A Review of
Mimetic Theory and Biblical Interpretation: Reclaiming the Good News of the Gospel.
Reviewed by Mark Wendland
Rene Girard, a French thinker who wrote most of his important works in the 1970s and early 1980s, has become an important guide to issues of violence and religion, whether that takes the form of religion-inspired violence, the violence of God in the text of the Bible, or interpretations of atonement and afterlife that emphasize the wrath of God. Violence is a topic of broad and current interest among Christians today.
Mimetic Theory has grown beyond the Girardian canon and attracted the interest of scholars of various backgrounds. Many of these are members of an affiliate group of the American Academy of Religion, the Colloquium on Violence and Religion. The purpose of this book is to show how Mimetic Theory (hereafter MT) can be a guide to Christian biblical interpretation with attention to how it can illuminate the Gospel. The author, who knew Girard and is recognized as a prominent interpreter of his, promises to provide a satisfying framework that will makes sense of the contradictions and problems we face when interpreting the texts as modern people. Michael Hardin is keen to point out that “mimetic theory is not in competition with other biblical interpretive methods.” This is accurate as far as he is referring to both modern historical criticism and many pre-modern perspectives. Those committed to interpretative methods that do not recognize or give prominence to the dialogue, multiplicity, and reworking of the texts within the Bible itself will have the hardest time, however, swallowing the ‘red pill’ of MT.
After teaching literary and mythological texts across the centuries for many years in a French school, Girard hit upon the seemingly revolutionary idea that mimesis was the driver of myth and therefore society. Others, notably Raymund Schwager, built upon this in theology, resulting in a school of interpretive theory that has grown up over the past forty years. As Girard came to see, ideas about humans as learning by imitating were not just his own discovery. They are found throughout history from Heraclitus to Foucault. It was an idea hiding in plain sight. According to Girard, humans, as inter-individuals, non-consciously desire the desire of another. This leads to both positive growth, but also, negatively, to violent conflicts. Early on, a mechanism for dealing with violent cultural crises was found in sacrificing one person, or a minority group, for the many, thereby bringing about a temporary harmony. Sacrifice is a mechanism of violence that ‘solves’ the problem of an even more violent downward spiral, a Hobbesian war of all against all. It is a pharmakos, both cure and poison. Ever since the dawn of consciousness, violence has therefore been associated with the sacred, with religion, but this connection is hidden from us due to its origins.
Hardin spends a chapter detailing the genesis of the theory in this manner before diving into the heart of the material, the application of MT to biblical interpretation. At the core of this approach is the distinction between texts in the Bible that feature the acceptance of the scapegoat mechanism (sacrifice as victimization, not the willing giving of oneself), and those that reveal this same mechanism as murder. The former Hardin calls ‘religion’, while the latter is labeled ‘revelation’. The majority of the texts of the Bible, especially in the Hebrew scriptures, are typically a mixture of both, although at times they may even speak solely with the voice of religious myth, by which he means that the victim agrees with their persecutors that violence is deserved. More often, the authors seem to be aware, however dimly, that this violence is undeserved. Their usual response is a cry for justification and revenge.
The biblically literate reader is likely already thinking of a number of texts where these themes of murder, scapegoat, sacrifice, guilt and innocence are prominent. Importantly for Hardin, the Bible does not speak in a monolithic voice as if all of its words were equally superintended by God. He claims that “the Bible is in the process of deconstructing itself.” Another way to say this is that when the Bible claims that God is speaking, we shouldn’t always take this at face value. Often it is not the true God speaking. Where we hear the true God speaking most clearly is in the forgiving victim, Jesus, on the cross and in the resurrection. Hardin’s approach to biblical authority is strongly Christocentric, polyphonic, and progressive. According to him, even the New Testament writers don’t always follow non-sacrificial logic. For instance, he detects turning points for Paul and views Matthew as more ‘mixed’ than the other three gospel writers.
Overall, the tone of Hardin’s writing is apologetic, even evangelistic. The book is in the form of a short primer written from the perspective of an advocate. As such, he counters common objections to the theory. Two most frequent critical responses are (1) MT is a modern form of the ancient heresy of Marcionism, and that (2) the theory, when applied to the atonement of Jesus, is a subjective one (a type of moral influence theory) that disregards the objective, metaphysical pole. On the first, Hardin agrees that “Marcion had asked the right question about the problem of the relation of violence and divinity.” He believes, in contrast, that the solution given by MT is significantly different. On the second criticism, Hardin enlists the help of LeRon Shultz to explain why the distinction between subjective and objective is not appropriate in a discussion of atonement and anthropology.
Readers will appreciate that Hardin is a clear teacher who communicates well to general audiences. The brevity of the book does not often allow him to develop particular ideas in great detail. He does cover a lot of ground, and occasionally chooses particular texts to read more closely. An entire chapter is dedicated to the exposition of the kenosis hymn in Philippians and the Eucharist, for example.