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"The Mimetic Structure of Culture"
"Christianity and Culture"

“If Girard’s anthropological researches have demonstrated one thing, it is the quasi-universality both of sacrifice and of the ‘emissary’ or scapegoat mechanism in all known societies”
-Eric Gans, The End of Culture

One of the most powerful elements of the Girardian hypothesis is its explanatory power. By reading the Bible in the same way that all other texts are read, Girard has been able to demonstrate a relationship between the Bible and human literature, which is a ‘sign’ of human culture.

As we note at the end of this article, clergy and laity alike seem destined to wrestle with discerning the appropriate relationship of culture to Christian faith more than any other issue. At stake is the credibility and validity of Christian witness. What if the power of our Christian witness has fizzled out? What if the expression of Christian faith looks just like every other faith?

Over fifty years ago Bonhoeffer (Letters and Papers from Prison) said we were moving toward a “completely religionless time” and that Christianity would need a “non-religious interpretation of Christian concepts.” Mimetic theory works toward that goal in a far more consistent fashion than even Bonhoeffer might have imagined.

This Girardian hypothesis goes by several different names, depending upon the nuance being highlighted. Eric Gans uses the term ‘Generative Anthropology’ (GA). Robert Hamerton-Kelly calls it the ‘Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism’ (GMSM). Girard seems content to call it ‘Mimetic Theory.’ In non-Girardian form, Paul Ricoeur might term it ‘The Symbolism of Evil.’

No matter the name, it is a model that can be applied in virtually any sphere or discipline. What we will do in this brief essay is to highlight how mimetic theory explains the origins of human culture. There are several benefits of this model for preachers. First and foremost, of all literature only the Gospels reveal the ‘reality’ and the lies of mimesis and its child, culture as completely and distinctly as they do. Second, the Biblical narratives do not have to be read in a literalist manner to preserve the anthropological insights they generate (e.g., Genesis 1-11). By placing them in the context of ‘myth,’ (“Myth” has a specific sense in mimetic theory that does not include the modern negative connotation of “untruth” nor the Bultmannian sense of an overlay of faith on the real facts. See below.) their interaction with myth becomes feasible and the Genesis story, for example, can be “heard” in our post-modern time. Third, mimetic theory can be tested/recognized easily in our congregations, families or even in our own personal lives.
For the past twenty years, scholars from various disciplines have applied the insights of mimetic theory. Not everyone comes away and gives mimetic theory two thumbs up. Some find certain elements unpalatable. We understand. We also find that one person’s refuse is another person’s treasure and we owe a debt to those who have wrestled with mimetic theory.

Mimetic theory, in its principal parts, is elegantly structured and is also easily learned. Once we begin to analyze human relations from the perspective of mimetic theory, it justifies itself as an interpretive tool when analyzing literature, particularly the Bible. This is the reverse of the way that Girard developed mimetic theory, but for preachers, the domain of relationships and structures within congregations and families provides ample resources for learning and testing mimetic theories.

We refer the reader to the essay by Dr. Ed Hallsten (This paper will be added to our articles soon) as an example of how we might approach both ancient Scripture and modern theories of human behavior. Mimetic theorists tend to speak an awful lot about the dark side of mimesis and human behavior. They also recognize that behavior can be of the artistic variety and it is possible to approach human culture from an aesthetic perspective. It is difficult to deny the captivating attraction of the great works of human art. When we speak of human culture therefore, we speak out of both sides of our mouth. On the one hand we recognize the many benefits wrought in history because of the presence of the human. On the other hand, we also recognize the self-destructive character of human culture.

Mimetic theory does not espouse some form of cultural Darwinism or 19th century liberal optimism. Neither is it nihilistic or pessimistic. Mimetic theory is phenomenological realism. It looks deep into the soul of human culture, which is to say human history, human sociology, human psychology, etc. and what it finds there can be deeply disturbing, namely, that the pulse of human culture is made possible through human sacrifice.


The Mimetic Structure of Culture

So what is this culture we have set up? How does it operate? What are its origins? What is the relation of cultural origins to cultural practices and institutions? In order to understand ourselves as humans, we have to go back to the beginning. You can’t know where you are until you know where you’ve been!

Mimetic rivalry (that is, human conflict) will generate three key elements of the scapegoat mechanism: prohibition, ritual and myth. From each of these three key elements arise cultural manifestations of the way the scapegoating mechanism both generates and perpetuates itself. For example, from prohibition comes jurisprudence, from ritual comes religion, and from myth comes literature.



We begin with prohibition because it is easily demonstrated and, if Eric Gans is correct, it is more intimately associated with the ‘originary event’ (Gans’ term for the first trutly social act by human beings) than the other “pillars.” Girard says, “There is no prohibition that cannot be related to mimetic conflict.” (Things Hidden) Even more so, “there is no culture that does not prohibit violence among those who live together.”

Girard’s observation regarding the acquisitive nature of mimesis reveals the source and cultural purpose of prohibition. In the act of my reaching for an object that I may acquire or appropriate it, in that act of reaching, there is an implied model for you to imitate. Perhaps it is the last piece of the pie on the table. Maybe you didn’t have any pie yet. When I reach for it and you imitate me (non-consciously) and reach for it as well, what happens? Anyone who has raised teenagers has seen this phenomenon way too many times and knows the result. Still, we need to remember that this is all happening within us at a non-conscious level. As I function as a model to imitate, as Gans points out, there is an implied prohibition in my act of reaching, (by reaching I say, “You may not have this, it is mine.”) thus creating the possibilities of both mimetic desire and mimetic rivalry. I make the pie desirable and prohibited at the same time.

“We have no difficulty understanding the originary role of acquisitive mimesis, since the principal prohibitions, which we have not yet mentioned, always concern objects – the sexual or alimentary prohibitions, for example – that are nearest at hand and most accessible. These objects belong to a group living together, such as the women born into it or the food gathered by it; they are thus more susceptible to becoming a stake in the rivalries that threaten the groups harmony or even its survival.” (Things Hidden)

Prohibition is the community’s attempt to limit the damage done by mimetic rivalry. Prohibition however, is powerless to stop mimetic rivalry since the gesture, which gives rise to prohibition’s power, also awakens desire in the potential rival. As this desire escalates so also the rivalry becomes more and more intense and violent. The growing intensity of this conflict can account for the ‘stages’ in the development of prohibition. “Prohibited objects are first of all those that might give rise to mimetic rivalry, then the behaviors characteristic of its progressively violent phases, finally individuals who appear to have ‘symptoms’ thought to be inevitably contagious, such as twins, adolescents at the stage of initiation, women during their menstrual period, or the sick or the dead, those excluded temporarily from the community.” (Things Hidden)

Prohibition thus extends its sphere of influence from the originary gesture all the way to the victim. Because prohibition can only act as a temporary solution to mimetic crises, the possibility of channeling mimesis develops. This occurs in ritual.



Girard asserts that the anti-mimetic character of prohibitions is key to understanding them. Ritual acknowledges this even as it ‘violates prohibitions.’ Ritual produces a ‘feigned mimetic breakdown’ in the community, (what the community would look like if all hell broke loose) but it does this, for the most part, in an ordered fashion.

Ritual re-enactment of the ‘originary event’ channels rivalrous desire. Girard says, “rituals consist in the paradox of transforming conflictual disintegration of the community into social collaboration.” Prohibition limits mimetic crisis, ritual feigns mimetic crisis. Jean-Michel Oughourlian in conversation with Girard summarizes this relationship of prohibition and ritual. He says, “Your point, then, is that all prohibitions and rituals can be related to mimetic conflict. The common denominator is the same, but there is a paradox in that what is prohibited in one case is required in another. If the mimetic crisis is indeed as threatening as our reading of prohibitions leads us to believe, it would seem incomprehensible that the ritual should be an attempt to reproduce, often in a frighteningly realistic manner, precisely what societies fear the most in normal times, with an apparently well justified fear. There is no innocent harmless mimesis and one cannot ritually imitate the crisis of doubles without running the risk of inciting real violence.” (Things Hidden)



This brings us to myth. First, it is important that we distinguish Girard’s appropriation of myth from that of Bultmann. Bultmann’s perspective on myth has dominated the discussion in theological circles. For Bultmann, myth is the pre-scientific way we story our world. The gospels, participating in this pre-scientific worldview therefore, had to be de-mythologized. Girard would agree with Bultmann that myth is the way we story our world. Girard would agree with Bultmann that the power of the Gospels lies precisely in its anthropology. They might both affirm the saying of Simone Weil that “in the Gospels there is a theory of man.” Girard, however, asserts one important principle with regard to myth that Bultmann missed. Myth lies.

One might say that myth lies about the worldview of the relations of the gods and humanity. For example, thunder is the sound wave created by lightening not the anger of a drunken deity. We know this now, they didn’t know it then; the myth makes a wrong attribution and thus we dispense with myth. Girard is suggesting something different. Myths are stories created by communities to justify the originary sacrifice, to cover over the victim, to blame the victim so thoroughly that no one is in doubt about the victim’s guilt and deserved punishment. In myth, even the victim goes along with the lie and asserts his guilt (as does e.g., Oedipus, but not Job!). This double fiction that the victim is to blame and the victims even blame themselves, is what makes myth myth.



Up to this point we have not explained how all of this ties into the origins of human culture. It occurs in the process that Girard calls the sacralization of the victim. Girard nicely explains its relation to the mimetic process:

“Culture does not proceed directly from the reconciliation that follows victimage; rather, it is from the double imperative of prohibition and ritual, which means that the entire community is unified in order to avoid falling back into the crisis, and thus orients itself on the model – and the anti-model – which the crisis and its resolution now constitute. To understand human culture it is necessary to concede that only the damming of mimetic forces by means of the prohibition and the diversion of these forces in the direction of ritual are capable of spreading and perpetuating the reconciliatory effect of the surrogate victim. Religion is nothing other than this immense effort to keep the peace. The sacred is violence, but if religious man worships violence it is only insofar as the worship of violence is supposed to bring peace; religion is entirely concerned with peace, but the means it has of bringing it about are never free of sacrificial violence.” (Things Hidden)

The victim, randomly chosen (or seemingly so), is placed under collective guilt. The channeling of mimetic fury to the death of the victim is the act which empowers all other social bonds. The unity of the community arises only in connection with the surrogate victim. A marvelous exchange has occurred. The mimetic woes that had plagued the community are (temporarily) washed away and peace has occurred through the ritual enactment of death. As the community cannot take the blame for its own blindness and superstition and so must blame the victim before they can justify killing the victim, even so, the benefits that accrue are attributed to the victim. In short, the victim is given divinity. A differentiation has occurred between the victim and the rest of the community. The victim is thus the origin of transcendence.

[Using another category, we might say the victim is the first polyvalent symbol. The relation of mimetic theory to language is both fascinating and complex. Those interested may wish to consult Eric Gans, The Origin of Language (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981) and Andrew McKenna, Violence and Difference (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991).]

It is easy to see even just a few of the implications of this theory for reading the gospel texts. Jesus’ relation to prohibition (law), ritual (temple) and myth (militant apocalypticism) can all be found in the gospels. Which raises the question, what then is Jesus’ relation to human culture? And is Jesus’ position vis a vis human culture the same as that expressed in Western Christianity?


Christianity and Culture

One of the more interesting theological debates of the twentieth century has to do with the relation of Christianity and human culture. Niebuhr’s famous Christ and Culture was but one solo in a great symphony of scholars who wrestled with this issue. Karl Barth initiated this great debate in his Romans commentary issued at the end of World War I. It was continued through the years in dialogue with Friedrich Gogarten, Emil Brunner and especially Rudolf Bultmann. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had his say. The debate found its way into both Roman Catholic as well as Protestant circles by the 1960’s. The American theological scene and its preference for ‘the secular city’ would marginalize Barth and his important insights (only in America is God dead and Elvis alive). Flirtation with Marxism on the left and Capitalism on the right seemed a better bet than exegesis. We have been passed this theological hot potato. And so the great debate about the relationship of Christianity and culture continues as Christianity confronts globalization and the problem of the hegemony of the West.

In America in the 1980’s and 1990’s we have seen the resurgence of the confluence of traditional religion and politics, both at home and abroad. Here, in the United States, both the liberal left and the conservative right have agendas dominated not by the gospel, but rather by justifications for violence done in the name of Jesus. The polarization of American politics (and religion) should surprise no theorist of mimesis. Nor should the accelerated growth of religion and its agenda. Remembering that we are in a mimetic crisis of epic proportion since September 11th, 2001, and the religious concern for security, provision and defense sounds like the cry of the mimetic mechanism forming and seeking a suitable scapegoat. Neither liberals nor conservatives have a real answer to the mimetic crises and dilemmas besetting us partly because they are mirror doubles of one another and expend their energies in mimetic conflict with one another.

There is, however, an alternative. Gil Bailie has summarized this well: “Perhaps the anthropological role of the Christian church in human history might be oversimplified as follows: To undermine the structures of sacred violence by making it impossible to forget how Jesus died and to show the world how to live without such structures by making it impossible to forget how Jesus lived. In both life and death, Jesus was opposed by the most respected institutions of his world. Not surprisingly, therefore, the prospects of institutionalizing either the Sermon on the Mount or the revelation of the Cross are not great. ‘The Church,’ wrote Karl Barth, ‘sets fire to a charge that blows up every sacred edifice which men have ever erected or can erect in its vicinity.’ In every instance, the institution in closest proximity to the gospel’s explosive charge is the institution we call the church.” (Violence Unveiled, New York: Crossroad, 1995)

And as long as we keep blaming everyone else for our troubles and woes we daily add to the collective human myth. The fundamental recognition that what we want is only wanted because we are non-consciously imitating what another has deemed desirable opens the door for us to break the cycle of our mythologizing and to participate in peacemaking as we imitate Jesus who imitates the Peacemaking God.