Grace for Shame

Grace for shame is God has accepted you and recognized your status unconditionally, restoring your original worth as a human person. Shame has made you split within. It has driven a wedge within, making you (a sort of) schizophrenic between the you you like and the you you don’t. Grace for shame heals this schizophrenic you, your hurts and wounds coming from such internal ruptures.  John A. Forrester’s Grace for Shame goes in depth how and why this is possible.

Even while it’s possible to give a brief summary of the book as the foregoing, readers may well find unique features of whatever books they pick up to read, and this one is not an exception.  The book is composed of three parts, each of which has two chapters. The first part comprises an introductory overview of shame (ch. 1) and goes deep into the new ministerial context as to how shame has emerged (ch. 2). Personally speaking, I have found this part lacking in all the books I have reviewed by far, so I have been helped greatly through chapter 2. In part two, the author reads through the Bible centered on shame.  In chapter 3, he does a historical survey of Old and New Testament scholarships through which shame came to be understood as an important lens through which to read the Bible.  Afterwards, he reads Genesis to demonstrate why the topic of shame is intra-biblical, rather than something imposed upon biblical interpretation. In the next chapter, the author attempts another survey of Jesus’ life and ministry in order to examine how Jesus removes our shame.  Part three is what makes this book unique.  Just as the first part, the author deals with the contextual importance of shame, but what makes such an approach unique is that he pursues how he can help pastors own their shame, leading to genuine healing. Chapter 5 discusses how pastors can help their congregations in this regard, and chapter 6 looks into how pastors can help themselves in their relationship with the congregations they minister. In my opinion, chapter 6 is worth the price of the book, especially for Korean and Korean-American pastors for whom church ministry is prone to breed and cultivate more and more shame, due to the unrealistically pressuring expectations of their congregations toward them. The more pastors become aware of this aspect of who they are, the better persons they will end up becoming for both as pastors and as human beings.

Now I am going to talk about what unique perspectives this book brings to its readers.  First, Forrester brings readers a great gift of a large scale literature review through this book.  His research on the topic of shame is so thorough and detailed that I highly recommend this book to anyone jumping into doing research on shame.  However, on the flip side, this might mean that the way Forrester is making a case is not so organized and effectively presented. While other books usually make use of articles and books in order to supplement what they are arguing for, this one reads as if the main arguments and their evidence are reversed between the two.  Of course this is not saying that the book has few arguments, nor does it mean that it fails to carry through what it stands up for.  In particular, the organization and structure of part three is quite strong and coherent. However, overall, I could not avoid feeling reading a large literature review rather than a book trying to make a case for what it argues.

Even with such downsides, the book has three important insights.  First, the book argues that with the emergence of postmodern disappearance of meta-narrative, contemporary society has been divided into small units according to whatever identities people claim. In this context, church is by operation (although not by theological picture) regarded as one of the units of society, where upholding people’s honors and avoiding shaming them are much more important than sticking to principles and preserving justice. Forrester calls this phenomena retribalizing of society. This insight is impregnated with an important implication for doing theology.  Namely, churches should pay more attention to honor and shame in their theologizing rather than blindly adhering to justice and punishment as the principal themes of doing theology.

Second, the book delves into pastors’ shame, particularly in chapter 6. (I wish all pastors read this chapter.)  The book sharply points out that those pastors adapting themselves well into the environment of the so-called megachurches are likely to have more issues with shame than those in small churches.  For the structural culture of such megachurches are more fitting for those focusing on accomplishments and events, rather than those focusing on fostering genuine relationships.  The pastors well suited for such ministerial environment of megachurches tend to hide their true selves behind their stellar accomplishments for the church they serve.  Again, this is never to belittle megachurches and their pastors, nor is it saying that all the megachurch pastors are like this.  Rather, the structural culture of megachurches, especially their culture of highlighting accomplishments and events, makes it highly likely to produce pastors with more shame, in order to help them heal themselves.  The focus is more on healing and restoration rather than criticism.

Last, what impressed me was that Forrester deals with the issue of perfectionism.  Perfectionism (especially pastors’ perfectionism) almost automatically leads to shame, for it refers to a person’s tendency to criticize oneself and treat harshly when one is not living up the standards one has randomly set. What sets the author’s argument apart was that he defined perfectionism as an inclination to be like God, not accepting one’s creaturely limitedness and weakness. This is in fact a doctrinal explanation, and what struck me was that doctrine can be explained to be relevant to take care of our emotional problems. While there are so many more philosophically and theologically sophisticated ways of explaining the God-creature relationship, one among them being the Aquinasian analogia entis, but this book shows the practicality of Christian doctrine through correlating it with human experiences and emotions.

Owing to all the reasons above, I would like to recommend this book to Korean and Korean-American church pastors. The gist of the author’s arguments is that pastors should be at least aware of their own embedded shame, lest they ruin their congregants and ministries. I also wish to see this book translated into Korean.  It has a great value for textbook use in seminary classrooms.

Grace for shame