Affect Theory, Shame, and Christian Formation

March 12, 2018

 

Dr. Stephanie N. Arel. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016. Pp. vii + 206. Hardcover. $99.99. ISBN 978-3-319-42591-7.
 
Dr. Arel has created a fabulous study that will help practitioners and theologians reflect more deeply on the essence of one’s connection with God, self, and others, and how the teaching of subjects such as guilt, shame, and sin can either damage relationships or combat loneliness.
 
In chapter 1, she identifies the role of shame in human connection and explains how theological jargon can affect one’s interpretation of shame, causing a break in relationship. She asserts the need for a right understanding of shame and the use of touch to help disinter shame. In short order, Arel weaves together the psychological aspects of affect theory and the work by feminist theologian and philosopher Edith Stein. Along the way, she explores Augustine and Reinhold Niebuhr’s impact on our understanding of guilt and shame and how we thus interpret various events, ranging from Adam and Eve to our current  Ash Wednesday practices, all with the purpose of connecting people to God, self, and others through the disinterment of shame.
 
In Chapter 2, Arel explains modern affect theory and the role of shame in relationships. Shame, according to Arel, is more primal that the impact of an action. Shame is part of the human fount of emotions: “A characteristic thematic and goal shared by affect theorists is to shift the Enlightenment’s epistemological legacy of dissociating body from mind. By merging body and mind, affect theory offers a concept that aids analysis of the body as integrated with and integral to the brain” (p. 26). Shame plays a critical role in relationships, especially when relationships experience disconnect. It should be noted, however, that shame is not always a negative. Shame can be positive in that it shows the experiencer what or who they care about and when reflection causes one to draw closer, that act can lessen or eradicate the negative effects of shame. However, when an individual does not reestablish connection, shame can become interred, resulting in toxic shame and even physical manifestations. Toxic shame can result in violence. Shame is also different from guilt in that “shame relates to an individual’s perception of the self,” whereas “guilt results from actions” (pg. 36-37).
 
Chapter 3 is the first of two theological explorations and is one of the strongest chapters in the book. Here, Arel explores Augustine’s view of sin, shame, and guilt through the eyes of affect theory. In this study, the reader discovers that in Augustine’s view of the City of God, shame “exists as part of nature but is covered by grace.” When Adam and Eve sin, the covering of grace is removed, leaving them with a sense of their nakedness, which they attempt to cover up as they hide themselves from God and from each other—the disconnection of relationship. Christ’s work on the Cross affords the opportunity for the individual to return to that state of grace, connecting once again to God, self, and others as was God’s original intent and design. Arel does find some issues with Augustine but praises him for disconnecting guilt from shame and therefore allowing for the disinterment of shame.
 
Arel then explores in chapter 4 the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr with a critical eye. She sees his use of anxiety and guilt as effectively masking shame. This chapter is strongest for its explanation of interred shame and its consequences. Interred shame results in isolation, whereas guilt, being for action, can result in restitution. Shame is the result of the loss of relationship; it needs reconnection to not become interred. When theologians and Christian practitioners mask shame (loss of relationship) with guilt (bad actions), they create a negative impact in the individual, resulting in isolation and the need for self-justification (often through pride and anger).
 
Chapter 5, the strongest section of this work, builds a foundation for a theology of touch and calls for further study. In today’s society, where social media has created its own form of community, an increasing need exists for in-person community. This chapter proves helpful for understanding the connection that touch can bring to the individual, helping them to realize that they are seen by others and seen by God. Touch can heal and disinter shame: “Authentic and nurturing touch ratifies belonging conveying relationship and reestablishing the interest that shame truncated in the first place.” Arel uses the Ash Wednesday tradition of marking ashes on the forehead to explore this topic and connect it to the Christian understanding of Christ and the Cross.
 
Chapter 6 investigates Edith Stein’s work by exploring the role of empathy in disinterring shame. This chapter proves especially helpful for understanding the entire book. As such, this chapter would have worked better toward the front of this book; however, this section makes a powerful commentary on chapter 5 as it demonstrates the Christian power of empathy and touch to disinter shame and restore relationship for the isolated.
 
In her conclusion, Arel brings the best out of every section and challenges “the promotion of the lonely sinner in guilt” and purports that instead “a more fruitful focus would be on the Christian self as possessing shared, innate shame, which connects Christians to both others and God” (p. 184).


Overall, this book offers a highly insightful study relevant for today’s society impacted by upticks in violence and isolation as well as a rise in substitute connections through social media, pornography, etc. As such, Arel’s work proves important not only for the practitioner in the local congregation but for educators and theologians as they shape the language of self-understanding for future generations.
 

 

 

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