Shogun and Biblical Studies

The novel Shogun is an engaging account of Will Adams’ expedition to Japan in 1600 AD and success in befriending a dangerous warlord. Stephen Carlson notes how the story provides an education in honor-shame cultures, such as that out of which the bible came, for all the differences between East and Middle-East.

One of the limitations of works written by The Context Group is that honor-shame values are frequently explained in the abstract, making it hard for the western initiate to grasp the alien mentality. Stories like Shogun show more than tell. By the time you finish Clavell’s novel, you feel like you’ve lived and breathed feudal Japan, and think in terms of honor and shame.

I’d once thought about making an exhaustive list of Shogun passages which “parallel” biblical ones, much in the way Stephen compares an incident from the novel with Rom 4:

“One passage in Shogun gives an insight into how grace operates in that honor-shame culture. The following passage occurs shortly after the English pilot, John Blackthorne (a.k.a ‘Anjin-san’), saved the life of the future Shogun Toranaga (chapter 39):

‘Then he heard Toranaga say, “Today I was almost killed. Today the Anjin-san pulled me out of the earth. . . . But though it is bushido that vassals should never expect a reward for any service, it is the duty of a liege lord to grant favors from time to time.”‘

In Romans, Paul exploits on a similar contrast between earned rewards and favors:

4:4 ‘Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. 5 But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. . . . 16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all [Abraham’s] descendents…'”

This is a good illustration of why the Lutheran understanding of grace is so misleading. Pharisees in Paul’s day didn’t expect rewards for keeping the Torah (anymore than medieval samurai expected rewards for serving their daimyos), but God had a duty to grant such rewards on occasion, often unexpectedly. That’s what “grace” is about in the honor-shame/patron-client context.

Here’s one of my favorites: When the daimyo Yabu assigns an entire village the task of teaching Blackthorne the Japanese language, he threatens mass murder. If Blackthorne has not learned satisfactorily within six months, Yabu will burn the village down, but before that crucify “every man, woman, and child”. Blackthorne is appalled by the threat, and manages to extract a promise from Yabu not to harm anyone no matter what. Yabu finally does so, but “of course, he had no intention of keeping any promise” (chapter 31), and thinks this western man a fool for actually believing him.

The phenomenon of breaking promises — as common as breathing air in honor-shame cultures — is what lies behind the Antioch incident (Gal 2:11-14), and which I wrote about in Treachery at Antioch:

“The pillars had revoked their own agreement: in Jerusalem they had agreed to leave Gentiles free of any obligation to become circumcised (Gal 2:7-10). Why the about-face at Antioch (Gal 2:11-14)? The immediate answer has to do with honor and revenge. Esler should be cited at length:

‘[Paul] had extracted an agreement from the Jerusalem leaders without giving away anything himself. True, he had consented to remember the poor…but his point [“I was eager to do so”] is that he would have done it even without any action taken by the pillars, so that they really got nothing in return for the promise of fellowship…’ (Galatians, pp 135-136)

Not only did Paul get the better of the pillars, but of outside factions, like the “false brethren” of Gal 2:4-5. Esler goes on:

‘The defeat of the circumcision group in Jerusalem would have left them steaming with the desire for revenge. Their honor had been besmirched by Paul’s very obviously getting the better of them, and in this culture we expect that they would seek to turn the tables on Paul, just as Israel did on Ammon in II Sam 10-12… When Paul left Jerusalem, he would have been well advised to watch his back… Persons in this culture who are shamed to this extent do not forgive or forget… With Paul and Barnabus, and later Peter, out of the city they would have been left with James and John upon whom they could exert pressure to revoke the agreement.’ (pp 132,136)

To western readers, this kind of back-biting seems to make James and Peter dishonorable liars, but actually the opposite is true. Lies and deceptions are honorable and expected of people in these cultures. As rival apostles, the pillars were under no obligation to keep any ‘promises’ made to Paul, and indeed they would have been childish to do so.”

That’s why the Antioch incident was about treachery more than “hypocrisy”. Paul called Peter a hypocrite (rather than a liar), because that’s the best he could do. Otherwise he’d have made a fool of himself.

Try reading Shogun and then revisit your favorite parts of the bible. You’ll probably start seeing them differently.

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5 thoughts on “Shogun and Biblical Studies

  1. What promises do you have in mind? If you’re talking about promises made to his followers, then naturally not. Promises should always be kept to insiders. But Paul wasn’t an insider to the Jerusalem “family”. He was a rival (sectarian) apostle to James and Peter, and was under no more obligation to keep any promises made to them than they were to him.

  2. Did Paul , Peter and James obey Jesus commandment to love one another?You are certainly not painting a flattering portrait of the early, lying, treacherous Christian leaders, many hand-picked by Jesus himself.

  3. <>You are certainly not painting a flattering portrait of the early, lying, treacherous Christian leaders, many hand-picked by Jesus himself.<>How so? Jesus was as much a product of his culture as they were, and was known for lying to his enemies when he needed to (Jn 7:1-10, for instance). Is it “unflattering” to recognize that Jesus and the early Christians didn’t behave like western people?

  4. By these criteria (and others) Augustine, who was a rigorist on lying, would be operating from a guilt culture rather than an honour-shame culture. One wonders where the dividing line should be drawn. I agree that the synoptic gospel narratives depict an honour-shame culture, however, maybe Paul, a member of the Hellenistic Diaspora, operated from guilt-based values. If his typical audience and typical colleagues/rivals operated from honour-shame this might explain some of his problems and conflicts.

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