It has been a while since I have said anything much about Girard, but this is not because I haven’t been thinking about it. Once you see the mechanism (of mimetic envy) that Girard outlines, it is difficult not to see it everywhere. Now there are some Girardian fan boys out there who do to this insight what hyperpreterism does to preterism. You find a shiney new hammer, and absolutely everything starts to look like a nail. So don’t do that.
At the same time, there are a lot of nails in the world, and once you see how a bunch of them have worked loose in the fence of ecclesiastical comity, so to speak, a pleasant and instructive afternoon can be spent pounding them back in. This mechanism doesn’t explain absolutely everything, but it does explain an awful lot that needs explaining. For those pastors who want a fast-track introduction, try this.
But here is the application I have been mulling over. I have seen this development in families I have counseled, as well as in churches, particularly in startup churches that are still in the “liftoff phase.” Here is the scenario. The presenting problem is that there is conflict for which there does not seem to be an adequate cause. And there are good people watching the troubles escalate, and these good people are soon scratching their heads. Everything is okay, and for some people that’s not okay.
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of “troubles” in churches and families. The first is provoked by misbehavior or tyranny by the leadership, and at some point the discontent gets to a tipping point, and the controversy results. This kind of imbroglio is the historian’s friend — the antecedent causes are easy to see and there is ample documentation. Tetzel goes one step over the line, the last outrage in centuries of outrages, and Luther goes off like a bottle rocket. Causation here is about as hard to understand as the cue ball making the eight ball go into the corner pocket. So that’s one kind of trouble, and not really my topic here.
The second kind of trouble is caused because of weakness (or perceived weakness) on the part of the leadership. Challenges, objections, querulous inquiries, and accusations are all made, and they are made simply because those making them think they can get away with it. No other reason is necessary. Nature abhors a vacuum, and always seeks to fill it. Human nature abhors a leadership vacuum (or perceived leadership vacuum) and will seek to fill it. Let’s take a marriage example, and then a church example.
A husband and wife go to a family conference in which Husbandly Perfection is extolled and taught with a high-gloss finish put on it, and the husband in question is an ordinary schmoe with a job, three kids and very discontented wife, and so the drive home from this conference is a cold one, with her glaring at him most of the way. When the thing blows up later, it is not because he is a terrible husband. It is because she knows he will put up with it. She talks to him this way because she can. When this is happening, the particular result sought is not really the issue, but rather a demonstration of who really gets to set the agenda around here.
In a church, let us say that the complaints are about _________________(fill in the blank with “the liturgy,” “the music,” “the preaching,” or “other”). And remember that we are not in category one discussed earlier, where the liturgy is Godforsaken, the music an offense to the heavenly angels and the preaching the kind that could not find its way out of a paper bag. Suppose the liturgy is okay, the music okay, and the preaching okay. It turns out that the average church is not capable of being above average. But the average church is capable of being okay.
When the criticisms are leveled, the point is not whether there is room for an average church to grow, mature, and improve. Of course there is always room for that, and a good place to start is by not subsidizing criticisms that place the average church on an impossible treadmill. The pastor doesn’t preach like John Piper. So? The congregational singing does not sound like a bunch of Welshmen having a revival in a hall with fine acoustics. Not a problem. The average church can’t compete (and it is not a competition anyway). But the average church can learn to handle the average malcontent parishioner . . . but the elders have to see it for what it is first.
Back to a marriage illustration. If a husband criticizes his wife for her failure to look like “the women in the magazines I’ve been reading lately,” should she begin her discussion with him by apologizing? The widespread availability of media-savvy Christianity, conference Christianity, talent-cluster Christianity, and so on, is that it has precisely the same effect on the attendees that going to the Husbandly Perfection conference had on that poor, murmuring wife earlier. When people visit a place that is rich in resources, teaching talent, and so on, like your average mega-conference, there are two possible results. One is that it makes the attendee more equipped to be a loyal and faithful parishioner to a faithful but average pastor back home. If that is the case, then have at it. Go to the conferences. But if all it does is set up invidious comparisons, then that person needs to quit going to conferences.
So the real issue, in this setup, is that if you are perceived as vulnerable to criticism, all you have to do in order to provoke some form of it is wait for fifteen minutes. That is the kind of world we live in. Just ask Girard.