Marching for Allah (5): a cultural shift

I have been arguing that sometimes we fail to realize that some things we think are just western are actually Christian, and we have been shaped by thinkers who worked in an at-least-vaguely-Christian milieu. Let us take an example; a theological issue current in missiological literature. Above, when I was discussing the way people from shame-cultures understand the gospel, I mentioned that very often they see the work of Christ in terms of his humiliation, shame and exaltation. Might we then, when we commend Christ to people from such cultures, explain the gospel in those categories?1 Do we need a new version of Two Ways to Live that is better contextualized? There are many good reasons to do so; not least of which is that the Bible itself understands Christ’s work in this way sometimes (eg. Is 53:3, Ps 25:3, Rom 9:33, 1 Pet 2:6). Christ has dealt with our shame as much as our guilt. He has exalted the humble, and destroyed the proud. In many ways this is a fantastic example of the way people from other cultures can help us to see better what is there in Scripture that our own culture has made us blind to. Even making this observation will be a big step forward in speaking with people of shame-based cultures about the gospel.

But we mustn’t stop there. Before we abandon penal-substitutionary atonement entirely as we witness to our Muslim friends, perhaps we should consider that there may be a reason why western Christians relate so well to this particular explanation of Christ’s death. Historical theology is of some help here. Anslem, the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Twelfth Century, wrote a treatise on the work of Christ titled Cur Deus Homo? (Why God became Man.) Strictly speaking it belongs to the western theological heritage, but it is very far from a western worldview in the modern sense of the word. In it, Anselm outlines the satisfaction theory of the atonement: the idea that work of Christ is about restoring the honour of an offended God. It is, in the end, a theory of the atonement well suited to Medieval Europe—a world that thought in terms of shame and disgrace, of honour, loyalty and nobility. When someone was offended, satisfaction of honour was required to mend the relationship. It was a rationality not too different, I would wager, from many modern Middle-Eastern countries.

So it would seem that the west used to be a shame-based culture but is now a guilt-based culture. No doubt there is a multiplicity of factors involved in this transition. But can anyone seriously doubt the impact of the protestant reformation here? Martin Luther’s analysis of the gospel played an enormous part in cultural change in 16thCentury Europe. His realization was that the righteousness of God wasn’t about God’s own righteousness; God’s intrinsic honour and glory. It was about a righteousness imputed to us; that our sin condemns us before a holy God, but that in Christ we stand justified because Christ had dealt with our guilt. How powerfully transforming was this idea in the history of western thought?

Before abandoning penal substitutionary atonement, perhaps we should consider the possibility that the west is a guilt-based culture precisely because penal-substitutionary atonement is the dominant Biblical explanation of the work of Christ. Perhaps we shouldn’t try to rid ourselves of our “western” way of arguing just yet either. Some things that we think are western and cultural might actually be Biblical. Cultures are not static, and the gospel wherever it goes will shape culture. Were it (by the power of the Spirit) to take deep root in the Middle East, then we would no doubt see a shift in the rationality and underlying value systems of those cultures also.

Tomorrow I’ll wrap up this series by talking about how I think we can speak into a Muslim world view. Until then, though, what other parts of western culture can you identify as having been profoundly shaped by Christian theology?

  1. I am indebted to Timothy Tennent for this question also. I commend to you his extremely helpful discussion on this issue in Theology in the Context of World Christianity.

10 thoughts on “Marching for Allah (5): a cultural shift

  1. Are you aware that these articles are attributed to Sam Freney in the emails you are sending?

  2. Nathan,

    I understand your point about a Christian understanding of guilt, but I’m confused by what you mean by the West now being a “guilt-based culture”. Can you comment on what that means? (Perhaps my call for evidence is a symptom of that? Or am I “West” by name as well as by nature?)

    I just feel you’ve made an important point but it needs more words to make it stick,


  3. I would suggest that it is misleading to label a particular culture as predominantly either guilt/righteousness or shame/honour. I think an emphasis on guilt/righteousness can be legitimately understood an equal emphasis on shame/honour (and vice versa). The key difference between the traditional western and eastern perspectives boils down to whose approval are you seeking – God’s or your community’s? The reason I try to do what is right even when no-one is watching me is not because I slavishly adhere to a set of rules but because God sees in secret and I am seeking his approval and/or trying to avoid his condemnation. In other words, I seek to be honourable in the eyes of God rather than ashamed to meet him on the day of judgement. Justification is not merely being righteous according to an abstract principle but being declared righteous by the Judge and so gaining his approbation. Conversely, someone in what is called a shame/honour culture is striving for his community’s approval, which is simply another way of saying he is striving to do what his community defines as “the right thing to do”.

    So I think both westerners and easterners are equally concerned about guilt/righteousness and shame/honour. It’s just that they use different yardsticks to define what is righteous/honourable and wrong/shameful.

    Maybe a constructive approach to evangelise people for whom public approval is uppermost is to try to help them seek God’s approval instead of man’s. This way of living was exemplified in Jesus of Nazareth. Even his enemies complimented him by saying to him: “We know you are indifferent to public opinion and don’t pander to your hearers” (Mark 12:14). And Jesus said to the Pharisees in John 5:41-44 “I’m not interested in crowd approval… You like to receive praise from one another, but you do not try to win praise from the only God.” Before Paul was converted he was proud of his zeal in keeping the law and advancing in Judaism beyond many of his peers, but after his conversion he had other priorities and was able to say to the Corinthians: “It matters very little to me what you think of me, and even less where I rank in popular opinion… It is the Lord who judges me.” (1 Cor.4:3-4)

    I would suggest that evangelists working among Mohammedans should try to get them to recognise that the most important person to please is not their family or their community but their divine Judge, because the former’s opinion will only affect their short earthly lives whereas the latter’s opinion will affect their eternal wellbeing. If Jesus really is the only way to God, then a Mohammedan faces 2 options: honour God by accepting his offer of life while dishonouring one’s community (and risk being killed as an apostate), or honour one’s community more than honouring the true God by refusing to believe in God’s Saviour to the world. Each option brings you glory & honour – the former results in God saying permanently to you “Well done, good and faithful servant” while the latter results in momentary applause from your family and peers.

    • Thanks very much Phil. As always, a thoughtful reply.

      I’m always happy for people to disagree with me. But I have to admit that am a little surprised to see this come from you. From our discussions I was under the impression you were on board with the anthropology I’ve been using.

      I have a couple of things to say I guess. Firstly, the guilt-based/shame-based distinction isn’t really mine. It’s an established paradigm that has been used by a lot of people (both Christian and secular) for a long time. That doesn’t necessarily make it right, but you should know that it’s not something I’ve just thought up in the last 5 minutes! A lot of work by people a lot smarter than me and with a lot more cross-cultural experience than me went into it.

      There’s always the possibility that I didn’t explain it well. Did I mention that it’s not intended to be a hard and fast distinction? If my explanation of it has been lacking, I guess all I can really do is point you back once again to the places I got it from, and ask you to check them out. I gave you some references the other day. Perhaps have a second read over this one:

      The distinction you are trying to draw, however, I can tell you is absolutely not true. There are plenty of Muslims around who work sincerely to please God, and not other people. If you become one of the evangelists you are talking about, and you go to Muslims and say “you need to work hard to please God and not other people” then I guarantee you will get nothing but hearty nods of the head in agreement. However, why you would go to someone in a works based religion and tell them that to be saved they need to work harder is beyond me.

      The choice you pose in your final paragraph, however, is a real tension actually experienced in the lives of hundreds or thousands of Muslims every day. Apostasy from Islam is dishonouring both to God and community, as well as illegal in a lot of places. I’d suggest that before you say anything to any Muslim you grapple with the gravity of what you are asking them to do. It’s absolutely right to ask someone to leave Islam. But don’t pretend it’s not going to have very serious consequences!

  4. Hi Nathan,

    My opinions are often flaky and half-baked, so I won’t be surprised if what I wrote is completely wrong! Thanks for your patient critique. Yes, I am aware from your previous articles in this series that the guilt-based/shame-based distinction is not yours but is longstanding and widely accepted. And I’m also aware that you mentioned in a previous article that the 3 strands of guilt, shame, and fear are present in all cultures to varying degrees – it’s just that one or other strand tends to dominate in a particular region.

    I should think all Muslims would strive to please Allah and are not merely concerned to conform to their Islamic communities. Those 2 goals would overlap anyway. But if a Muslim became convinced that Jesus is the one true God incarnated as man and that he is the only hope for a perishing humanity, he would then have to choose between seeking to honour (and be honoured by) the only true God while dishonouring his community and the reputation of Allah, or on the other hand seeking to honour (and be honoured by) his community while rebelling against the only true God and end up being shamed by him on the day of judgment.

    I would not go to Muslims and say “you need to work hard to please God and not other people” because I wouldn’t want to suggest to them that we obtain God’s acceptance by our good works. Rather I am suggesting going to Muslims and commending Jesus to them for his matchless loveliness, kindness, goodness, and greatness, while trying to convey the message that trusting in Jesus is the only way you can honour (and be honoured by) the true God, even though that entails shaming your community – though I would not be so naive as to state it as bluntly as that initially.

    I know the threat of death for apostasy from Islam is real, both from self-appointed vigilantes and from the government in some countries (albeit on trumped-up alternative charges). But from an eternal perspective it is worth the risk, isn’t it.

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