Skip to content

Two Recent Sources of Inspiration

April 7, 2010

Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation

Author: James K. A. Smith

Publication:       Baker Academic, Grand Rapids Michigan, 2009.

This volume is the first of an ambitious series on the theology of culture (“Cultural Liturgies – volume 1”) in which he offers a thoroughly Augustinian critique of contemporary culture and anthropology. From this perspective he deconstructs our intellectualist construals of ‘secular’ practices (‘liturgies’) as well as the practice of Christian worship. In his final chapter he offers a brief but tantalising account of how to reconstruct along such Augustinian lines the practice of Christian education and the Christian university in particular. I have just finished it and loved it. Haven’t read any critiques yet and haven’t formulated many critical thoughts either. It is invigorating hearing someone deeply involved in the reformed tradition (like myself) offering an account of church and education which bears deep resonances to the Catholic and Anabaptist traditions. I found myself in deep sympathy with the implicit and sometimes explicit critiques of the reformed and Calvinist assumptions challenged by his Augustinian anthropology. I look forward to the next volumes of the project. I guess if there is any area which I am beginning to question his assumptions it may be in the area of the creational goodness of the “cultural urge”. The girardian in me suspects that cultural construction could be at root a form of social violence (tower of babel), albeit predicated on the good of sociality per se. I guess I am making a note to self to think more about the way he is using the notion of the ‘cultural urge’ which he takes from Klaas Schilder.

God, Order and Chaos: Rene Girard and the Apocalypse

Author:             Stephen Finamore

Publication:       Paternoster Biblical Monographs

Paternoster Press, 2009

For those who have, like me, followed the progress of Girard’s thought (mimetic theory) in its ability to open up new vistas in understanding ancient and modern literature and especially the bible, its arrival at the Apocalypse is a significant event.

Hopefully those sceptical about the ability of mimetic theory to shed light either on biblical interpretation or on issues in systematic theology will hold their scepticism long enough to check out this book. Incentive is provided by Christopher Rowland (Dean Ireland Professor of Exegesis at the University of Oxford) who writes: “If the Apocalypse was a book for its times to enable what the Spirit was saying to late first century people, Finamore’s reading of the Apocalypse through the lends of Girard’s theory is an equivalent wake up call for a world addicted to violence and coercion in the pursuit of human flourishing and a plea to consider the ‘better way’ of the victim, the story of whose death, supposedly expedient for the wellbeing of the people is recorded in the New Testament witness” [italics mine].

What immediately impressed me was the balanced precision of the scholarship and Finamore’s clear eye for the big picture. He opens with an extensive review of the literature on the Apocalypse from the patristic to the present day! This alone is worth the value of the purchase price. Finamore’s second chapter and third chapters also offer extensive background to his proposal. In chapter two he outlines Girard’s theory. It could easily be passed over by those familiar with the theory, however it is characterised by a surprising depth of analysis. More interesting to those familiar with Girard is the following chapter on the reception of his work, not just in Biblical Studies by also in a range of related disciplines. While maintaining critical distance Finamore sometimes defends Girard against certain misunderstandings (for example in John Milbank and Burton Mack) and at other times merely notes divergences, as for example when he observes how Girard differs from Von Balthasar in a similar way to Barth.

Finamore’s reading of the Apocalypse is based on a careful defence of the presence of a christus victor account of the atoning impact of Christ operative in the visions of Revelation. It is basically a non-sacrificial account of atonement, which, although aware of themes associated with sacrifice in the text, argues that they are not the principle terms in which the impact of Christ is framed and even these terms are amenable to non-sacrificial readings. Finamore, like the later Girard, is aware of the range of senses of sacrifice present in various strands of the biblical tradition. However they both use the term ‘sacrifice’ to refer to that dominant notion of sacrifice in the ancient world (appeasing the deities wrath/vengeance/justice/demands by means of the blood/death of a victim) and thus see the dominant biblical account of atonement as non-sacrificial. Finamore argues that although sacrificial thinking remains (arguably) present in the Apocalypse at some level thanks to the unavoidable resonance of the language in the thought world of the first century, it can (and should) be read in a non-sacrificial way. This possibility is heightened in our time thanks in significant part to the way Girard’s ideas help fill in certain gaps in our imagination. Central to his account is an analysis of martyros (Christ as the faithful witness to the truth, even to death and a parallel role played by his followers) and nikao (to conquer). It is as faithful witnesses to the truth (to death) that Christ and his followers conquer. Thus the effect of Christ’s life, death and resurrection in the Apocalypse is primarily a revelatory conquest. The revelatory nature of the martyrial witness is reinforced by the fact that the forces of evil arrayed against the lamb and against his faithful witness are portrayed by various symbols and hypostatizations of the deception and a world-controlling delusion.

The drama of the Apocalypse, according to Finamore, shows a world which although a beneficiary of the victory of Christ by his faithful witness to death, is still experiencing considerable chaos. Finamore argues that the picture presented in the Apocalypse is rendered persuasive by Girard’s account of the impact of Christ’s death. For Girard (as for the Apocalypse) there are both beneficent effects to the work of Christ and maleficent effects. According to Girard the chaos that ensues is a result of the revelation of Christ but Christ is not the agent of it. It is the consequence of the breakdown of the sacralized violence which normally (and universally) acts as a break on chaos and control on social order.

In an excursus Finamore argues that not only is Girard’s theory compatible with the christus victor model operative in the Apocalypse, but this is the overwhelmingly dominant tradition in the New Testament. Following Gorringe he argues that there is ‘little evidence for expiatory theology in the gospels’ and that the centre of Paul’s account is that Jesus death and resurrection effect a transfer from one realm to another and a participatory transformation of the life of the believers and their community. Colossians picks up this with an additional emphasis on the life of the community mediating this process to the powers (a theme with strong resonances in the Apocalypse). Even Hebrews with its acceptance of the language of sacrifice offers an account of Christ’s death as a sacrifice which ends sacrifice.

Finamore then proceeds to interpret the narrative of revelation as a symbolic representation of the transfer of sovereignty consequent upon the victory of the lamb, whose eschatological completion entails the elimination of forces which undermine the new order established by God. For Finamore Girard’s theory resolves the dilemma created by the violent depiction of God’s victory and the consistent theme that God’s agents (including the lamb) conquer through the endurance of suffering and death. Exegetically Finamore sees no need to see the action of God’s agents as literally violent in spite of the fact that the Apocalypse draws on language from Holy War traditions. The weapon which symbolises the destruction of the enemies of the lamb is a sword which proceeds from the mouth of the divine agent. It is by the Word of revelation that the conquest is achieved. The white rider has robes dipped in blood even before the fighting has begun indicating that it is his own blood as the crucified Jesus. These symbolic agents are thus representation of the witness to the truth with which the Apocalypse begins.

Alongside the enthronement scenes representing the transfer of sovereignty, Finamore focuses his exegetical work on the series of plagues which represent the malevolent consequences of God’s actions and the actions of Christian martyrs. These are cultural crises of increasing chaos. In the midst of these cosmically experienced crises there is a social order which mimics and parodies the rule of God but is characterised by deception.

It all begins however with the replacement of the hoped for ‘Lion of the tribe of Judah’ by a lamb which epitomises and frames the Apocalypse’s transformation of traditional apocalyptic symbolism and its transvaluation of images. The Lamb clarifies the means of conquest, namely ‘being slaughtered’, which lies at the core of the revelation. From the point of view of the text and its readers, the eschatological events of the end times, which flow from the enthronement of the Lamb, have already begun and indeed they are living in the midst of them.

The main question that this book raises for me is the extent to which Girardian theory accounts for the gospel’s unleashing of violence by the deconstruction of the satanic processes of scapegoating. This is, of course, no small question, since it is crucial to clarifying God’s indirect agency in the violent outcome of the apocalyptic arrival of the Lamb. However, at this point I haven’t even formulated my question very clearly so it will have to wait.

All things considered this book is a rich resource and is carefully argued, modest in its claims, yet radical in its approach opening up surprising new ways of thinking about the Apocalypse particularly as it addresses questions of violence and peace.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: