A Girard Jag

As those who read the Easter sermon below can possibly tell, I am currently on a Rene Girard jag. I have read The Scapegoat, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, and am currently halfway through Violence Unveiled by Bailie, a man developing a number of Girard’s central insights. After that, I have a number of Girard’s other books that I intend to work through. The central blessing I have experienced in this is one of assembly of previously isolated points. In an earlier post on Girard, I said this:

In what follows, I am greatly indebted to the insights of Rene Girard, who tied together for me a number of smaller biblical themes I have understood in isolation for some time now, but which I had never put together in any integrated way. If you want a good introduction to some of Girard’s insights, check out I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. But of course, in recommending his work, I am not going along with everything he says. Every author should be read with discernment. But for all that, Girard remains richly rewarding.

I have now read enough that it has become clear to me where my central disagreements are. Just for the record, I want to list them here so that if anybody picks up on my recommendations and begins to read Girard (which would be a very good thing to do), I will have given the necessary caveat emptor. But this is just a short list, not an exposition.

While Girard has a very high view of the Bible, it is not nearly high enough. In other words, the Bible is seen as unique because it is the only book from the only tradition that walked away from scapegoating violence. But it did not do this in a “clean break” but rather over the troubled course of many centuries. And this means that there are portions of the Bible that represent (according to this view) the older pagan view of things. According to Girard, the biblical writers are sometimes of two minds about this. I don’t think this error strengthens his central point, but rather weakens it. I believe that the strongest presentation of the central Girardian point can only be made by a biblical absolutist. In other words, the Bible — all of it — sits in judgment on us, Girard and all his followers, not the other way around.

Secondly, Girard is an anthropologist, and he is making all his observations from that vantage point. This results in many wonderful textual observations, but because of his background in that discipline, it also reveals the theistic evolutionary assumptions that he brings with him. And the central problem with all forms of theistic evolution comes home with a vengeance, particularly on Girardians who accept evolution. For a biblical absolutist, it was the Fall that led to violence. But on evolutionary grounds, violence has to lead to the Fall. Either man made violence, or violence made man. Was Abel’s murder the first murder, or not. If so, then you are a creationist. If not, then what was the big deal? So evolution means that one of God’s tools for fashioning the created order (and behold, it was good) was nature red in tooth and claw. No evolutionist can therefore accept Girard’s critique of violence whole-heartedly. It would be like critiquing sunshine or water.

Third, here is another point that relates to the first one. The conservative world could gain a lot by seeing the Passion of Christ in Girardian terms, but not if they are called upon to give up what the New Testament explicitly teaches about the wrath of God and propitiation. The Anselmian view of the substitutionary atonement is not inconsistent with the Girardian view (it is both/and, not either/or), but if the Girardians (for the sake of their unique insight) persist in representing it as either/or, they will only succeed in keeping their insight marginalized and out on the periphery — and deservedly so.

And last, some of the work tends toward simplifications that are just way too tidy, in that tidy way that Christian pacifists usually have. For example, when Bailie takes pains to point out the structural similarities of gang violence and police violence, he is quite right. They are structural similar, sometimes in eerie ways. But this is like pointing out the structural similarities between rape and lovemaking, which are also structurally similar. Which is to miss the point.

Anyhow, there it is. But there is abundant gold with the dross.