Theological Education in Honor-Shame Cultures

Have you ever wondered how honor and shame might influence the way we do theological education? Whether we offer formal or informal training, we cannot ignore the worldview of those we train.Orality Journal Cover Sept 2014I just found out that my latest article has been published in the September issue of Orality Journal. It is titled, “Theological Education in Honor-Shame Cultures: Why Worldview Matters for Oral Learners.

I originally wrote it with oral cultures in mind, but I made sure that it would be applicable to other honor-shame (H/S) cultures as well. The truth is that ALL cultures have elements of an honor-shame perspective (including western culture).

The following quote gets at one of the reasons I wrote the essay:

“If missionaries want to reach oral learners, they must be willing to lose face within the evangelical subculture. They will resist the relativistic tendency to tell the biblical story and objectify theology only from within their own cultural view. One’s worldview has implicit assumptions that shape his or her “implicit gospel.” An “implicit gospel” is the message people hear as a result of the way a speaker, consciously or unconsciously, frames a gospel presentation.”

Here is a broad outline of the subjects I address:

I. Contextualization Answers “Why?”

In this section, I try to move us past conventional (though important) questions about content (“What do we teach?”) and method (“How do we teach our message”?).

Here is a quote:

“We address worldviews by asking “why” questions. Worldview questions involve our rationale (Why do we believe this?) and heart (Why is this important?). We need to consider a number of more basic issues before asking, “What stories should we tell?” (information) or “How do we tell them?” (technique). “Why” concerns understanding; thus, it determines and shapes application (i.e. what? how?).”

II.  Why Oral (H/S) Learners Want “Face”

This part of the essay notes a few common features of an H/S perspective and show how H/S shape the biblical narrative.

Since H/S concerns worldview, I state the following:

“How do we contextualize theological education for oral learners? Contextualization requires a transformation of perspective (i.e. worldview). It is more than a methodology to translate cultural ideas. We get ahead of ourselves when we focus on good doctrine (“what?”) and storying (“how?) yet neglect to consider how worldview influences the story we tell.”

III. Honor-Shame Frame the Gospel

This section is only a brief summary of a chapter I wrote for a forthcoming book being produced by the International Orality Network. I am rather excited for that chapter to be published because, in it, I argue that honor and shame are inherent to the gospel, a part of the built-in framework without which there is no biblical gospel.

IV. Theological Education for Oral (H/S) Learners

This last part of the essay suggests seven applications for doing theological education/training in an honor-shame context.

I’d love to hear what applications you would add.

Explaining “Face” Using Lian and Mianzi

Both in Saving God’s Face and on this blog, I have highlighted a slight distinction between the two Chinese words for “face”–– lian (脸) and mianzi (面子). Do Chinese people understand this? Is this distinction important? Does is matter when it comes to evangelism and explaining theological ideas?

As soon as you distinguish lian and mianzi in conversation, you will often find that Chinese listeners don’t always understand or agree with this distinction. What are we to make of this?

chinese-face-mianzi(By the way, this post is also relevant for people who don’t speak Chinese. In other languages, one will inevitably find that key terms could have multiple translations yet each word carries its own subtle connotations.)

Mianzi versus Lian

First of all, I want to reiterate what is this difference between lian and mianzi. In Saving God’s Face, I document various Chinese writers (e.g. anthropologists, linguists, etc.) who have made this observation. The distinction is rooted in the Han language and thus is easier to explain in northern areas where Cantonese has had less of an influence on people’s daily use of language.

In short, mianzi is more superficial in nature, referring to one’s reputation in a broad sense. Movie stars and singers have mianzi. When a students scores well on a test or is publicly praised, he or she gets mianzi. By contrast, lian has the capacity to carry moral connotations, having reference to a person’s character. While not everyone has mianzi (as in fame), people are born with lian (in the sense of human worth).

Lian is a type of mianzi; yet, mianzi is not necessarily lian. So, one could use the terms interchangeably; however, if someone specifically wanted to talk about character (i.e. “moral” face), one would use lian rather than mianzi.

“Face” is a Moral Issue

In conversation, I will make this distinction (for purposes I’ll make clear in a second). I routinely hear one of two objections. First, someone might say, “Mianzi and lian mean the same thing.” Or, second, I’ll hear, “But mianzi has a negative connotation in China. So, why do you talk about God and Christians getting lian?” It usually takes a few minutes to answer these questions, but 9 times out of 10, the person I’m speaking with will get the point and set aside their objection.

How do we answer these questions?

(1) To begin, I simply try to be clear about what I’m actually claiming. So, I state my comments above about mianzi and lian having overlap yet lian having the ability to carry moral overtones.

(2) Then, I pose questions that give evidence of this claim.

For example, every Chinese person knows the answer to the question, “Do you want lian?” (你要脸吗?). The answer is simply “Yes. Of course.” If one person were to say about another person, “He does not want lian”, that would be an insult. The speaker effectively would be saying that this person does not care about being a good person, having good character.

mianzi mirrorTherefore, if it were actually true that lian and mianzi were indistinguishable and that they had a negative meaning, then saying “He doesn’t want lian” wouldn’t be an insult. In fact, it would be very appropriate to say, “I don’t want lian.”

We could go about this from another direction. While mianzi quite often conveys a negative idea (e.g. being proud), everyone recognizes that giving mianzi is fundamentally a moral obligation within one’s relationships.

Thus, if a child were unwilling to give mianzi to his parents, then everyone would regard that child as disrespectful and unloving. In order to establish and maintain the most basic of social relationships, people must give mianzi (e.g. respect, praise, complements, etc.).

In addition, a number of idiom and set phrases use lian in a way that carries moral overtones. For instance, 撕破脸皮 (sī pò liǎn pí) means “to give no consideration for other people’s feelings.”

Conceptually, many other expressions demonstrate that Chinese clearly see things like face, shame, and honor in moral terms. Thus, if someone “does not have a sense of shame” (bu zhi lian chi, 不知廉耻), he or she is considered an immoral person or someone who lacks moral sensibilities. You can find many more expressions that are helpful in making the connection between honor/shame/face and morality or virtue.

After a little thought, Chinese grasp the point. Whether they are conscious of it or not, they intuitively distinguish mianzi and lian in one manner or another.

** In the next post, I’ll mention a few practical suggestions about how and why to use the mianzi/lian distinction in conversation.

Honor and Shame across Generations in China

How are honor and shame expressed differently across generations in China?

Someone recently emailed me asking this question. They wondered how “modernity” and “postmodernity” might impact honor/shame dynamics in Chinese society.
This post offers just a few brief answers.

People in imperial China during silk productio... Continue reading

“Face” videos now on Youku

For those who work with Chinese people, you can now watch, share, and download the Chinese versions of my recent videos about how we can use face to share the gospel.

Click the Chinese name for the Youku link.
Click the English name for the English version posted on this blog

你要脸吗? (Do you want “face”?)

神如何追求脸?  (How does God seek “face”? )

How does God seek “face”?

A few weeks ago, I released a video explaining how honor-shame might influence our gospel conversations. Today, the focus shifts to the Bible itself.

The video below explains the biblical story in terms of honor-shame (i.e. face).

On the one hand, it is intended to be a training tool. However, the video could also serve as an introduction to the gospel. Of course, like all such tools, it needs a person to explain and clarify certain ideas.

Of course, much more could be said. Other biblical themes are important as well. We can’t say everything in a few minutes. For a “full” gospel presentation, we’d have to read (or hear) the entire Bible. We have to begin somewhere. I hope this video helps in some way.

I want to be quick to say that this video is just one possible example. Various adaptions could (and should) be made depending on a change in context.

I have provided the Chinese version below (神如何追求脸?) with certain adaptions to fit a Chinese context.


Just Signed Contract for New Book!

I just signed a contract for my newest book! It is titled One Gospel for All Nations: A Practical Approach to Biblical Contextualization.

The book is due out this coming winter (December 2014–January 2015). Thanks to William Carey Library for their vision and support of this book.

WCL logoJust as the title suggests, this book offers a practical approach for doing biblical contextualization. Why the word “biblical”? In this book, I suggest that we can see a very distinct pattern whenever the biblical writers talk about the gospel. That pattern then can become a framework for contextualizing the gospel in any cultural context.

In essence, this book explicitly explains the implicit process underlying my first book, Saving God’s Face.

In addition, I will show a practical model that is both firm and flexible. It is firm by virtue of the fact that is uses a pattern consistently used across the biblical canon. There is ONE gospel. Yet, the model also allows for a high degree of flexibility. After all, we see a great deal of variety in the Bible when it comes to how people discuss and present this one gospel.

Therefore, this book is a bridge between missiology and theology. It provides a practical process while not overlooking the important role of biblical interpretation. In short, I hope One Gospel for All Nations will be an example of applied theology.

The Biblical Story is Collectivistic

From beginning to end, the Bible primarily talks about groups, not individuals.

This is another reason why we should reconsider our traditional methods of evangelism. As I’ve said throughout this series, our typical use of the Adam story breeds an individualism that may not serve those with whom we speak.

"Abraham, Abraham!" So he said, &quo...
Continue reading

How to Babel on the Gospel in China

I want to briefly illustrate the idea from my previous post. I suggested that it may be better for us to begin with the Babel story (rather than with Adam & Eve) when preaching the gospel.

The Babel account is especially meaningful for collectivistic, honor-shame cultures. Previously, I interpreted Genesis 11 and discussed issues of face and collective identity.

In this post, I’ll use a Chinese context simply for the sake of illustration. I encourage people to find similar explanations that draw from their own culture.

shanghai-tower-china-tallest-building-completed-20130803 Continue reading

The Chase for Face: The Shame of Western Collectivism

Ever wonder what Western collectivism looks like and why it matters? My recent article attempts to deal with these questions. 800px-Constitution_We_the_PeopleYou can find it over at the Missio blog, which is hosted by The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture. The article is called “The Chase for Face: The Shame of Western Collectivism.”

Here are some of the things I address.

Socially speaking, what is “collectivism”?

Why are honor-shame cultures considered “collectivistic”?  What’s the logic?

What does Western style “collectivistic” look like?

Can we measure honor and shame?

What is the cost of Western collectivism?

Why does all this practically matter? What is the application?

Leave your comments and join the conversation. I look forward to hearing your ideas.

Do you want “face”?

Have you ever wondered how honor-shame might influence a gospel presentation?

This video gives just a small glimpse into how such a conversation might flow. It is guided by two questions related to “face.”

  • Who are your relationships? (i.e. ascribed honor and shame)
  • What have you done? (i.e. achieved honor and shame)

These are the two ways that a person can either get face or lose face.

The video is intended to be a training video used to help people understand in part how “face” might influence our gospel conversations. Below is the Chinese version of this video.

**Note: For some reason, iPhones may not show the video posted above. For a direct link, click here.

It is NOT meant to be a gospel presentation. Of course, it does contain a number of ideas that could shape the way someone presents the gospel.

In a few weeks, I will release another video that uses honor-shame to tell the grand biblical story. Because that video will be more biblical/theological in nature, one could more easily see it as an introduction to the gospel. (UPDATE: Click here for the second video)

I would love to hear your feedback. Let me a comment and let me know you suggestions, questions, or any other thoughts.
Here is the Chinese language version: 你要脸吗? It has been adapted in places to better suit a Chinese context.
** For those interested, you click here for the link to the Chinese version posted on youku.