(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

René Girard begins Violence and the Sacred by looking at works of literature such as El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant, Don Quixote of the Mancha, 1612-1620; better known as Don Quixote de la Mancha) by Miguel de Cervantes, Le Rouge et le noir (1830; The Red and the Black, 1898) by Stendahl, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (pr. c. 1595-1596) by William Shakespeare, and Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1912) by Fyodor Dostoevski. In all of these, Girard says, the same concept of desire and an impulse toward violence prevail. We tend to want what other people want; in other words, desires are mimetic, primarily stirred by the desires of others rather than internal forces. Rivalry and violence are thus created by exposure to other human beings. Mimetic desire is not an entirely bad thing; it can be a constructive force, if our shared desires move us toward something that is good and can be shared. However, more often than not, it is a source of jealousy, anger, and violence.

Girard turns this concept outward to look at how it plays out with a larger social group. In early human history, small groups of hunter-gatherers wandered across the land and seas, rarely encountering each other. However, as time passed, the groups became larger stationary communities, and as the amount of daily interaction with other humans increased, rivalries leading to violence increased.

According to Girard, violence is mimetic. People witnessing it tend to act violently in turn, and more and more are drawn into the mimetic frenzy. Mimesis is not the issue, but the direction in which it leads people is. The only way to stop the wave of violence and keep societies from destroying themselves is through a sacrifice.

A sacrifice is a surrogate victim, animal or human, that acts as a scapegoat and dispels the violence. The scapegoat must have certain qualities. First it must be both part of the community yet somehow apart from it. Second, it must be similar to the target of rivalry that started the mimetic violence. Third, it must be a victim that can be sacrificed without fear of retribution.

Moreover, the ones enacting the sacrifice, the sacrificers, cannot be aware...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Bailie, Gil. Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads. New York: Crossroad, 1995. Bailie uses Girard’s theory of mimetic desire and phenomena ranging from Aztec mythology to Bob Dylan to explore the power of Christian revelation.

Girard, René. Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965. Girard analyzes the novel in terms of mimetic desire, setting the groundwork that he later draws on in The Violence and the Sacred.

Hamerton-Kelly, Robert G.: The Gospel and the Sacred: Poetics of Violence in Mark. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1994. Uses biblical texts to interpret the modern social situation using a framework that draws heavily on Girard’s theories.

Schwager, Raymund. Must There Be Scapegoats? Violence and Redemption in the Bible. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1978. Applies the scapegoat theory to biblical theory to create a new frame for it.

Williams, James G. The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred: Liberation from the Myth of Sanctioned Violence. 1991. Reprint. Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1995. Approaching Girard’s theory from the viewpoint of a biblical scholar, Williams points out numerous places where the Gospels rely heavily on sacrificial violence.