Interpreting Violence

Hardin, Michael. Mimetic Theory and Biblical Interpretation: Reclaiming the Good News of the Gospel. Cascade Books, 2017.

Rene Girard, a French thinker who wrote most of his important works in the 1970s and early 80s, 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. 9781532601101

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 another to Eucharist. Both showcase the fecundity of mimetic approaches to scripture.

A version of this review first appeared in the Englewood Review of Books on October 11, 2017.



Reinhold Niebuhr Speaks to the Trump Age

I think Reinhold did anticipate Donald Trump, but not in a way of despair, by any means, although I know it’s easy to feel that way. Reinhold died slowly, unfortunately. He and Ursula were out in Stockbridge, living in their home there. He occupied a bed in the back and he went through two or three years of very gradually dying from all these strokes. But he did overlap with the presidency of Nixon. There was a time near the very end. The TV was on in the bedroom, and Nixon came on the TV. Reinhold raised himself up on his elbows, which was not easy at that time, and he looked at the TV and he said, “That…bastard!”

—story told by Gustav Niebuhr

Is a Niebuhr revival coming? Has it already begun? Was he ever really forgotten? Jimmy Carter seems to have been a fan. Barack Obama, before he became president, identified him as an influential person for his political philosophy, surprising journalist David Brooks with his quick and ready summary of the usefulness of Niebuhr’s ideas during an interview.

I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. (Obama, 2007)

Brooks recounts that he went on to give a perfect, twenty minute, summation of Niebuhr’s book, The Irony of American History.

Recently, I learned that former FBI directory James Comey had written his undergraduate thesis on Reinhold Niebuhr and that his reading of Moral Man and Immoral Society was a catalyst to public service. Some have rightly noticed the irony in this, given the fact that the FBI under Hoover had been looking for ways to tag Niebuhr as a communist for decades, especially after his criticisms of the Vietnam war.t1larg.reinhold.union

A new documentary film was released this year for PBS on the life and thought of Reinhold Niebuhr. Commentators on the film, and on Reinhold in general, have all made attempts to answer the question of how he might think about the Trump phenomenon if he were with us. Scott Paeth recently noted that Louis Brandeis, associate justice on the Supreme Court, wrote a letter to a despondent Niebuhr shortly after the election of Eisenhower. By nearly everyone’s standards, Paeth points out, Eisenhower wasn’t a terrible president. One can only imagine him flipping out over what we have now.

It’s a shame that some other characters have taken their place on the stage today but Reinhold’s role has not been filled. Jerry Falwell, Jr. is playing a grotesque caricature of Billy Graham. Trump is playing a version of Nixon. There is no ‘Niebuhr’ around. Some years ago, Stanley Hauerwas was christened “America’s best theologian”, yet Hauerwas’ project of silently creating alternative communities (i.e. churches), and his well-known pacifism, put him at odds with the gritty “Christian Realism” of Niebuhr. Perhaps a Niebuhr cannot exist in today’s world. For one thing, the world where public theologians (even ones re-descriptive and imaginative, not merely proclaimers) are listened to in any measure has vanished. So we are left to speculate with the ideas and metaphors he used in his own time. What would Niebuhr say about Christians who voted for him, and those who opposed him?

To the evangelical enablers who voted for him in overwhelming numbers (80% of white evangelicals by most polls), I think that his criticism of “personal Jesus” religiosity contained in his 1969 article “The King’s Chapel and the King’s Court”  is just as pertinent now as it was then.

The Nixon-Graham doctrine assumes that a religious change of heart, such as occurs in an individual conversion, would cure men of all sin. Billy Graham has a favorite text: “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature.” Graham applies this Pauline hope about conversion to the race problem and assures us that “If you live in Christ you become color blind.” The defect in this confidence in individual conversion is that it obscures the dual and social character of human selves and the individual and social character of their virtues and vices.

But before those of us who voted for Hillary or Bernie congratulate ourselves, there is another side to Niebuhr that reminds us of how we are always implicated, even if only by degrees, in what we criticize. I think that if Niebuhr were with us, he would also agree that we live in our bubbles of identity politics – bubbles where we can live free from sin, where anything we say about our opponents is justified. In his own time, in the height of the Cold War, he saw democracy itself as one such bubble, but one can easily substitute of number of ideologies.

Democracy may be challenged from without by the force of barbarism and the creed of cynicism. But its internal peril lies in the conflict of various schools and classes of idealists, who profess different ideals but exhibit a common conviction that their own ideals are perfect.  — The Children of Light, Children of Darkness, p.152

This duality explains why Reinhold has been claimed by opposing figures such as Michael Novak and Arthur Schlesinger (Jr.). He will continue to be a counterweight to the effusive, and frequently simplistic, optimism that often characterizes the American spirit whether in conservative or liberal form. He reminds us that the acknowledgement of sin calls for humility and modesty because even our righteousness is like a filthy rag.