Reading Romans with Eastern eyes: Honour and shame in Paul’s message and mission
IVP ACADEMIC, 2019
Here is a book I can highly commend to all as it has provided for me one of the freshest renewals of reading Scripture I’ve had for some time. The Romans Road is a well worn path and the flow of thought, turns of argument, illustrations and complications are familiar territory for me as they will be for many of you. My highlighter and notetaking tends to gravitate towards the same passages whilst I might move across other parts a little more swiftly. This is for good reason and the great history of Western exegesis is something I will continue to give thanks to God for. But it turns out that same gravitational pull has kept me from seeing the full picture of Romans. It turns out I needed some Eastern eyes to help me.
Jackson Wu’s book, Reading Romans With Eastern Eyes does exactly that. It begins with an education in what it means to view the world through Eastern eyes and then applies those eyes to Paul’s letter to the Romans and beyond. The book is not a commentary. It doesn’t go through the entirety of Romans line by line. It draws out some of the most significant insights that this perspective brings. Yet at times it does take the reader sequentially through detailed portions of Romans with the voice of a commentary. It is an uncommon and very valuable book in that regard.
Once you start having your eyes opened to the Eastern emphasis on ascribed honour, saving face, the value of traditional conformity, and hierarchical relationships it suddenly lights up everywhere in Romans. For example, Jackson Wu points out that the longest description of sin is in 1:18-32 and yet the kind of language Paul uses to unpack what that means is honour/shame-based in both the cause, “they did not honour him as God” (1:21), and the consequence “the dishonouring of their bodies” (1:24). My highlighter pen is now finding new words to gravitate towards and new ways of appreciating their significance, without losing any of the richness of the Western eyes I’ve inherited. In this both/ and approach, Wu is able to navigate the complexity of the debates about the nature of justification without generating any necessary cause for polarising these perspectives into an either/or.
Perhaps my only critique of the book is that it doesn’t do enough to grab the attention of a Western audience. It might be too easy for us to dismiss the urgency to read such a book and skate past the pressing need to diversify our reading of the Bible. The raw ingredients are there to make the case but much more could be made of the growing “fame-shame” dynamic of social media. Things are changing rapidly when it comes to online interaction and identity politics. If anything, we desperately need an education as outlined in this book so that we are not blindly driven apart by honour and shame but rather we are united in Christ to lead, equip and empower the church within a shifting cultural context. I encourage you to read this book and then read Romans again—perhaps even preach through it afresh. I can’t help but wonder that we might be dealing with 2020 a little better as Christians if we’d been reading and digesting Romans with both Western and Eastern eyes.