A MUST-READ NEW BOOK: The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves by Dr. Curt Thompson (IVP) ON SALE 20% OFF

The book I’d like to tell you about in this BookNotes is going to be discussed for years to come.  I am confident that it will appear on many “Best of 2014” lists; I know it will be on ours.  I’ve had an advanced copy of the manuscript and have been working with is – not just as I sometimes do, reading it in order to review it, in order to know for whom it might be profitable, letting folks know why we think it is a useful resource, but I have been reading it truly for myself, and have found myself deeply moved by it.  It is often the case that of the many, many books we stock and the many we truly appreciate, the ones that I end up writing about here are the ones that most captivated me, that mean the most to me, that I not only want to list, but for which I want to be an evangelist  The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves by Dr. Curt Thompson (IVP; $22.00) is one of these. Read on.

You can, of course, order this from us at our discounted price ($17.60) by clicking on the order form links shown at the end of this review. Our website order form page is certified secure.

soul of shame.jpgCurt Thompson is a friend, an experienced psychiatrist with a fascination with neuroscience, and an author we appreciate and thoroughly trust. His first book, published in 2015, was Anatomy of a Soul: Surprising Connections Between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices That Can Transform Your Life and Relationships (SaltRiver; $15.99.)

It is evident that Thompson has been shaped — deeply, decisively shaped — by the generative insight that the Bible teaches that God created a good creation, and intended that humans would have a calling to work with God – sub-creators as Lewis and Tolkien put it, stewards and vice-regents, tasked with developing the potentials of the creation, as so significantly described in books like Al Wolter’s Creation Regained or Andy Crouch’s Culture Making: Regaining our Creative Gift.

That is, Thompson gets — as the subtitle to this new book suggests — the narrative nature of the Scriptures;  he isn’t a mere Bible “proof-texter” but has immersed himself in the plot-line of God’s work as revealed in the Bible, the story which is an unfolding drama, starting with a fecund, blessed creation, telling us what Newbigin called “true story of the whole world,” a story that moves into a tragedy of rebellion and brokenness that clarifies the realities of human sin and dysfunction, and that offers salvation in Christ which includes “substantial healing” in all of life, and the promise of a new, restored creation.  Yes the whole creation is groaning, and yes, still, we who are made in the image of God are key players in this God-drenched reality of a world gone wrong, yet to be renewed.  Salvation not only means “creation restored” but God’s saving power calls into being a people gathered in community to be agents of that transformation, despite all we know East of Eden. These are our times, this is our story. 

Not only does Thompson know well the science of neuro-biology (like Anatomy of a Soul this new one is laden with helpful details — even a few drawings — about brain studies) but he also knows both the broadest contours and the details of the Biblical story.  The chapters in The Soul of Shame dedicated to exploring shame in the primal Genesis account are brilliant!  For those that want good Biblical reflection, the book is worth having just for his fresh insights and exegesis.  It is nice to see a scientist so fluent in the Scriptures.

It is a key insight in The Soul of Shame that for evil to win the day, to bring ruination to God’s good creation, it must disrupt the humans, those called to “tend and keep” and develop the garden. It is a central point of Thompson’s book that our human wiring, literally our brains and chemicals and instincts,  causing us to want to be known (“naked and unashamed”) has been re-configured in ways that enhance our proclivities to be ashamed. He makes this clear, blending Biblical exegesis and theological wisdom and brain science and psychological insight — and with this fascinating blend, he really helps readers understand our human condition in fresh ways. He explains it, over and over, deepening our awareness of how human alienation and brokenness can be understood through the lens of shame, with an assist from neuroscience.

Thompson notes that in the Bible 

We read of a God of intention, a God who has begun a story with a particular intended outcome. It is a story that has direction and meaning given to it by the storyteller. But in this same story there are other voices, and we are interested in one voice in particular. A voice of evil who has a very different intention than God does. Its intention is to twist and sully the story of joy and creativity that God is working so hard to tell. 

And then, he offers this significant statement:

And I suggest that evil’s maleficent intent is wielded no more forcefully (yet subtly as part of it’s the vulnerability of nakedness is the antithesis of shame. We are maximally creative when we are simultaneously maximally vulnerable and intimately connected, and evil knows this. To twist goodness into the seven deadliest versions of its opposite, shame in necessary and effective, and its virulence explicitly exploits our vulnerability.

Please understand: this is not mere psychobabble or a slippery distortion of conventional religion by a modern-day shrink. Even the magisterial 16th century systematic theologian John Calvin, trained in the left-brain logic of law, insisted that self-awareness is essential for religious faith.  “We cannot,” as Thompson puts it, citing Calvin, “expect to know God fully if we are not willing to know ourselves, for one depends on the other.” Ahh, but here is a rub: as we know from Genesis, “hiding is the natural response to shame.” 

curt thompson.jpgGranted, the good Doctor – perhaps even stroking his beard carefully, while making gentle eye contact – may let loose phrases like “the interpersonal neurobiological matrix” and note that, like shame, “vulnerability is understood to be an artifact of the human condition”, but I believe (especially after having read through to the very end of this remarkable work) that these insights from a psychiatrist and neuroscientist is just what we need to help us see the exceptional relevance of Biblical truth for daily living.

In Thompson’s hands, Bible verses come alive, the over-arching redemptive drama makes palpable sense and frames our experience, and God’s well-ordered structure of creation – the human brain! – is demystified so we can actually learn to manage what seem like instincts or default reactions.

Thompson knows the best literature in this field and summarizes much for us, explaining succinctly some relevant research, to underscore his theological claims about the nature of human development and how we are to live, in relationships.

For instance, in a sub-section called “Joy and the Integrated Mind” he reminds us that,

In the last twenty years, research spearheaded by the work of psychologist Allan Schore and others persuasively suggests that of all the primary tasks of the infant, there is none more crucial than the pursuit, acquisitions and establishment of joyful, securely attached relationships….  There has been much gained with Schore’s work because it uses the horsepower of the data acquired from attachment research to educate us about the role of joy in the formation of an integrated mind.

Thompson continues, summarizing research by Jim Wilder whose work “highlights the place of joy in our development across the life cycle, and its role as a relationally supported state that leads to human flourishing.”  Again, Thompson brings this data to us all, with succinct insight, framed by theological insights. 

I share this small bit about attachment theory and the role of joy to illustrate that Thompson has done an extensive amount of study — of course, as a psychiatrist he has done a lot of post-graduate work and is also an MD — so, as they say, he “knows his stuff.”  But, significantly, Curt has a gift of being able to not only translate this for those of us who are not scholars in the field, but he can frame it in light of over-arching Biblical insights. You will love his chapter on joy and attachment and benefit from realizing how such joy is contingent on human connection. (And, of course you can see where this is going, since shame makes us hide, keeps us from deep connection, wrecks havoc on relationships and is thereby a joy killer. That fates and furies align against us, the consequences of our shame.) This is all quite fantastic and exceptionally profound — you really will be inspired to want to know more.

It is good to be reminded of how we long to be noticed, to be known, to be accepted. The Soul of Shame documents this essentially theological claim by citing social science research, and it is very compelling. Thompson notes a scholar named Carol Dweck, for instance, who points to “another rendition of this in the anticipated voice of “Well Done!” in the wake of having worked hard at a task, even if the goal you wanted to reach has not been realized.” 

“And who doesn’t,” Thompson then asks, “want to hear that throughout his or her lifetime?”

But there is the crux.  We hide because we are ashamed.  We are people who know guilt and we know shame (his explanation of the difference is helpful) and we have been shamed, shamed by parents and school and culture.  It is hard to hear and believe others who say “well done” when we have sabotaged our own ability to be appreciated by hiding, self-protecting, covering up. Deep joy comes from relationships, but our shamed inauthenticity erodes the very trust that is needed for healthy relationships.

Weird, huh?

Makes sense, though, doesn’t it?  

In a paradoxical insight, essential to understand, Thompson shows that we can only combat shame with vulnerability. (He happily gives props to Brene Brown for her important research, popularized in TED talks and the best-seller Daring Greatly and the brand new Rising Strong.  Not only has she documented and popularized the phenomenon of vulnerability and its value, but has warned how much energy we burn to avoid it. Dr. Thompson agrees.)

In one of the many riveting case studies in The Soul of Shame, Thompson tells of Carla (who had had an affair, but didn’t want to talk about it with her psychiatrist to whom she had come for sleep medication, let alone to her husband.)  Thompson notes that for Carla — and for us,

The idea of vulnerability brings with it both the hope of liberation and the terror of possible abject rejection. For those of us who see it as a weakness, it may be helpful – as it was for Carla – to be reminded of the story we believe we are living in.

Although we may now be discovering its helpfulness, historically [being weak, being vulnerable] has remained unrelated to any ultimate understanding without our larger story as human beings.  But the biblical narrative tells a different story. One so different, in fact, that in seeing the place of vulnerability in the pages of the Bible we cannot help but be amazed at its place and purpose.

He teases us with the provocative notion that God was vulnerable (in the sense that God was open to wounding, to pain, to rejection, to death!) 

And then he summarizes:

Like shame, recent sociological research about the place and function of vulnerability affirms what the biblical narrative has for over four millennia been telling us about humans and God. 

Dr. Thompson moves quickly to a profound rumination on the nature and significance of the Trinity.  After a beautiful paragraph showing the glorious, intertwined, self-giving, dance of the persons of the Trinity, in whose loving presence “shame has no oxygen to breathe,” he offers great hope.

This imaged Trinitarian relationship is where all healing begins for followers of Jesus. And for Carla and countless others like her, this relationship invited her into the beginning of vulnerability and the end of her shame. Needless to say, none of this was easy. Fortunately, she discovered that God knows exactly what that is like.

anatomy of a soul.jpgYou see, so much of this profound book is about knowing your own situation, your own self and about knowing what is needed to be known by others. Thompson covered some of that wonderfully in The Anatomy of the Soul and now he explores even further how being known is related to openness, to necessarily being vulnerable. 

But how can we do the impossible – be more vulnerable so we can be truly known – when shame tells us, over and over, in ways large and small, that we are not worthy, we are failures, we are guilty, we are pointless or perverted?   When our very brains encode that?

Thompson asks,

What practical steps do we take to address the mind-body state of shame, given that it so thoroughly infects and disintegrates every functional domain of the mind? How do we confront it, given that it is highly resistant to efforts that are often limited to changing what we think rationally?

Can we learn – as Carla and her husband learned – to practice “the very thing that intuitively we are prone to avoid?”

Much of The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories…  is designed to answer that very question, showing how to heal shame by finding nurturing communities, communities that literally can help (to put it in my layman’s phrase: “re-wire our brain waves.”) Thompson’s stories here are worth the price of the book, showing how families and friends and churches can move towards being better healing communities by creating within our relationships and even our institutions a culture of vulnerability.  

In an unexpected and nearly brilliant proposal, he argues for how curiosity becomes a part of the healing journey.  He walks us through ways to facilitate learning about these things, even hosting what he calls “creation conversations.”  He warns that we dare not take these steps cavalierly and there must be “careful consideration about the way shame will be flushed out and disregarded.”

Again, we are not prone to these kinds of transparent conversations and we are tempted to be ashamed of being vulnerable, naming our sins and weaknesses, our fears and failures.  In this book, Curt doesn’t make many connections with the legendary raw and gracious ethos of AA, but is seemed somewhat similar. 

We hardly need reminded, but The Soul of Shame is clear: this is radical, counter-cultural, hard stuff.  In a section about how shame can be healed within various institutions and vocations, and pondering the potential of education and schooling to help us root out our shame by adopting a way of knowing that is less confident, that doesn’t insist on easy answers, he riffs on how learning itself can be a “declaration of vulnerability.”

To admit in our culture that we do not have our lives neatly packaged and wrapped, that we are a mess, that we need help from someone else is tantamount to blasphemy. To admit that we do not know something, are not good at something, to have made a mistake – to be vulnerably known – is not one of our best skill sets. 

There are books on shame that suggest that being “gospel-centered” is the answer, and while I am sure they are right, some seem overly simplistic to me.  We are told to “preach the gospel to ourselves” and to remember that we are worthy because Christ has declared us so. If we repeat that, recall that, embrace that, our toxic feelings will be replaced by the pleasures and delight of God.  Meditation on Christ’s work on the cross will transform our attitudes and remind us that we are loved, these books insist.

curt thompson 2.jpgThompson would not disagree. His psychiatric practice and his perspective on his science is decidedly Christ-centered and grace-based. Yet, this book is more profound than the others, or so it seems to me, because of his training in brain studies, in how he so naturally teaches us about brain stems and neurotransmitters, and how he understand how “the shearing effect of shame” works its way into our very bodies and reinforces our habits and practices. This is no gnostic exercise in disembodied religious abstractions, but works with the only reality we’ve got: real bodies, with real brains, and real neurobiology. With these diagnostic tools Thompson offers us theologically sound but practical resources for moving forward towards hope and healing.  This book is not the fad called “neuro-linguistic programming” as some call it, but it is working a somewhat similar territory. Thompson writes about our posture of “emotional dysregulation and relational disintegration under the guidance of shame” and helps us learn what to do about it.

Another contribution that Thompson makes in The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves is a fascinating (and nearly unprecedented) chapter on healing shame through our vocations.  Few self-help type books about interpersonal psychology and relationships take the work-world seriously, and fewer still do informed by a theologically mature perspective of vocation and calling. 

That Thompson is one of the speakers at the annual Center for Faith and Work conference at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York this coming November is perhaps a good testimony of his own very integrated worldview, and how this has led him to ponder these things about how vocation and work can be impacted by shame, and can be a renewing space to offer help and hope.

Such a willingness to understand how shame can “ruin the creative possibility of every vocational endeavor by tainting the relationships those endeavors rest upon” truly could, if intentionally explored and applied, as you can imagine, lead to better work-places and teams and spill out into not only healthier workers, but a more reliable economy, greater human flourishing. This really is important stuff!

“When we resist the disintegration customary of the soul of shame, one byproduct is that we establish space for enhanced creativity,” Thompson explains.

He explains that when the mind is more integrated, it is less distressed.  And, obviously, we have more energy, and could be less adverse to taking risks. Thompson’s “model for vocational community” is generative and provocative.  He shows how shame leads to inappropriate comparisons (different gifts are seen to be better or worse.) I am sure all but the absolutely solitary worker realizes how anxiety and stress in the work place erodes our performance and I am sure this chapter is going to be helpful to get many thinking more about shame in the work world.

As followers of Jesus, it is imperative that we routinely do things that help us remember not only which story we are a part of but that our story is reflected by our being part of a community.   As Thompson explores the implications of a famous passage from 1 Corinthians, he notes how “Paul turns the tables on shame” and values all members of the community, each with a role (especially the weaker!)

“This is no less true,” he insists, “in the context of running a hardware store or a multinational corporation than it is in the church.” To create and sustain vibrant and productive work teams we simply must explore the impact of toxic shame and push it back through acts of generosity, vulnerability, grace.  Suggesting a path (not a formula or checklist) he talks about “the way of love.”  

All that we do — parenting, pastoring, farming, playing basketball, carpentry, police work, structural engineering — is done in response to love and shame competing for our attention, wrestling for authority over our memory, emotion, sensations and behaviors.

In the last few BookNotes I’ve highlighted some tremendous, interesting and helpful books about the work-world. I’ve reviewed Beth Macy’s captivating Factory Man (documenting a heroic fight of a fourth generation executive of a legendary furniture-making company to keep his plants open) and highlighted Invisibles by David Zweig (which tells about behind the scenes workers who are captured more by their sense of craft and work-world integrity than the lure of fame or status) and reflected upon the beauty of Finding Livelihood, a lyrical meditation by Nancy Nordenson on work, meaning, life, including life in a disappointing, broken world. Interestingly, I found myself thinking of those books in light of this good work of Dr. Curt Thompson, including this final chapter about healing shame through our vocations. I think he is on to something important here, something that many authors hint at, but few explore deeply.  

Thompson voices the call to “renewing our vocational mind” and he surely agrees that we need a uniquely Christian perspective, informed by Biblical insights from which come vocational practices that are coherent within a broader Christian worldview. That’s my schtick here, of course. But he spends little time rehearsing that, really; rather, he explores the neuroscience of the mind, wonders what functional parts of the prefrontal cortex are most germane to the Biblical call to have a “renewed mind.”

He subsequently offers a refreshing take on leadership – that process of “enabling with intention” – and (again, importantly) how shame will resist this kind of servant leadership, these healing initiatives designed to create a renewed and refreshed vocational mind.

The Soul of Shame is clear, a bit demanding, but full of stories and case studies and hints for further application. These stories will move you, I am sure. It may poke a bit, perhaps it will be emotionally taxing for you. (Ahh, if so, you need this book.  Thompson has, as Gayle Beebe has noted, “the heart of a pastor and the training of a surgeon.”) There is a study guide in the back, as well, which is helpful for anyone processing this material and, of course, making it ideal for book groups or classes.    

In a lovely, compelling final page, Curt reminds us that processing this, rebuking shame, and learning how vulnerable relationships can help us, is good.  Yes, this is important work, healing and hopeful, and he tells us that he himself is on the journey. He, too, has to resist shame, and does so with hopeful vulnerability.  He assures us, “Despite how hard the work can sometimes feel, it is worth it. Its worth it to know the liberation of retelling my story so very differently from the way shame would have it be told.”

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