My (Elliot) wife doesn’t see cars. Of course, she sees them all the time, but she doesn’t necessarily notice them. And she certainly doesn’t distinguish between Volvo and Volkswagen or between light compact and all-wheel drive. But when our family recently bought an old VW Golf, she started to notice Golfs everywhere. Mind you, it’s not that Golfs suddenly appeared on American roadways in 2020, but that she now had eyes to see what was there all along.
So it is with Scripture. And missionaries experience this phenomenon perhaps as much as anyone else. By crossing cultures and encountering new relational and social dynamics, their eyes are opened to see truths in the Bible that have always been there. This doesn’t make missionaries more spiritual; they just have another set of lenses for seeing. And in the case of Jackson Wu’s stimulating new book, Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes: Honor and Shame in Paul’s Message and Mission, he graciously offers his pair of East Asian spectacles to us, his readers.
At the outset, we should acknowledge how powerful—and potentially hazardous—this simple act is: to read Romans with a new set of eyes opens up a world of new realities. Wu—who has lived and worked in East Asia for almost two decades and serves on the Asian/Asian-American Theology steering committee of the Evangelical Theological Society—focuses especially on the dynamics of shame and honor in a relational and collectivist culture. However, as soon as we discover what our Western eyes were missing, we realize that switching prescriptions has the potential to blind us to other realities in the text. Reading the Bible with Eastern eyes is no panacea, for the Bible is neither purely Eastern nor Western.
We see what our eyes are shaped to see. In this case, we don’t appreciate, or perhaps we’re not even aware of, some significant cultural realities at work within the biblical text—and at the time of its composition.
Despite that reality, we believe Wu’s project is valid and helpful. For one, Eastern ways of thinking and relating are culturally closer to the ancient Mediterranean context of the Bible—at least in terms of a collectivist mentality and its manifestation in honor-shame dynamics. Second, it’s also true that our Western, individualistic culture, more strongly bent toward a guilt-innocence framework, combined with our history of theology (such as the Catholic-Protestant…