“There are basically three kinds of cultures in the world: guilt-based, fear-based, or shame-based. Guilt-based and fear-based cultures have been much more open to the good news of Jesus than shame-based cultures. It is critical that we understand the dynamics of honor and shame to communicate effectively the good news of Jesus within this cultural milieu.”

I protested to my interlocutor that I’m not that obsessed with guilt. He responded: “The guilt dynamic within a Western culture is pervasive almost to the point of invisibility, but we can see it at work at an American public pool with a lifeguard on duty. A short blast on that lifeguard’s whistle triggers the dynamic. Instinctively, swimmers in a guilt-based culture will pause momentarily to identify the guilty person who caused the whistle to be blown. The same thing happens when a police officer pulls a driver over to the side of the road. Traffic slows down just so passing drivers can get a good look at whom they presume is the guilty party.”

Yes; I admitted to doing both.

Ever since having lived in an honor/shame culture, I’ve been fascinated with that tripartite cultural framework model introduced to me that evening. Increasingly, I saw how much I needed to understand honor cultures to understand the cultural norms found within the Bible. Even my rudimentary familiarity with honor cultures opened up vast wells of meaning in the scriptures, like that of the parable of the prodigal son.

When the Arab Spring began, I wondered how much of the struggle within the various centers of revolution had to do with the idea of vocation and the value of the common good in honor cultures that had become calcified by overwhelming state power. The spark that lit the revolutionary fires was born when a simple fruit-seller self-immolated after being harassed by the local police force. That explosive moment seemed to frame the systems of patronage versus those on the outside of the system, those struggling to eek out simple dignity in relatively lowly work and a earn a bit of money to survive.

One of the most hopeful moments within the Arab Spring pivoted on this point of honor and the common good: Egyptians in Tahrir Square began to clean the square and pick up trash — a degrading manual task, inherently dirty and disgraceful within a honor culture. When we heard that Egyptians were organizing to keep the Square clean, I thought the forces of good were unstoppable. Honor was being redefined; the story was changing! Ideas were having profound, dignifying consequences. Here were people at work for the common good, setting aside the potential sullying aspects of work necessary for common life for the greater honor of the common good.

But I’ve also wondered how much of my understanding of vocation and a theology of work derives from my having been raised and formed in a guilt-based Western cultural context. In particular, I’ve wondered:

– What does the concept of vocation mean for persons in an honor culture?

– If “faith shapes vocation shapes culture,” how does an honor culture shape vocation shape faith?

– How does one formulate a theology of work within an honor/shame culture?

–  For cultures in which jobs are scarce, or population growth far outpaces job-production, how does one articulate a vision of vocation?

– How does one communicate, cultivate, and maintain a vibrant culture of vocation in the midst of material or social poverty?

– In what ways can we use our vocations to confer honor and dignity upon others?

– How does the concept of vocation — of God’s calling of an individual — bring dignity and honor to that individual and his or her community?

– Is all work honorable when done to the glory of God?

– How can the church effectively think through questions of vocation and work in a way that illumines the reality of the good news and God’s own work in the world for a whole and coherent life?

A crisp and simple website I stumbled upon recently tackles the interpretive gap of honor/shame culture for a Western audience: HonorShame. I commend the brief white board animated sketch featured on its website that illustrates the gospel for an honor culture. I’m on the hunt: pursuing voices and contributions for an occasional series on the concept of vocation and a theology of work within honor cultures — West Asian, East Asian, etc. — tackling any of the above or related questions. If you have ideas or resources to bring to this conversation, by all means, let’s talk.