeminently a public commodity. He states “in the collectivist culture of antiquity, one’s honor was almost exclusively dependent upon the affirmation of the claim to honor by the larger social group to which the individual belonged.”[12]

This introductory entry has attempted to explain the concept of shame from biblical times and how there are similarities between 1st century Mediterranean practices and 21st century aspects of spirituality specifically in Asian-American Christians. In the next blog, I will draw a correlation between this practice and the current challenges and tendencies of shame within the spirituality of Asian-Americans in the 21st century and go deeper into some of the motivations behind both.


[1] DJ Chuang, “9 Things About Asian American Christianity,The Exchange: A Blog by Ed Stetzer, November 7, 2013 accessed November 14, 2013,

[2] Joe Hellerman, Reconstructing Honor in Roman Philippi: Carmen Christi as Cursus Pudorum (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 35.


[3] David deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2000), 24.


[4] For an excellent overview of the different cultures of the world, see Sheryl Takagi Silzer’s book Biblical Multicultural Teams (Pasadena, CA: William Carey International University Press, 2011).


[5] Robin Stockitt, Restoring the Shamed: Towards a Theology of Shame (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), 43.


[6] Stockitt, 43.


[7] Stockitt, 44.


[8] Brene Brown, Daring Greatly (New York, NY: Gotham Books, 2012), 69.


[9] Lewis B. Smedes, Shame and Grace: Healing the Shame We Don’t Deserve (San Francisco, CA: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993), 5.


[10] Robin Stockitt, Restoring the Shamed: Towards a Theology of Shame (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), 41.


[11] Halvor Moxnes, The Social World of Formative Christianity and Judaism, ed. Jacob Neusner, Ernest S. Frerichs, Peder Borgen, and Richard Horsley (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 208.


[12] Hellerman, 35.