Book Review: The 3-D Gospel: Ministry in Guilt, Shame, and Fear Cultures, by Jason Georges
Jason Georges, The 3-D Gospel: Ministry in Guilt, Shame, and Fear Culture. 3D Gospel, 2014, 82 pages. $8.99.
I am a pastor who grew up in an honor-shame culture, so the title 3D Gospel: Ministry in Guilt, Shame and Fear Cultures peeked my interest.
The author Jason Georges (M. Div., Talbot) spent nine years in Central Asia. Currently, Georges works among refugees in Atlanta, so he brings quite a bit of experience to the table for this cultural/theological/missiological project of 3D Gospel.
3D Gospel seeks to teach primarily Western Christians how to contextualize the gospel, so that it is great news to all cultures (56). The problem is that Western Christians have “unintentionally put God in a box” by sharing a gospel that “emphasizes one aspect of salvation (i.e. the forgiveness of sins)” (13). Western Christians have “only [allowed] him to save in one area” (13), and have “[neglected] . . . other facets of the gospel” (13). But “the gospel is a many-sided diamond, and God wants people in all cultures to experience his complete salvation” (13). So, “a more complete understanding of salvation” is needed (12).
Georges wants to expose blind spots in Western Christianity while simultaneously helping readers examine the other, under-considered facets of the gospel. He writes about three basic “responses to sin found in human cultures: guilt, shame, and fear” (10). From these responses come three basic worldviews of the Majority World cultures.
- the guilt-innocence worldview (mostly Western; individualistic societies);
- the shame-honor worldview (mostly in the East; collectivistic mindset);
- the fear-power worldview (typically tribal or African; referring to animistic cultures) (10-11).
Georges seeks to recover a 3D gospel, which addresses not only the needs of those from the guilt-innocence culture, but shame-honor and fear-power cultures as well.
In chapter 1, “Seeing New Realities,” Georges’ states the need for a 3D gospel by explaining the three foundational types of culture in Majority World contexts. Chapter 2, “Culture,” offers a sociological/cultural explanation of these three culture types, which includes both their distinctives and how each culture came to be. Chapter 3, “Theology,” shows how “the guilt-shame-fear” trichotomy . . . serves as a framework for interpreting Scripture and contextualizing theology” (35). Chapter 4, “Ministry,” offers practical application on communicating the gospel in a way each type of culture finds “most plausible” (58). Lastly, chapter 5 offers a summary.
I was originally concerned that Georges would say certain cultures are only guilt/shame/fear driven. But Georges acknowledges, “Although guilt, shame, and fear are three distinct cultural outlooks, no culture can be completely characterized by only one” (15). This made me anticipate learning more about the 3D gospel and how to appreciate it, no matter the culture background.
Also worthy of commendation is Georges’ desire to increase his readers’ awareness. “Despite the prominence of shame-honor and fear-power dynamics in global cultures,” Georges seeks to expose “conspicuous blind spots in most Christian theology” (13). 3D Gospel helps Western Christians understand Majority World cultures while at the same time encouraging pastors and church leaders to check their ministries for any evidence of unstated ethnocentrism.
But there are a number of significant weaknesses as well.
First to be addressed is Georges’ methodology, which seems to work against the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. By all indications, Georges believes that culture essentially determines the content of the gospel, or at least what people are capable of understanding about the gospel (60). The very structure of the book is indicative of his methodology: cultural observations yield theological conclusions, which then determines practice.
But letting culture determine our understanding of the gospel is not the correct way forward. Instead, what God has revealed in his sufficient and authoritative Word ought to determine the content of the gospel and the church’s missiological practices. God’s Word is useful for life and godliness in evangelism, and provides the doctrine that makes up the evangel (1 Tim 3:16; 1 Cor 15:3-4). The inevitable fall-out of letting culture determine the content of the gospel is that the Christian will eventually work to undermine it.
Second, Georges trifurcates the three types of culture too finely, even though he admits that every culture is characterized by all three. Based on Gulzal’s story, and his statement affirming the presence of the types of culture in every people, readers expect Georges to argue that the 3D gospel, in its entirety, is for every type of culture, and then perhaps offer a gospel presentation weaving all three aspects of guilt, shame, and fear together, presenting their logical connections. But he does not. Instead he offers one individual facet of the 3D gospel for one individual type of culture.
This trifurcation is seen in the missiological implications found in chapter 4. Hoping Majority World cultures will engage the gospel “through meaningful forms” (56), Georges exhorts Christians to present the gospel in categories “most plausible” to the hearer (58). Thinking that “a 3D gospel affects both the content of the gospel and the means of Christian witness,” Georges marshals scriptural examples of contextualizing the gospel to the culture. The problem is that Georges relies on proof texts, which is to say, texts pulled out of their canonical context and treated separately from Scripture’s larger storyline. This allows him to make each text refract his sociological assumptions.
Georges first offers an example of a “truth encounter,” which he says aligns with a Western, guilt-innocence culture. Using Acts 13:13-42, Paul is said to proclaim forgiveness of sins, which to Georges is guilt-innocence culture language. As “a legal advocate,” Paul “verbally explains and defends the truthfulness of the gospel” (61). This is a propositional truth encounter (61), which appeals to rationality and reason.
For the “power encounter,” Georges cites Acts 13:4-12, where Paul is said to be ministering to a fear-power community. A proconsul encounters the power of God, as he witnesses God blind a magician’s eyes. Georges explains, “In the power encounter approach, missions is a spiritual battle . . . the church rescues people from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of Jesus” (63). Col 1:13 is cited to further explain and depict the battle between good and evil in Acts 13:4-12.
But notice that Georges divides what the Bible keeps together. First, missions is never just a spiritual or rational battle, as the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers (2 Cor 4:4); therefore, a “truth encounter” is necessarily a “power encounter.” Second, Georges misses the fact that the contexts of Acts 13:4-12 and Col 1:13 demand more than one “encounter.” When the proconsul believes, he had not only witnessed the power of God but had also already been taught the truth by Paul. In Col 1:13-14 too, more than one “encounter” is demanded. Fear-power culture is seen in that God delivers us from darkness into his Son’s kingdom (Col 1:13), but the guilt-innocence categories immediately follow: God delivers us from darkness into his Son’s kingdom in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Col 1:14).
The “community encounter” is where Georges creatively cites the Philippian jailer’s conversion as a shame-honor encounter (Acts 16). He explains, “The conversation process of shame-honor people generally starts with community . . . whereas truth encounter begins by evangelizing individuals into the church” (67). He then claims that this is what happened to the Philippian jailer. He encountered Christian community when Paul yelled out, “We are here!” (67). In this example Georges pushes a shame-honor agenda to its fullest when the situation does not demand it. He does not explain why this incidence is not a power encounter even though a miracle shook the prison foundation, flinging the prison doors open. He also does not explain why this is not a truth encounter even though Paul “[speaks] the word of the Lord” (Acts 16:32), and calls hearers to believe in it (Acts 16:31).
Georges rightly affirms that the gospel provides an answer to guilt, shame, and fear. But he effectively separates these things, as if each could be treated separately without regard for the other two. And in so doing he perpetuates the very errors he aims to correct. If Western Christians are guilty of “unintentionally [putting] God in a box,” then those who are converted through the methods Georges advocates will be discipled to do the same. People from one type of culture will only lay hold to one facet of the gospel: those struggling with shame need the gospel’s answer to that; those struggling with fear need the gospel’s answer to that; and those struggling with guilt need the gospel’s answer to that.
Regrettably, dividing the gospel like this, where one individual facet goes to one individual type of culture, risks undermining the gospel in its entirety.
Take, for example, sin and how Georges might treat it in all three settings.. In a “guilt-innocence” gospel presentation, sin plays a central role. Man is treated as rebellious, and his sins need to be forgiven. Jesus offers a solution by bearing the penalty for sin on the cross. But presenting sin and the gospel this way, Georges might say, only reveals my Western Christianity.
Moving into a shame-honor culture might require a different gospel presentation. Sin is not said to be against God; sin is something done to ourselves or fellow man. Georges definitely mentions that man dishonored God, but this is not called sin. Nevermind Romans 1, where Paul writes that the ungodly and unrighteous “did not honor him as God or give thanks to him,” which leads to Paul’s conclusion, “For all have sinned” (Rom 3:23). Ultimately, sin is diminished in this version of the gospel, which diminishes Christ’s work as well.
How might Georges’ present the gospel in a fear-power culture? Again, he would not present sin as active rebellion against God. Instead, sin is something that merely “enslaves” passive man (43), and the fact that our sin is against God remains hidden. Yet how are people to seek forgiveness for sin when the concept of sin doesn’t happen to be plausible within their worldview? Again, the Apostle Paul thought otherwise. Writing to the Ephesian Christians—a culture Georges would categorize as a fear-power culture—he insists they possess redemption and the forgiveness of trespasses through Christ’s blood (Eph 1:7). Like I said, I’m afraid with the 3D Gospel, the gospel ultimately gets lost.
What makes Georges so quick to separate the facets of his 3D gospel is that he sees guilt, shame, and fear as separate “moral emotions” (10). But 3D Gospel would have been strengthened had Georges helped readers understand how guilt, shame, and fear are interrelated and mutually implicated. It would be worth asking questions like,
- How does guilt over transgressing the law of God create shame before God and others?
- How do guilt and shame for sin give rise to the fear of supernatural powers standing opposed to us?
Keeping the guilt-shame-fear trichotomy together, and understanding the shape of each in relation to the others, would have strengthened Georges’ case, making it more plausible to the worldview that aligns with Scripture’s.
On a certain level, I liked 3D Gospel. It challenged and increased my awareness of Majority World cultures, which will assist me in ministering in such contexts. That said, I do not advocate Georges’ methods—letting culture determine the content of the gospel—nor do I agree with his theological conclusions or missiological implications. I’m afraid the old gospel gets lost in his new gospel formulations. And even though the Bible uses the word gospel in different ways, there is gospel content that must be believed, content “of first importance,” content like “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:3-11).