"[Girard's] methods of extrapolating to find cultural history behind myths, and of reading hidden verification through silence, are worthy enrichments of the critic's arsenal."--John Yoder, 'Religion and Literature.'
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An introductory chapter on fourteenth century European anti-semitism leads into a discussion of various myths from around the world, all "texts of persecution." Girard's thesis, that basically all founding myths feature the sacrifice of an innocent victim, proceeds in good structuralist fashion: these tendencies are an innate part of human nature.
But he doesn't stop there. Taking a somewhat eschatological stance, midway through the book he continues to tackle what he calls the ultimate uncovering of the scapegoat mechanism: the death of Christ. His argument is, roughly, that Christ in his words and deeds, and finally in his self-sacrifice, demonstrates how he understands this inborn but not irredeemable human characteristic. The rest of human history thus unfolds towards a greater understanding (and Girard's work is part of this) of the irrationality of sacrifice--slowly we start to fulfill the promise of our humanity, and work towards a society in which no sacrifice will have to be made.
The most gripping chapter for me is that on Peter's betrayal. This is a truly remarkable reading of the wellknown biblical narrative, a reading that simultaneously redeems Peter (somewhat) and condemns all of humanity. Jesus, the ultimate innocent victim, understood this, as does Girard: if Peter fails, we all fail.
Since I am not a student of myth I feel I can't comment on Girard's reading of myths, most of which I hadn't heard of before, but it certainly sounds convincing. Especially his reading of the bible makes this book worthwhile to students of language, literature, social sciences, and morality.
No doubt Girard gets carried away, and tries to explain too much. Simplicity is the curse of great intellects -- Marx thought love of money was the root of all motivation, Freud over-emphasized sex, and Ernest Becker proposed to explain all human neurosis in terms of fear of death. Similarly, Girard claims: "All human language, and other cultural institutions, in fact, originated in collective murder." All?
Perhaps Girard is mocking the positivists with his method. He gives a paltry handful of examples, links them together in the most tenuous way, and tells us he's "proven" the enormous sweep of his claims. I sympathize with the minimilist approach from an artistic standpoint, but I'm going to have to think through the data for a while to see if it really fits. Based on what I know of Chinese history, for example, I think the theory Girard gives in this book may have definite explanatory value. Last emperors of prior dynasties are usually depicted as villains, and the founders of new dynasties, who generally have blood on their hands, are justified, as part of Girard's theory predicts. But I doubt even his full theory will fit everything.
Girard seems to know what he's talking about, but sometimes he forgets to explain it adequately to his readers. He occasionally blunders into sentences like this: "Is it enough to justify our qualifying the interpretation that subverts the representation of persecution by revealing it as scientific?" Uh. . . No!
For all the book's occasional faults, however, I find it changing the way I see society. Consider, for example, what the experts have been telling us about Islam for the last few months, and the realities of what Mohammed actually did, in light of the following sentence: "Human culture is predisposed to the permanent concealment of its origins in collective violence." This is exactly what politicians, scholars, and the press have been doing in regard to early Islam.
The way in which Girard explains the phenomena of scapegoating also casts a great deal of light, it seems to me, on the extreme hostility manifest not only in the Muslim world, but even in the West, towards the state of Israel, recently. The Muslim world is in a turmoil, and the Jews have been set up, as so often before, as the scapegoats -- as Girard's theory predicts.
Girard depicts evil as a second-rate, taudry, and cowardly thing, and shows true heroism in all its beauty. His discussion of the Gospels and history is especially good. (In my book, Jesus and the Religions of Man, I describe other scapegoat phenomena from around the world, and relate them in a different but perhaps complementary way to the Gospels.)
The Scapegoat is, in short, well worth attention. While some of Girard's ideas may be out to lunch, he certainly offers insights here of real and paradigm-shifting value about the nature of man and the work of Christ.
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