Shame has been maligned as a harmful emotion that has no place in human flourishing. But is this view correct? Is it biblical? Sean and Scott talk with Gregg Ten Elshof, a fellow Biola professor, about his latest book For Shame. Dr. Ten Elshof argues that shame is an important emotion, when experienced in the right way, to help with human flourishing in a well-ordered society.
Gregg Ten Elshof is a professor of philosophy at Biola University. He is the founding director of Biola's Center for Christian thought, and has published a number of academic articles and several well-regarded books including Christianity Today's book award winner I Told Me So.
Scott Rae: Welcome to Think Biblically, Conversations on Faith and Culture, a podcast of Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University. I'm your host, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics.
Sean McDowell: And I'm your co-host, Sean McDowell professor of apologetics. We have a fascinating subject on the topic of shame. Now, if you hear the word shame and are tempted to turn away for various reasons, let me encourage you not to turn away because we're actually going to give an apology for shame, a defense of shame. When it's properly understood, it's a beautiful emotion that fits right within the Christian worldview and beyond. Our guests today, Gregg TenElshof teaches philosophy at Biola along with Scott and I, and he's written a fascinating book. It's called For Shame, Rediscovering the Virtues of a Maligned Emotion. That topic alone intrigued me and I was reading the forward and Jackson Wu describes your book as an apology for shame, meaning a defense for shame, which is not typically how people think about shame. So why would shame need defending?
Gregg TenElshof: Well, thanks for having me on the show.
Sean McDowell: Yeah.
Gregg TenElshof: First of all, why does shame need defending it? It needs defending for the reason that anything would need defending, it's getting beat up on and it's getting beat up on by all quarters. It's being maligned in Christian circles, non-Christian circles, in social scientific circles, in sort of non-academic publications. There's a widespread suggestion that shame is a toxic and destructive emotion and that we do well to eradicate it from the range of typically felt human emotions. So it needs defending because it's being maligned, it's being beat up on.
Scott Rae: So Gregg, one of the things I so appreciate about the book is you write with a philosopher's precision, especially when you define your terms. So let's be clear right from the start. How are you defining the notion of shame? And then you claim that it's opposite is honor. Tell us the specific definition of both those terms that you're using throughout your book.
Gregg TenElshof: So the word shame, as do so many words for emotions, it names both an objective condition and an affective or a subjective emotional state. So we have to talk about both sides of that distinction. On the objective side, to fall into shame is to be socially discredited in a community. We have lots of metaphors for this. We talk about losing face, losing social credit. When you lose reputation, when you become a person of lesser consequence, you've undergone shame. That's the condition. To be in the condition of shame is to be in the condition of having been socially discredited in a community.
Gregg TenElshof: On the feeling side, felt shame is just the painful sting that naturally accompanies being discredited in a community of people that you care about. And so if you are ashamed in a community of people that you care about, that hurts and that particular kind of hurt is called felt shame. Honor then is just the opposite. The condition of being honored is the condition of being elevated in a community of people, to become a person of greater consequence, greater weight, greater standing, and so forth. And the pleasant emotion that naturally accompanies being elevated in a community that you care about is what we call feeling honored. So you feel honored when you're elevated in community, you feel shame when you're diminished in a community, if it's a community that you care about.
Scott Rae: Right.
Sean McDowell: And the heart of the premise of your book was so interesting because as a whole, shame seems to just be attacked and disregarded. You're not defending saying, "Well, I just want people to feel unhealthy, unnecessary shame." What you're defending is saying, "Shame is actually an emotion that God has given us and feeling shame is meant to drive us to act differently and become different people." So rather than dismissing all of shame, we should ask, "What is healthy shame? What is unhealthy shame?" And with that, "What is shamelessness?" Which I thought this section in your book was so interesting. So talk about what you mean by shamelessness and maybe an example or two that would really make this concrete.
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah. So once you've got in place this distinction between the objective condition of falling into shame when you're in social free fall, and the subjective feeling of shame, it's easy to see that you can undergo shame without feeling shame, right? Maybe you haven't seen yet what's happening on Twitter and so you're not feeling any pain, but my goodness, you're undergoing shame. You're losing credit in society. And you can feel shame, even though you're not undergoing shame. You can feel the sting, you can feel like you're losing face when in fact you're not, when in fact nothing like that is happening. So the feeling and the condition can come apart and shamelessness names one way that that objective condition and the subjective state can come apart. So people who can suffer social free fall without any pain at all, without any emotional sting, we call shameless.
Gregg TenElshof: The tropes of shamelessness are people who promote themselves in public all the time, and if you've been with somebody who's a shameless self-promoter, you can sort of feel the air going out of the room as they promote themselves and you can feel them in a free fall, a sort of social free fall. People are thinking less and less of them as they continue to promote themselves, but they don't feel any of it. They don't feel that sting that should naturally accompany that state or the shameless tourist, who is just all out of whack with the morays of the environment that they're in. They're doing good. And for most of us, when we're out of whack with the customs of the place we're in, there's a feeling that goes with that. It's a kind of a tinge or an embarrassed sort of painful experience that makes us want to be less visible, makes us want to hide, makes us want to get out of sight, but not the shameless tourist. The shameless tourist just seems completely out of touch with the emotional experience that should accompany their free fall.
Scott Rae: Yeah. And you distinguish between a shamelessness that has a moral component and one that is just etiquette-based, like the tourist. We wouldn't find fault with their shamelessness just because they're oblivious to customs, but the shameless self-promoter, we would say there's something morally not quite right with that picture. Right?
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah. I guess I'd say there's something wrong with the shameless tourist, too. It's just not morally wrong. So there are different standards that you can violate. Some of them are moral standards that the community cares about. Others are just sort of standards of etiquette and you can lose credit in society for violations of either kind of standard, for violations of standard of etiquette or for violations of moral standards. Usually you lose credit faster for violations of moral standards because we care more about those, right? And so your shame will be greater for moral failure than it will be for a failure of etiquette, but in both conditions, the natural and apt emotional response would be felt shame.
Sean McDowell: It's interesting to say it's etiquette, but not moral. There's also the question should the tourist know and be attentive to etiquette. Maybe there is a crossover with moral responsibility, obviously.
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah.
Sean McDowell: But that distinction is very helpful. Now you make a comparison between shame and sexuality, and I want to unpack that because I think it'll be real helpful to our viewers, but let me take a step back and ask a question we typically ask in interviews at the beginning, and I didn't ask you. Why write a book on shame of the different things you've taught? It just intrigued me, like when I think about books that I'm going to write and speeches I'm going to give, the topic of shame has never crossed my mind. Now once I had read your book, I was like, "Oh, I wish I'd come up with that idea. This a really fascinating topic." So just in your research, being a philosopher, what was it about this that made you spend the time writing and researching on shame?
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah, a number of years ago, I took up an interest in the Confucian wisdom tradition and started thinking and writing about the different ways that wisdom from the Confucian tradition could be poured into the way of Jesus, how we might learn from Confucians how better to follow Jesus, and that immersion in classical Confucian literature sort of sensitized me to the shame-honor dynamic because shame and honor loom large in the Confucian wisdom tradition, and shame and honor both have important work to do in the formation of flourishing people and communities.
Gregg TenElshof: And so I'd already been sort of shaped by my study of Confucianism. And so then when I started seeing all of this anti-shame literature, both in Christian publication and in secular publication, something just seemed off to me. I mean, the idea that shame would be intrinsically toxic or that it has no work to do in the formation of moral communities, it immediately struck me as something that would sound absurd to a Confucian informed mindset. And the more I studied it, the more I thought it should sound absurd to all of us, not just the Confucian, but it was through my interest in Confucianism that I came to be interested in shame.
Sean McDowell: It was spurred by what was going on in culture.
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah.
Sean McDowell: I could fall for this one. So that then take us back to the question before. This was one of the comparisons that really got me because I've written on issues of sexuality, spoken on this, but hadn't thought about shame and how it's analogous to the way we should think about sexuality.
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah.
Sean McDowell: What is that connection?
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah. It turns out that shame, like any negative or painful emotion, can go wrong, it can be unhealthy. And when it does, it can be destructive. So if you are chronically lonely, that'll wreak havoc on your life. If you feel chronically betrayed, even when you're not being betrayed, that'll wreak havoc on your life. And shame is no different. If your feelings of shame are out of whack with the way things are in the world, that will have destructive effects on your life. And in fact, I think shame is more powerfully capable of destruction than are some of the other negative and painful emotions. So there are people, I think, whose lives have just been undone by extreme experiences of shame. And so for a person like that, to hear that somebody's out there defending shame, that can be off-putting at best, offensive-
Sean McDowell: That makes sense.
Gregg TenElshof: At worse. And so I wanted to give an analogy to sexuality because I think the same is true of sexuality. Sexuality is a force that has been just utterly destructive in the lives of a lot of people. There are a lot of people for whom sexual experience has just undone them, either through abuse or dysfunction or what have you. Sexuality has been a powerful force of destruction in their lives and they need simply to be rescued from the experience with sexuality that they've had. I think the same is true for shame. There are people who've just been undone by their experience of shame and they need simply to be rescued from the shame that they've experienced, but, and here's where the analogy kicks in, we wouldn't then go on to say that, "Because a lot of people have been undone by sexuality, therefore, sexuality is toxic and we'd do well to eradicate it from human experience." Nobody thinks that, right? A sexless world is no utopia.
Sean McDowell: It's not going to last, for one.
Gregg TenElshof: Right. That's right. Right. So I want to say the same kind of thing about shame, that though there are people, perhaps a lot of people, who simply need to be rescued from shame, it would be a mistake to conclude from that that shame is toxic and to be eradicated from human experience. The trick is to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy shame and rescue folks who've been caught up in an unhealthy shame.
Scott Rae: Well, let's put a philosopher's precision to just that point. What are the criteria that you use to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy shame, or appropriate and inappropriate feelings of shame?
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah. Here I think it's helpful to look at some of the other painful felt emotions. So it's always weird to talk about healthy expressions of painful emotions. There's something just sort of awkward about that expression, but you think about something like loneliness and you ask, "When is loneliness healthy?" And it looks like the answer is something like when you're alone, when you're utterly without companionship. If you're utterly without companionship and you don't feel lonely, then your emotions aren't tracking the facts on the ground.
Scott Rae: That's right.
Gregg TenElshof: Something's broken. And so if you're only sort of mildly lacking in companionship, but you feel extremely lonely, then there, again, your emotions are out of whack with the way things are. And the same is true for betrayal. If you've been betrayed and you don't feel the sting of betrayal, something's wrong, something's broken in your emotions. So the same is true of shame. Shame is healthy when it befits the facts on the ground. So if you've suffered social discrediting in a community that matters to you, then shame is the apt emotion for that experience.
Gregg TenElshof: If the free fall has been extreme, some rumor is spreading about you on Twitter and the whole globe thinks of you as a monster, and you suffer only a tiny bit of pain about that, well your emotions aren't tracking reality. The pain ought to be more extreme than that. On the other hand, if you've just suffered a very small diminishing of social credit in a community that matters to you and you're just racked with shame, well then your shame is unhealthy. Or if you're socially diminished for a short period of time but you continue to experience the shame of that for months and years on end, we call that chronic shame, that chronic having to do with time. Chronic shame is unending shame, even though the experience is in the past. Those are all unhealthy expressions.
Scott Rae: Let me follow up on that just quickly. I know, particularly in our cancel culture today, it's not unusual for someone to be socially discredited for things that they are entirely innocent of.
Sean McDowell: Yeah.
Scott Rae: And so I think you can have a justifiable disconnect between the degree to which you've been socially discredited and not feeling anything about that and be justified in not feeling anything about that, if the allegations are entirely false. How does that fit into what you're describing?
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah. So suppose you've been shamed in a community for something that you haven't done, so you're innocent, the only way you wouldn't feel the pain of shame is if you didn't care what that community thought of you. If you cared what that community thought of you, that would be a painful experience, even if you knew yourself to be completely innocent. And so the pain of shame would continue to be apt in those circumstances, even though you know yourself to be innocent.
Scott Rae: So it would just produce a different response.
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah, that's right.
Scott Rae: It would produce a desire to defend yourself?
Gregg TenElshof: Sure.
Scott Rae: And to restore your reputation, something like that?
Gregg TenElshof: That's right. But if it produced no painful experience of shame, that would be an indication that you just couldn't care less what this community thinks about you. In fact, the eradication of shame from culture makes sense only in a pretty thoroughly individualistic society. I think part of the reason that shame and honor have a hard time getting a foothold in contemporary Western culture, especially American culture, is because of our attachment to sort of rugged individualism as an ideal.
Scott Rae: Right.
Gregg TenElshof: You're only going to care about shame and honor if you care about what the community thinks of you.
Scott Rae: Right. Are there times when you probably shouldn't care about what a certain community thinks of you?
Gregg TenElshof: Sure. If I am kind to a person of color and I'm shamed in the Aryan Brotherhood as a consequence, it is true that I'm shamed in the Aryan Brotherhood for having been kind to a person of color but I won't feel any shame and that's because I couldn't care less what the Aryan Brotherhood thinks about me. But if it's a community that you care about, that you're invested in, then it ought to sting when you lose face in that community.
Sean McDowell: It's interesting, a flip side. If the Aryan Brotherhood is like, "We're upset with you, Dr. Gregg," you'll almost be like, "Good. I want you to be."
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah, yeah.
Sean McDowell: So you talk about how shame is somewhat relative to the culture and we're a part of different cultures.
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah.
Sean McDowell: So the church versus non-Christians, like all these different societies we're a part of, our level of shame can be felt based upon how much we care about that particular community.
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah.
Sean McDowell: So one of the questions that immediately hit me, and you talk about this in your book, is the difference and/or similarity between shame and between guilt. And this fascinated me because it raises questions we can come back to related to the Gospel. Is Gospel about guilt? Is it about shame? Is it about both? And before we can answer that question about the Gospel and what Jesus did on the cross, what is the similarity and difference between shame and guilt?
Gregg TenElshof: Good. So they're similarly structured in that guilt, like shame, is a word that names both an objective condition and a subjective state.
Sean McDowell: Okay.
Gregg TenElshof: So to be guilty is to have violated some standard or other. It could be the rules of a game. You could be guilty of violating the rules of a game. You could be guilty of violating the law. You could be guilty of a moral offense, you've violated the moral standard. Those overlap sometimes, sometimes they don't. But to be guilty is to have violated a standard. To feel guilty, that's the painful experience of having violated a standard that you care about. You won't feel guilty for violating a standard if you don't care about that standard. But you will feel guilty if you violate a standard that you care about. So guilt is always relative to some standard. There's no such thing as just plain guilt. Guilt is always relative to some standard. You're guilty with respect to this standard or guilty-
Sean McDowell: Makes sense.
Gregg TenElshof: And you'll feel guilty if you care about the standard that you've violated and in a similar way, shame is always relative to a community. For one and the same thing, you can experience honor in one community and shame in another. And what you feel as that happens will be a function of how you think of those communities and sometimes our communities overlap in complicated ways. The pandemic is giving us some nice examples of that. If you wear a mask where a lot of people aren't wearing a mask, you'll be elevated in some communities, maybe in communities that you care about, and you'll be shamed in others. And maybe you care about those communities too. Right? And so by wearing a mask, you can undergo both shame relative to one community and honor relative to another community. And so our feelings can often be a complicated mix of felt shame and felt honor, depending on which community we're moving in.
Scott Rae: Gregg, let me go back theologically to that distinction between guilt and shame. Because in a lot of Paul's teaching, for example, guilt is more of a forensic notion that was dealt with for once and for all at the cross. That's not to say we don't violate standards and don't have feelings that are appropriate when we violate standards after someone's come to faith. I've often made the distinction between guilt and what I think Paul in Second Corinthians calls more of a "godly sorrow."
Scott Rae: I take that distinction to be a guilt that concludes, "I'm a bad person because of what I've done." Whereas godly sorrow more is, "I'm sad because I've hurt someone I love." If I slept around on my wife, the real thing that keeps me from doing that is not that it's wrong, which it clearly is, not that it would violate a standard, which it clearly does, but that I don't want to hurt someone that I desperately love. And I think the same holds true in our relationship to God. So how does that notion, and you're welcome to take issue with that idea if you like, but how does that notion fit into your definitions of guilt and shame?
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah. One standard thing to notice about the difference between guilt and shame is this, that guilt has as its object a behavior, something that you've done. So you feel guilty for having done this and shame has as its object the person. "I am a person of lesser standing in the community," whether or not it's because of something I've done. Maybe it's be because I have a father who's done something terrible, I'll be a person of lesser standing in the community, but it'll be my person, not my behavior, which is the focus.
Gregg TenElshof: And so one way of hearing what you're saying Scott, is that when we do something terrible, of the kind that you mentioned, we feel both guilt and shame. We guilt for what we've done, for the behavior, but there's also a kind of negative emotion directed upon my person, which is, "I'm ashamed of the person I've become who would be capable of doing that. And I feel myself, as a person, lower in the eyes of God, in the eyes of communities that matter, for having become the kind of person that did that." I think what you're calling godly sorrow might be something closer to shame because it takes aim at the person as opposed to the behavior.
Scott Rae: Okay. So one follow up on that. How then do you understand Paul's teaching at the beginning of Romans 8 and says, "There's therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ."
Gregg TenElshof: Here's what it can't mean, right? It can't mean that for those who are in Christ, they should never again have negative emotions directed upon themselves or directed upon their behaviors.
Scott Rae: Yeah. You can't have a cavalier attitude about-
Gregg TenElshof: That's right. So whatever condemnation means in that passage, it means something stronger than just felt negative emotions directed inward. And so insofar as shame is a negative emotion directed inward, there's room for that so long as condemnation means something stronger.
Scott Rae: Right.
Sean McDowell: Very, very interesting.
Scott Rae: That's helpful.
Sean McDowell: So I was reading a book recently, this was talking about how Westerners have this individualistic look at the scriptures and often don't understand the honor-shame culture. One of the examples that was given that I felt was helpful was the parable that Jesus tells about the workers who throughout a different part of the day and at the end of the day, they get the same pay. I'll get that and I'm like, "Well, that's not fair. Well, what is Jesus saying here?" And it was pointed out to me that one of the things in the story was if people go home without pay, it's dishonorable to their family. So Jesus is protecting their honor and that shifted the way that I look at it. I was like, "Well, that's a very interesting perspective I didn't naturally bring."
Sean McDowell: Now, the reason I bring that up is we're often told that we live in purely an individualistic society, and there's a completely different Eastern culture that's honor and shame and I think there's some truth to that. But on the flip side, I look on Twitter and social media, and it's like we are constantly shaming people and trying to honor people. I'm not sure it's quite that clear. One of my favorite sections in your book is that you push back on that narrative historically and even practically today. So talk about that a little bit, if you will.
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah. I'm so glad you bring up that tension. I think contemporary Western society, as I'm experiencing it, has it exactly backwards in this respect. It looks like we're increasingly suspicious of shame as an emotion and we're increasingly embracing of shaming as a tool for fueling social agendas and the like of that. You mentioned cancel culture earlier as an example of this. Whereas I think we should be less suspicious than we are of shame and we should recognize that it has important work to do in the formation of healthy communities and more suspicious than we are of shaming, because shaming is almost impossible to do as an act of love. So I'm glad you're bringing up that tension. On the East-West point, what I've come to think is that the great human wisdom traditions, East and West, starting with antiquity, have always had a place for and have valued the shame-honor dynamic and have given it sort of important places in their conception of human flourishing.
Gregg TenElshof: In the book, I have a little section where I try to... You don't have to really argue for that on the East. Everybody seems to know that the East is a shame-honor culture, but people have got the idea that that's uniquely Eastern or something like that. So in the book, I trace shame and honor through the Western cannon and try to make a little case that it shows up there. Where it starts to disappear is in the post-enlightenment West, which is precisely when we began to value individualism and that's exactly as it should be. To the degree that you value individualism, it's going to be harder to find a place for shame and honor, because you won't care about shame and honor if you don't care what other... If you're a rugged American individual and you don't care what people think of you. So I think there is some truth to the suggestion that in the West, the shame-honor dynamic is less pronounced, but as you say, shaming hasn't disappeared.
Scott Rae: We're off about that. That's on steroids today.
Sean McDowell: Yeah.
Scott Rae: So I think it's also helpful for our audience to recognize that honor-shame culture was also characteristic of biblical times.
Sean McDowell: Yeah.
Scott Rae: Since those were largely Eastern cultures. So can you say a little bit about how recognizing that honor-shame background might help us understand and read the scripture more accurately?
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah. If you're looking for it, you see shame and honor all over the place in the scriptures, which is not surprising because it was written in a shame-honor culture. You see it right at the beginning with Adam and Eve, their response to the fall is a trope of shame. Their naked hiding is a trope of shameful experience. Paul describes himself as shaming the churches in his, "I say this to your shame," he says trying to get them... Jeremiah, the prophet, Jeremiah talks about a people who've lost their ability to blush and that's just a really nice picture of shamelessness, the loss of the ability to blush. And once you're alert to the shame-honor dynamic, a lot of the stories just read differently. In the book, I talk about the prodigal son story, which I was always taught growing up in church was a story about a son who had wronged his father and the father, instead of making him pay for his wrongdoing, forgave him and gave him sort of unconditional forgiveness.
Gregg TenElshof: And that was a sort of image of the unearned forgiveness available to us in Jesus through the cross. And maybe that's there, but that's not what would come off the page to someone who was informed by a shame-honor culture. The son, in one way of thinking about it, he hasn't done anything wrong to the father anyway. He squandered the money, but the money was his to squander. The father gave it to him. It was his to do what he wanted. And he did some immoral things. He went off and was living wildly and so forth. But that doesn't look like wrongdoing against the father. And when he comes back, the father never forgives him. The father never says anything like, "I forgive you of your wrongdoing and you don't have to pay for what you've done."
Gregg TenElshof: What the father does, having noticed that the son had lost all of his social standing and was eating with the pigs, and that's a clear image of having descended into deep shame, to be at the level of the pigs, the father runs in his robe, which is something a dignified person in that culture would never do, embraces his son, kisses him, puts a ring on his finger, throws a feast in his honor, puts fancy clothes on him. He does all of these things, which would naturally be read as attempts to restore the son's honor, not to forgive someone who's done something wrong to you. So stories like that, I think, which to to the contemporary Western mind might initially seem like stories of forgiveness, turn out to be stories of restored honor instead. I think I might be off your question, Scott.
Scott Rae: No, that was exactly it. Those are all really good examples.
Sean McDowell: This kind of brings us to what Jesus did. Because you make the point in the book that when somebody loses honor, it takes somebody with honor to kind of reach down and use maybe the social status that they have to pull somebody up. And when you think about it that way, Jesus's interaction with the marginalized maybe takes on a very different flavor that is sometimes missed. Talk about not only the prodigal son, that element, but in the actions and maybe even other teachers of Jesus, what he's doing to people who don't have honor in that society.
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah. My mind goes to the woman with the bleeding issue who touched Jesus and received healing and his first reaction to that was... Does he call her sister or daughter? I don't remember, but he uses familial daughter.
Sean McDowell: An endearing term.
Gregg TenElshof: Not just endearing, but familial, right? It's a family term and he essentially says, "I'm with her." And by identifying so strongly with this woman, he took someone who had fallen into deep shame because of her ailment and in essence sort of condescended to her by identifying with her and so lifted her out of her shame. And I think that's all over the place when we talk about Jesus. It's a well-recognized phenomenon that Jesus hung out with the sinners and spent time with the marginalized and so forth. What's less often noticed is that the result of that is the restored honor of those marginalized communities.
Scott Rae: Let me go back to the distinction between shame and shaming and the need to be much more cautious about shaming people. Are there ever instances where it's appropriate to shame someone, to call someone out? And if so, what kind of conditions would be necessary for that to be justifiable?
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah. That's a really hard question. I'm glad you're asking it, but it's a hard question because I think the answer is yes, but man, I'm hesitant to say yes, because it's so much more easily done badly than done well. And so even as I say, "Yes, I think there's a place for shaming," I want to say, "Man, be careful with it." It's like saying there's a place for anger or something like that. Anger is something you have to be really careful with. So when is it appropriate? Sometimes. So an example, I can't remember if I use this example in my book or not, but sometimes I'll have in my classes a student who talks more than they should.
Sean McDowell: You did. You said-
Gregg TenElshof: Okay, yeah.
Sean McDowell: It stood out to me.
Gregg TenElshof: And so you've got a student and they're shameless about it. They have no-
Scott Rae: He is not self-aware.
Gregg TenElshof: No self-awareness, no embarrassment that they're taking up too much air in the class, and it's destructive to the class. And so sometimes, just a wee bit of a shaming comment from a professor, a comment aimed specifically at taking them down a notch in this community of people, can bring both them and the community into something like a more balanced condition. But that's a very controlled environment. If it were a student that I knew to have a very low view of themselves, I would never do something like that. It's got to be somebody that you think can afford it, if I can use that kind of language, and it's got to be an environment that's controllable. If you shame somebody on Twitter, you've done something that's completely uncontrollable. You have no control over how far that shaming experience is going to go.
Scott Rae: Well, and I think there's probably a big difference between taking someone down a notch and destroying them.
Gregg TenElshof: That's right.
Scott Rae: Which is what I think a lot of the cancel culture intends to. I mean, hence the term, cancel culture.
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah. Anytime you've acted in such a way as to create the impression in larger community that someone is basically a monster, you've shamed them in a way that I think is very difficult to justify.
Scott Rae: The thing that might be troubling to our listeners to hear just the introduction of a whole concept of shame, seeing how easily it can go off the rails.
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah.
Scott Rae: How do we put prevent that kind of thing from happening? Because it doesn't take a lot of imagination to go from shame to shaming in a really destructive way.
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah. You've got good questions, Scott. I'm so tempted to beg off on it and say, "Not my job." My job is to assist with clarity about these things and let the psychologists and the social scientists figure out how not to let this go off the rails."
Sean McDowell: Let me, so while you're thinking about this-
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah.
Scott Rae: He's probably going to let you off the hook.
Sean McDowell: No, no.
Scott Rae: Please. You answer it, Sean.
Sean McDowell: I'm not going to answer it. I think you did answer it a minute ago.
Gregg TenElshof: Even better.
Sean McDowell: Right. Here's what you said when it comes to Twitter, you said, or social shaming, "There may be a place, but let's err on the side of trying all other steps first," kind of a Matthew 18, I go to the person, controlled environment.
Scott Rae: Yeah.
Sean McDowell: To me and add to this, tell me what I'm missing, what I took away was there's this mindset, especially in Twitter and our social media world, "I'm going to shame that person, I'm going to get back at them." That's our instinct, whereas our instinct should be, "Wait a minute. This person has dignity. How do I love this person? How do I get the correction that's needed without any further shaming that's necessary to get there?"
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah.
Sean McDowell: And I think a lot of our public tweeting and other examples is to have other people weigh in so I feel good that I'm on the side of the angels and everybody says, "Yes, you're such a good person," without thought of the person who's getting piled on. So maybe it's just a mindset we need to shift and start there. Because I think if we start with a question, "Okay, you've done something that's either not adequate or wrong and I feel the responsibility to push back, what's the most effective way I can do this with the least amount of shaming?" If we just approach it that way, wouldn't a lot of it take care of itself?
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah. And I think something you said there too gives us a sort of guiding question that I think is maybe the best answer to this question. It's this question, if I'm thinking about saying something about somebody or doing something that would shame them, ask the question, "Can this be an act of love for that person? Not for other people that will benefit from my social cause or whatever, but can I do this in love for that person?" And I think when I shame my students in the class-
Scott Rae: Gently.
Gregg TenElshof: Gently, right. I'm doing it inappropriately, if I can't conceive of what I'm doing as an act love, not just for the rest of the class because they need this person to shut up, but can it be an act of love for this person? And when it's done well, it can be because person will do better, they'll get more out of their classes if they just shut up for a little while and learned things. And Paul, I think when he shamed the churches, he was doing it as an act of love for the churches that he was shaming. So that I think is the key question. Can I do this as an act of love?
Scott Rae: I add that term gently, because I know your dean listens to the podcast. I don't want him to hear that you're shaming your students. Maybe one of the criteria we might think about is, "How teachable is the person?" If you've got a really teachable person who's open to critique and open to feedback, there's probably no need to even go down that road. But for the person who resists that initial feedback... I mean, say you talk to this student privately and say, "Could be a little bit more restrained and give other people an opportunity to jump in?" And you see the same behavior then repeated and it doesn't have any impact, then I could see the next step might be that taking them down a notch.
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah. Right.
Sean McDowell: So maybe you try guilt first a bit.
Scott Rae: Or maybe you just try... Yeah. You can try awareness, creating awareness of the problem first.
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah. Sometimes felt shame can get you doing things that you can't feel guilty about. So maybe the student just can't see that what they're doing is inappropriate. And so even in a private conversation, they can't be made to feel guilty or made to feel like they're doing-
Scott Rae: They just don't see it.
Gregg TenElshof: They just don't see it. But they might feel it if they're shamed in class. So it's the same way that they're... Here again, to come back to a contemporary issue. There are a lot of people who can't be made to feel guilty for not wearing a mask because they just don't think that masks are effective or they don't think they should have to wear a mask or whatever. They can't be made to feel guilty, but they can be shamed into wearing a mask. So when they walk into the grocery store and they're the only one without a mask on, they might put the mask on because shame is a powerful motivator.
Scott Rae: Yeah. And I think it's also helpful to recognize that these kinds of things can be communicated without words.
Gregg TenElshof: That's right.
Scott Rae: I mean just somebody's body language or that facial expression when you walk in the grocery store and you're the only one without a mask, that sometimes maybe even a little bit more powerful.
Gregg TenElshof: I think it is more-
Scott Rae: Than words can be.
Gregg TenElshof: More powerful and more effective. Yeah.
Sean McDowell: I think these dynamics are more present than we realize. Like the example of a classroom is obvious to us. I'm reading out, I'm going, "Oh, I'm a teacher. I deal with this." But it's true in families. It's true in workplaces.
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah.
Sean McDowell: After reading your book, I was watching a basketball game yesterday and there's this one player who's clearly the least talented on the team. And he took a couple shots he shouldn't take because that's not his place.
Gregg TenElshof: Shameless.
Sean McDowell: Right? Totally unaware.
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah.
Sean McDowell: Like not doing this intentionally.
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah.
Sean McDowell: And a coach could pull him over and be like, "What are you doing?" And just berate the kid. Or you could take the Matthew 18 approach and start by saying, "Hey, let me give you a context. Here's why this is not your shot." The kid doesn't get it, then you address it, and then you start benching the kid. But some coaches would pull the player out in front of the entire group that's there and berate the kid.
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah.
Sean McDowell: That's where these power dynamics get out of play. So to me, the principle is loving the person, like you said.
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah.
Sean McDowell: And taking all the steps before you make it any more painful than it needs to be.
Gregg TenElshof: That's right.
Sean McDowell: For the person to get a lesson they need to get.
Gregg TenElshof: The principle of least pain for the necessary correction is a helpful one.
Sean McDowell: I think that's fair. Now I do want to ask one thing again, in case we miss anything like practical steps that we can maybe do, and maybe we covered this, but in the question I thought about, and then you dressed in your book, where does this idea that shame is bad come from? You give one word. You're like, "Science." And I thought, "As a philosopher, that's very telling about who we think has authority and can describe reality to us," but without going into all the depth of the chapter, because I want people to get your book, correct me if I'm wrong or add to this, that these studies don't make the distinctions you're making about shame, healthy shame, and unhealthy shame, and just say, "We've got to get rid of all of shame rather than carefully distinguishing when it's appropriate and when it's not." Is that why you take issue with a lot of the studies that are maligning shame?
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah. It's not just that they fail to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy shame, though, they often do. It's rather that they don't distinguish between felt shame and other emotional states, other negative and self-directed emotional states like self-loathing or low self-esteem or other failures of self-respect.
Sean McDowell: Gotcha.
Gregg TenElshof: And so what they purport to demonstrate is that felt shame correlates really strongly with things like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, suicide, rage, all of this yuckiness. But if you haven't clearly distinguished between shame and say low self-esteem, then it won't be any surprise that whatever it is that you're tracking, correlates with all of this nastiness. Because we've known forever that low self-esteem correlates with anxiety, depression, suicide, and so forth. So if you've been taught that shame is toxic or that it's unhealthy, or that it correlates with all of these disastrous conditions, it's almost certainly because you've been taught to conflate shame with low self-esteem or self-loathing. And those things-
Sean McDowell: Interesting.
Gregg TenElshof: Ought to be eradicated from human experience. Low self-esteem and self-loathing, that's a bad business. And it's only if you conflate those things with shame, that shame comes out toxic in the studies.
Sean McDowell: I think only a philosopher could have written this book just because of the precision and the care that you take. I love reading it because we both... Well, I did the MA Phil program, which I think you did as well.
Gregg TenElshof: Yep. Yeah.
Sean McDowell: You did the Talbot MA Phil program. You teach philosophy here.
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah.
Sean McDowell: I teach in a class here called Gospel, Kingdom, and Culture. And one of my students was telling me that your class and Tom Crisp's class was just transformative to them. Now, I don't know if any students told you. I said, "The first thing you need to do is go tell Dr. TenElshof," because you want to hear that. As a teacher, that's significant. But just tell us and our viewers a little bit about, obviously this podcast is sponsored by Biola, but what's your heart for your students and what would make studying something like this and philosophy unique at Biola maybe compared to somewhere else?
Gregg TenElshof: Yeah. My heart for my students is that they would learn how to be more reflective about their own lives, that they would get a vision for the beauty of the way of Jesus, that the way of Jesus would become a way for them and not just a collection of doctrines that they have to believe, and that they would find their way out of some of the skepticism and nihilism that so animates contemporary culture. So much of what I'm doing in the class is oriented around those goals. I'm teaching in the spring on guilt and shame, working through some of the social science and philosophical literature on guilt and shame. And here my hope is to help students out of some of the destructive shame they've experienced or if they've come under the impression that somehow they ought make progress toward shamelessness, to try to disabuse them of that notion. There's a book by Nadia Bolz-Weber just called Shameless.
Sean McDowell: Yeah.
Gregg TenElshof: And I think for Bolz-Weber that name's a virtue.
Sean McDowell: You're right.
Gregg TenElshof: And so there's a real move in that direction, both inside and outside of Christian circles. And my hope is to help my students achieve some clarity about that.
Sean McDowell: You're doing great work in the class, outside of the classroom.
Scott Rae: This has been such a rich discussion, so appreciate your precision and the clarity with which you address this and I think your willingness to take on something that could bring shame to you in some professional circles and see you take it as more of a badge of honor.
Sean McDowell: Yeah.
Scott Rae: But I so appreciate the book and even though it's written by a professional philosophy, you don't need philosophical training to be conversant with it. It's does a great job of making complex things really clear.
Sean McDowell: I want to highlight what you're doing here is helping Christians think biblically about a topic like shame. That's what we do at Biola, that's what we aim to do on this podcast. So think about joining us, whether an undergrad or a grad program. Come learn to think biblically, that's what Biola is about. Make sure you hit subscribe to our YouTube channel where we're starting to cover this video as well. And also the podcast, Think Biblically and pick up a copy of For Shame by Gregg TenElshof. I will shamelessly plug this for you because I really think it's an excellent, excellent book. And I want to have a fall conversation with you at some point, as we talk about what it means to flourish. Is there a design argument that can be found about the role of shame that points towards intention built into our relationships or can evolution explain it? That's a fall conversation we'll have, but for now we really appreciate you coming on.
Gregg TenElshof: Well, thank you for having me on your show. You guys honor me with your attention and your attention to my book. So I appreciate it.
Scott Rae: It's fully worthy of it. Thank you.
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of podcast, Think Biblically, Conversations on Faith and Culture. The Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and fully online, including our masters in Christian apologetics, where I teach classes on the resurrection, the problem of evil and beyond now offered fully online. Visit biola.edu/talbot to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend.
Scott Rae: I want to let you know that today's episode is also available on video if you are inclined to watch it in that format. Click on the link in the show notes and you'll be taken right to it.
Sean McDowell: Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.