Saint Paul Returns To The Movies


In this compelling sequel to his Saint Paul at the Movies, Robert Jewett brings another selection of contemporary films into dialogue with the biblical worldview. Jewett discusses ten major Hollywood movies that focus on the theme of shame and interprets them in the light of what St. Paul's letters say on the subject. His compelling analysis not only shows the cinema's unique capacity to unmask one of the deepest dilemmas of the human heart, but also offers the revolutionary view that the triumph of grace over ...
See more details below
$21.43 price
(Save 8%)$23.50 List Price
Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (37) from $1.99   
  • New (11) from $10.00   
  • Used (26) from $1.99   
Sending request ...


In this compelling sequel to his Saint Paul at the Movies, Robert Jewett brings another selection of contemporary films into dialogue with the biblical worldview. Jewett discusses ten major Hollywood movies that focus on the theme of shame and interprets them in the light of what St. Paul's letters say on the subject. His compelling analysis not only shows the cinema's unique capacity to unmask one of the deepest dilemmas of the human heart, but also offers the revolutionary view that the triumph of grace over shameful status, circumstances, and experiences lies at the heart of Paul's theology.
Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

One does not expect much from sequels, but Jewett, (Saint Paul at the Movies) triumphs in his return to a dialogue of Pauline faith with popular American culture.... Jewett's volume remarkably allows the evocative images and sensations of films like Groundhog Day and Babe to engage the imagination in a theological conversation regarding themes like shame, honor, and grace.... Jewett's essays are indeed fresh and insightful homilies that take movies out of their darkened secular cathedrals of theaters and back into the religious imagination.
Publishers Weekly
Scrupulously avoids entangling the reader in critical jargon as he fashions a lively dialogue between the Bible and contemporary film.
The exploration of biblical and theological themes in movies is usually not best done by starting with particular books and passages of scripture. This book is, however, an exception to that rule because of its consistent focus on a fresh way of reading Paul. It will be helpful to biblical exegete and moviegoer alike.
The Cresset
"The chapters in the Jewett book, though all neatly tied to the theological theme, can be read and used individually.... Certainly, each the subject of a Bible class, or if it was practical to show a film during a service, even a homily.... To anyone interested in the intersection between theology or culture...[this book is] well worth the time."
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802845856
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 11/18/1998
  • Pages: 232
  • Product dimensions: 0.53 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 9.00 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

1. Uncovering Shame and Grace
in Paul and the Cinema

Both to Greeks and to barbarians,
both to the wise and to the uneducated I am under
hence my readiness also to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel:
for it is the power of God for salvation to all who have
both to the Jew first and then to the Greek,
for in it the righteousness of God is revealedk
from faith to faith, as it is written,
"He who through faith is righteous shall live."

                   Romans 1:14-17


It is widely acknowledged that films reveal the current state of mind in what is increasingly becoming a global village. Miriam Hansen, director of the Film Studies Center at the University of Chicago, articulates an assumption that matches my own experience: "Film has become the medium in which stories are told that tend to be central to the concerns, problems, preoccupations of a society. It is one way in which society reflects upon, communicates with, and negotiates the meaning of everyday experience, of changes, transformations of the world they live in." Many of the films that have influenced my thinking reflect such a transformation. Some of them deal with the subjects of honor, shame, and righteousness, which until very recently were difficult to coordinate within the horizon of traditional biblical scholars like myself.

    In this sequel to Saint Paul at the Movies, I am continuing the experiment of bringing films and biblical texts into dialogue by means of an interpretive arch. This arch reaches between ancient and modern texts and stories. One end of the arch rests in the ancient world and the other in a contemporary cultural situation reflected in a particular film. In the films and texts I have selected for this volume, the themes of shame, honor, grace, and righteousness surface in surprising ways, shaking up traditional viewpoints and offering resources to understand the human project in our time. My method is to discern the conversation at each end of this arch, because both the biblical writers and the filmmakers interact with their cultural situations as they work with these themes, and these interactions throw new light on our current circumstances.

    In the light of the historical-critical method, I understand Pauline texts as parts of larger conversations within the early church. By reconstructing these conversations on the basis of the stories that lie behind the text, I discover modern analogies not just to what Paul wrote but also to the situations he addressed. The method of these chapters is to interweave Pauline texts with modern stories and issues, allowing each side to throw light on the other. When I select a film whose themes correlate closely with a biblical text, I attempt to treat the film as a full partner in conversation with Paul. Although I am not a specialist in film criticism, I attempt to understand films within their cultural contexts. My method is that of biblical hermeneutics, aiming at the "fusion of horizons" between the ancient text and the contemporary situation. This is why Paul's discussion in Romans 1 about not being ashamed of the gospel, and its bearing on Greeks as well as barbarians, has so vital a connection with a certain strand of films.

Forgiveness and Shame in Film

Many films that are thought to have religious significance deal with individual sin and its ramifications: temptation, bad conscience, punishment, forgiveness and reconciliation. One thinks of Amadeus, A Man Called Peter, Quo Vadis, David and Bathsheba, The Robe, Les Miserables, Pickpocket, Anna Karenina, The Scarlet Letter, Cry the Beloved Country, The Road to Heaven, Intermezzo, The Mission, The Forbidden Christ, East of Eden, The Informer, You Only Live Once, Diary of a Country Priest, A Man For All Seasons, Lilies of the Field, Cries and Whispers, Winter Light, Solaris, Nostalgia, Hamsun, or Dead Man Walking. These and many other films operate out of the mainstream of the biblical interpretive tradition, assuming that the human dilemma `is lack of will to achieve the good, resulting in inevitable failures to live up to the law or to high ethical ideals. This produces wicked behavior and a guilty conscience that must either be forgiven or punished. Shame in these films usually takes the form of embarrassment at being caught in sin. Grace in such films usually comes in the form of forgiveness for individual misdeeds. This matches the dominant theological paradigm of Western Christianity.

    Films dealing with honor and deeper forms of shame have a very different texture: they feature social ostracism, low self-esteem, or emptiness on the one hand and arrogance, contempt, or overbearing behavior on the other. Some of the most prominent films of this type made in the United States deal with persons shamed by racial, cultural, or sexual prejudice, or by physical or mental impairments. Grace in such films takes the form of accepting the unacceptable, treating grotesque and repulsive persons as worthy human beings. This may represent a particularly pervasive stream of American filmmaking, but it is also found in films of other cultures. Americans seem willing to accept as leading characters persons of shameful intelligence in films like Rain Man, Forrest Gump, and Sling Blade. We appreciate stories of the shamefully wounded in The Deer Hunter, The Best Years of Our Lives, or Born on the Fourth of July. There is a well-established genre of films about the deaf that includes The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Bridge to Silence, Johnnie Belinda, and Children of a Lesser God. Philadelphia, which deals with an AIDS victim who is fired because he has shamed the firm, was widely popular with American audiences. Films dealing with racial prejudice have long been a staple on the American scene, with classics like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, The Defiant Ones, A Raisin in the Sun, or In the Heat of the Night; in To Sir with Love, the school children finally accept Sidney Poitier as a teacher despite initial prejudices, and in Brother John Poitier plays a kind of Christ figure. While these films have upbeat endings, other movies, such as Birth of a Nation and Roots, present more discriminatory scenes that reflect the history of American racism.

    Class prejudice is the decisive burden in The Young Philadelphians, Courtney Affair, and A Place in the Sun, while distortions of the British class system surface in Room at the Top and Look Back in Anger. The issue of shame shifts to obesity in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? In Elephant Man and Man Without a Face, the heroes have grotesque physical impairments, and in Delores Clairborn the protagonist is an object of derision because she is ugly. In Willow the dwarf becomes the hero who redeems the king, while in Gold Rush the mistreated misfit continues to love his sweetheart until she finally is able to recognize his good qualities. In The Fisher King the homeless misfit is the redeemer, a role played by the alienated and tortured immigrant in Fixer. Paul Newman plays the role of a shamed prisoner who restores humanity to others in Cool Hand Luke. But there are many films in which shameful past events and discriminatory status continue to haunt the characters, such as Spitfire Grill, Daughters of the Dust, and A Thousand Acres. As in the Pauline letters, grace in these films takes the form not of forgiveness of individual sins but of overcoming dishonorable status. Despite their distance from, indeed sometimes their hostility toward, traditional religious faith, some of these films resonate with Paul's approach to triumph over shame, as recovered by recent research. They also deal critically with some of the social distortions of honor and shame that were characteristic of the ancient world with which Paul's letters interacted.

Honor and Competition in the Ancient World

The competitive center of the ancient systems of shame and honor was what Paul calls "boasting." This was a much more blatant, socially acceptable form of behavior than is conceivable for traditionally educated Americans, who are formed by an often disingenuous tradition of public modesty. Not so for the shapers of the Greco-Roman world. As E. A. Judge observed, "Self-magnification thus became a feature of Hellenic higher education." By eliminating the culturally endorsed motivation of seeking honor through teaching and learning, Paul in effect radically alters the Greco-Roman theory of education. Judge makes a similar case concerning the broad cultural tradition of public service. The assumption was that the quest for honor was the only suitable goal for life. "It was held that the winning of honor was the only adequate reward for merit in public life.... It therefore became a prime and admired objective of public figures to enshrine themselves, by actually defining their own glory, in the undying memory of posterity" by publishing memorials of their accomplishments.

    The explicit concern in ancient Roman society with the issue of honor is visible in its creation of what Judge has called "an aristocracy of esteem." Ancient Romans used the term gloria to describe the aura that "arises from a person's successfully exhibiting himself to others," particularly in victorious political or military leadership. Such glory was viewed as intrinsic to the heroic person, raising him above the level of others. This was conveyed in expressions like "immortal glory" or "celestial glory" in that the superlative accomplishments would continue to resound after one's death. In contrast to Jewish thought, which reserved "glory" largely for descriptions of God, the Romans virtually restricted gloria to superior human accomplishments. Victorious military leaders were celebrated in religious processions, for example, that acknowledged the quality of immortal glory. Thus Ulrich Knoche contends that "the glorious man is raised up from the human to the eternal sphere: he does not become a [divine] hero but remains thoroughly human, indeed, remains a citizen." Such glory depends, of course, on the recognition granted by other citizens to the "great man" for performing public service. The glorious leader was thought to be capable of bringing the blessing of the gods upon the community; he was honored as the source of righteousness and prosperity. A sophisticated system of gradation in honor was established, in which the Roman senate voted appropriate rewards, offices, and celebrations for various levels of accomplishment in the fields of philanthropy or military strategy. The ambition of Roman leaders, who were usually drawn from leading families, was to gain ever higher levels of honor.

    The competition for honor was visible in every city of the Roman empire in which members of the elite competed for civic power through such activities as sponsoring games and celebrations, financing public buildings, and endowing mass food distributions. Public life in the Roman empire was centered in the quest for honor. There were inscriptions on every public building and artwork indicating to whose honor it should be attributed. Rome in particular was full of majestic public buildings such as temples, baths, fountains, and amphitheaters built to honor glorious leaders and triumphal occasions. These ideas formed the center of the Pax Romana established by Augustus, whom Philo celebrated as the

first and greatest benefactor to whom the whole habitable world voted no less than celestial honors. These are so well attested by temples, gateways, vestibules, porticoes.... he received his honours ... with the magnitude of so mighty a sovereignty whose prestige was bound to be enhanced by such tributes. That he was never elevated or puffed up by the vast honours given to him is clearly shown by the fact that he never wished anyone to address him as a god.

The propagandistic Res Gestae that Augustus published and inscribed in Roman temples throughout the empire celebrates his glorious accomplishments in bringing peace to the Mediterranean world and consolidating his rule under the fiction of democracy. Here one can see the elaborate gradations of honors he boasts of having received:

In my sixth and seventh consulships, when I had extinguished the flames of civil war, after receiving by universal consent the absolute control of affairs, I transferred the republic from my own control to the will of the senate and of the Roman people. For this service on my part I was given the title of Augustus by decree of the senate, and the doorposts of my house were covered with laurels by public act, and a civic crown was fixed above my door, and a golden shield was placed in the Curia Julia whose inscription testified that the senate and the Roman people gave me this in recognition of my valour, my clemency, my justice, and my piety. After that time I took precedence of all in rank, but of power I possessed no more than those who were my colleagues in any magistracy.

The claims of having restored power to the senate and the Roman people, and of having only the collegial power of the magistracy were, of course, fictions. His position of supreme glory rendered it logical that total power would be placed in his hands, celebrated in the Res Gestae with language that is significant for the argument of Paul's most influential letter: clementia = "mercies" in Rom 12:1; justicia = "rightwising, righteousness, etc."; pietas = "piety" in Rom 1:18.

    It is clear that Paul uses the Greek equivalents of these Roman terms to criticize and reverse the official system of honor on which the empire was based. He offers a new approach to mercies, righteousness, and piety, one that avoided the propagandistic exploitation of the Roman system. In the words of Dieter Georgi, "Here, in Romans, there is a critical counterpart to the central institution of the Roman Empire," that is, redemptive kingship (see Rom 1:1-3). Augustus is celebrated in the poetry of Virgil as the savior figure who ushers in "this glorious age." He receives the prophetic tribute: "He shall have the gift of divine life, shall see heroes mingled with gods, and shall himself be seen of them.... Enter on thy high honors... O thou dear offspring of the gods, mighty seed of a Jupiter to be!" (Virgil, Eclogue IV 11, 48) It is understandable that at Augustus' death in A.D. 14, he was voted caelestes honores ("eternal honors") by the Roman senate. In Everett Ferguson's words, "Deification at Rome ... was a conferring of status; cult was a supreme form of honor." In a similar vein, Claudius was voted apotheosis by the Roman senate when he was killed in A.D. 54. Nero, on his accession to the throne, was celebrated as the glorious leader who would usher in a golden age. In every victory parade and civic celebration in temple or coliseum, the Romans claimed superior honors for themselves and their rulers; they were firmly convinced that the gods had "exalted this great empire of Rome to the highest point yet reached on earth" because of its superior virtue. In Cicero's memorable formulation, the Romans boasted of being religione ... multo superiores ("far superior with respect to religious observance") in comparison with the other nations they had incorporated into their empire. There are mild counterparts to such sentiments in American declarations or implications of superior virtue, but they hardly match the blatant quality of Greco-Roman boasting.

Paul's Critique of Boasting

In virtually all of his surviving letters, Paul counters the various forms of boasting that were characteristic of Greco-Roman culture, including its Jewish branches. The famous claim in Rom 3:9 that "Jews as well as Greeks are all under sin" is followed by a catena of scriptural citations that repeat no fewer than eight times that "no one" can claim honorable or righteous status or performance. James D. G. Dunn observes that the citations from the Psalms at the beginning of this catena "presuppose an antithesis between the righteous (the faithful member of the covenant) and the unrighteous. The implication is that when that presupposition of favored status before God is set aside, the scriptures serve as a condemnation of all humankind...." This undercuts the superiority claims of every system of gaining honor through performance or inherited status.

    It follows that "no flesh will be set right before God by works of the law" (Rom 3:20). Dunn has moved the discussion of this verse beyond the denunciation of Jewish law popularized by the interpretative tradition undergirded by the Reformation. He describes "the function of the law as an identity factor, the social function of the law as marking out the people of the law in their distinctiveness.... "The problem is that "works of the law" served as an identity marker for those "whom God has chosen and will vindicate" and provided a method of "maintaining his status within that people." There is a need to link these insights with the systems of gaining honor and avoiding shame in the Greco-Roman world, to allow a broader grasp of Paul's argument. It is not just the Jewish law that Paul exposes here, but law as an identity marker for any culture. Paul did not select the term "flesh" in this verse merely to critique "the equation of covenant membership with physical rite and national kinship," but to include the entire human race. In the face of the impartial righteousness of God, no human system of competing for glory and honor can stand.

    The climactic formulation in Rom 3:23, that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," also has a bearing on the Jewish and Greco-Roman systems of shame and honor. It is widely acknowledged that Paul is assuming that Adam and Eve were originally intended to bear the glory of God, but lost it by eating the fatal apple. But the use of the verb "fall short" has not been sufficiently explained. An equivalent term is not employed in any of the Jewish parallels. This is a comparative term relating to the failure to reach a goal, to be inferior to someone, to fail, to come short of something. The basic connotation is that of "deficit, which consists either in remaining below the normal level, or in being behind others," and hence of being in a position of deserving shame.

    An important parallel to Rom 3:23 is 2 Cor 11:5 and 12:11, where "to be inferior to someone" is used in connection with the competition between Paul and his opponents known as the "superapostles." To fall short is an honor issue: it resonates with the competition for honor within and between groups in the Greco-Roman world, and it echoes the wording of Rom 1:18-32 in terms of refusing to grant honor to God by choosing to worship the creature rather than the creator. Despite the claims of Jews and Greeks to surpass each other in honor, and despite their typical claims that the other groups are shameful because of their lack of wisdom or moral conformity, Paul claims that all fall short of the transcendent standard of honor. Dunn comes close to seeing this issue, when he notes that Paul "reduces the difference between Jew and Gentile to the same level of their common creatureliness." If all persons and groups fall short of the ultimate standard of honor that they were intended to bear, that is, "the glory of God," then none has a right to claim superiority or to place others in positions of inferiority.

    The classic declaration of "justification by grace" in Rom 3:24, which I translate as being "set right through a gift by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus," is another issue that needs to be understood in terms of shame and honor. Righteousness, honor, and glory can be used as virtually synonymous terms, a point whose relevance can only be grasped if the traditional English translation for dikaioumenoi ("being justified") is replaced with its more adequate verbal equivalent, "being set right." To be "set right" in the context of the "righteousness of God" (3:21), and with reference to humans who have fallen short of the "glory of God," is to have such glory and honor restored. This is not an achievement but a gift of grace.

    Paul is not suggesting that believers gain a comparative form of honor, so that they can continue to compete with others who remain shameful. Rather, in Christ they are given an honorable relationship that results in what 2 Cor 3:18 describes as an actual transformation derived from the mirror image of Christ in which believers change "from one degree of glory to another." In being honored by God through Christ who died for all, the formerly shamed are integrated into the community of the saints where this transformation process occurs under the lordship of Christ. This observation could be correlated with the recent work of Peter Stuhlmacher, James Dunn, and Richard Hays, which stresses that Paul understands the righteousness given to converted Jews and Gentiles "primarily in terms of the covenant relationship to God and membership within the covenant community." Paul has in mind a new social reality: within the community of the shamed made right by the death and resurrection of Christ, there is no longer the possibility of any "distinction" (Rom 3:22) in honor.

    Paul's crucial contention is that in Christ, rightful status is not achieved on the basis of any human effort. The threefold reference in Rom 3:24 to divine "grace," to the "gift," and to "redemption" through Christ makes it plain that no one gains this honorable, righteous status by outperforming others or by privilege of birth or wealth. In contrast to the hypercompetitive environment of the Greco-Roman world, including its Jewish component, this new status is granted by Christ only to those whose shame is manifest. While the Greeks boast in their wisdom, the Romans in their power, and the Jews in their conformity to the law, grace addresses the shameful void that motivates all boasting. By its very nature, therefore, honor granted through grace alone eliminates any basis of human boasting, which Paul explicitly states in 3:27: "Where is the boast? It is excluded!" In the words of Halvor Moxnes, the result is "to exclude false claims to honour."

Paul's Surprising Use of the Language of Shame

The verses that introduce the formal argumentation of Paul's letter to the Romans, used in the caption for this chapter, contain some remarkable epithets. He employs Jewish and as well as typical Greco-Roman terms for shameful status. For example, in announcing his desire to visit Rome, Paul describes his hope to "reap some fruit also among you as among the rest of the Gentiles" (Rom 1:13). This is the second reference in Romans to non-Jewish peoples that employs the epithet used by Jews to distinguish shameful non-Jews, "Gentile." The ethnically discriminatory potential of this formulation is enhanced by the next verse, which employs some of the most explicitly discriminatory language in the Pauline letters. The labels "Greeks and barbarians ... wise and foolish" (Rom 1:14) articulate the social boundaries of Greco-Roman culture in a thoroughly abusive manner. As the definitive study of barbaros ("barbarian") by Yves Albert Dauge has shown, this was a supremely discriminatory epithet in Greco-Roman culture. It was comparable to abusive racial terms like "nigger" or "gook" in American culture. When paired with its ideological opposite, "Greeks," which stood for the educated class in the Greco-Roman world, the term "barbarian" denotes the violent, perverse, corrupt, uncivilized element beyond and within the Roman empire that threatens peace and security. Similarly, the terms "wise" and "unwise/uneducated" depict the educational boundary between citizens of the empire and the shameful masses. But it is not just Paul's use of these epithets of honorable and shameful status that jars the reader; Paul undercuts the moral premise of the Greco-Roman world in proclaiming his indebtedness to the shameful as well as to the honorable representatives of the antitheses. Only Ernst Käsemann among modern commentators catches the revolutionary implications of Paul's formulation: "All earthly barriers are relativized.... as a messenger of the gospel he can uninhibitedly stride across the conventions and prejudices of the divided cosmos."

    The remarkable formulation in Rom 1:14 is followed by the antithetical formulation "to the Jew first and also to the Greek" in the thesis concerning the righteousness of God in Rom 1:16-17. This reverses the claim of ethnic priority that was probably being advanced by the Gentile Christian majority in Rome. The reference to not being "ashamed of the gospel" (1:16) sets the tone for the entire letter. As one can see from the parallel text in 1 Cor 1:20-31, the gospel was innately shameful as far as the various branches of Greco-Roman culture were concerned. The message about a messianic redeemer being crucified was a "stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles" (1 Cor 1:23). A divine self-revelation on an obscene cross seemed to demean God and overlook the honor and propriety of established religious traditions, both Jewish and Greco-Roman. Rather than appealing to the honorable and righteous members of society, such a gospel seemed designed to appeal to the despised and the powerless. To use the words of 1 Corinthians once again, "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world... so that no one might boast in the presence of God" (1 Cor 1:27-29). There were persuasive social reasons why Paul should have been ashamed of this gospel; his claim not to be ashamed signals that a social and ideological revolution has been inaugurated, one that overturns the systems of honor and shame throughout the Greco-Roman world.

    This revolution explains why Paul was able to use and to overturn the derogatory epithets that apparently were being used by partisans within the Roman churches to designate their rivals. Joel Marcus has shown that the references to groups as "circumcised" or "uncircumcised" (Rom 2:26-27; 3:30; 4:9; 15:8) should be translated literally as "circumcised glans" and "foreskin," both of which were "derogatory terms used by people in one group for people in another." The language is comparable to "dickhead" as an abusive epithet in contemporary English. The politeness of modern translations disguises the element of shame that Paul is attempting to reverse. The apostle overturns the dishonorable status imputed to each group by claiming that "God will set right the `circumcised glans' on the ground of faith and the `foreskin' through that same faith" (Rom 3:30). These same groups are referred to in Romans 14-15 as the "weak" and the "strong," labels that reflect the superiority claims and the abusive disparagement that were poisoning relations in the church. That "weak" and "strong" in this context implied claims of both ethical and social superiority seems very likely, in light of the history and social status of the Roman house and tenement churches. But in place of the ordinary Greco-Roman assumption that the strong should dominate the weak while holding them in contempt, Paul argues that "we the powerful are obligated to bear the weaknesses of the powerless and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please the neighbor for the good, toward upbuilding. For also the Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, `The reproaches of those who reproach you fell upon me'" (Rom 15:1-3). If Christ accepted the ultimate reproach of the cross, then bearing burdens for the shamed becomes a new form of honorable behavior.

Moving beyond Guilt and Forgiveness

Although I have been working intensively on Romans since 1980, it has only been in the last several years that the awareness of the theological significance of honor and shame has begun to dawn. Like other Pauline scholars, I was indebted to the traditional paradigm of guilt and forgiveness that has prevailed since the time of Saint Augustine. It stands as the central organizing principle in every commentary on Romans that I have studied. This highly individualistic paradigm places the individual believer at the center of Paul's thought, caught between the temptations of the flesh and the high ideals of the ethic of love, and therefore bound to fall into sin and guilt. The essence of grace, according to this traditional model, is forgiveness of sins.

    For at least a decade, doubts have been growing in my mind about the adequacy of the traditional model of Paul's thought. The more I learned about the menial social status of most of the Roman congregations, the less likely it seemed that the conscience problems characteristic of later Western mentality could have been their major preoccupation. That both Jewish and pagan religions provided elaborate methods of gaining forgiveness and atonement for sins added to my disquiet about the paucity of explicit references to forgiveness in Paul's letters.

    My interest was further stimulated by the increasingly wide-ranging discussion of honor and shame in the Mediterranean world. On the basis of sociological, anthropological, and historical information, Bruce Malina has defined the ancient view of honor as "the value of a person in his or her own eyes ... plus that person's value in the eyes of his or her social group. Honor is a claim to worth along with the social acknowledgement of worth." In the competitive environment of the Mediterranean world, such honor was gained "by excelling over others in the social interaction that we shall call challenge and response." This occurs only among persons of the same class, since superiority over those of lower status was assumed and did not have to be proven. The goal of a challenge, in arenas ranging from political power to religious reputation, was "to usurp the reputation of another, to deprive another of his reputation. When the person challenged cannot or does not respond to the challenge posed by his equal, he loses his reputation in the eyes of the public.... every social interaction that takes place outside one's family or outside one's circle of friends is perceived as a challenge to honor, a mutual attempt to acquire honor from one's social equal...."

    The culture of honor and shame reflected in the New Testament, according to Malina, produced a personality type that was very different from modern, Western "individuals," whose self-identity is allegedly internal and self-directed. Mediterranean people had a "dyadic personality" (derived from the Greek word meaning "pair"); they understood themselves exclusively "in terms of what others perceive and feed back" to them. This is visible in the New Testament, Malina contends, in that people are defined by their family and cultural group: Paul speaks to Jews and Gentiles, Greeks and barbarians, not to individuals. That certainly matches what I had discovered about the focus of Paul's argument in Romans and the other letters.

    The recent publication of Portraits of Paul by Bruce Malina and Jerome Neyrey advances this analysis by incorporating evidence from the book of Acts and some of the Pauline letters. Other scholars have made similar contributions. David deSilva has applied his thorough grasp of Greco-Roman literature to trace the role of honor and shame in the Epistle to the Hebrews and Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians. Arthur Dewey has contributed an investigation of the theme of honor in 2 Corinthians, while John Elliott has explored both shame and honor in 1 Peter. The most decisive contribution to my understanding of Romans, however, came through reading "Honour and Righteousness in Romans," written by the Norwegian scholar Halvor Moxnes. He places the entire argument of Paul's most influential letter in the ancient cultural context of an "honour society" in which "recognition and approval from others" is central, which means that the "group is more important than the individual." This contrasts with the dominant concern of Western theology and its interpretation of Romans, "in which guilt and guilt-feeling predominate as a response to wrongdoing." He notes that the semantic equivalents of honor and shame play important roles in the argument of Romans; these include "honor," "dishonor," and the verb "to dishonor"; "shameless," "be ashamed," and "put to shame"; "glory" and "to glorify"; "praise" and "to praise"; "boast," "boasting," and "to boast." This focus on honor and shame relates to the central purpose of the letter as Moxnes understands it, "to bring together believing Jews and non-Jews in one community."

    To these references I would add the socially discriminatory categories discussed above, such as "Greeks and barbarians, educated and uneducated" in 1:14, the twenty-eight appearances of the potentially shameful epithet "Gentiles," and the categories "weak" and strong" employed in 14:1-15:7. Even more prominent are the twenty-five references to social gestures of honor in the form of "welcome" and "greeting" of outsiders that dominate the last three chapters. The word field of "righteousness/unrighteousness," which plays such a prominent role in the argument of Romans, is also closely related to Jewish and Greco-Roman terminology for honor and shame: "righteous" appears seven times; "righteousness," thirty-four times; "make righteous," fourteen times; "righteous decree," five times; "being made right," twice; "unrighteousness," seven times; and "unrighteous," once.

    The need to move beyond the traditional paradigm of individual guilt and forgiveness is particularly acute when we attempt to understand the thesis of Romans. As visible in the caption at the head of this chapter, Rom 1:16-17 declares the paradox of power. Paul claims that in this shameful gospel the power of God is revealed. I believe that Paul's claim that the gospel is the "power of God" pertains to the reversal of the stereotypes of honor and shame articulated in 1:14. The message of Christ crucified shatters the unrighteous precedence given to the strong over the weak, the free and well-educated over slaves and the ill-educated, the Greeks and Romans over the barbarians. If the gospel that the world considers shameful has divine power, it will prevail and achieve a new form of honor for those who have not earned it, an honor consistent with divine righteousness. All who place their faith in this gospel will be set right, that is, be placed in the right relation to the most significant arena in which honor is dispensed: divine judgment. Thus the triumph of divine righteousness through the gospel of Christ crucified and resurrected is achieved by transforming the system in which shame and honor are dispensed.

    When the frequency of honor and shame terminology is compared with the single allusion to pardon in Rom 3:25, it now seems clear that a mainstream has been confused for a minor current in the tradition of interpreting Pauline theology. It is time to move beyond the paradigm of individual guilt and forgiveness in understanding Paul. This book represents my first extended effort to articulate a new assessment of the triumph of grace over shameful status as the organizing center of Paul's thought.


Judging from the evidence in the Pauline letters and stimulated by the close study of certain films, I have come to the intuition that shame may be a deeper and more pervasive human dilemma than guilt, and also that grace is broader than individual forgiveness. Shame pertains not merely to what we have done but also to what we are, both as individuals and as members of groups. My impression is that some of the more prejudicial wounds of shame are rarely cauterized and almost never forgotten. But this intuition is almost impossible to confirm in the abstract: the memories of personal and collective failures and limitations, of abuse and discrimination, of feeling neglected, unloved, or unworthy, need to be brought into the light of day before their effect can be assessed. But the essence of shame is painful exposure of vulnerability, which we avoid at all costs. The root meaning for the terminology of shame in many languages is "cover" or "hide," and the basic shame phenomenon in every culture, including the Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures that produced the Bible, is the lowered, averted, reddened face, often hidden by one's hands. Beyond all other human emotions and reactions, shame is what we most instinctively hide.

    Cinema has a unique capacity to uncover, to show the faces whose shameful features are usually disguised, both to ourselves and to others. In the darkness of a theater or the privacy of a video screening, we gaze at the uncovered faces on the screen, while our own faces remain unobserved. We deal with shame vicariously in this peculiar, modern ritual of watching the flickering images on the screen. We eagerly gaze time and time again at the embarrassing gaffes of our elected leaders or the stumbling of our Olympic skaters, while our own failures are carefully disguised from public view. While "uncovering shame" is extremely difficult for theology, and even for therapy, it remains the everyday stuff of cinema, which can provide a decisive aid in understanding and dealing with the wounds of shame in a manner congruent with Paul's legacy.

    It follows that this book is an exploration of a seemingly preposterous proposition. Could it be that certain movies afford deeper access to the hidden heart of Paul's theology than mainstream theologians like myself have been able to penetrate? Are there insights in these films that would help us better to understand Paul's references to honor, shame, and grace, allowing us to come to terms with some of the deepest and most obscure dilemmas of the human heart, to confront them openly and redemptively? Conversely, could Pauline theology help us understand the deeper dimensions of The Prince of Tides, Forrest Gump, Babe, and Shawshank Redemption? Does it throw light on The Firm and Groundhog Day? Could it help us understand the interplay between honor, shame, and superheroic fantasies in Mr. Holland's Opus and Unforgiven? Can it help us grasp the theological depths of Edge of the City and Babette's Feast, revealing dimensions of grace that reach beyond the conventional parameters of individual forgiveness? And will this dialogue throw any light on the dilemma of religious faith in the current moment, so that the gospel message of the triumph of grace over shame can be caught afresh? This book is an effort to find out.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

  1. Preface


  2. Uncovering Shame and Grace in Paul and the Cinema

  4. The Exposure of Shameful Secrets in The Prince of Tides
  5. Babette's Feast and Shaming the Poor in Corinth
  6. Shame, Love, and the Saga of Forrest Gump

  8. Mr. Holland's Opus and Letters Written on the Heart
  9. The Deadly Deception of the Flesh in Groundhog Day
  10. Babe Takes the Lead in Honoring the Lowly

  12. The Blood of Christ at the Edge of the City
  13. The Gospel Free of Charge: Bondage and The Firm
  14. Shame and the Other Gospel in Unforgiven
  15. A Problematic Hope for the Shamed in The Shawshank Redemption

  17. The Great Code of Scripture: From Shawshank Prison to the Carolina Tides
  18. Notes
    Index of Ancient Texts
    Index of Names and Subjects

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)