This week marked the death of one of the most important social and theological thinkers of the last century, Rene Girard.
Receiving his PhD in history, Girard began his academic career by teaching French literature, and it was his work in literary theory that would guide him into the study of scripture, theology and society.
At the core of Girard’s work is the concept of mimetic theory, i.e., that our human desires take shape by imitation, by desiring things that others desire. But these desires lead us into conflict and violence because there is a scarcity of the thing desired.
In remembrance of Girard, we offer the following introductory guide to his work (which focuses particularly on his theological work).
Introduction to Mimetic Theory:
This is a great, half-hour video in which Girard lays out the basic components of his mimetic theory. It is a good place to start engaging Girard’s work, as it is clear and relatively concise…
A Review of Princeton Readings in
Religion and Violence
by Mark Juergensmeyer
and Margo Kitts
Paperback: Princeton UP, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
Reviewed by Adam Ericksen.
In their introduction to Princeton Readings in Religion and Violence, Mark Juergensmyer and Margo Kitts claim that “Violence in the name of religion, plentiful in our time, is an enduring feature of religion.” The fact that religion and violence mingle in a sacred nightmare plagues our modern mind. We are left asking: what is the relationship between religion and violence?
That’s the critical question this book brilliantly explores. The question has perplexed modern anthropologists and philosophers for the last 200 years. The answer has proved elusive as theory after theory has been promoted. Scholars continue to debate and explore that question. This relatively short (222 pages) book is a great introduction to anyone who is interested in the debate and exploration.
Battling to the End:
Conversations with Benoît Chantre.
Paperback: Michigan State Univ. Press, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
For several years now, I have been intrigued by René Girard’s mimetic theory and the way in which it portrays our human proclivities to violence. Thus, I was excited to hear about his newest book Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre, which captures a conversation about a little-known military text of the nineteenth century, Carl von Clausevitz’s On War, and its relevance for understanding the world today. Although this book does require that the reader have some background understanding of Girard’s mimetic theory, Battling to the End is, in its conversational format, perhaps the most readable of Girard’s books. This new volume is also a divergence from Girard’s previous work in that it examines mimetic theory in the context of recent historical events, whereas Girard’s previous works have focused on developing mimesis within literary or biblical texts. Girard’s keen exposition of recent history, makes this book essential reading for those of us who seek to understand the place of Christianity in a world of escalating violence. Consider, for instance, the following passage:
In a French newspaper I said concerning September 11 that Muslims and Westerners were twins. That was nothing new. In fact, we can wonder to what extent the excesses of the Crusades in the thirteenth century were not mimetic responses to the Jihad, of which we are now suffering the consequences in Europe and the Middle East. … We need to undertake historical studies, both longitudinal and at different levels, of the conditions for the trend to the extremes. This would show that it is against that baleful tendency that the institution of war (as we know it today) was gradually established in an attempt to control what was less and less controllable. The rise in violence happens behind the actors’ backs (41 – parenthesis added for clarification).
Girard emphasizes throughout his work that Christianity is distinct among the faiths in the way that understands violence. In our age of ever-escalating violence, the time has come for the Church to reflect on Girard’s work. When read in conjunction with one of his earlier works in which he more clearly defines mimetic theory (e.g., Violence and the Sacred), Battling to the End would serve as an excellent guide to lead us into conversation about the meaning of our faith in a violent world. Maybe, just maybe, Girard’s work will serve – to use the words with which he concludes this volume – to “wake up our sleeping consciences”!
It’s not often that you run into a book that explores a deep tension within the church in such a succinct way, that you say, “I wish I had written that.” But John Franke has done just that.
Franke recently released, “Manifold Witness, The Plurality Of Truth” by Abingdon Press, a book that wrestles with the nature of truth and its apparent contradiction of plurality. How can truth be plural? Franke offers what is arguably one of the better responses to the common tension in the church as it grapples the shifting landscape towards postmodern culture.
Franke’s central thesis is,
“the expression of biblical and orthodox Christian faith is inherently and irreducibly pluralist.” (p.7)
At first glance, this kind of statement can be seen as a defense for cultural relativism. In other words, it seems like Franke is arguing for the idea that truth is relative. And if you close the book there, you’ll be missing out on a deeply informed argument away from this very idea.
In Laurel and Hardy’s Big Business, two door-to-door Christmas tree salesmen fight a bad-tempered homeowner. The manic tit-for-tat escalates from head banging to a demolished house and an exploded car. The three become more and more alike as their wiggy violence spirals without aim or purpose.
It’s funny because we know that that’s the way we are, from the cradle. You hit your brother; he hits back; you hit again, only harder. Aggressor and aggrieved become interchangeable, indistinguishable, and parents know there is little point in trying to figure out “who started it.”
As the Stanford scholar Rene Girard observes in the book-length interview Battling to the End, “The aggressor has always already been attacked” and so feels justified. Look at the Middle East.
But what if violence goes unchecked? “This is an apocalyptic book,” Girard states at the outset. The more probable such an endgame becomes, “the less we talk about it.”
Read the full review: http://www.powells.com/blog/?p=12259 Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoit Chantre
(Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture).
Paperback: Michigan State Univ. Press, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Despite being 84 years of age, René Girard has lost none of his nerve as a definitively radical thinker. He is working on a new essay about Karl von Clausewitz. The author of great contemporary works such as Violence and the Sacred and The Scapegoat, recently elected among the forty “immortals” of the Académie française, René Girard is, along with Claude Levi-Strauss, our greatest living anthropologist. In this interview with Il Foglio, Girard returns to that which defines “the great anthropological question of our time.”
He himself opens with a question:
“Can there be a realistic anthropology that precedes deconstruction? In other words, is it licit and still possible to affirm a universal truth about humankind? Structuralist and postmodern contemporary anthropology denies this access to the truth. The present school of thought is ‘the castration of meaning.’ But such ways of discussing mankind are dangerous.”
Last fall, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) opened an investigation into the finances of six of the United States‘ most influential ministries. Lavish spending by Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, Joyce Meyer, Paula White, Benny Hinn, Creflo Dollar, and Eddie Long had caught the attention of the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee. Responding to reports that these ministers might be abusing their tax-exempt status, Grassley asked for detailed financial information about their credit card spending, luxury cars, and palatial vacation homes. A few promised to comply with the investigation; most did not.
Despite the controversies surrounding these ministers, there is no doubt that they have played influential roles in shaping the modern American charismatic movement. Their work, and that of a select number of charismatic allies, is the focus of Scott Billingsley’s fascinating book It’s a New Day. Billingsley, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, downplays the scandalous rumors dogging certain charismatic leaders and instead focuses on their contributions to American religion. According to Billingsley, charismatics’ recent mainstream success can be attributed to their promotion of female and African American evangelists, use of technology, exploitation of the megachurch trend, and strong leaders. In particular, he argues that modern charismatic leaders built on the civil rights and feminist movements by “taking socially and theologically liberal ideologies” about race and gender “and adapting them to fit the sensibilities of conservative evangelical audiences.”
Andrew J. Bacevich thinks our political system is busted. In The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, he argues that the country’s founding principle — freedom — has become confused with appetite, turning America’s traditional quest for liberty into an obsession with consumption, the never-ending search for more. To accommodate this hunger, pandering politicians have created an informal empire of supply, maintaining it through constant brush-fire wars. Yet the foreign-policy apparatus meant to manage that empire has grown hideously bloated and has led the nation into one disaster after another. The latest is Iraq: in Bacevich’s mind, the crystallization of all that’s gone wrong with the American system.
In the dog days of the George W. Bush era, as the fighting drags on in Afghanistan and Iraq and global food, energy and economic crises mount, this argument has huge intuitive appeal, and indeed Bacevich’s book has climbed the best-seller lists. The nation does seem to be in serious trouble. Figuring out how it got that way is important, and a root-and-branch rethink may be necessary to set things right.…