Affect Theory, Shame, and Christian Formation

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Stephanie N. Arel
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , November
     206 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Stephanie N. Arel’s book explores the affectivity of shame by employing primary theological texts and by considering shame through the lenses of affect theory, trauma studies, psychology, and theological anthropology. Therefore, the critical reader will notice that throughout the book Arel draws from multicultural, multidisciplinary references that in addition to exploring the neglected topic of shame, encourages and facilitates an ongoing and necessary interdisciplinary dialogue. 

In the introduction, Arel reassures the reader that shame is a normalpart of the human experience, a naturally based biological, neurological, and social phenomenon. However, she makes the argument that shame that is not dealtwith constructivelycan be detrimental (2). The book’s six additional chapters make it apparent that, according to Arel, theological conversations need further dialogue with other disciplines to effectively deal with the emotion of shame. This type of multidisciplinary dialogue is necessary for two main reasons: first, theological jargon, at times, can and does affect the way one interprets shame and therefore needs to be informed by other disciplines; and second, other disciplines and sciences can underscore the theological endeavor and thereby add credibility to its arguments. From the theological perspective,forexample, Arel taps into the thought of Augustine and Reinhold Niebuhr to better understand the notions of guilt and shame and the way we interpret events. To that end, the book looks at the fall narrative in Genesis and the practice of Ash Wednesday, among other religious practices and beliefs, all which serve to connect humanity to God, self, and others through the exposure of shame. 

Although Arel appears to have some issues with Augustine, she engages Augustine’s City of God, highlighting his preoccupation with making sense of the fall of man andhis interpretation of shame, guilt, and the restoring of the human divine connection (70). Additionally, through Augustine’s theology, Arel explores the way affect theory argues that shame exists as part of humanity’s fallen nature, but is covered by grace. 

Arel sees Niebuhr’s engagement with the topic of anxiety and guilt as efficientlycovering shame, and further explains interred shame and the consequences associated with it. She provides a warning of the costs of shame.  

The final chapters explore the theologyof touch and suggest further study of the subject in light of the current influence of social media and its form of community in contrast to the natural need for in-personcommunity. The final chapter also explores empathy in disclosing shame. Interestingly, the chapter proves helpful in understanding the entirety of the book. 

One of the strengths of the book is that Arel’s research teases out of some of the nuances that the term shameinherently possesses. It reminds the reader in its conclusion that “shame lies at the core of the self” (177); hence, shame and guilt are human conditions that are resistant to social, economic, cultural, or political privilege. As such, this book provides a refreshing and challenging perspective on shame. Due to the formal English employed throughout the book, as well as complex content and technical terms, the arguments explored in Affect Theory, Shame, and Christian Formation may not be readily understood by all readers; thus the book is recommendedfor advancedstudy. This work could prove beneficial for robust study and consideration of further research on the topic of shame and guilt.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alvaro Tejada is a doctoral student in Christian Theology at Regent University.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephanie N. Arel is an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the September 11 Memorial and Museum and a visiting researcher at New York University. She is the author of Affect Theory, Shame and Christian Formation (Palgrave Macmillan 2016) and co-editor of Post-Traumatic Public Theology (Palgrave Macmillan 2016). Her work revolves around the interplay of psychology and religion to inform an evaluation of trauma and its impact on human dignity. She trained at the National Institute for the Psychotherapies (NIP), New York, NY in trauma modalities for clinical treatment and holds an Integrative Trauma Certificate.


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