So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

Summer reading is great. Just yesterday, I went to the library and picked up a book that had been placed on hold for my children: The Genius Files: License to Thrill. The book is written for young adults, but it’s got some serious heft at 272 pages. Perfect for summer reading. Elliot finished reading the whole book between 4:00 PM and 9:00 PM (even with cousins coming over to visit and everyone going out for dinner). Olivia was eager to stay up late reading as much of it as she could, but I’m not sure how far she got. I expect it won’t be long until she’s finished, though. Summer reading is just like that.

I can’t even approach the reading pace of my kids these days, especially not with my return to ministry from sabbatical. Still I enjoy summer reading, every bit as much as they do. Recently, I had the chance to finish Jon Ronson’s, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

I found it enjoyable. And provocative.

Ronson’s a good writer, and I sense he’s got his finger on the pulse of a critical issue in our culture: the way we tear each other apart by shame — through tabloid coverage of sex scandals… through cross-media exposure of shoddy journalism… through the structure of our correctional system… and especially through the use of social media. Here’s the synopsis from Amazon:

For the past three years, Jon Ronson has travelled the world meeting recipients of high-profile public shamings. The shamed are people like us – people who, say, made a joke on social media that came out badly, or made a mistake at work. Once their transgression is revealed, collective outrage circles with the force of a hurricane and the next thing they know they’re being torn apart by an angry mob, jeered at, demonized, sometimes even fired from their job.

A great renaissance of public shaming is sweeping our land. Justice has been democratized. The silent majority are getting a voice. But what are we doing with our voice? We are mercilessly finding people’s faults. We are defining the boundaries of normality by ruining the lives of those outside it. We are using shame as a form of social control.

Simultaneously powerful and hilarious in the way only Jon Ronson can be, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a deeply honest book about modern life, full of eye-opening truths about the escalating war on human flaws – and the very scary part we all play in it.

My only complaint with the book relates to the fact that Ronson seemed to come up short in providing solutions for the problem of shame.

Towards the end of the book, he explores some case studies of shame that was not able to stick to its intended target (because the person simply refused to assume the apologetic position), or that was able to be mitigated (by creative manipulation of Google’s internet search algorithms), or alternative approaches to law enforcement (which haven’t been very popular, historically). Unfortunately, these solutions were disappointing or at least incomplete. I mean: What about situations involving genuine wrongdoing and regret? What about situations where the echoes of shame are not electronic?

There seemed to be a unique opening for the Gospel in this conversation. Not that I assumed Ronson would go in this direction — but there’s a pretty well-known Bible verse that speaks directly to the subject: Romans 1:16.

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.

At first glance (and, I confess, at my first recollection), the verse is only related to the topic because it includes the phrase “not ashamed.” But does it really speak to the issue of public shaming? Because it’s about being unashamed of the Gospel, not ourselves, right? The more I thought of this, however, I believe the solution to the problems of shame pointed out by Ronson is there. In the Gospel.

The Gospel is what covers my shame. It reveals that my spiritual state is actually a whole lot worse than I ever dare to admit — but at the same time, God’s grace is a whole lot better and more expansive than I ever dared to imagine. The Gospel is the salvation for everyone who believes. It’s the way out of our sin, shame, and regret. Like the book of Romans goes on to say in verse 17, “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith.”

In the Gospel, we can be truly unashamed, accepting God’s righteousness in place of our unrighteousness. Once our identity is recalibrated in Christ, we can be truly unashamed. Not everyone has claimed this Gospel Identity, of course, but it’s freely available to all, regardless of a person’s background or lifestyle. Now: Ronson’s newest book is interesting, in any event. If one can stay centered in a Gospel Identity while reading So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, it’s an especially enjoyable — and commendable — summer read.

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