Editor’s Note: These final published words of René Girard, in the form of an amazing collection of conversations with interviewer Steven Berry, have been made available through the generous labor of Michael Hardin of Preaching Peace. For this last work of our model and mentor, Teaching Nonviolent Atonement is pleased to offer these three reviews.
Down Goes the Red Pill by Matthew Distefano
Reading the Bible with René Girard begins autobiographically, which was quite enjoyable for me, especially considering I have had the great pleasure of personally meeting most of the Girard family. Now, intertwined within the various autobiographical accounts, René and interviewer Steven Berry also discuss the origins of mimetic theory, even going into great detail about how the world of literature was instrumental in the development of this type of thought. After this introduction of sorts, the reader is then taken on a journey into how human cultures arise, how they are structured, how our stories are told, and how, then, the Gospels should be viewed in light of this. And because the ease with which this all reads is not lost in the great details, but rather, quite the opposite, by the end of chapter 3, you should feel as if you swallowed the red pill offered by Morpheus. It really is that revelatory.
But the hits don’t stop there. They keep on coming. Throughout the remainder of the book, Girard will offer, not only his insights into how to approach the Gospels, giving his wonderful exegesis of various passages, but also what I can only describe as a brilliant anthropological context for the Hebrew Scriptures (which for most, remains the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about). Well, after reading this book, I believe that will change for you.
I don’t want to give away too many details, so allow me to close by saying this. In my tribute to René Girard after his passing last year, I predicted that René would “one day be viewed as one of the most important figures in human history.” Now, if that turns out to be true, I cannot help but think that this book will be one of the biggest reasons. So a hearty “thank you” to the editor, Michael Hardin, is in order for putting together these conversations.
Peace can be achieved in our lifetime, and this book will no doubt take us in that direction.
Undoubtedly, this book gets 5/5 stars.
Working Through The Scandal of Christian “Superiority” by Adam Ericksen
Reading the Bible with René Girard is a wonderful addition to the Girardian canon. It is especially significant as, sadly with his passing, this book contains the last words of Girard’s to be published.
I can’t help but think René is smiling with the publication of this book. He was ever the evangelist, in the best sense of the word. In Greek, the word “evangelical” means good news. And this book is certainly good news for the mimetic theory community. Not only will scholars of mimetic theory find new insights, but, as others have pointed out, Reading the Bible with René Girard provides us with Girard’s most accessible book.
As you can tell, I love this book. We owe a great debt of gratitude to Stephen Berry for interviewing Girard and to Michael Hardin for editing the book. There are only a few books that I read multiple times. This is a book that I will read once a year.
But I would like to take a minute to discuss a scandal with you. In mimetic theory, a scandal is a stumbling block – something that we trip over. And there’s one element of Girard’s evangelicalism that is a scandal to me. It might be a scandal to you as well. So, as I discuss it, maybe we can work through it together.
The scandal is this: Girard claims that Christianity is the superior religion. It is superior to all religions that came before it, and to all religions that came after it. Girard talks rather disparagingly about the modern tendency toward religious pluralism, a tendency that I actually admire.
There is a bit of mimetic irony when Girard talks about the superiority of Christianity. I fear that he’s falling into the trap of mimetic rivalry that he warns us so much about. Doesn’t claiming religious superiority create a rivalry with those who adhere to other faiths? It feels a bit like the disciples when they argue about which one of them is the greatest. Girard warns against this kind of competition at the end of the book, agreeing with Stephen Berry that “competition [stands] in the way of our being compassionate.”
And yet, Girard maintains that Christianity is superior, that it is “the only true religion” (150). Not only am I scandalized by such an exclusive claim, but I can’t help but think that my Jewish, Muslims, and even my pagan friends would be scandalized by those statements.
But Girard’s point is not to scandalize; rather, it is to speak the truth. Sometimes the truth is scandalous. So, what’s the truth that he claims about Christianity? It’s the truth about the victim. Girard is the first to admit that Christianity has gone against its own truth by creating victims throughout its history, but Girard also points out that in order to create victims, Christianity has to go against its own truth. For Girard, what makes Christianity superior is that right at the heart of Christianity is not a God of power and might, but rather a God who became the victim of his people.
What makes Christianity superior for Girard is that it turns everything upside down. No longer is God seen in the violence of the powerful. Rather, God is seen in the nonviolence of Jesus, the one who is killed. The one who turned the other cheek and calls us to do the same. This, according to Girard, is the law of Christ, the law of the Kingdom of God. The superiority of Christianity is in the fact that it speaks, better than any other religion, for the victims of human violence. On this point, I think Girard is right, because at the center of the faith is the divine victim who turned the other cheek, forgave his persecutors, and offered them peace in the resurrection.
I still hate the language of “superiority” and wish that Girard would use a less scandalous term. But, Girard has also taught us that there is often truth in the things that scandalize us. Other religions might be superior in different but congruent ways, but whether we like it or not, the truth about the superiority of Christianity is that it opens our eyes to our victims and pleads with us to stop victimizing them.
Critiquing Girard from a Girardian Perspective by Lindsey Paris-Lopez
The Bible is not an easy book to read. The brutal violence found within its pages frustrated and frightened me from childhood. Discovering the interpretative lens of René Girard was quite literally a Godsend for my vulnerable faith. Girard’s mimetic theory opened up the scriptures and helped me understand my identity as an image-bearer of God. His insights, illuminating the truly good news of the Gospel, transcend matters of faith and permeate all aspects of life, because they go to the very core of being human. The Bible contains more wisdom and truth than I could have ever imagined before I began to see it through my Girardian glasses. And with this final work of wisdom, arguably the most lucid illumination of Girard’s hermeneutic, editor Michael Hardin has made it easy for everyone to enjoy Reading the Bible with René Girard.
Interviewer Steven Berry deftly steers us through Girard’s personal story and wisdom with his informed and insightful questions. It is a journey filled with astute intuition as told to a friend, thus inviting the reader into the friendship as well. Through the conversation, the reader is able to trace Girard’s trajectory and logic from his observations of human culture to his insights about the founding of human civilization, the violence hidden in mythology (which is a community’s collective mis-remembrance of their origins), and what sets the Bible apart from myth.
In brief, what separates the Bible from the myths of archaic religion is the perspective of the victim. This perspective is not uniform throughout scripture; rather, the Bible gradually unfolds this revelation, peaking through and incrementally overcoming mythology. The revelation culminates in the passion and resurrection of Christ. A Girardian reading of the Bible illuminates God not as the commander of violence, but as the victim. Seeing the world through the eyes of the victim changes everything.
Girard elucidates and enhances the empathy for victims that has been diffused throughout the world by the power of the Passion. Within that understanding of scripture, his insights into the stories of Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, Joseph and his brothers, among many, many others, are invaluable.
Yet the implications of Girard’s wisdom extend even beyond his own limited, human perspective. That is to say, once your eyes are open to the view of the victim, it is possible to see things even Girard might miss. Girard cuts to the heart of the Gospel and opens it up, spreading light that illuminates everything. Within that light, Girard goes off in a particular direction, and his trajectory is easy to see, but the light illuminates more than just his particular path. It is thus possible to critique Girard from within the perspective that Girard himself opens.
For example, at one point, Girard decries the modern condemnation of missionaries, suggesting that such criticism overlooks the benefits of Christianization. “[S]tatistics show that as people become Christian, crime goes down, the standard of living goes up, and so on.” Girard is understandably frustrated with the modern disdain for missionaries, as he contends that the message of Christianity – the demythologization of violence – is vital for human survival. But in his critique of the modern perspective on missionaries, he says nothing about the victims of “Christianization.” While many missionaries do good work, Christianity has also been abused as an instrument of imperialism, oppression, slavery, and genocide. Girard of course understands the violence wielded in the name of Christ, and his life’s work exposes how such violence is antithetical to the Gospel. Yet in his reference to missionaries, Girard ignores how Christianity has been abused to create rather than liberate victims. Ironically, there is a Girardian aspect of the intellectual critique of missionaries – that is, there is a concern for victims. Many critics condemn, not the teaching of the Gospel, but an anti-Gospel brandished under the sign of the cross. Critics who do not understand the true Gospel as an antidote to violence come about their misunderstanding honestly, as much Christian theology has reconstructed – with a vengeance — the violence that Christ deconstructed. Only missionaries who understand the Gospel from an intuitively Girardian, mercy-not-sacrifice perspective can accomplish the good of which Girard speaks. Sadly, this has not been the case for many missionaries throughout history, and to overlook this fact is to overlook victims.
Elsewhere, discussing media portrayals of religion, Girard makes another stunning statement overlooking victims: “…[T]he media consistently sides with Islam.” The notion that there is a media bias in favor of Islam is demonstrably false. Media personalities who defend Islam do so in within the context of a culture that only labels violence “terrorism” when it is committed by a Muslim or person of Middle Eastern origin, a government that is waging war in multiple Muslim nations, and a society that has seen an abundance of violence committed against Muslims in the wake of September 11th. There is a structural violence against Islam permeating the United States today. I sense that Girard is frustrated by an unwillingness for the mainstream media to critique overtly the violence in Islamic theology (though they frequently do so implicitly), and indeed, any violence within a religion must be critiqued. But Girard’s statements not only overlook the victimization of Muslims, but seem to imply that Islam is devoid of the revelation of God’s desire for mercy over violence. While Islam does not denounce violence as thoroughly as Christianity, it does teach a concern for victims and command mercy. I believe Girard refuses the possibility, which I believe to be true, that within Islam there is the same divine Revelation from the same God Christians see revealed in Christ, even if that revelation is mixed (as Christian practice still is) with human misunderstanding.
In short, a Girardian hermeneutic is a paradigm shift that helps us to understand the world from the underside of power. Seeing the world through that lens, we must be critical of any perspective that may overlook victims, including the perspective of Girard himself! While Reading the Bible with René Girard is a stunning and accessible foray into Girardian thought, it reveals, I believe some blind, or at least myopic, spots. I can see these spots more clearly precisely because of the lens that Girard’s explication of the Gospel has given me! But I believe Girard would be the first to acknowledge these blindspots as well. Girard would be the last person to claim an immunity to scapegoating! Girardian thought trains us to be on the lookout for any victims – including his own, and especially our own. Reading the Bible With René Girard will help bring this vision into focus, that we may see by the light of Christ.