One reason why so many western readers have a hard time appreciating the bible has to do with the honor-shame culture from which it derives. A group of scholars known as the Context Group have been using anthropological and social-science tools to examine the bible since the '80s, and their work goes a long way in helping us understand what often appears to be an alien and brutally bizarre world. Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh's social science commentaries on the Synoptic Gospels and John are good places to start. John Pilch's The Cultural Dictionary of the Bible is a handy ready-reference tool, explaining such things as why lying is honorable, wealth is thievery, and questions are hostile. Zeba Crook's recently published Reconceptualising Conversion discusses the nature of religious conversion in these cultures, where people convert not for introspective or soul-searching reasons, but for those we perceive as more selfish: the "balance sheet" -- "what's in it for me?" -- leads one to answer a divine call and honor the deity through prayer, praise, and aggressive proselytism. Works like these have done much to help us understand the players of the bible on their own terms.
It's true that we value some honor and shame in the west, but for the most part our heritage owes to the code of integrity and guilt. Taken in strong doses the honor-shame code seems suffocatingly oppressive. One need only read the recent New York Times article by Salaman Rushdie, whose sentiments speak for most of us in condemning the honor-culture of rape and suicide in India and Pakistan:
"The use of rape in tribal disputes has become, one might say, normal. And the belief that a raped woman's best recourse is to kill herself remains widespread and deeply ingrained."How can stuff like this be condoned, especially when the woman is not at fault? The objection, however, appeals to innocence, and the honor-shame code often has little to do with innocence or "who is at fault". Women in this context are irrevocably shamed, regardless of their innocence, because of the nature of female honor. Unlike male honor, which is macho and won in public combative contests, whether verbal or physical -- and which is flexible and can be restored after loss in a later conflict -- female honor is sexual and absolute; once lost, forever gone. Any sexual offense on a woman's part, however slight, however intended or unintended, shames her and every male in her paternal kin group forever. Thus the woman mentioned in the above article, raped by her father-in-law, was pronounced unclean by the Deobandi priest (laying down the uncompromising edict, "it does not matter if it was consensual or forced").
The point is not to excuse what's going on in India and Pakistan, rather to understand the rape-phenomenon and the values from which it derives. Jesus of Nazareth was born into a world of honor-shame, and he was actually more at home in this world than most of us are comfortable acknowledging. Like all macho men, when confronted in public by adversaries, he never responded to questions (answering questions is a sign of shame or defeat in these cultures), preferring to "burn" his opponents with counter-questions, counter-accusations, scriptural one-upsmanship, and nasty insults. On the other hand, he went out of his way to side with and defend the victims of systematic ("honorable") oppression: women, the poor, the ostracized. He eschewed violence in most (though not all) contexts. All things considered, the pop-culture question "WWJD?" becomes more pressing when we look beyond the borders of the west and over into the heart of honor-shame cultures like those of India and Pakistan.