“It is a measure of his genius that Girard has been able to integrate so effectively literature, the human sciences, and theology. Those of us who have tried to think his thoughts after him and to apply his insights in fields that interest us have been led beyond the limits we thought were natural to our fields of enquiry.”
– Robert Hamerton-Kelly
It’s difficult to describe the measure of Rene Girard for Christian preaching. Current Christian preaching is barely in an embryonic stage when it comes to peace. In the West in particular, we have long been in the shadow of Augustine and Eusebius, so long in fact, that we no longer recognize it as shadow.
The application of mimetic theory to the literature, and thus the history of the church has so far yielded a harvest far greater than anyone could have imagined. Issues that have dominated the church’s teaching, doctrine and practice for 2,000 years have been exposed as arguments with a singular proposition: God is somehow violent. (This is the single presupposition of idolatry.) The revelation that the Creator of heaven and earth was non-violent and non-retaliatory was and is the Good News preached and exemplified by Jesus Christ. If we commit ourselves to solid Trinitarian thinking we cannot divide the Father from the Son, so the non-violent, forgiving Son is the face of God the Father, the Creator, to us.
One of the major benefits of the application of mimetic theory to the task of preaching is that it reveals the source of the power of the gospel, the revelation of pure Love and what being fully, truly human will be all about. This is accomplished when the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are thrust into the spotlight in a fresh and radical way. The gospel texts have an announcement to make:
Peace Give I To You
This reconciliatory announcement exposes all of our theologies and faiths and religions where we fail to see that Peace is a hermeneutic, an interpretive choice. The viability of this hermeneutic is grounded in the announcement of Peace to the shepherds and the Peace Jesus gave to so many before we killed him, as well as in the Peace He gave to those to whom He appeared after his death
Preaching Peace then, is the very fulfillment of the apostolic mandate; it is to preach good news of a God who is no longer cluttered with the remnants of human mythology. It is at the same time, News of the Good God who has become human so that we may see God as God exists in relation to us.
Despite the peculiar name and jargon, the application of mimetic theory to the task of exegesis is not especially difficult. Once the preacher or student has a rudimentary understanding of mimetic theory and its principal parts, its application quickly becomes clear. What is more, in addition to applying the theory to the biblical text in exegesis, we can also apply it to those who also have commented on the biblical text. In this way, it is possible to see where others also develop insights that lead to preaching the gospel of peace.
The following paragraphs give a thumbnail overview of René Girard’s major contributions.
The research of Rene Girard began shortly after World War II and continues to this day. His active involvement in the Colloquium on Violence and Religion continues to inspire scholars worldwide who seek insight from mimetic theory.
Girard will be the first to tell you that he did not discover mimetic theory. It has been there all along, in the Greek Tragedians, in the Hebrew Prophets, in the literature of Cervantes, Proust, Dostoievski and Shakespeare, and most of all, in the Gospels. He has rather uncovered that which the critics have papered over with their texts. (Sandor Goodhardt, Sacrificing Commentary, Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore 1996))
Because Girard places the Gospels in relation to all texts, he is able to show the inter-relation of these texts to society. From there, Girard is demonstrates the applicability of mimetic theory to archaic patterns of thought which are repeated ad nauseum in literature from ancient times to the present, as Jacques Derrida has also shown. And as Derrida and Girard have both shown, there is something missing, that something which we humans have cast out (Andrew McKenna, Violence and Difference, University of Illinois Press: Chicago, 1992). That something for Girard is, in short, God.
For Preachers, the best introduction to mimetic theory is probably The Girard Reader, edited by James G. Williams (Crossroads/Herder & Herder, 1997). It arranges lengthy texts from Girard’s various works under the principal parts of mimetic theory. (Because Girard is so well read, he is often citing sources that are completely unfamiliar to preachers. Williams has done an excellent job selecting clear and relevant texts when becoming acquainted with Girard.)
For clergy who would like to read Girard, we would suggest that you begin with his last book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (Orbis: Maryknoll, 2001). It summarizes all that Girard has done to the present. In it, Girard also speaks more clearly than anywhere else about the relation of his theory to Christian theology. It is a great primer on mimetic theory.
Girard’s first work Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1961) asks about the theory of relationships being proposed in Proust, Stendhal and Dostoievski. This work will give the preacher a clear understanding of the dynamics of mimetic desire and lots of great literary illustrations to back it up.
Several essays on literature, mimesis and anthropology written during the following years can be found in To Double Business Bound (Johns Hopkins: Baltimore, 1978).
Violence and the Sacred (Johns Hopkins: Baltimore, 1977) is a programmatic essay. Girard researched over seven years for this project and it shows. With VS, Girard enters holy ground. He not only tackles subjects as diverse as anthropology and Freud; he examines in minute detail the phenomenon of religion. The application of mimetic theory uncovers the basic structure of human organization and communication, namely mimetic violence.
In Things Hidden From the Foundation of the World (Stanford University Press: Palo Alto, 1987) Girard explores further in the fields of ethnology and ethology, linguistics, philosophy and Jewish and Christian theology. Things Hidden is perhaps his most important contribution to a theory of Scripture. From our perspective, Girard is the first thinker to propose a theory of scripture that undoes the Marcionite presuppositions that secretly undergird much of Christian theology. His view of the biblical texts as “texts in travail” as they reveal the Peace orientation of the Creator is far more congruent with the approach of Jesus, Paul and the Gospel writers than has been true of most of Christendom. Finally, Girard introduces his crucial understanding of the dynamic of the interdividual (as compared to the individual) and tackles Freud again.
His next two works are especially valuable for the preacher. Job: The Victim of His People (Stanford University Press: Palo Alto, 1987) and The Scapegoat (Johns Hopkins: Baltimore, 1987) both reveal what occurs when applying the mimetic theory to biblical texts. Job is a brilliant reading of the question of theodicy posed in this great piece of Hebrew literature. The Scapegoat makes the extraordinary connection between ‘modern’ history and mythology. In The Scapegoat, Girard also begins to unfold the development of the revelation throughout western culture. He thus comes full circle to the Holy Spirit as God’s presence in Peace who is actively peacemaking by exposing the lies of the “sacred mechanism” we have put in place of revelation.
For those preachers who are fond of Shakespeare, Girard’s A Theater of Envy (Oxford University Press: New York, 1991) will come as a delight. Shakespeare has such a solid understanding of mimesis that Girard is able to show the way he develops its insights over the length of his writing career. With this work, the maturation of mimetic theory begun in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel bears fruit.
The growing bibliography of mimetic theory is so extensive that it is becoming impossible to master. Mimetic theory has been applied across the board to scores of disciplines. At the annual meeting of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, there is an ever-growing and diverse population of specialists who have in common their application of mimetic theory in their various disciplines. In short, mimetic theory is being tested over and over again and found to yield consistent results.
In our studies on the lectionary texts, we will refer readers as often as possible to relevant literature on mimetic theory. We encourage clergy to begin to discover what happens when the light of this Gospel of a Good and non-violent God shines into all the corners of our theology.
Either this page has not yet been completed, or we have not found any significant textual issues in the lectionary texts for this Sunday.
This section of this particular page is not yet complete. In it, there will be materials pertinent to the historical/cultural setting of the texts under consideration, to the extent that they contribute to a non-violent understanding of the text. (We won’t re-hash historical/cultural materials that are well known and add nothing to the “peace” discussion.)
This section of this particular page is not yet completed, but will be done a few weeks before the Sunday in question. It will be the heart of the discussion, offering an anthropological (“Girardian”) reflection on the lectionary texts. It will be complemmented by the other sections, but this will be the primary material.
The “so what” section for each week will go here. Less scholarly, more reflective. In this section, we’ll try to give our answer to the questions, “Okay, that anthropological stuff is nice, but “so what?” How do I use this in a sermon? How do I relate this to my congregation’s world?”