A Review of “The Soul of Shame” by Curt Thompson

All counseling is theological in nature. Not everyone agrees with that statement, but it’s true. After all, we are dealing with the nature of man, the structure of our world, and various issues of morality and metaphysics. Counseling is highly theological. This is particularly true when we consider a subject like “shame.” Author and psychiatrist Curt Thompson understands this. The Soul of Shame presents readers with a theologically rich psychology of shame.

This is a book “about storytelling,” says Thompson (11). All people live within a story and we are telling a story about ourselves constantly. As a result shame too tells us a story. It’s a story that attacks, defrauds, undermines, and disorients. It’s a story that involves a spiritual component. Thompson views shame particularly as a weapon of our spiritual enemy, a weapon intended to “corrupt our relationships with God and others, and…disintegrate any and all gifts of vocational vision and creativity” (13). The spiritual implications of shame turn our attention to an important element in understanding shame.

Shame has been the subject of much discussion in the last several decades. The reception of Brene Brown’s TED talk, and corresponding book, Daring Greatly, is just some evidence of its importance to us. Thompsons take on the subject, however, is unique. His approach is highly spiritual. Beginning with the origins of shame, he presents readers with a theologically rich starting place. He writes:

Shame, therefore, is not simply an unfortunate, random, emotional event that came with us out of the primordial evolutionary soup. It is both a source and result of evil’s active assault on God’s creation, and a way for evil to try to hold out until the new heaven and earth appear at the consummation of history. (13)

In understanding shame, then, he wants us to think about the story we live, and more significantly the grand story God is telling. The Bible, Thompson says, “offers us a way not only to understand shame but also to effectively put it to death” (12-13). It is through the Biblical story, then, that Thompson wants us to both understand shame and see its healing.

The book’s nine chapters walk readers from the story of shame to the story of God. The first three chapters assess the problem. Thompson’s particularly interest is in the field of interpersonal neurobiology and he demonstrates great skill in communicating insights to his readers. He makes some very helpful distinctions between the brain and the mind and helps us steer clear of any kind of biological determinism. He wrestles well with concepts of neuroplasticity as well. He also individualizes the story of shame, showing both how shame “targets the mind,” but also how our own unique personalities contribute to the manifestations of shame we experience. Chapters 5-9 walk readers through the healing of shame, starting with the “Biblical narrative.”

The Soul of Shame is a truly unique work from the field of psychiatry, even sadly from Christian psychiatry. While his approach includes scientific research and biological sensitivity, it does not lead to a purely biological conclusion regarding shame. His rich theological framework and foundation makes The Soul of Shame an attractive tool for Biblical Counselors. There are some theological issues I have with the work. For example, Thompson reduces all sin to the causation of shame (22), which seems to me highly reductionist and is probably more a result to his own emphasis on the subject than a careful interaction with theology and Scripture. We have many motivations and many points of temptation that cause our struggles. Reducing them all to shame is too simplistic.

In addition, Thompsons is not as strong on either the character of God or the gospel as I would have liked to see. His assessment of God, for example, includes the idea that God “has had to trust us as much as he asks us to trust him” (124). He speaks of vulnerability as an element that generates shame, but then he places vulnerability within the person of God (120-124). He also misunderstands the Trinity, suggesting that the doctrine is about God’s commitment to us, a strange and foreign articulation of the doctrine (125). And while Jesus has a huge part to play in our healing from shame, his role is often more limited to that of example instead of redeemer. The book lacks a significant doctrine of the healing power of the atonement.

The Soul of Shame is a great resource, but like many books it tends to be stronger on psychology than theology. Still, with the major caveats included, this work stands out above other Christian psychological works. Biblical counselors will find much here to appreciate and utilize within their own counseling. Biblical Counselors will also, of course, clarify and reframe some of the poorer theological content. Still, I recommend The Soul of Shame and pray that more counseling books will follow Thompson’s lead by including greater theological foundations in their psychological study and diagnosis.

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