The Gospel According to America
How Cultural Worldview, Social Media, and Shame Culture Impact Our Understanding of the Gospel
We desperately need to explore how much of our understanding of the gospel is American and how much is biblical.
–David Platt, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream
In the past few years, Christian leaders like Platt have challenged Americans to consider how cultural worldview impacts our understanding of the gospel. Entire books have been written and studies has been constructed to explore how values that have become deeply rooted in society, the values that drive social behaviors and expectations, shape spirituality.
Within this body of research, three main cultural worldviews have often been referenced based on their most influential core values: innocence-guilt, honor-shame, and fear-power. The values that drive each worldview not only have implications for cultural ethics, religious expressions, and relationships in society—they also profoundly shape personal identity.
While America has long been considered an example of an innocence-guilt culture, research suggests that shame culture has emerged from our social media use, and it’s even changing the way we relate to the gospel.
What is Cultural Worldview?
The three basic categories of cultural worldview, innocence-guilt, honor-shame, and fear-power, clearly don’t equate directly to specific expressions of spirituality or religion. More specifically, these categories address the deepest underlying values in society. Jayson Georges, author of 3D Gospel, finds the root of these three categories all the way back in the garden of Eden.
In his book, Georges references passages from Genesis to present a biblical basis that God intended man to live in positions of innocence, power, and honor in the world. Consider Genesis 1:26, “Let us make man in our own image, after our own likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth.” This passage clearly represents the power given to mankind on the earth.
In other verses, we can see that God intended man to live in relationship. Often, we immediately reference God’s declaration, “It is not good for man to be alone,” (Genesis 2:18) and consider the creation of Eve to best exemplify this design for relationship. However, Adam also experienced relationship with God in the garden (Genesis 3:8). The presence of God alongside Adam and Eve in the garden represents the position of honor mankind experienced before the Fall of man.
Not until the Fall of man do guilt, fear, and shame become driving factors in our behavior and relationships, according to Georges. Sin distorts innocence, honor, and power. Since that point mankind has struggled with the presence of both innocence and guilt, honor and shame, as well as fear and power. And, no effort of man can restore the state of the creation in the garden.
Have American Cultural Values Shifted?
Because these worldview categories of innocence-guilt, honor-shame, and fear-power represent the most influential and sacred values in any culture and society, they also shape and define our own identity.
Consider the cultural values behind democracy, individualism, and religious freedom in the Unites States. The values of justice and freedom form the foundation of our nation. Based on these values our forefathers composed the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. These values reflect the overarching cultural worldview of innocence-guilt which is characteristic of Western cultures.
To provide an example of how cultural values contribute to our own individual behaviors and expectations, Georges explains, “Guilt-oriented cultures do not simply emphasize rules and laws but socialize people to internalize the codes of conduct. Moral responsibility comes from within.” In this worldview, identity is often based on what a person does.
In other cultural worldviews like honor-shame, “The social matrix  is designed around establishing and expanding a network of relationships” (Georges). Japanese, Chinese, and Middle Eastern cultures are good examples of honor-shame societies. In these cultures, “Morality [is defined] relationally, not legally or abstractly. What is best for relationships is what is morally right” (Georges).
Socially, these values result in a very collectivistic society, as opposed to a highly individualistic society like America. When an individual experiences failure or falls into disgrace in these cultures—instead of saying, “I made a mistake”— Georges observes that the individual might think, “I am a mistake.” Here, shame defines identity.
In an article titled “The Return of Shame” written for Christianity Today, Andy Crouch proposes that “honor and shame are becoming dominant forces in the American context.” Crouch argues that it is increasingly true that individuals in America tend to make decisions based on what others will think, an important characteristic of honor-shame values. He writes, “You know one is good or bad based on what others think of you.”
Crouch looks to the shift in public opinion on sexual ethics to illustrate how social values have influenced cultural standards for law and relationships in America. He writes, “North Americans, including Christians, increasingly frame their sexual ethics in light of a paramount concern for social inclusion or exclusion…the only true crime is to publicly exclude—and thus shame—others.” Here, significant social implications have been observed based on the priority given to honor-shame values rather than more traditional innocence-guilt values. On a large scale, we’ve seen ethical and legal standards shift in America due to these values. On a smaller scale, we see social expressions of identity change as well.
Implications for the Gospel
Unfortunately, identity in honor-shame cultures can be viewed as profoundly negative when individuals don’t meet the cultural expectations. As mentioned above, individuals begin to see their identity—who they are—as defined by the outside community. Crouch calls it the “fame-shame” culture. He writes, “Like honor, fame is a public estimation of worth, a powerful currency of status. But fame is bestowed by a broad audience, with only the loosest of bonds to those they acclaim.”
In a society where the powerful values that drive decision making, behavior, and even identity in culture are undergoing profound change, how do we consistently speak truth? How do we address the emerging shame that increasingly defines us? Should the message of the gospel look any different?
Jayson Georges advocates in his book that Christians remember that the “Bible is one narrative in which forgiveness, honor, and power are woven together.” Georges’ research presents the possibility that without intentionally doing so we may only be reflecting part of the truth of the gospel.
Perhaps you have seen this in your own experience if the message of the gospel has been limited to using terms like “guilt, sin, condemnation, judgment, and debt” along with “forgiveness, atonement, reconciliation, righteousness, and justice,” revealing the underlying roots of our innocence-guilt worldview as Georges uncovers in his research.
While those pieces of the gospel are most certainly true in every culture, do they communicate intentionally in a way that will resonate with this generation in America? Is there another dimension of the gospel we might be overlooking—a dimension that declares hope and healing through a restored relationship in Christ?
Jesus revealed hope for those living in shame, struggling with broken relationships, and being defined by the world around them. Take one look at the parable of the prodigal son or the healing of lepers, and you see salvation for a people crippled by shame and longing for acceptance. Do we intentionally communicate this dimension of the gospel? Are our churches willing to live out ministry that actually resembles the ministry of Christ—ministry directed to “the least of these” in the world, the outcasts, disgraced, and estranged?
If we understand the values of the world which shape us and we desire to speak truth to transform us into the image of Christ, then we must be intentional about sharing a holistic gospel for our generation.
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Elise Barnes is a senior at Bryan College studying Christian Ministry. She is passionate about engaging with minorities and sharing the love of Jesus. After graduation, she hopes to continue her education in a graduate program to prepare for serving on the mission field.