No. 48 May 2016
by Jeremiah Alberg
You can see, dear Reader, a number of things about which I wish to write today. There have been changes in our Bulletin. But let me begin by paying tribute to Nikolaus Wandinger and his years of service as editor. Niki put out the Bulletin twice a year for over 10 years. That means persuading many people to file a report on one of the meetings, getting reviewers for books, reminding people like the President and Executive Secretary that they are late, formatting it all together with the bibliography and sending it out. Under his leadership the Bulletin became an online presence. It serves as an archive of the Colloquium’s activities, as well as place where people can inform fellow members of activities of mutual interest. The Book Review section has provided all of us with valuable information in a timely and critical manner.
So I say thank you to Niki, both personally and on behalf of the entire Colloquium. All of us are grateful for your selfless dedication to this task. I know that you will be working for and with the Colloquium in a variety of ways in the future also.
Anytime a change like this takes place, it gives us an opportunity to think again what we are doing and how we are doing it. In this age of rapid evolution of technology, it is all the more imperative that we keep take advantage of new ways of communicating among ourselves.
At the Board meeting in St. Louis we formed a committee to work toward integrating the new Website and the Bulletin. Scott Cowdell has served as point man, with Carly Osborn and Martha Reineke, and with Nikolaus Wandiger in an advisory role. The idea was to take advantage of the web to be able to put up content more quickly, without losing the Bulletin as an archive.
By the end of the conference, several further, promising developments occurred. Maura Junius generously stepped forward when I mentioned our plans for the Bulletin during my remarks at the banquet. She has brought her rich experience to bear on the particular needs of the Colloquium and we are very grateful for that. Also during the St. Louis Conference a name surfaced for a possible successor to Niki. As you all now know that person is Curtis Gruenler. He introduces himself in his “Editor’s Column” so I will not repeat that information here. I will say that he is eminently qualified for this work and I am excited about him taking charge and helping us to communicate more effectively with one another. I am sure that he will be reaching out to a number of you for assistance. If you have any ideas for our Bulletin, please share them with Curtis, Martha Reineke, or me.
We will travel to Australia for our annual meeting. The Australian organizers, Scott Cowdell, Chris Fleming, and Joel Hodge have done a tremendous job in lining up a conference with incredible intellectual heft and significance. It is a sign of the reach of mimetic theory that some of us have to travel far. For many years now the members in Australia and New Zealand have had to either travel far or forego the meeting, this time we will be able to enjoy their hospitality. I hope to be able to greet many of you there.
COV&R Object: “To explore, criticize, and develop the mimetic model of the relationship between violence and religion in the genesis and maintenance of culture. The Colloquium will be concerned with questions of both research and application. Scholars from various fields and diverse theoretical orientations will be encouraged to participate both in the conferences and the publications sponsored by the Colloquium, but the focus of activity will be the relevance of the mimetic model for the study of religion.”
by Curtis Gruenler
As new editor, I would like to introduce myself, express some hopes for the Bulletin in its new format, and invite your participation. I’ll conclude with a prototype of a new feature: brief reports on a couple of presentations about Girard’s work.
I am a professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, where I have been teaching since I finished a Ph.D. in medieval literature at UCLA in 1997. I was an undergraduate at Stanford University when Girard arrived there to take up his post in the Department of French and Italian but did not get wind of his presence until it was too late to take a class with him. I began to read his work in graduate school with some friends, and several of us gave papers at a meeting of the Conference on Christianity and Literature for which he was the keynote speaker. My main area of research is Middle English literature (especially Piers Plowman), medieval literary theory, and their theological backgrounds.
I am grateful to those who have worked to preserve and enhance Girard’s intellectual legacy, particularly Niki Wandinger for his ten years editing the Bulletin. The leadership of COV&R is hoping that the new, electronic format will not just save costs but open up opportunities for more frequent and interactive communication. We are looking for ways that the Bulletin can be more of a means of maintaining conversation among COV&R members as well as opening that conversation to include a wider readership. You’ll notice at the bottom of the Bulletin page a space to post a response. Responses will be moderated by me, only for the sake of preventing abuse. If you have feedback, ideas, or concerns about the format, please send them to me or to other members of the communications committee (Jeremiah Alberg, Martha Reineke, and Scott Cowdell).
We would also like to invite more people to write for the Bulletin. Book reviews have always been an important part of the Bulletin, and continued expansion of books engaging with mimetic theory in various fields also increases the need for reviewers. You will find a continuously updated list of books available for review elsewhere on the COV&R website. This list is not meant to be complete; we are also happy for potential reviewers to suggest other books that they would like to review. In either case, the editors can help arrange for the book’s publisher to provide a review copy. Having a separate editor for book reviews would also help make the Bulletin’s coverage of emerging scholarship more complete. If you would be interested in writing a review or serving as book review editor, please contact me.
Here are some new features we would like to try in coming issues and invite readers to contribute:
- Film reviews. Scott Cowdell has volunteered to edit this section. If you would like to review a film from a perspective that includes mimetic theory, you are welcome to contact him. The information on writing film reviews can be found here.
- Blog watch. If you know of blogs that regularly deal with mimetic theory or might be of particular interest to COV&R members, please send me a link with a brief, publishable comment about why it is worthy of notice.
- Research news. This one is a little fuzzier, but if you are looking for collaborators on a project, organizing or presenting at a conference, or would like to communicate something else about research that is in progress, please let me know.
Finally, we would like to continue and perhaps expand the Bulletin’s reporting on events of interest to COV&R members. Reporting on COV&R’s annual conference and its programs at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion will continue, and new voices are always welcome. Here, as an example, are two other events I was able to attend in the last few months.
On November 11, 2015, the theologian Sarah Coakley delivered a lecture at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, entitled “Modernity Against Sacrifice: From Kant via Girard to Contemporary Feminism.” This continues Coakley’s long-running project on sacrifice, but I found its engagement with Girard to be more constructive than her 2009 lecture “Sacrifice Regained” or the rather brief dismissal of Girard in the first of her 2012 Gifford lectures. Coakley focused this time more on what she has characterized before as Girard’s later critique of himself and, particularly in response to Cowdell’s theological account of Girard, articulated three issues remaining in the theological development of Girard’s work: the lack of an ontology of grace or hope to balance what she sees as a primary ontology of violence; the strange rationalism she sees in Girard’s account of the exposure of violence; and insufficient reference to maternal sacrifice. Implied throughout, however, was the continuing value of Girard’s thought, at least with regard to the topic of sacrifice. All of this was preparatory to her discussion of feminist criticism of sacrifice as patriarchy and a second lecture the following night, “Retrieving Sacrifice: Why a Classic Christian (and Reformed) Theme Refuses to Die.” Coakley’s criticism of Girard seems to be morphing into something with more potential to help develop mimetic theory and relate it to neighboring, interdisciplinary conversations.
On April 7, 2016, the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago hosted a panel discussion called “Sacred Violence: The Legacy of René Girard” featuring James B. Murphy (Dartmouth College), William T. Cavanaugh (DePaul University), and Jean-Luc Marion (University of Chicago and Institut Catholique de Paris), moderated by Andrew McKenna (Loyola University, Chicago). Murphy, a professor of government who has completed a manuscript entitled The Genealogy of Violence: René Girard in Dialogue, began by venturing that Girard’s greatest legacy is to make pacifism intellectually respectable. Panelists then took turns responding to several questions posed by the moderator: Why do we read literature? Does all desire lead to violence? Must there be scapegoats? What is the meaning of sacrifice? The three panelists quickly settled into different roles: Murphy led with effective summaries of basic Girardian answers; Cavanaugh opened up connections to other Christian thinkers and topics; and Marion rearticulated Girardian themes in his own philosophical terms. The results were lively, with much to chew on for those both new and not so new to Girard. Marion’s contributions made clearer to me than did his keynote address at the 2014 COV&R meeting that he takes Girard’s work as a fundamental breakthrough that opened much that is yet to be explored, and that he sees his own work on dispossession and forgiveness as part of that exploration. A video is available here.
COV&R Conference Preview
One of the most pressing issues of our time is the outbreak of extremist violence and terrorism, done in the name of religion. Much has been written on this topic, particularly in the context of Islamic terrorism. However, there is much misunderstanding on this topic, presenting the need for a well-grounded analysis.
Further, a Girardian lens has not been comprehensively applied to this major issue of our time, even though mimetic theory opens up many possibilities for a new and in-depth analysis. This conference seeks to address this issue, with a range of experts in mimetic theory, Islamic studies and terrorism studies.
In particular, the conference will critically analyse the link made between religion and violence, and explore contemporary instances of violence done in the name of religion, such as Islamist terrorism and radicalization in its various political, economic, religious, military and technological dimensions.
We aim to analyse religious violence from multiple disciplinary perspectives (as the range of conference speakers attests). We particularly aim to bring together the insights of René Girard, the premier theorist of violence in the 20th century, with the latest scholarship on religion and violence, particularly exploring the nature of extremist violence.
The conference is open to academics, professionals, religious practitioners, military, police, and anyone interested in engaging this topic in respectful dialogue. The conference will have a special “Tribute Dinner for René Girard (on his death)” at the Park Hyatt, East Melbourne. We are hoping that the international Girardian community will make an effort to participate in this important conference and pay tribute to the memory of René Girard.
We have an exciting range of internationally acclaimed speakers who will present at the conference, including:
- Professor Asma Afsaruddin (Indiana University, USA)
- Professor Anne Aly (Edith Cowan University, Western Australia)
- Rev Dr Sarah Bachelard (Australian Catholic University, Canberra)
- Professor Greg Barton (Deakin University, Melbourne)
- Reverend Professor Frank Brennan SJ (Australian Catholic University and Charles Sturt University)
- Associate Professor Kathleen Butler (University of Newcastle)
- Professor William T. Cavanaugh (De Paul University and author of The Myth of Religious Violence), who will give the Raymund Schwager Memorial Lecture
- Professor Jean-Pierre Dupuy (École Polytechnique, Paris / Stanford University, California)
- Dr Chris Fleming (Western Sydney University, NSW)
- Most Rev Dr Philip Freier (Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne/Primate of The Anglican Church of Australia)
- Professor Wolfgang Palaver (the University of Innsbruck)
- Ms Naomi Wolfe (Australian Catholic University)
Extended biographies are available on the keynote speakers page.
The format of the conference will include evening keynote addresses, followed by morning panel sessions on the same topic as the keynote. The morning sessions will have extended time for discussion and questions to explore the key conference themes, such as the relationship between religion and violence, and an analysis of contemporary religious violence, especially Islamist extremism. The conference will also feature a panel on violence and religion in Australian-Indigenous history.
The Call for Papers page is currently open until 10 June. Papers on the conference theme and/or the mimetic theory of René Girard are welcome.
The conference is hosted by the Australian Catholic University. It is co-organised with the Australian Girard Seminar (AGS) and will incorporate its 6th annual conference. Register here.
COV&R at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting
There will be three COV&R sessions at this year’s annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Antonio, Texas, November 19 – 22. All these sessions contribute to a year of tribute at the AAR to René Girard. We will celebrate Girard’s important legacy as we explore the significance of mimetic theory to the academic study of religion, theology, and biblical literature.
We are sponsoring with the Theology and Religious Reflection Section and the Sacred Texts, Theory, and Theological Construction Group a tribute session on the legacy of René Girard. A large number of outstanding proposals were received by the three sponsoring groups, creating an abundance of riches for our sessions at the AAR Meeting. Drawing on the wonderful set of proposals received for the tribute session, the second session sponsored by COV&R will feature papers which could not be part of the tri-sponsored session due to time constraints. We are thrilled that all of the authors have agreed to present their papers in another session. A final session of papers from the tribute session proposal process will be given at a COV&R session at the AAR Meeting in Boston in 2017. The visibility afforded to mimetic theory by the AAR Call for Papers has rained down on us a great bounty of engaging and important scholarship, enough for COV&R to share for two years at the AAR meetings!
About Session One:
Confirming the ongoing salience of mimetic theory, papers selected for the tri-sponsored session will introduce a general audience to the significance of Girard’s work and attest to the diverse ways Girard’s thought illuminates themes and issues in the study of religion.
Theme: René Girard: Religion and the Legacy of Mimetic Theory
Saturday, November, 19- 4:00 PM-6:30 PM (location TBA)
The Slow Apocalypse: What Sort of Difference Does Girard Make to How We Read Apocalyptic Biblical Texts? – Janice McRandal, Charles Sturt University
There are Many Antichrists”: Rene Girard, Ivan Illich, and Apocalyptic Criticism – Kevin L. Hughes, Villanova University
Scapegoated: An Evaluation of the Theory of René Girard and the Role of Bodily Suffering and Disability in the Book of Job and Today – Leah Thomas, Drew University
Police Violence against People of Color as Scapegoating Mechanism: René Girard, James Baldwin, and a Christian Theological Response – Jason Wyman, Union Theological Seminary
A more extensive discussion of this session will be included in a later Bulletin.
About Session Two:
The second COV&R session at the AAR will feature an additional set of papers that were submitted to the tribute session. The date/time/location of this session has yet to be set.
Theme: Further Reflections on René Girard, Religion, and the Legacy of Mimetic Theory
In his presentation, Joshua Nunziato observes that Girard’s investigation of sacrifice has been widely regarded as a powerful critique of sacrifice per se. But he argues that Augustine’s interpretation of sacrifice in the City of God suggests that Girard’s vision is more convincing as an account of sacrificial perversion than as a deconstruction of sacrifice itself. Arguing that it lacks an account of the redemptive possibilities of sacrificial incorporation, Nunziato demonstrates that Girard’s view offers only the prospect of disembodied self-knowledge and holds up Augustine’s vision of sacrificial incorporation, developed in City of God as an alternative.
Chelsea King will consider how mimetic theory can be a useful tool for engaging with the most recent advances in both evolutionary theory and anthropological discourse. In particular, she will focus on what anthropologists are claiming about the various capacities that have evolved in Homo, including the capacity for symbolic thought, the formation of identities, and imitation. Noting that there is an increase in intergroup and intergroup violence associated with these capacities, King will show how mimetic theory can shed light on and draw important connections among these capacities.
Joel Hodge will discuss how Girard’s compelling account of the nature and trajectory of violence has particular implications for the radically shifting dynamics of modernity and for a range of academic disciples in their engagement with these dynamics, especially political theology. He will assess the legacy of Girard’s theory of violence for political theology and contemporary analysis of violence, particularly terrorist violence (e.g., ISIS).
Grant Kaplan will review what Girard said about the nature of evidence in Evolution and Conversion alongside his remarks about faith and reason in Battling to the End. Such an analysis yields in an understanding that Girard saw himself as an apologist particularly interested in persuading those outside the Christian fold, while also admitting that personal conversion was the sine qua non for accepting mimetic theory.
Disembodying Self-Knowledge: An Augustinian Criticism of Girardian Sacrifice – Joshua Nunziato, Villanova University
The Violence of Identity: Using Mimetic Theory to Illuminate the Darkness of Human Origins – Chelsea King, University of Notre Dame
Understanding Violence and Religion: René Girard’s Legacy for Political Theology and Studies of Violence – Joel Hodge, Australian Catholic University
The Apologetic Legacy of René Girard – Grant Kaplan, St. Louis University
About Session Three:
Our third COV&R session will continue a well-established tradition: it will feature two books of significance to mimetic theory. The first panel will focus on the newly published (as of November) English translation of the René Girard and Raymund Schwager correspondence by Bloomsbury Press. Mid-way through this session, a second panel will discuss The Prophetic Law by Sandor Goodhart.
Theme: Book Session on René Girard and Mimetic Theory
The first panel will focus on the newly published (as of November) English translation of the René Girard and Raymund Schwager correspondence by Bloomsbury Press. This English translation of the correspondence between cultural theorist and Christian apologist René Girard and his Swiss Jesuit friend, the theologian Raymund Schwager, proved formative for both mimetic theory and theological dramatic theory. In it we see Girard developing his mimetic theory in dialogue with Christian doctrine, touching on issues such as freedom, ontological violence, natural knowledge of God, and biblical hermeneutics. Likewise, Schwager strives to make mimetic theory more acceptable in the Catholic world.”
Mid-way through this session, a second panel will discuss The Prophetic Law by Sandor Goodhart. This collection of essays traces the history of Goodhart’s dialogues with Girard, beginning in 1983. The essays address Girardian concerns with Biblical scripture (Genesis and Exodus), literature (the European novel and Shakespeare), and philosophy and religious studies issues (especially ethical and Jewish subject matters). Interspersed with the essays are Girard’s responses. As a consequence, the book collects in one volume a Jewish-Christian dialogue of great significance to mimetic theory.
Theme: Book Session on René Girard and Mimetic Theory
Part I: Panel on “René Girard and Raymund Schwager: Correspondence 1974-1991
Scott Cowdell, Charles Sturt University
Joel Hodge, Australian Catholic University
Mathias Moosbrugger, University of Innsbruck
Part II: Panel on Sandor Goodhart’s The Prophetic Law
Jeremiah Alberg, International Christian University
Scott Cowdell, Charles Sturt University
Respondent: Sandor Goodhart, Purdue University
Mimetic Theory Summer School Comes to North America
A six-day, intensive introduction for students to the work of René Girard will be held on the campus of Hope College in Holland, Michigan, July 5-10. This is the first North American version of the summer school previously held at several locations in Europe and last year in Brazil.
An intensive, six-day study of René Girard’s first three books (Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, Violence and the Sacred, and Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World) will be held at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, July 5-10. It will follow a model used for previous summer schools in Europe and Brazil.
Faculty for the summer school will be James Alison, Andrew McKenna, and Curtis Gruenler. The target audience is graduate students and advanced undergraduates, but other applicants will be considered. Tuition is $250 and includes accommodations and meals.
Go here for more information and to register. The deadline to register has been extended to June 4.
Paying Tribute to René Girard
On November 4, scholars and thoughtful readers of Girard will be given an opportunity to gather at Saint Paul University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada to present their critical reflections on the impact that Girard has had on them and their respective fields. The stage will be set on the evening of November 3 when Prof. Sandor Goodhart, the fourth PhD that Girard supervised, will present a public Glasmacher Lecture to honour Girard.
Abstracts are invited for presentations on Girard. They should address the following questions:
- What has been the impact of Girard on your intellectual and personal growth?
- How has Girard affected your discipline or field of studies?
- What have been the practical implications of mimetic theory?
- What are the future implications of Girard’s thought?
- What are the big questions raised by mimetic theory?
Abstracts should be no more than 200 words.
Deadline: June 30, 2016
Send abstracts and contact information to Gloria Neufeld Redekop.
Raymund Schwager, Der wunderbare Tausch: Zur Geschichte und Deutung der Erlösungslehre. Gesammelte Schriften 3. Herder, 2015. 559 pp. ISBN 978-3-451-34223-3. € 52,00.
Soteriology was a centerpiece in Raymund Schwager’s theological work. He developed his position above all in three publications. The first, Must there be Scapegoats?, appeared in German in 1978. In it Schwager proved the fruitfulness of Girard’s understanding of the sacred and of violence for the interpretation of Scripture. In the process Schwager wanted to introduce German-speaking theologians to Girard’s thinking and to dissolve common prejudices against mimetic theory. The work reviewed here is the second of those three works. Its title translates as The Miraculous Exchange: On the History and Interpretation of Soteriology. Originally published in 1986, it deals with questions of the history of theology, but with an eye also to its systematics. Schwager is convinced that fundamental problems of soteriology can finally be understood properly and solved now with mimetic theory. Four years later, Schwager’s main work, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, which was re-edited as volume 4 of the Gesammelte Schriften, gave his own systematic account.
In his correspondence with Girard, which was published as vol. 6 of the Gesammelte Schriften, from 1980 onwards Schwager repeatedly tells about his work creating articles about the history of soteriology. They were partly prepared in university seminars and were published for the first time as a series of articles in the academic journal of Innsbruck Jesuits, Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie. On September 30, 1984, Schwager announces the completion of the final article – on Hans Urs von Balthasar; he plans to round up the project by presenting current theologians’ divergent theories of sacrifice and then to publish the eleven articles together in one volume. Such a collection was planned from the beginning; all the articles have the same structure. When the collection appeared in 1986, it contained only 10 essays, complemented by a preface, dated October 1985, a short introduction, and a very brief final reflection. The planned article on sacrifice was not included, and the collection was an almost unchanged reprint of the journal articles. Sometime between January and May 1986 Girard congratulates Schwager on his new publication, a copy of which he had received. Very soon Schwager tried to find an American translator for this book, but all efforts so far have not succeeded in bringing that about.
The volume reviewed here is volume 3 of Schwager’s Gesammelte Schriften, which are edited by his former Innsbruck students, this one by Nikolaus Wandinger. The new edition contains the unchanged texts, set in a larger print space, thus enhancing readability and gravity, and providing the page numbers of both previous publications for easy referencing. The editor’s extensive editing report (pp. 11-35) relates the genesis and reception of the work. In place of a thematic index, which the original collection did not contain, Schwager’s notes regarding the first eight essays are provided (pp. 551-559); additional features are a reworked index of persons (pp. 543-550) and editorial remarks listing the few corrections that were made (mostly orthographic in kind) and giving information about the genesis and the biographical context of the texts (pp. 540-542). The bibliographical references in the footnotes were rendered more precise and a complete bibliography was added (pp. 521-539). Thus this volume comes very close to a historical-critical edition. It makes for joyful reading through its high quality paper, generous design, and the care taken by the editor and all collaborators. The more regrettable is one faux pas which I note at the express wish of the editor: the subtitle on the contents page (5) and on a partition page (37) erroneously makes soteriology (German: Erlösungslehre) to theology of original sin (German: Erbsündenlehre).
The ten essays span the whole of church history, but they are no comprehensive history of Christian soteriology. Instead, theologians and controversies have been selected that are still of importance today because of their high intellectual rank and their historical consequences, although an element of randomness cannot be excluded. The systematic purpose this collection follows is making the positions and controversies of past centuries fruitful for current soteriology. At the same time these are confronted with mimetic theory. This theory is the hermeneutical tool that guides the argument of the whole book. The essays are structured accordingly: a first section presents the position of a historical author; a second section critically discusses it by bringing it face to face with mimetic theory, so that mimetic theory’s arguments are brought to bear in turn on the historical thought. The first six essays deal with theologians of the patristic age: Irenaeus of Lyon and Marcion, Athanasius the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine and Pelagius, and Maximus the Confessor; Anselm of Canterbury is the sole representative of medieval theology; the following 900 years are covered by a rigorous selection containing only Martin Luther, Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar.
It is difficult to discern Schwager’s main focus. The reason for this might be Schwager’s historical meticulousness in presenting the theologians’ positions, and also the monographic form of the essays. However, three themes are of utmost importance: mimesis, freedom, drama. In their mutual interconnectedness they constitute the thread linking the array of thoughts and information, which the book provides; these cannot be related here in detail.
References to mimetic theory pervade the whole book; problems of rivalry recur everywhere. Especially for the patristic time mimetic analysis are very fruitful. This is true first for the controversy between Marcion and Irenaeus of Lyon about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments: Marcion counter-posed the just creator of the Old Testament with the New Testament God of love. Irenaeus, however, claimed that love and justice are one in God as the all-encompassing reality, and he insisted on the unity of the two testaments. Church theology sided with him, but to this day it has not succeeded in providing a satisfactory solution to the two problems he posed – the relationship of the two testaments and of God’s mercy and justice. In the light of Girard’s theory of the sacred, Schwager explains the connection between violence and the image of God and interprets the Old Testament writings, whose ambivalence resonated so strongly with Marcion, as mixed texts.
A similar path is taken with another topic that ranked high in the patristic Church: Christ’s victory over the devil. In August 1980 Schwager wrote to Girard: “A theme figuring prominently with Church fathers was the cross as a victory over the devil. Yet, none of the fathers succeeded in formulating a coherent theory.” The motif was, however, so commonplace that it had to be taken seriously. But if one interprets Satan as a hidden, collective, evil mechanism of humanity, as mimetic theory does, the confusing assortment of patristic imagery about the devil can be brought to make sense, and, moreover, the accord of these images with the New Testament becomes visible.
The idea of mimesis also helps to better understand the controversy between Pelagius and Augustine. Pelagius taught, in the tradition of the Greek fathers, that the human person becomes an image of God by imitating Him. Augustine objected vehemently because he recognized the problem inherent to all mimesis. Even when imitating something good, it tends towards rivalry and violence. Moral optimism easily deteriorates into aggressive self-righteousness. This ambivalence was also seen by Maximus the Confessor.
By protesting against Pelagius’s moral optimism Augustine points to the problem of freedom. Many church fathers simply presupposed human freedom but did not reflect on what that entailed. Personal categories were to be developed in a long-winded process – oftentimes in interdependence with Christology. It had to be realized gradually that the full humanity of the God-man entailed a free human soul. Yet, this made it even more difficult for the church fathers to allow for human freedom in Jesus, because for them freedom means the freedom of choice between good and evil – an absurdity for the God-man.
Granted, even Augustine does not deny human freedom, but he excludes any role for it in the relation of humans towards God; his main concern is the gratuity of grace, and this leads him to formulate his doctrine of predestination. He pessimistically supposes that most human persons are hopelessly damned as sinners; those few, however, to whom God directs Christ’s grace, cannot resist this grace and are thereby predestined for salvation. That way Augustine leaves the Church a highly problematic inheritance. It becomes difficult to distinguish divine grace from randomness. The ancient, sacrificial thinking that is fixated on a supposed rivalry between humans and God (or the Gods) is still at work.
The only medieval theologian covered is, as mentioned, Anselm of Canterbury. His theory of satisfaction is only treated in passing, however. Instead his theory of freedom is broadly discussed, because it overcomes the aporias of the church fathers. The choice that is a necessary element of freedom is not between good and evil but between good and better. Anselm gained this insight in Christology when he searched for the necessary reasons of the incarnation.
Drama – this term only appears when Luther’s, Barth’s, and Balthasar’s theologies are treated; in connection with them Schwager develops his own dramatic theology. Regarding their length alone, one can see that the main emphasis of the book lies with these three final essays. Looking at Luther and Barth, Schwager accentuates, as before, what he has learned from these thinkers. The critique that – in the wake of Augustine – they accord no role for human freedom in the relationship to God is only secondary. Much more important is Luther’s sensitivity for the dramatic element in Jesus’ life and thus – through their discipleship – also in the lives of the faithful. Like no one before, Luther took Jesus’ temptation in his passion seriously. When interpreting Romans 7:14-25, one of the classical inter-denominational points of disagreement, Schwager sides with Luther in that this passage talks about the human person under grace. It is exactly for him/her that simul iustus et peccator – simultaneously just and a sinner – is valid. Faithful existence then means participation in Jesus’ struggle against sin.
Barth has utmost significance for modern theology by reformulating the doctrine of predestination; it is being linked up with Christology. The centerpiece of Barth’s theology is the person of Jesus Christ, his cross and resurrection, around which all other topics are grouped. The crucified bears God’s damnation of sinners and through this, God directs His grace to all human beings.
Balthasar, who is treated in the final essay, takes up this idea, but he insists on human freedom playing a role in the relation to God. The history of revelation and faith thus becomes a dialogical, dramatic interaction. In order to be able to look at the manifold dimensions of this drama, Balthasar strives to integrate the traditions of European theater into his theology. In the wake of Barth, his soteriology emphasizes the faithful meditation of the Passion, of “Jesus’ Hour,” which has its low point in Jesus’ descensus ad inferos. This descent now is not understood, as it was in the patristic Church, as a victorious conquest of Hades by the Risen One, but strictly as a descent into hell, where Jesus has to suffer the terrible wrath of God on the sin of the world.
In critically appraising Balthasar’s work, Schwager sketches the four acts of Jesus’ life-drama, which will later – complemented by a fifth act – form the backbone of his own Jesus in the Drama of Salvation – thus already building the bridge toward his later book. In his treatment of Barth, Schwager had already asked whether the emphasis on God’s wrath – even if it was borne by Christ alone – does not entail an image of God that is in equal measure condemnation and love; similar objections are now raised against Balthasar’s formulations of divine wrath: they entail an identity of good and evil in God.
I wholeheartedly agree with these objections. Why does the Christian language of the wrath of God draw so exclusively on Old Testament passages that – in addition – are interpreted in a one-sided manner? Why is God’s wrath matter-of-factly associated with punishment and destruction? Wrath can be described in a purely formal way as an intense emotional response. It certainly urges one towards an active engagement, an action. Yet, does that always have to be destructive punishment? Isn’t there also a wrath of love that energetically presents the other with the wrongness of his/her actions and prods them towards conversion at the same time, offering possibilities of recompense? I would understand Jesus Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection within such a framework. Then Balthasar’s meditations about “Jesus’ Hour” become obsolete. To endure God’s loving wrath may be exhausting but it does not lead into the hell of desperation because love and joy are already inherently present in God’s anger as His actual concern. The pain is birthing pain. God “gives birth” to new, eternal life.
The Miraculous Exchange is the title of the book as well as that of the essay on Gregory of Nyssa. By this choice Schwager places his book in the tradition of patristic soteriology. It also shows high appreciation for Gregory’s thought. Some of his positions are hotly contested; however, his image of God, which emphasizes God as perfect goodness, and his leaning towards universal reconciliation are highly praised as being of permanent importance for the Church and theology. Gregory also intuited that the pivotal point of the miraculous exchange is not the incarnation but Christ’s death: Christ bore human maliciousness and repaid it with forgiveness and love, with the gift of eternal life. Luther continued this motif with his talk about the “happy exchange and struggle.”
It is exciting to follow this development of the doctrine of predestination. While it was closely interwoven with a pessimistic view of salvation in Augustine, it was being opened up towards God’s universal salvific will and the hope for a complete reconciliation in Barth and Balthasar, a concern that Schwager wholly subscribed to in his theological work. His history of soteriology shows that Schwager was a theologian of great intellectual capability; his connection of theology and mimetic theory benefits both sides.
Mimesis, Movies, and Media. Ed. Scott Cowdell, Chris Fleming, and Joel Hodge. New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015. ISBN 9781501324376. $39.95.
This potent book is Volume 3 in the Violence, Desire, and the Sacred series edited by the admirably persistent Australian triad Cowdell, Fleming, and Hodge. Its fifteen essays dazzle with a kind of boisterous motley. Readers might feel, at the end, as I did, a bit overstimulated: it is as if one has been moved from one machine to the next in an arcade of Girard-inflected pinball games and virtual reality stations, one’s joyful head spinning thanks to the power of mimetic theory, but one’s spirit somehow not as refreshed as it might have been by destination re-orientation. Or to try another analogy: the collection’s after-effect is that of jumpiness after multiple injections of curiosity juice, rather than that of arm-folded sighs after a satisfying banquet.
“Part I: Media and Representation” contains three essays that treat broad questions of scapegoat dynamics in media. “Part II: Film,” by far the longest, presents nine articles analyzing movies, most of them Hollywood blockbusters (A.I.: Artificial Intelligence; The Hunger Games; the Batman/ Dark Knight trilogy; The Matrix; The Cabin in the Woods; some Woody Allen romances; The Shining; The Ice-Storm; The Hi-Lo Country). “Part III: Television” rounds things out with three studies, two of them hitting the bull’s eye of the powerful new genre of the multiple-season long-arc drama (Mad Men; Homeland; Dexter). The pieces vary in their thoroughness of excavation, the intensity of their searchlights, and their readiness to query or qualify (rather than just “apply”) Girard’s ideas. The writers sometimes refer to their contributions as “chapters.” Insofar as “chapters” suggests a unity and continuity between pieces and no such unity emerges, nothing beyond the commitment to working with mimetic theory, the editors might benefit by focussing future volumes on a commonly, constantly pursued question rather than employing a “topic X in the light of mimetic theory” format.
Part I opens with “On the One Medium” (7-15) by Eric Gans. Gans explores with his characteristically adventurous authority what he deems “the apparently definitive phenomenon of the Internet as the One Medium that, precisely, reduces all earlier media to secondary differences of platform and presentation” (8). I was reassured, as one not born digital and thus condemned to bafflement at students who lope through campus courtyards head-bent into cell phones, by one of Gans’ verdicts: “art-objects and performances have a physical presence that cannot be reproduced with equivalent effect on a screen. Scenes and screens can never become wholly interchangeable” (14). Also in Part I, John O’Carroll demonstrates that the scapegoat analyses in Stanley Cohen’s 1972 classic Folk Devils and Moral Panics grow from ideas neither as sociologically coherent nor as anthropologically mature as those of Girard (17-32).
Opening Part II, Paul Dumouchel’s “Mirrors of Nature: Artificial Agents in Real Life and Virtual Worlds” is nothing less than brilliant. Dumouchel ducks and weaves through art and nature, original and copy in Hobbes and Plato, shares data from recent experiments in social robotics and virtual reality, and presents a laser-precise treatment of Spielberg’s A. I. – in his conclusions, respectfully holding Spielberg responsible for his failure to show this: “… you cannot make a robot that can have only one emotion, love, independently of other strong feelings, and… our [human] ability to love is not without relation to our propensity for violence” (60). Regarding the question of what it takes “for an artificial agent to appear real,” Dumouchel enigmatically proposes: “He (it) must be mimetic, vulnerable, non-autonomous in its desire, and capable of violence—and we must further be ready to recognize it as the origin of its own actions” (60). I linger over the logical tension between one’s desiring non-autonomously and one’s being recognizable as the origin of one’s own actions, wondering whether Dumouchel wishes us to assume that it is a founding paradox of the human.
I missed in the theatres and thus have long been curious about the horror flick The Cabin in the Woods, but Peter Y. Paik’s summary of its contents (109) in his “Apocalypse of the Therapeutic: The Cabin in the Woods and the Death of Mimetic Desire” makes it sound like such an extravagant hybrid of adolescent sci-fi and silly demon lore that I may not bother. And yet I find convincing Paik’s thesis that we should supplement Girard’s critique of active nihilism with a critique of what Paik calls the “passive nihilism” represented in The Cabin in the Woods, “the hallmarks of which are resignation, self-disgust, morbidity, and the readiness to resort to opiates and euthanasia as an escape from these feelings” (112). Paik argues that “Girard’s theory must make room for a third possible response to the revelation of foundational violence alongside the reactive defense of sacrifice and the renunciation of violence: impotent self-hatred” (115). David Humbert’s thorough, sensitive analysis of character, image, and context in “Eyes Wide Shut: Mimesis and Historical Memory in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining” (117-28) is likewise very enriching. Only doctrinaire Freudians would remain unconvinced by Humbert’s demonstration, one in accord with Girard’s formulations in Violence and the Sacred, of this thesis: “The theme of the double in the film is best understood as associated with [a] repressed history of violence rather than with sexuality” (126). Humbert made me want to watch The Shining again.
Thomas Ryba’s “Cowboy Metaphysics, the Virtuous-Enough Cowboy, and Mimetic Desire in Stephen Frears’ The Hi-Lo Country” (149-67) does something all too rare these days in humanistic inquiry: it celebrates, while detailing the evidence that undergirds, his considered judgment that the Western in question is “a superior work of art… nearly perfectly constructed” and “an object lesson in mimetic theory, one…positively dizzying in the way it portrays the interlocking strands of mimetic triangularity coupling and uncoupling in the imaginary town of Hi-Lo, New Mexico” (150). Ryba’s essay made me want to watch The Hi-Lo Country for the first time.
Joel Hodge studies the Batman and Spiderman movies in “Superheroes, Scapegoats, and Saviors: The Problem of Evil and the Need for Redemption” (61-76). He notes that Girard expressed a “distrust” of the superhero genre, given “its potential to portray a romantic, spontaneous notion of identity” and “its sacrificial resonances”(68). Nonetheless, Hodge proceeds, with generosity and patience, to make a case for the significance of the good cultural work such movies do: “The superhero genre presents the depth of evil and the continued need for savior figures who model goodness and build solidarity in order for the human polis to function, despite its struggles with corruption and evil” (74). I remain skeptical of such generosity, to the extent that these films are spectacle-saturated fantasies: the steak is the violent action—the nifty weapons, capes, gloves, masks, boots, cables, slick elevators, fast cars; the leaping, the kicking, the impossible mid-air fistfights. What ideas these films purvey, I fear, are mostly salt and pepper on the steak. The lad in the line-up will buy the ticket to see violence, not to learn about it. (Close your eyes and listen to the soundtrack of the closing 45 minutes of any such action flick: the grunts, slaps, sighs, screeches, howls, explosions, sirens and crashes become painfully boring.) Turning to another case, let me confide that my stepson was enamoured of The Matrix and exposed me to it enough that I believe its appeal to teenage hordes in the Western world owes almost everything to its sequences of machine-gun battle, leather coats swishing between pillars while cement walls are riddled with bazillions of bullets. Cool. I was puzzled therefore that, despite its theoretical sophistication (or perhaps because of it), Nidesh Lawtoo’s “The Matrix E-motion: Simulation, Mimesis, Hypermimesis” (89-104) was mostly silent about the film’s investment in such armed spectacles.
Debra E. MacDonald praises Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games trilogy, as a genius and a prophet: “this work of modern genius spread like a contagion” (77); “The Hunger Games is an amplified reflection (or commentary, perhaps) on modern society from the perspective of ancient society, which René Girard has so powerfully explicated. [Her] narrative is prophetic, though not anthropologically original” (84). The affirmative tone of MacDonald’s assessment troubles me. To demonstrate that a text describes sacrificial ritual is not to demonstrate that it critiques sacrificial ritual; even less will any such demonstration show that the text conveys even remotely the radical idea of the gospel that God has nothing to do with violence. I tend to the opinion that The Hunger Games is through and through deliciously pagan. Indeed, my inexpert engagement with The Hunger Games phenomenon inclines me toward at least the possibility of an alternative verdict. It could as easily be argued from a Girardian viewpoint that a whole generation of young people, those who live in one of the most comfortable, privileged, helicopter-parented societies in the history of humankind, are permitted by the “genius” of Collins and her movie-making allies to indulge in adolescent victimary fantasies where a hyperbolically evil “establishment” refines its cruelties toward the hyperbolically tormented good “oppressed.” The trilogy perpetuates the moralizing binaries of myth; it does not ironize them with a conversion narrative or any unsettling allusions to a rabbi whose kingdom is not of this world. I would prefer a Girardian study of The Hunger Games that shows how fall short it falls of the gospel, not one that flatters it for the brilliant techno-sophistication through which it makes sacrificial ritual esthetically pleasing.
As a binge-watching addict of long-arc television drama, I enjoyed Paolo Diego Bubbio’s excellent “The Self in Crisis: Mad Men and Homeland in Girard and Hegel,” an essay committed to the interdividuality thesis—“the self must be conceived not in metaphysical but in functional terms” (182). Likewise I enjoyed “Conversion in Dexter” by Matthew John Paul Tan and Joel Hodge; but again, I found it odd in the latter (final in the volume) essay to witness such earnest investments of energy aiming to prove with circumspect caution that a serial killer with an “inability to forgive” (204) ought not be confused with anything resembling the self-giving of Jesus.
Let me affirm in closing that Mimesis, Movies, and Media does succeed as an experiment testing the power of Girard-like lenses to magnify certain structures in specimens of “popular culture” that would otherwise remain invisible. I recommend the collection; you should buy it or get your library to order a copy, no question. However, Girard’s is not, it seems to me, the kind of theory that licenses equal attention to all artifacts. Girard himself was to all appearances fond of that monstrosity “the canon.” Although none of the movies and texts here discussed is insignificantly obscure, I heard myself internally murmuring that the fact of an artwork’s best-seller popularity is no immunization against its vulnerability to charges of vulgarity. At the risk of posturing as the elitist reactionary, I confess that more than once I asked, why are we so gingerly and delicately bothering with this… thing?
More broadly, in the context of labour expended to squeeze deep meaning from Batman and Spiderman and The Hunger Games and The Matrix, one might ask whether Girardian scholars should hesitate less to call pagan nonsense “pagan nonsense” while sallying forth more prepared to negotiate between the myth/gospel distinction fundamental to mimetic theory and questions of how we might go about determining esthetic value. I believe that the hard-working writers in this volume, while certainly not oblivious to differences between works that reveal rather than reflect metaphysical desire, in Girard’s formulation, nevertheless let that difference grow fuzzy. Most are studious and scrupulous in applying the Girardian criterion (a criterion that seems, even a half-century on, still inexhaustibly significant) of evidence in narrative texts for or against a “novelistic” or Christian conversion. The collection did, however, reinforce my long-held conviction that Girardian scholars do themselves a disservice by ignoring the esthetic theory that has been so carefully developed by one of Girard’s most powerful disciples, Eric Gans, especially in his Originary Thinking: Elements of Generative Anthropology (1993).
Can we even speak of a “Girardian” esthetic? I don’t think so. A systematic body of esthetic concepts in mimetic theory remains to be developed. I hope that dialogue between those who read lots of Gans and those who read lots of Girard increases: generative anthropology certainly needs more of the compassionate nonviolence in mimetic theory, but mimetic theory certainly needs more of the esthetic theory in generative anthropology. When Eric Gans says that “the figural is the sacrificial,” I think he means partly that when we survey the wondrous cross, we cannot help but be experiencing at once the sacred and the beautiful. In being artful in his dealings with us, the God who has nothing to do with violence is no less loving. But not all that passes for Art will reveal the love of God. As J. M. Coetzee’s heroine Elizabeth Costello says, Film is a simplifying medium. Maybe we should not spend too many hours with eyes glued to The Matrix or The Hunger Games, and (full disclosure) I should probably see a priest to get talked out of my fondness for The Walking Dead.
Bibliography of Literature on the Mimetic Theory Volume XXXXI
by Dietmar Regensburger
Special issue of obituaries, tributes, and articles
dedicated to René Girard (1923-2015), part 2
The Bulletin will continue to feature twice a year, in May and November, a bibliography of published work pertaining to the work of René Girard and mimetic theory. If you would like to submit information about a work that has not yet appeared in any of these bibliographies, available online, see the form at the end.