We all have a story. One thing all of stories unfortunately have in common is incidents of shame. To one degree or another, shame becomes part of virtually all of our stories. For some, it is not an incidental detail in a larger story but the bulk of the story itself.
Along these lines, Curt Thompson introduces his book The Soul of Shame: Retelling The Stories We Believe About Ourselves. He says, “This, then, is a book about the story of shame. The one we tell about it, the one it tells about us, and even more so the one God has been telling about all of us from the beginning. Most important, this book also examines how the story of the Bible offers us a way not only to understand shame but also to effectively put it to death, even if that takes a lifetime to accomplish” (12-13). He continues,
The premise of this book, then, is that shame is not just a consequence of something our first parents did in the Garden of Eden. It is the emotional weapon that evil uses to (1) corrupt our relationships with God and each other, and (2) disintegrate any and all gifts of vocational vision and creativity. These gifts include any area of endeavor that promotes goodness, beauty and joy in and for the lives of others, whether that be teaching our first graders, loving our spouse well, managing forests, conducting healing prayer services, creating a new medical technology, offering psychotherapy or composing symphonies (13)
From this premise, Thompson, a psychiatrist specializing on the intersection between interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB) and spiritual formation, unfolds the story and definition of shame in the first chapter. In the following two chapters, he draws on his specialization in IPNB to help readers better understand the nature of shame at that level. This leads to a discussion in chapter 4 about our nature as storytelling creatures and chapter 5 then places this within the biblical narrative.
Starting in chapter 6, Thompson presents a path forward. Healing from shame requires vulnerability, and that tends to take place in community with others. He discusses here how the shame that we feel and have internalized often works against us when it comes to actually overcoming it (see for instance the Brene Brown TED talks). Chapter 7 gives readers ways to address their shame using Scripture. Chapter 8 takes this into community and how that can either nurture shame or be catalysts for healing. Chapter 9 finishes with an eschatological touch as Thompson casts vision for how our freedom from shame can lead to joyfully engage our various creative callings.
While I would take a few things here and there with a grain of theological salt, this is a valuable book for those engaged in ministry. You don’t have to be a full-time counselor to encounter people who are burdened by shame. You might even be so yourself. Thompson’s insights from IPNB, as well as the idea that shame can take on a life of its own to be put to demonic means (Thompson prefers personify evil) were my main takeaways from the book. I might have switched chapters 4 and 5 as well, giving the biblical background and foundation first, then expanding the idea of lives as storytelling creatures. On the whole though, this is a well written book that covers an important topic. I’d recommend giving it a read.
Curt Thompson, The Soul of Shame: Retelling The Stories We Believe About Ourselves. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, August 2015. 256 pp. Hardcover, $22.00.
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Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!