The Soul of Shame

A Practical Integration of Shame, Interpersonal Neurobiology, and the Biblical Narrative

According to Jayson Georges, author of the soon-to-review Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, shame is one of the primary effects of sin along with fear and guilt. However, western theology has been focused upon guilt only in its constructive work. Such theology concentrates on the retribution of what I did through the merciful forgiveness of Jesus Christ, resulting in individualistic tendencies, and on the vertical relationship between God and me, bypassing my relationship with my neighbors and surrounding communities. Shame tells a different story. According to many psychologists, while guilt has to do with what I did, shame has to do with who I am. Shame as a response to who I am is formed through my relationship with my neighbors including God. Thus, it is unavoidably communal and brings me to take into account my relationships with neighbors. Therefore, if I want to express more fully the ministry of Jesus Christ over the power of sin, I should be able to deal with shame more fully. However, as I said already, western theology, particularly evangelical theology, has not switched its focus from guilt to shame yet. Interestingly enough, many research findings confirm that the dominant emotional affect in western society has long changed from guilt to shame, yet theology has not kept up with the changing pace of society. (Academically speaking, one can bring up Ruth Leys’ work From Guilt to Shame; on a more popular level, one can think of Brenė Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability.)

It is highly inspiring to see a Christian psychiatrist Curt Thompson has published a work of integrative theology and psychology on the topic of shame, based on his rich clinical experiences and fecund interpersonal neurobiological insights. This book has been selected in the book of the year in 2015 from Gospel Coalition. While professional theologians like myself might still find it lacking in its theological engagement, the book has more merits than demerits. The book is composed of nine chapters. The first chapter addresses what shame is and more generic explanations regarding phenomena of shame. The second and third chapter approach shame from interpersonal neurobiology, discussing how shame harms our lives, and how we can revert such harmful effects.  In the next two chapters, Thompson integrates the foregoing discussions into the framework of our narratives, especially that of the Biblical Narrative. In chapters 6, 7, and 8, Thompson persuasively shows how our confession disarms the secretive power of shame, making a case for being vulnerable to those members in the communities to which we belong. In the last chapter, Thompson closes the book by discussing the importance of removing shame in being creative and following God’s call.

As a reviewer, I believe the greatest strength of this book is its practical integration. Among the Biblical Narrative, Interpersonal Neurobiology, and more findings on shame from Psychology/Psychiatry, it is not an easy task to weave them all into a coherent picture in a way which is communicable to the general public, which this book does quite successfully. Neurobiologically speaking, Thompson argues that the neuron connection circuits will be broken every time we experience shame, which is simultaneously cause and effect of more self-conflict (which Paul in Romans 7 was talking about). This self-conflict leads to further disconnect between the self and the neighbors around the self. Thompson suggests two possible solutions to this: one neurobiological, the other communal. A neurobiological solution is that whenever we feel shame we need to pay attention to it. Just by doing so can we reconnect the broken neuron circuits, says Thompson. This is because our brain is operated around what neuroscientists call neuroplasticity, which means that depending on how we live, what we see, what kind of habits we have come to form, our brain is open to forming and reforming.  Thus, whenever shame comes to us, our paying attention to it as shame will help to reconnect any broken neuron circuits. What naturally follows from this is the importance of narrating. We are storytelling beings. We do so not just to describe what happen to us, but also to make sense out of those events in order to have a sense of who we are. This is why, Thompson argues, storytelling is vitally important, and which story we find ourselves living in. According to Thompson, even though the Biblical Narrative is not the only story to drive out shame, it is a much better one than that of evolutionary biology, for the Biblical Narrative states that shame has its own purpose, which is to keep God’s people from living out their lives in God’s Kingdom. Shame becomes powerless in the story of God. At the same time, being vulnerable in the context of communities is an effective weapon against shame. One more interesting point Thompson’s book shows is that he understands shame not as neutral emotional affect, but as one of the strongest instruments by which the evil wields its influence on God’s people. It is quite intriguing to see a person like Thompson deeply steeped in the worldviews of Freudian psychoanalysis and scientism accepting re-enchantment. Lastly, Thompson cites and narrates numerous clinical cases he has diagnosed and treated as a practicing psychiatrist, which makes it a lot easier for readers to understand difficult theological and neurobiological concepts melted in the form of stories. For this reason, the bibliography of this book has only about twenty books, telling that the vast majority of the book is about telling stories of shame.

For all its strengths, what is a little disappointing is that the book is not theologically deep enough. This is still understandable, considering that Thompson is not a professional theologian. It might be like expecting deep neurobiological insights into the character of shame from professional theologians like myself. Perhaps this might be a great opportunity to work together interdisciplinarily between theologians and neuroscientists.

Personally speaking, I had a chance to reflect on my own shame, and I have been greatly helped by this book as I ponder what kind of strategies I should employ to keep shame at bay from my life. In particular, Thompson’s definition of shame as “an undercurrent affect deriving from situations of “I am not enough. There is something wrong with me. I am not doing enough. And etc.” Given this definition of shame, it goes without saying that the gospel of Jesus Christ will be a direct antidote to the pernicious work of shame. I highly recommend this book for anyone who has difficulty in understanding and working against shame in their own lives.

The Soul of Shame