Cultural Adaptation, Monday Monologues, January 14, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

In today’s podcast, I will pray Over Culture and talk about Cultural Adaptation.

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Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Cultural Adaptation, Monday Monologues, January 14, 2019 (podcast)

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Prayer over Culture

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Heavenly Father,

All praise and honor be to you our mighty role model who is merciful, gracious, patient, loving, and faithful (Exod 34:6) even when we are not.

We confess our sin too rarely, cling to our idols too tightly, and seldom make room in our lives for your divine intervention–forgive us.

We thank you for your willingness to accept us and blot out our sin in the name of Jesus Christ who lived a perfect life, died on a cross, and was raised from the dead.

Resurrect these dead bones again (Ezek 37) and breathe your breath of life into us again for winter is upon us and cannot save ourselves.

No music, no magic words, no technology can save us from our selves; only you can.

In the power of your Holy Spirit,

take pity on us from the depths of your mercy and raise up your church amid the fashions of death that grip us.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Prayer over Culture

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Cultural Adaptation

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Up to this point, most of our discussion has focused on individual behavior and learning, but no one is an island—even Robinson Crusoe was never truly alone even before he met Friday.⁠1 We live and participate in the cultures of our families, workplace, and society that influence our thinking and behavior directly through rules, regulations, and law and indirectly by structuring the presuppositions that we use in all our decisions.

What is Culture?

Culture is term taken from sociology that is often described as the sum of a society’s traditions, especially as they pertain to literature, the arts, language, and music. A more helpful framework, however, can be built based on decision requirements in a corporate context. Far from irrelevant to spiritual formation, the culture context of work plays a key role in secular formation. The same framework for culture can by analogy help interpret personality.

Nobel laureate economist Herbert Simon defined rationality as making a choice among all possible alternatives. Economists more generally hypothesize that the firm strives to maximize its net present value assuming perfect knowledge of all future cash flows. If all decisions are rational and predictable given knowledge about technology and market prices, this theory implies that a firm has no culture (or no cultural effect) because given a set of circumstances every managers would reach the same decision.

In practice, we observe that decisions are costly, resources are limited, and decisions are frequently made based on rules of thumb and habit. For these reasons, in part, Simon extended the theory of the firm to limit rational behavior—his theory of bounded rationality (Simon 1997, 88). Culture arises because highly rational decisions are costly. Managers ration their time by applying rules of thumb based on previous decisions and known costs and benefits, not perfect information. These rules of thumb plus manager training and experience determine a firm’s decision culture. Interestingly, the more costly rational decisions are, the stronger the cultural effect.

The existence of culture implies that a firm’s history is interesting. The time sequence of decisions and their consequences predisposes the organization toward some growth paths and away from others, a concept sometimes described as path-dependence. The personal histories of leaders are important in understanding attitudes about alternatives and the speed at which decisions are made. 

Cultural Personality Types 

The existence of culture suggests why organizations develop classifiable personalities. Several widely observed types can be described. Criteria describing these types include preferred decision style, key values, primary mode for training, nature of control process, and default transaction-opportunity cost trade-off. A culture articulates key values in terms of where decisions ideally take place. 

Three cultural archetypes stand out in society today that compete for dominance: a traditional culture, a modern culture, and a postmodern culture. A fourth type, a dying culture (or culture under stress) is more of a transition phase than a stable culture. At any time, subcultures within society may favor any one of these types. Competition among these types is influenced by the resources available and other circumstances in the environment beyond immediate control. This suggests that one or the other subculture can rise in dominance and dominance can also pass back and forth. Progress from one to another is neither inevitable or expected because circumstances external to the firm dictate the ideal culture.

The Types⁠2

A modern culture delegates authority to line managers, whose leadership role is often earned through technical competence, because good decisions require the objective information they produce. A postmodern culture shares decision authority to assure that decisions are equitable. A traditional culture centralizes many decisions to adhere to senior management preferences. Training and control processes reinforce these cultural preferences. 

A dying organization is an organization in crisis. A dying organization may start with any cultural affinity but evolves toward traditional culture. This is because crises consist of a rapid series of nonstandard problems that exceed delegations and require senior management input. Cutbacks likewise strengthen the position of senior managers.

The mix of transaction costs and opportunity costs also reflects cultural affinities. Transaction costs rise with the number of people participating in decisions, while opportunity costs (the cost of no choosing the next best alternative) rise as decision alternatives are excluded. The traditional culture has the lowest transaction costs because it considers the fewest options—only senior manager preferences are consulted. The postmodern culture consults the most people, but it is not particularly reflective—only options actively advocated are considered. Transaction costs in the modern culture fall between these two extremes, but the modern culture prefers a review of all options.

Williamson (1981, 1564) sees both organizational costs constrained by market prices. The implication is that cultures evolve to reflect competitive conditions in the markets that firms serve. The dominant culture type may evolve with both market pressures and leadership changes, which may over time lead to overlapping cultural attributes. An office evolving from a modern to a postmodern type, for example, may begin to exhibit more group decision making, place less emphasis on academic credentials in assignments and promotions and rely less on peer review of work products. As Alchian (1950) argues learning process is likely a combination of trial and error, imitation of successful firms, and deliberative planning because uncertainty makes it unlikely that future market conditions can be fully anticipated.

Behavioral Weaknesses Impede Learning

Cultural types describe attributes at a point in time. Changing circumstances, however, force organizations to learn and adapt. Learning behavior is therefore a key measure of risk management performance. We observe behavior problems when incentive structures disrupt normal learning processes, create logical traps or exacerbate normal organizational inertia.⁠3

An organizational culture mirrors its environment because decisions and rules evolve over time to deal with environmental challenges. Rewards of money, power and status within an organization accrue to leaders that facilitate this evolution. When prior decisions and rules need to change, a conflict arises because those changes may threaten the social position of those leaders.

Consider the case of a firm in a growing business. Suppose the firm starts out as a specialized firm in a competitive market. As it grows and acquires competitors, it takes market prices as given. As market share grows, however, it eventually becomes the market and can set price. Further growth requires that it diversify into new markets. At each stage in the firm’s growth, the rules for success and risks change (Porter 1980, 191-295). If the organizational culture adapts with a lag and a threat grows quickly enough, firm solvency could be threatened before adaptation is complete.

Christian Culture

Although the Christian faith encourages rational decisions, Christian culture should not be confused with any of the cultural types outlined above. Christian culture differs from these types because the objective of Christian culture is conformity to Christ rather than conformity to the rational model. Still, the above cultural types are also evident in a Christian context, as when dominations employ different polities.

The term, polity, refers to how a denomination or church is governed. A denomination managed by bishops is likely organized with a traditional culture while a church managed through direct voting by the congregation likely has a postmodern culture. Meanwhile, a church managed by elders and professionally trained clergy likely has a modern culture. Each of these polities can operate differently in practice, but the formal structure of the polity clearly shapes the culture of churches and denominations.

Just like no perfectly rational firms exist, Christians cannot obtain perfection in this life but Christ is the standard, our sacred North Pole, and the Holy Spirit to guide us. With our compass set on north, we are not easily led into darkness, but focus on the light. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we normally avoid logical traps and quickly repent when we fall into one. The basic ideal is that in Christ we have the perfect guidance system even when our lives are not perfect.


1 The name of a characters in a novel (DeFoe 1719).

2 Adapted from (Hiemstra 2009).

3 Inertia is the physical property expressed in Sir Isaac Newton’s first law of motion: a body at rest tends to stay at rest, and a body in motion tends to stay in motion. Inertia leads organizations to resist change and discount low-probability events.


Defoe, Daniel. 1719. The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. United Kingdom: William Taylor.

Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2009. “Can Bad Culture Kill a Firm?” pp 51-54 of Risk Management. Society of Actuaries. Issue 16. June.

Porter, Michael E. 1980. Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors. New York: Free Press.

Simon, Herbert A. 1997. Administrative Behavior: A Study of Decision-Making Processes in Administrative Organizations (Orig pub 1945). New York: Free Press. 

Williamson, Oliver. 1981. “The Modern Corporation: Origin, Evolution, Attributes.” pp. 1537-1568 in Journal of Economic Literature. December.

Cultural Adaptation

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Moore Engages Secular Culture, Part 1

Russell Moore, OnwardRussell Moore. 2015. Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel. Nashville: B & H Publishing Group.  (Goto part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the fall of 2013 I attended the annual conference of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) to visit with book publishers about my first book, A Christian Guide to Spirituality. While I spent most of my time with the publishers, I attended a luncheon sponsored by the Colson Center where I got a chance to hear Russell Moore speak.[1] He impressed me enough that I looked up and purchased a copy of his book, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel.


In his acknowledgments, Moore writes:

“In some sense, I’ve been writing this book all my life, seeking to articulate what I believe about the relationship between the kingdom of God and the cultures of this present age.” (223)

In further highlighting the themes of his book, he writes:

“As the culture changes all around us, it is no longer possible to pretend that we are a Moral Majority. That may be bad news for America, but it is good news for the church…we need a church that speaks to social and political issues with a bigger vision in mind: that of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (back cover)

“Moore is the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention,” (back flap) which is the largest Protestant denomination in in the United States.[2]

The need to cite these summary statements arises, in part, because Moore writes primarily in narratives, avoiding the usual academic convention of a stating a major premise and outlining how it will be demonstrated. His use of narratives is interesting because it forces opponents to lesson to his entire presentation before jumping in to offer objections.


Moore writes his book in ten chapters that highlight major themes in his thinking:

  1. “A Bible Belt No More
  2. From Moral Majority to Prophetic Minority
  3. Kingdom
  4. Culture
  5. Mission
  6. Human Dignity
  7. Religious Liberty
  8. Family Stability
  9. Convictional Kindness
  10. A Gospel Counter-Revolution” (ix)

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by a conclusion and acknowledgments sections.

God and Country

What makes Moore so interesting to read is that he accepts the premise that we live in a post-Christian society and he proceeds to deconstruct America’s pagan culture laying bare some of its most cherished myths.

The myths of a “Moral Majority” or the existence of a “Bible Belt”, in Moore’s view, were always more about shared values than about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

As an Eagle Scout myself, I found Moore’s discussion of his travails in trying to earn the God and Country badge most entertaining. As a Scout teen, he asked:

“Can a Christian be possessed by a demon, or are we protected from that by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit?” (11)

This question, of course, set his Methodist pastor advisor to squirming and the pastor eventually admitted that he did not believe in demons, but more to the point the question unmasked the real intent of the Scout badge of instilling just enough Christianity to “fight the Communists and save the republic”, but not enough to have spiritual significance. His leaders wanted to instill the shared values of a kind of civic religion while as a kid Moore just “didn’t want to risk projectile vomiting demonic ooze.” (12) Never mind that an answer to Moore’s question continues to distinguish American denominations.


In part 1 of this review, I give an overview of Moore’s book. In part 2, I will drill down into some of his arguments.

Russell Moore’s Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel challenges us to distinguish the gospel of Jesus Christ from different manifestations of Christendom in American culture. Moore advocates engaging the culture, not simply criticizing it, to expose aspects of the culture that present opportunities for Christian witness. His narrative style facilitates this engagement and makes his writing both entertaining and accessible.

[1] Jackson Watts, ETS 2013: Inerrancy in Perspective (

[2] @DRMoore.

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Baehr and Boone Examine Media’s Role in Culture

baehr_boone_review_09132016Ted Baehr and Pat Boone.  2007. The Culture-Wise Family: Upholding Christine Values in a Mass Media World. Ventura: Regal.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

For anyone who grew up in the period before 1970, the slide of American culture into secularism has been shockingly rapid. What happened to television shows like I love Lucy and Leave it to Beaver during prime time? By 1984 when I got married, I tried but failed to make my home a television free zone. Today, my kids make fun of me as I mute the television during racy ads and leave the room when newscasters broadcast filler. [1] How are we to understand the messages that media routinely pours on us and reasonably communicate standards within the family? In their book, The Culture-Wise Family, Ted Baehr and Pat Boone offer a Christian perspective on these issues.

In her foreword, Janet Parshall writes:

The Culture-Wise Family looks into the abysmal future possibilities of where the current collapse of civilization may lead and also into the hope offered by renewed rededication to biblical wisdom, knowledge, and understanding.  Furthermore, The Culture-Wise Family helps the reader understand what must be done, why it must be done, and how it can be done.” (13)

Ted Baehr is the Chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission[2] which publishes MovieGuides,[3] a Christian movie review service, which makes him a credible commentator on visual media. Meanwhile, Pat Boone[4] is himself a well-known gospel singer from the 1950s and 1960s, as well as a film star[5] and television host, The Pat Boone/Chevy Showroom which aired for 3 years nationally on television.

Baehr and Boone clearly have a heart for young people and they offer these 5 pillars of media wisdom:

  1. “Understand the influence of the media on your children.”
  2. “Ascertain your children’s susceptibility at each stage of cognitive development.”
  3. “Teach your children how the media communicates its message.”
  4. “Help your children know the fundamentals of Christian faith.”
  5. “Help your children learn to ask the right questions.” (27-28)

Citing a 2003 report in Movieguide, they note that by the time our children reach the age of 17, they have spent 63,000 hours exposed to media, 11,000 hours in school, 2,000 hours with their parents, and only 800 hours in church (88). The implication is, of course, that media educates our children more than is commonly understand, in part, through repetition—if you repeat something enough times, people tend to believe it.[6] One measure of that influence reported is that in 1950, 70 percent of 12-15 year olds felt that the messages of the Bible applied to their lives while in 2001 that figure was only 4 percent (Movieguide, 2005; 89). How exactly did that immensely important cultural shift occur?

In our household, we experienced this shift first-hand. At one point when my son was in elementary school, he became ill and was having trouble sleeping. Thinking that he was experiencing complications relative to a medical challenge that he faced back then, we took him to see his pediatrician. Alarmed, the pediatrician referred him to several specialists for tests—they must have tried a dozen times to draw blood sample without success and subjected him to scans of this and that. As parents, we were horrified and in great distress over these medical tests that went late into the night. The result? My son was having a reaction to a video game that pictured aliens as attacking rubber chickens and meat cuts, like in bone hams (imagine your dinner coming back to attack you). What was completely innocuous to us as adults terrified our son.

Baehr and Boone provide a lot of historical details that provide insights into some of the cultural changes that we have seen. For example, they report that between 1933 and 1966, every script in Hollywood was reviewed by representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Church, and Protestant film office. If the film passed the review and adhered to their code, it could be screened; otherwise, not. During this period, “there was no explicit sex, violence, profanity, or blasphemy in movies”. Inexplicably, the churches withdrew from Hollywood in 1966 (48-49). Who in their right mind would trade Leave it to Beaver for Family Guy? In effect, we have made this trade.

Baehr and Boone include a number of essays targeting issues of obvious interest. One that sticks in my mind is William S. Lind’s Who Stole Our Culture? (178-185) The short answer is the cultural Marxists of the Frankfurt school, now known as the New School for Social Research in New York City. Particularly important in the strategy for advancing cultural Marxism is known as critical theory. Critical theory advocates subjecting every traditional institution—the family, traditional morality, the church, schools, government, and anyone in authority to unrelenting criticism, making no attempt to offer any real facts or an alternative solution (think of Marx’s own slander of religion as the “opiate of the masses”).[7] Those in authority are characterized as oppressors (and subject to relentless criticism) while everyone else is a victim (automatically good). Cultural Marxism is responsible for the political correctness movement and for mainstreaming homosexuality.[8] By aiding the destruction of the major institutions of Western Civilization, the cultural Marxists have paved the way for Marx’s ideas in ways that communists in the former Soviet Union and other communist countries failed to accomplish.

Ted Baehr and Pat Boone’s book, The Culture-Wise Family, is a difficult book to read and absorb. No matter what your social position is, the question of culture and the culture wars is a hot button topic where few people agree on much of anything. However, basic information is needed to assess what issues are really at stake and which are not. Here Baehr and Boone provide a real resource.  I encourage you to take  a look.

[1] Filler is content used in place of real news.  Examples are animal tidies, around the clock reporting of disasters, or content-free news coverage which leaves out background required to understand what is being presented. The reporting of disasters is particularly pernicious because by exposing the public to repeated video clips of diaster footage, people can develop symptoms known as “secondary trauma” much like actual first responders and other caregivers. For example, see:




[5] For example, Boone was one of the stars in the film, The Cross and the Switchblade, which helped me come to faith as a young person.

[6] This repetition is sometimes referred to as the “broken-record negotiating strategy”.


[8] Key books in this effort include:  Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks (1929-1935), Theodor W. Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality (1950), and Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization.

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Turkle Analyzes Tech Impacts on Connected Self

Alone_together_review_02042016Sherry Turkle. 2011. Alone Together:  Why we Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.  New York: Basic Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Immediacy versus immensity. What does it mean to be only a couple of key strokes away from speaking to anyone on the planet? We still struggle to find an adequate metaphor for the impact of technology on daily life today.

I am reminded of when I arrived in Germany as a foreign exchange student in 1978,  Before I left, I could not find my destination, Göttingen, on any map that I owned or could find in the local library. Furthermore, my correspondence with the university was entirely in German, a language that I had studied but not yet mastered. When my flight arrived in Frankfurt, I was entirely at the mercy of the stationmaster to get on the right train to reach my destination. Today, answers to all such travel questions can be found on any smart phone; one need not be fluent in German to understand them fully; and, anywhere along the way, you can call your parents (or kids) to help sort everything out. Talk about a reduction in uncertainty!

The effect of changes in technology on us as individuals and on today’s culture is the subject of Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone Together. Turkle explores the immediacy of technology in part one—The Robotic Moment: In Solitude, New Intimacies—and the immensity of technology in part two—Networked: In Intimacy, New Solitudes (vii). While these parts could easily have been themes in separate books, Turkle’s interest in the changing perceptions of intimacy and solitude clearly binds them together. Alone Together is part of a trilogy (The Second Self, Alone Together, and Life on the Screen; 4) focused on the cultural effect of technology.

Turkle’s 14 chapters are equally divided between analysis of the individual response to robots—

  1. Nearest Neighbors
  2. Alive Enough
  3. True Companions
  4. Enchantment
  5. Complexities
  6. Love’s Labor Lost
  7. Communion

—and the response to life tethered to cell and computer networks—

  1. Always On
  2. Growing Up Tethered
  3.  No Need to Call
  4.  Reduction and Betrayal
  5.  True Confessions
  6.  Anxiety
  7.  The Nostalgia of the Young (vii-viii).

Throughout the book, Turkle anticipated my anxieties about technology and offering a balanced assessment. She writes:

“we are so enmeshed in our connections that we neglect each other. We don’t need to reject or disparage technology. We need to put it in its place” (295)

In other words, technology is a tool that can be used for either good or evil.

Turkle’s focus on the individual response to technology is no accident. Turkle describes herself as: “the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, the founder and director of the MIT initiative on Technology and Self, and a licensed clinical psychologist.”[1] Her background as a psychologist shows through clearly in her choice of topics to discuss and in her extensive use of case studies to authenticate her points. An economist or sociologist might easily have focused more on questions of productivity and institutional change, but Turkle never goes there. Here the focus is on responses by individuals to technology—no military drones, no self-driving cars, no targeted advertising, no robotic assembly lines, no wiz bang. Turkle’s perspective is reflective, fresh. Her special concern is for children.

Let me focus a minute on Turkle’s two parts: robotics and networking.

Robotics. As a member of the MIT faculty, Turkle has special access to the MIT robotics lab where her work focuses on social robots, especially robotic toys like Tamagotchi, Furbi, Merlin, My Real Baby, Cog, Kismit, and so on. Turkle writes:

“Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities. And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.” (1)

Unlike Barbie, who invites you to project your issues and emotions on the doll in a kind of Rorshach test, these toys interact, talk, and appear to learn with you—what Turkle describes as a “new psychology of engagement” (38). In other words, the relationship possible with these robots is much more complex than that with traditional toys. For example, citing Baird, she asks:

“How long can you hold the object [a toy, an animal, or a robot] upside down before your emotions make you turn it back?” (45)

With a toy, no one cares if you abuse it; with a gerbil, abuse is seen as cruel and is discouraged by most adults; but with a robot, like Furby, that complains, how do you respond—do you feel an ethical dilemma? Why? Turkle observes:  “We are at the point of seeing digital objects as both creatures and machines.” (46)

As part of her research, Turkle lent these robotic toys to children and adults and then return after two weeks to interview them about their experiences and to retrieve the toys. Frequently, the interviews would be postponed as the recipients—even the adults—did not want to give up the toys. Occasionally, this issue posed an embarrassment, such as when a grandmother obviously preferred a robot, My Real Baby, to spending time with their own grandchildren (118). This happened so often that Turkle stopped trying to retrieve the robots after the interviews.

Networking. The immensity of telephone and computer networks can be intimating. Not only do we have the ability to contact anyone, anywhere on earth; we never really leave home. Turkle writes:

“When I grew up the idea of ‘global village’ was an abstraction. My daughter lives something concrete. Emotionally, socially, wherever she goes, she never leaves home.” (156)

This level of connectedness poses a challenge for adolescents who have a developmental need to separate themselves from their parents (174).

Especially in American culture, individual autonomy is a cultural icon. In my own experience as a foreign student, the current level of connection made possible through cell phones and the internet was unthinkable. During my year in Germany, for example, my primary way of communicating with my parents was to write letters. Telephone calls were so expensive that my gift for Christmas from my host family was a call home. My remoteness during the year disrupted a number of relationships, particularly with my parents[2], but I was well-prepared for this separation having worked summers as a camp counselor in high school and attended college out of state.  By contrast, my own kids have had cell phones since high school and are seldom out of touch with their mother for more than a few days; they are more normally in touch several times a day.

Turkle talks about kids using texting to validate emotions even before they are fully aware of them.  In effect, they poll their friends on how they should feel about things or test out emotions before fully investing in them (175-177).  To my ears, this sounds like co-dependency. She writes:

“in the psychoanalytical tradition, one speaks about narcissism not to indicate people who love themselves, but a personality so fragile that it needs constant support. It cannot tolerate the complex demands of other people but tries to relate to them by distorting who they are and splitting off what it needs, what it can use.” (177)

So here we have a niche for technology—to insulate people from the push and pull of normal, complex human interaction. What is perhaps surprising is that kids that text constantly are often texting their own parents (178)—which suggests a heightened need for a mature and informed parenting style precisely when mature adults are becoming scarcer than exits in a movie fire!

Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together is hugely interesting, informative, and accessible read. College professors looking for insight in discussing the role of technology should consider this book. I would certainly consider reading the other books in this trilogy.


[2] At one point the year after I returned home I visited relatives and attended a dinner party. No one felt comfortable talking with me.  Finally, I learned why—my farm relatives could not imagine that a world traveler, such as myself, would find talking to them interesting to speak with. Once we got over that point, things picked up and returned to a more normal interaction.

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Neyrey Explains Honor and Shame, Part 2

Honor_and_shame_02192015Jerome H. Neyrey.  1998.  Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press. (Go to part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Neyrey organizes his discussion of honor like an anthropologist into 7 categories:

  1. Definition of honor,
  2. Sources of honor,
  3. Conflict and honor,
  4. Display and recognition of honor,
  5. Collective honor, and
  6. Gender and honor (14-15).

Under sources of honor, for example, Neyrey notes that honor can be both ascribed as in being born into a well-known family or achieved as in earning special merit (15).

Shame, by contrast, is the opposite of honor—loss of respect, regard, worth, and value in the eyes of others.  A shameless person does not care what people think of them (30).  Because honor and shame are displayed publicly, our individualistic culture downplays both honor and shame.

Honor must, of course, be defended.  Neyrey notes 4 steps into challenges to honor and response—reposte:

  1. Claim to honor,
  2. Challenge to that claim,
  3. Riposte to the challenge, and
  4. Public verdict by onlookers (44).

Neyrey (51) sees many examples of challenge and riposte in Matthew.  For example in Matthew 9: 1-8 we see:

Claim to honor:  “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” [Divinity claim] (v 2)

Challenge:         “This man is blaspheming.” (v 3)

Riposte:             “Which is easier…Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” (vv 5-6)

Verdict:              “When the crowds saw it, they were afraid…” (v 8)

Much of Neyrey’s book focuses on the details of Matthew’s encomium of Jesus. For example, Matthew portrays Jesus as just in performing his duties to God, his parents, and the dead (109).  Jesus is faithful to God (his heavenly patron) even until death (Matt 26:39; 110).  He defended the rights of parents over traditions, like “korban” (Matt 15:5).  While Neyrey skips over the question of just for the dead, clearly Jesus’ teaching about eternal life would also honor the dead.

A key hypothesis that Neyrey advances is to read the Sermon on the Mount as reforming the honor code of his society.  Neyrey writes:

“Jesus did not overthrow the honor code as such, but rather redefined what constitutes honor in his eyes and how his disciples should play the game…For example, he forbade his disciples to play the typical village honor game by forswearing honor claims (i.e. boasting), challenges (i.e. physical and sexual aggressiveness), and ripostes (i.e. seeking satisfaction and revenge). Moreover, he attempted to redefine whose acknowledge (i.e. grant of honor) truly counts…Jesus , then, changed the way the honor game was played and redefined the source of honor, name, acknowledgment by God, not by neighbor.” (164).

Most importantly in this respect, Neyrey suggests that the Greek words “makarios” and “ouai” be translated respectively as esteemed or honorable (not blessed or happy) and as shame on or disrespectable (165-166). In this way, Jesus is redefining the honor code that applies to his disciples.

Neyrey also sees Jesus redefining shame in the last “makario”.  This verse in Matthew reads:  “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute [drive out] you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (Matt 5:11 ESV)  Neyrey sees this verse addressing the problem of a son being disinherited for becoming Jesus’ disciple rather than being generally persecuted (169).  In other words, what society took as dishonorable, Jesus redefined as honorable[1].

Following Neyrey, the Sermon on the Mount can be read as Jesus offering more than your typical a pep talk to his disciples who needed reassurance.  He was commissioning them to a higher calling.  This calling was something worth dying for or, more importantly, something to live for.

Clearly, this reading is as important today as it was then.


[1]Neyrey reads Matthew as implying that:  “Discipleship often meant cross-generational conflict within families.” (227)  Today we see this dynamic when a Muslim or Jewish child converts to Christianity or when a child from a “good family” suddenly “gets religion” and drops out of college to pursue social ministry.

Neyrey Explains Honor and Shame, Part 2

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Neyrey Explains Honor and Shame, Part 1

Jeremey Neyrey Honor and ShameJerome H. Neyrey.  1998.  Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press. (Go to part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

A frequent comment in the church today is the need to stop using all those “churchy” words. While the definition of “churchy” may be up for grabs, the focus of these comments is usually on words that have in the postmodern context lost their meaning. Verses, such as—“Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power…” (Rev 4:11 ESV)—almost certainly be classified as knee-deep in churchy words, because our buddy culture admits no one worthy of praise, glory or honor or of titles such as Lord and God.


In his book, Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew, Jerome H. Neyrey states his objective plainly:  “This book focuses on the praise of Jesus of Nazareth as presented in narrative form by the evangelist Matthew.” (1)  Neyrey sees gospel as a type of ancient writing form called an encomium which is a structured biography designed to offer praise (2). The rules for writing such encomium were the subject of rhetorical handbooks, starting with Aristotle.  Neyrey (4) writes:

“Nothing in the exercise of praise was left to chance, for students were instructed concerning the form of speech of praise, as well as the specific content of each element in that form.  They learned to organize their praise according to the conventional manner of presenting a person’s life from birth to death and in light of specific rules for developing praise at each state of life.”

Honor (τιμη) is the “worth or value of persons both in their own eyes and in the eyes of the village or neighborhood”“concern for ‘honor’ as reputation and ‘good name’ was endemic to the ancient world…” (5)

An important, but questionable, assumption in some biblical interpretation is that honor and shame play a same role in our own culture as in biblical culture. Cultural anthropologist sometimes describe American culture today as a guilt-innocence culture where guilt is only triggered when a law has been transgressed and shame, if experienced at all, is trigger when a law is broken and publically exposed[1]. The shame and guilt so important in biblical culture has lost its meaning. Complaints about the meaninglessness of “churchy” words underscore an important cultural shift that renders aspects of the biblical witness out of reach[2].


Neyrey writes in 10 chapters divided into 3 parts:

Part One:  Matthew: In Other Words

  1. Honor and Shame in Cultural Perspective
  2. Reading Matthew in Cultural Perspective

Part Two:  Matthew and the Rhetoric of Praise

  1. The Rhetoric of Praise and Blame
  2. An Encomium for Jesus: Origins, Birth, Nurture, and Training
  3. An Encomium for Jesus: Accomplishments and Deeds
  4. An Encomium for Jesus: Deeds of the Body and Deeds of Fortune
  5. An Encomium for Jesus: A Noble Death

Part Three:  The Sermon on the Mount in Cultural Perspective

  1. Matthew 5:3-12—Honoring the Dishonored
  2. Matthew 5:21-28—Calling Off the Honor Game
  3. Matthew 6:1-18—Vacating the Playing Field (v).

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by a bibliography and indices.


Neyrey is a tough read. Not only is it hard to follow the arguments, the arguments challenge important preconceptions that we hold in reading scripture. What happens if the “Jesus in our head” is not the Jesus of the bible?  What if our kids hear something different than what we do during the Sunday morning service? These are important questions which directly affect our interpretation of scripture and experience of church.  In Part 2 (look for the post on Monday, March 2), I will explore Neyrey’s arguments in more detail.



[2] For example, read:  2 Corinthians 7: Godly Grief (

Neyrey Explains Honor and Shame, Part 1

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2 Corinthians 7: Godly Grief

My Grandparents' Tombstone
My Grandparents’ Tombstone

Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God. (2 Corinthians 7:1 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The rapid pace of cultural change in our society can sometimes leave us speechless and unable to process some things that we observe.  For me, one of those moments occurred last week when I walked into my living room and saw my wife watching an episode of Dr. Phil.  On the show, a 16-year woman shamelessly recounted how she had been sexually intimate with several young men, one after the other, at a party.  Yet, she was upset on the show primarily because the whole incident was video-taped by others present [1].  By contrast, her mother’s response was more like mine—she was speechless and horrified.

A cultural anthropologist might describe this incident as an example of a response in a guilt-innocence culture where things not illegal trigger no internal feeling of shame—the individual feels no accountability to social norms (even on national television).  In an honor-shame culture, by contrast, the expected response would be to feel shame and attempt to hide the behavior to avoid sanctioning by the community [2].  My distress in observing this show suggests that one dimension of cultural change today is the shift from an honor-shame culture of most adults to a guilt-innocence culture among some youth today.

In chapter 5 of Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth clearly addresses the culture in Corinth as an honor-shame culture.  The idea of holiness expressed in verse 1, for example, talks about holiness as spiritual cleansing motivated by fear of God.  Holiness is a virtue or character trait focusing on separating oneself from evil practices—defilement (spiritual dirtiness) [3]—or to preserve the sacred nature of something.  Holiness is a character trait valued primarily in an honor-shame culture, not a guilt-innocence culture.

Paul observes in the Corinthian church experiencing Godly grief after they mistreated him.  Paul writes:

As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death (vv 9-10).

In other words, Godly grief brings shame which leads to repentance and a turning to God, hence—salvation.  The young woman on Dr. Phil, by contrast, only grieved that she had been video-taped—she expressed no repentance.  The discipline which Paul practiced in Corinth and led to their salvation would have been pointless in the case of this young woman.

How does someone experience Godly grief in a guilt-innocence culture?  I fear that one can only outgrow a youth culture stuck in guilt-innocence mode [4], but I pray for God’s intervention.


[1] Dr. Phil, August 6, 2014, Not-So-Sweet 16: “My Daughter’s Dangerous Sex Life” (


[3] μολυσμός (BDAG 4973) noun version of verb, μολύνω (BDAG  4972.1), meaning to “cause something to become dirty or soiled, stain”, soil  in a “in sacred and moral context”. 

[4] One could perhaps say that Rosaria Butterfield went through this process marrying at age 39.  No longer able to have children of her own, she and her husband adopted and raised orphans.   (The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert.  Pittsburgh:  Crown and Covenant Publications, 2012, page 108).

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Christ and Culture

Christ_culture_110132013By Stephen W. Hiemstra

At Pentecost the Holy Spirit speaks Gospel into culture.   And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to peak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2:4 ESV).  Here the Holy Spirit communicates the Gospel among all people groups through languages that previously separated us under the curse of Babel (Genesis 11:7).  Language marks culture.  Much like Pentecost is God’s antidote to Babel, the Gospel is an antidote to culture.

To see this, define culture as the history of our collective decisions[1].  If we consistently made rational decisions based on complete information and an objective decision process, then cultural differences would not exist because we would all act the same.  We are not the same because we make poor decisions and base those decisions on prior experiences.  Consequently, as time passes our societal laws, customs, values, and morals (the lessons learned from our collective history) grow more and more unique.  And this uniqueness separates us from one another.

Because resources are limited and contested, bad decisions, which are more costly than good decisions, leave a larger cultural imprint.  Bad habits trump good ones.  Because pain screams while God whispers, culture can seem like the history of collective mistakes, griefs, shame, injustices, and pain.  Cultural isolation temporarily eases our pain as we look inward, but wounds not cleaned fester.  When the church acts as an instrument of the Holy Spirit, it amplifies God’s voice and speaks Gospel into the context of cultural pain[2].

Culture is to groups what personality is to individuals.  Personality is defined in habitual behavior.  When we tell our personal stories, these stories consist mostly of recounting our wounds, obsessions, injustices, and learning experiences.  It is the rare individual blessed only to recount mountain top experiences.  The ministries of presence, fellowship, and care allow us to amplify God’s voice, like the church more generally, in personal reflection.

What does the Gospel have to do with culture?  If culture is primarily the history of our collective mistakes, griefs, shame, pains, and injustices—in a word, sin, then confession and forgiveness of sin are redemptive and transformative.  Christ redeems us from the guilt of sin and the Holy Spirit transforms our lives abating sin’s pollution.  Our worldly cultures are sanctified.  So Apostle Paul can write:  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).   When the church speaks Gospel into culture, it becomes an instrument of Pentecost.

What if we cling to worldly cultures rather than sanctify them?  In effect, we are arguing that our personal and collective mistakes, griefs, shame, injustices, and pain count for more than Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  We are relishing our wounds or hiding behind them rather than submitting them to Christ.  Alternatively, Christ is seen as only human, but not divine.  When Paul prays for relief from a personal affliction, God responds:  My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).  When we hold worldly cultures close to our hearts, we frustrate Christ’s work of sanctification, grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), and yield to the itchy ears rather than proclaim the Gospel (2 Timothy 4:3).

What if we become prodigals—insisting on our inheritance without God’s truth and substituting worldly cultures for Christ and His sacrifice?  Think here of overtly idolatrous cultures, such as atheism or hedonism[3].  This is what Paul is talking about in Romans 1:24 when he talks about God giving them over to their shameful desires.  In this context, Paul takes up the mantle of a covenant lawsuit prophet evoking covenantal curses.  Rejecting the new covenant in Christ evokes the curse of law—reaping what we sow[4].  The Good News is that in Jesus Christ prodigals who return home and repent can be forgiven—not getting what we deserve.  The Apostle John writes:  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

At Pentecost we remember that Christ, not culture, is our true shelter from the storm.

[1]Jonathan Edwards (Freedom of the Will (1754). Vancouver:  Eremitical Press, 2009, p. 38) employs a similar starting point (a recursive decision process) in setting up a discussion of free will.

[2]Contextualization is actively studied in missionary circles.  For example, see,: James E. Plueddemann.  Leading Across Cultures:  Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church.  Downers Grove:  IVP Academic, 2009.

[3]Some view modernism from this perspective.  Nikita Khrushchev once said:   Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any god there (  Khrushchev apparently believed that the USSR had constructed a Tower of Babel.

[4]This is more than just a Pauline rant. The hermeneutic of the prodigal in Romans allows Paul to create space for the redemption of Jews who have rejected Christ (Romans 11:11).  Pentecost redeems worldly cultures, even Jewish culture.  Luke (12:10) and Mark (3:29) are less gracious and consider blaspheming the Holy Spirit (rejecting salvation through Christ) unforgiveable.

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