Book Review: Looking Shame in the Eye

Looking Shame in the Eye Simon Cozens

Having read Curt Thompson’s The Soul of Shame and Paul Mallard’s Invest Your Disappointments, I’ve been keenly aware of the need for theologically and emotionally honest books about the reality of life. Today I want to share some thoughts and quotes on and from a new book from IVP (who as of mid-September I’m working for, in the interests of full disclosure), Looking Shame in the Eye by Simon Cozens.

This is a book that draws together a range of disparate threads on the conversation about shame, and does so powerfully and readably. This is a book that seriously engages with the reality of shame in Genesis 1-3, and the Bible more generally, the way that Jesus spoke about shame and ministered in the culture he was in, and perhaps most pertinently in our globalised world, the range of ways that different cultures engage with shame. One key takeaway from the book is the importance of shame in the biblical story, and a key lesson would be to ponder a recovery of confession in churches where it is not practiced.

A key practical element of what Cozens is suggestion is that church should be a community of healing and hope: “church has a key part to play in the salvation of the shamed. The church is the place where new life happens.” A key part of this is baptism, the ancient evangelical sacrament of the church, that is threaded through most of the chapters in this excellent book. Baptism is often called the sacrament of initiation – and it is an initiation into a community not yet finished: “Christ is making us into a community that operates without shame and without judgment – but we’re not there yet.” I think we all experience church like this at times – but we can have hope. And after all, isn’t it better to be honest than pretend everything is perfect? Cozens goes on, “There may be people in our churches who have been Christians for a long time but still require healing from shame. This might be because their sins or life circumstances have never really been dealt with, or it may be because of a new realization of the place of shame in their life.” I’ve certainly found that to be true in my own life, let alone the lives of people in the churches I’ve been a part of! With that in mind, this little vignette is a good sample of what this book ‘tastes like’:

Tom Wright gives the example of a man at a dinner party he hosted. The man offered to help with the washing up, but accidentally broke an expensive crystal jug. The man was astonished when he was invited back to another dinner party, and Wright once more asked him to help with the washing up.

Theologically speaking, a profound part of what makes Cozens book so good is that it takes seriously the wonderful biblical theme of what it means to be made in the Image of God. … In my view, part of what it means to be human and made in the Image of God is to be embodied. Cozens notes that “Paul knows full well that when God created our bodies, he made them good. In God’s eyes, no parts of our body are weaker or less honourable than others.” Amen! This means that a Christian, and a Christian community, can respond to allegations of abuse and shame, including ‘Spiritual Abuse‘. The theological truth of the Image of God is a profoundly important part of this book, and indeed the reality of mission and ministry in the world today: “the root of shame-prone insecurity is a failure to reflect the image of God and to prefer the images that we create for ourselves“. These images include those that we project of our institutions and organisations.

In this book there are profound discussion of and engagement with the reality of shame in different cultures (the author was a missionary in Japan), different genders (his thoughts on shame and maleness are profound and helpful) and the weakness of more secular explorations (including Brene Brown). This makes this book a useful tool for any Christian – of any age. I will be recommending it warmly to people, especially church leaders and Christians who have been following Jesus for a long time. The book unpacks what it says, and then provides practical, theologically rich ways of walking onwards.

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