… I am not convinced by the objection that the performance of a musical work of art is interpretation in a different sense from, say, reaching understanding in reading a poem or looking at a painting. All performance is primarily interpretation and seeks, as such, to be correct. In this sense it, too, is “understanding.”(1)
In other words, musical scores and text are alike in that no one hears the music until someone plays it, that is, reads and interprets it. Understanding is the music we make when we interpret (play) the text (the score). Today I hope to add an instrument to this performance that is capable of adding depth and richness to the music we make when interpreting scripture. I choose to see it as a drum because of its primal nature and the way in which rhythm permeates all the other sounds. A drummer joins the band and his name is Rene Girard.
Mimetic Theory and Theology
In the previous article you were given a brief introduction to Rene Girard and the influence he is having on theology. Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory is not firstly or specifically theological, but has huge implications for many disciplines including theology. It is first and foremost concerned with the origins and development of human culture based on an understanding of how human desire functions. Psychologists, anthropologists, economists and theologians have found common ground in Mimetic theory as it has sparked research and encouraged unparalleled cross-science conversation.
Any theory that has such enormous scope and implications for both our personal lives and society as a whole is bound to attract much criticism. Mimetic theory has certainly attracted many critics across many disciplines and over many decades … and the end result has been hugely beneficial. The very fact that it is able to attract such attention from such a wide variety of disciplines is testimony to its power of explanation. And so the criticism has served to refine the theory.
Theology cannot be neatly separated from the other sciences … in fact the more overlap there is the greater the relevance for our lives. Mimetic theory allows us to see Jesus in the scope of human history, instead of biblical history alone.
Myth and Scripture
The two areas of specific interest for interpreting scripture, is the Girardian understanding of origin myths and the practice of sacrifice. The Bible has many points of contact with myth – many similarities and many differences. In fact, it is the similarities in the text that makes the points of difference even more significant. Obviously the Bible also has much to say about sacrifice, culminating in the sacrifice of Christ Himself. The Girardian understanding of the origin of sacrifice is therefore also very important to theology.
What does scripture have to do with myth? Well those who have studied myths are convinced they have a whole lot in common. Similar themes, similar events … even the names of many mythical gods are known by scripture. Many of the myths predate the scriptures and it seems likely to literary critics that these texts were copied, adjusted and reused in various forms within the scriptural writings. It seems like those who wrote most of the scriptures – the Jews – acknowledge this fact more readily than Christians.(2) I can understand why this might be uncomfortable to some, but maybe the discomfort is caused by a misunderstanding of what myth is.
When we hear the word myth today we often think of something untrue or an imaginary story full of fictional monsters. That is not the meaning of myth as we will use it here. Mankind has been telling stories long before writing was invented. That means that only the most memorable stories survived from one generation to the next as it was completely dependent on an oral tradition. And if only the most memorable stories survived then the most important stories – those that preserved our identity as a community – had to be made the most memorable. To make a story memorable, vivid and surprising images had to be used. Consequently many tribes and cultures have origin myths that might seem fantastic in our day and age, but they still preserve something important about the founding events of the group.
Myth, Ritual and Archeology.
When myths and the stories told by ritual are combined with archeology we begin to see a picture of the actual events that gave birth to the particular community. When the same process is applied to many different communities a pattern emerges that gives insight into how human communities formed and developed. Although there might be a great variety of stories, there are also very significant similarities between these stories.
From an archeological perspective, the first sign of a new civilization is the practice of sacrifice. When we study ancient rituals – and many primitive tribes still practice such rituals – they often begin with chaos, then a process of selecting a sacrifice, followed by a creative act of violence that overcomes the chaos and births a new order of community. Most origin myths tell the same story: The first memory is one of chaos, a time often portrayed by fantastic water monsters who are about to desolate everything. However a surprising new event, sometimes referred to as a heroic self-sacrifice, other times as a communal sacrifice of a guilty party, changes everything. A magical peace arrives because of this act of sacrifice and so the myth of redemptive violence is born.
Are we able to piece together all the clues contained in myth, ritual and archeology to paint a picture of what actually happened? What events gave birth to human civilization? These are some of the questions addressed by Mimetic Theory. A much more comprehensive discussion of these prehistoric events can be found in chapter 4 of Desire Found Me – Desiring Your Neighbor’s Ass. Only a summary is possible now so that we can move on to what it means to our interpretation of scripture.
The story actually begins somewhere else – the nature of human desire. Mimesis refers to the reflective or imitative nature of mankind. As relational and reflective beings we are not fully ourselves by ourselves. We are carved by relational movements. The quality that we reflect most unconsciously is desire. Desire is not simply a straight line movement between a person and the object of desire, but rather it is triangular. Desire is mediated, it is influenced by others. Again books can and have been written on the subject but herewith the conclusion: Because we influence and reflect one another’s desires, we often end up desiring the same stuff. What we actually seek is the being of the other, but this is deflected into desiring what the other desires. When two hands reach for the same object, conflict is often the result.
The Events Behind the Myths.
In early human communities where there were no formal laws, conflict easily escalated into violence. And violence breeds violence. Many attempts to form communities failed because violence destroyed them. But all over the world it seems that one surprising event offered a way out of this monstrous chaotic violence. When a community in crisis diverted their frustration and focussed their violence onto a single victim or a minority group – a focus that would save the majority of the community – by killing the victim or expelling the victim from the group, it brought about a magical peace and unity that was often the key ingredient in creating a new civilization. There is no one event we can point to, but the many occurrences where a death brought life to the community, where this new type of sacred violence brought an end to the profane violence eventually developed into the ritual of sacrifice.
However, nowhere do opposites become as intense and obvious as in the corpse of the scapegoat. The horror of violence and its deathly effect is positioned next to the beneficial peace that unites the community and restores the order. The corpse becomes the symbol of both curse and blessing. Our reflective nature, our identification with another human who became our victim, means that the experience is greatly intensified. The deeply disturbing nature of murdering one of our own and the profound influence that this violent deed has in unifying the community is undoubtedly a significant influence on our sense of the sacred. The chaos, the senseless and profane violence that was about to destroy a community, is overcome by this single act of “sacred” violence. This event of sacred violence was probably most influential in forming humanity’s views of the gods, as it was the most significant factor in establishing and maintaining order within communities. The views and myths that develop from this brutal event are by far the most disturbing. Gods who delight in violence, blood and destruction are often the result of men basing their theories on the event of sacrifice. Sacrifice is also the influence that gives our myths a socio-political dimension.(3)
Unwilling to recognize ourselves as the source of our victims’ suffering, we ask ourselves where the suffering comes from? What has defiled this victim so as to attract this kind of retribution from a faceless justice? The language of defilement and retribution becomes one of the earliest ways in which humans describe how order is restored to a chaotic world. Because defilement attracts vengeance, laws that prohibit defilement as well as purification rites to cleanse defilement come into being. All suffering became associated with punishment for defilement. If a person got sick, had relational problems, or happened upon some misfortune, the immediate question raised was: What did I do to attract this? What defilement, what sin caused this suffering? And so, mistakenly, the evil of suffering becomes synonymous with the evil of sin.(4)
The Message of Origin Myths vs Scripture
1. Who Tells the story?
According to many of the origin myths a death, often a heroic sacrifice, was the beginning of their civilization. The people who invented the stories about their tribe’s origin were the ones who survived the violence that brought it about. The victims had no voice. It is therefore no surprise that in these stories the community is always portrayed as innocent and those who were sacrificed somehow deserved their fate.
The Bible also speaks of the first civilization as one founded by the first murderer. But instead of describing Abel as a guilty party, deserving of death, it identifies the event for what it is: murder. The flood story, for instance, suggests something radically new: maybe the community is guilty and the outcasts, the minority are favored by God! So many examples can be given to show how the Biblical stories subvert myth by using the same themes, story structure and even similar characters to tell a familiar story but completely change the conclusion.
Why this radical new point of view? Well ancient Israelite religion began telling stories, not when they were a prosperous free nations, but when they were an enslaved people. This is why portions of scripture such as the Song of Moses (Deut 32) are considered some of the oldest texts. It is the event of deliverance that is essential in the formation of their identity. This is where the stories begin. Genesis would be written much later. The point is that their perspective is not that of the victorious conquerer, but of the outcast, the enslaved, the victim. This is by no means the only perspective in the scriptures, but is a voice that was not heard before (in other ancient texts) and grows in strength as the story unfolds. It ultimately culminates in Jesus identifying with victims in the deepest sense, taking their place and suffering their fate.
2. What is most original?
A community in turmoil, a universe in chaos is seen as the most original state of all things. This evil pre-exists the good order that would later be achieved. Evil is more original and more pervasive than good according to these narratives.
The scriptures sees something more original than evil – God’s good creation. Our most original state according to the scriptures is one of goodness, one in which humanity is nothing less that the visible image of the invisible God.
3. Chaos, Order and Evil.
The myths were often used to justify and preserve the prevailing order. Whatever caused disruption would be classified as evil and dealt with by force. In this context violence is often glorified as the creative and redemptive act that preserves the order.
The Biblical revelation shows that it is neither chaos nor order that is intrinsically good or evil. It was often the established orders that were the perpetrators of evil. In such circumstances a bit of chaos might be exactly what is needed to serve God’s purpose. Chaos was part of God’s creation. The Biblical God becomes known as the One who changes things, who exalts the lowly and brings the rulers of this world down to the dust. This God cannot be used to unreservedly prop up our patriotism, but He remains a threat to any system that produces victims.
And yes at times a community in chaos were guilty of violence as well.
What makes anything evil is violence. And God is against violence whether it happens in the midst of a chaotic community or whether it is supported by the prevailing order.
4. Sacrifice and the gods of sacrifice subverted.
In myths, we project our own violence outside of ourselves onto imaginary gods. In so doing we create gods in own own image. The message of myth is clear: God approves of our just violence and obviously all violence directed against us is unjustified. Vengeance and retribution is the way things are put back into order. Sacrifice is demanded and instituted by such gods to satisfy their justice.
The gods birthed by the event of sacrifice are brought to an end when Jesus subverts the meaning of sacrifice. As apposed to the human sacrificial process which hides our own violence by portraying it as the just requirement of an offended god, Jesus gives himself willingly because of his love for his friends and trust in his Father.
True sacrifice is revealed as a willing self-giving for the benefit of others. False sacrifice is exposed as that which is demanded by a god to satisfy his justice.
What is redemptive in this drama of the cross is not the suffering or the violence but it is the trust with which Jesus overcomes fear. It is his trust in the Father, energized by his love for his friends, that strengthens him to face our deepest fears on our behalf and conquer them! Jesus surrenders himself into our rage and the Father hands over the Son into our blind cycle of violence, for it is only from within that our confusion can be subverted and our violence can be exposed as belonging to ourselves alone. He willingly becomes the sacrificial victim to save us from sacrifice and the violent god-images birthed by it. He undoes our myths from within. He enters into the very heart of our anxieties – the fear that we are not accepted, that we are not worthy of life – and there he shows us a God who unconditionally accepts and embraces our humanity. And so it is while we are at our worst, while we are enemies, that he reconciles us (Romans 5: 10). (5)
The differences above are only a few examples – many more can be made. I hope you are starting to see the significance of the scriptures in relation to other ancient writings. This article also serves as an introduction into a more comprehensive course concerning the conversation between myth and scripture. More information found here: http://www.mimesis.academy
(1)Gadamer, Hans-Georg (2013-11-05). Truth and Method (Bloomsbury Revelations) . Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
(2) See Hebrew Myths Kindle by Robert Graves and Raphael Patai. Also Understanding Genesis (The Heritage of Biblical Israel) By Nahum M. Sarna
(3)Rabe, Andre (2015-01-24). Desire Found Me (Kindle Locations 1372-1379). Andre Rabe Publishing. Kindle Edition.
(4)Rabe, Andre (2015-01-24). Desire Found Me (Kindle Locations 1810-1817). Andre Rabe Publishing. Kindle Edition.
(5) Rabe, Andre (2015-01-24). Desire Found Me (Kindle Locations 2334-2341). Andre Rabe Publishing. Kindle Edition.