Jackson W. On His New Book ‘Reading Romans With Eastern Eyes: Honor and Shame in Paul’s Message and Mission’

For much of church history, Christians have brought Western cultural assumptions to their reading of Scripture. But as the church’s geographic center of gravity has shifted from the West to the Majority World, believers across the globe have come forward to offer fresh insights on God’s Word. Jackson W. (a pseudonym), an American-born theologian teaching at an Asian seminary, builds on that work in his latest book, Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes: Honor and Shame in Paul’s Message and Mission, which reexamines the apostle’s famous letter. Missiologist Jayson Georges, coauthor of Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures: Biblical Foundations and Practical Essentials, spoke with Jackson about the value of bringing East Asian perspectives to bear on the message of Romans.

The ideas in Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes emerged from both your research and overseas ministry experience. Can you share some of the story behind the book?

For some time, I’ve noticed confusion stemming from the way Western Christians evangelize and explain Christianity to people in China. Whether you talk about certain terms, concepts, or emphases, there is a basic disconnect. However, the Bible has several themes that make more sense to a typical person in East Asia: specifically, issues related to honor, shame, and group identity.

At the same time, many Westerners overlook the significance of honor and shame in the Bible and the Christian life. Their reading of Romans minimizes the importance of honor and shame. For them, Romans is definitive proof that legal categories trump all other metaphors and concepts in Scripture. So I figured I would make my case from perhaps the most so-called “legal” book in the New Testament. If we can see the pervasive influence of honor-shame dynamics in Romans, then clearly these are critical categories of thought that should shape how we read the entire Bible.

How does reading Paul’s letter through an “honor-shame lens” help us understand his argument?

One major theme is collective identity. For most readers, Paul is speaking to individuals about being saved from sin and then sanctified as they walk in the Spirit. But that oversimplification misses a more fundamental concern that underlies Paul’s letter—who is God’s family?

The Jew-Gentile divide is central to Paul. God’s promise to Abraham to bless all nations is at the crux of Paul’s theology. God’s honor is at stake. Will he keep his promises? If Paul’s Jewish opponents are correct to say that people must become Jews as a prerequisite to becoming God’s people, then God cannot keep his promise from Genesis 12:3, which Paul explicitly calls “the gospel” in Galatians 3:8.

What’s more, reading Romans with an honor-shame lens helps us see more subtle dynamics at play. For instance, when Paul recounts Israel’s story and her presumption of divine favor, he makes a subtle yet superb argument against the mindset held by certain readers. Many Romans saw themselves as “Greek,” which implied that they were full of wisdom and the cultural envy of the world. They looked down on non-Greeks, who were derided as “barbarians.” However, it is this “backward” group of people in Spain to whom Paul professes a desire to preach the gospel (Rom. 15:24). He wants assistance from the Roman church but worries that the cultural pride of its members might discourage them from supporting his mission. So Paul recasts the Romans in the role of ancient Jews and the barbarians in the place of Gentiles.

Can you point to particular passages in Romans that an honor-shame lens helps us better interpret?

In Romans 9–11, Paul draws from multiple Old Testament passages that are heavily shaped by honor and shame. Many people are familiar with Romans 10:13, which quotes Joel 2:32: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” But ask yourself, “Saved from what?” If you look closer at Joel 2, the prophet answers the question two times, saying, “never again will my people be shamed” (v. 26–27).

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Source: Christianity Today