Violence and the fact that God in the Bible sometimes sanctions violence troubles many people. It is more than what the phrase “Old Testament God” implies, that God supported the holy wars of Israel and draconian laws to stone adulterers, homosexuals and disobedient children, which obviously come from way back in the Stone Age. No, it is also that God, in apocalypses like Daniel, Revelation and the apocalyptic discourses and parables of Jesus, himself exercises violent judgment against sinners.
And yet, overall, the Bible supports mercy as a central virtue both of God and of those who obey him. How can we understand this?
A major attempt to figure it out is the work of the French thinker, Rene Girard. Girard is important because he offers a new way to understand sin and atonement in a time when those doctrines have become stale and don’t make sense to many contemporary people.
But he is hard to understand. The best overview that I have found is here.
I have decided to blog about Girard’s book The One By Whom Scandal Comes.
It contains essays and dialogue, not a sustained argument. So I will feel free to skip around. Beginning in chapter 4, it seems that much of the book is cast in the form of an interview, where he answers questions about his thought. My goal will be to pull out some of Girard’s essential ideas and see how they may be relevant for understanding the Bible.
In his preface Girard says that he has responded in these essays to some of the criticisms that other scholars have directed at his work. So this 2014 book should give us an up-to-date look at what he thinks and how he responds to critics.
One of my thoughts about the bit I knew about Girard was that his views sometimes sounded suspiciously like a rehash of Freud’s Totem and Taboo. Girard acknowledges this criticism in his preface, but says it is a misunderstanding. He says he is not a disciple of Freud.
He laments that modern French philosophers have rejected the classic language of philosophy for “twentieth-century neologisms”. I think he means the confounded jargon of the postmodernists.
But, as I said, Girard himself is not easy to understand. This is partly because he uses his own specialized language. A central concept is memesis. It means imitation, but in a particularly negative way. We imitate the desires of other people. Modern advertising is about getting us to do this, getting us all to want the latest Apple product, for instance, that everybody else also wants. This imitation of what others desire causes us to become rivals of the others as we all scramble to get the same things. Such rivalry may lead to unpleasantness and violence.
Such is a basic concept of sin or the fallen state for Girard. But there is much more to it.