Review of Jackson Wu’s: Saving God’s Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation through Honor and Shame
by Daniel Eng
In Jackson Wu’s dissertation on theology with a Chinese framework, the author takes his understanding of honor-shame and applies it the gospel. He de-constructs the theology that has been heavily influenced by western thinking and guides the reader to understand the concepts of salvation from an East Asian perspective.
Wu defines “honor” as the value placed upon people within their social context, and it can be ascribed by others or can be achieved (437, 438). As hard work and self-improvement are generally lauded in Asian culture, one’s honor is placed in one’s own achievements and reputation. The author then defines “shame” as ill repute on a person for failure to meet a standard issued by the community. Within the context of morality, right and wrong are discussed in terms of what is honorable or shameful among Chinese people (445).
Wu points out that the Chinese concept of honor is similar to the understanding of biblical writers in discussing the gospel. While western constructions of the gospel are centered around law and judgment (545), the East Asian viewpoint shifts the focus onto the group. In reflecting on my own journey, I see how the communication of honor-shame has been more compelling to me than guilt. I suspect that many Asian Americans would, as I do, relate more to the older brother than the younger brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Both sons’ interactions with the Father brought shame upon the community. The older brother’s words focused on the guilty actions of his younger brother, but his disrespectful exchange with his father was dishonorable and shameful to the community. Adhering to the Chinese values of hierarchy, harmony, and honor (1138), I reflected on my own sin and how I needed a savior as much as anyone else does.
Wu gives an eye-opening treatment of the Chinese understanding of loyalty: first to faith, and then to the ruler. With this in mind, a pastor in an Asian American context should teach that loyalty goes to Christ and to the body of Christ. Preaching to the Asian American, one must take the value of loyalty and direct it towards Christ and the body of Christ, not simply to the local church body.
The author skillfully explains the dynamics of communicating the doctrine of sin to a Chinese person. The word “sin” can literally be translated to mean “crime” (2152). As Chinese people traditionally believe that people are born good (2158), one does not feel a for a savior because they do not consider himself a criminal. The Chinese understanding of moral evil is that it results from ignorance, so one can make oneself better by excelling in education (2158). However, if they begin to see that sin also affects one’s relationships as well as the negative results that sin has on the community, there may be more receptivity to the gospel. If we treat sin as a debt that is owed to God, as Wu suggests, and that a human is flawed and incomplete without the saving work of Christ, the gospel can reach some more fertile soil.
The concept of identity plays a huge rule in the mind of an Asian American. Often viewed as a perpetual foreigner, Asian Americans often carry a conflicted identity. Not feeling fully accepted by white Americans nor those within their ethnicity, there is a longing for belonging. The concept of honor-shame speaks to identity and worth in the context of relationships (2504), and this aspect of Christianity may prove to be very meaningful to Asian Americans. One’s honor is restored by inclusion with a community and in right relationship with them because of Christ’s work on the cross, the empty tomb, and the redemptive work of the gospel.
Wu’s treatment of the Chinese values of treating others in community can inform those serving in Asian American contexts. God has initiated reconciliation and done the hard work of bringing estranged people near to Him, and this must resonate greatly with those who place a high value on relationships. Furthermore, faith is necessarily a public matter in Chinese contexts. Putting faith in Christ is pledging loyalty to him (3325), not simply assent that he exists. As God’s name is defamed with sin, God is glorified with faith. Jesus vindicated God’s name with the cross and the empty tomb. Asian American believers, among the rest of the body of Christ, will never be put to shame because of the association with Christ. Perfection is achieved, not through actions, but because one has been restored to right relationship.
Jackson Wu’s work in Saving God’s Face should be an invaluable asset to the areas of theology. It provides a much-needed perspective as he approaches the gospel thoroughly within the framework of East Asian contextualization. Furthermore, his work should also be considered in developing a ministry approach to Asians and Asian Americans, as a more rounded approach to the good news must be understood within different cultures.