Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

René Girard and Mormon Scripture: A Response

Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

René Girard and Mormon Scripture: A Response

Article excerpt

This short piece responds to Mack C. Stirling's article, "Violence in the Scriptures: Mormonism and the Cultural Theory of René Girard," 43, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 59-105. I offer a counter-interpretation of what I take to be (1) the thrust of Girard's own work on scripture and (2) the implications of that thrust for Girardian interpretation of specifically Mormon scripture.

Scripture through the Girardian Lens

Scripture, as scripture, is inconvenient. The Book of Mormon is exemplary in this regard. It appears in the hands of two young men or women on one's doorstep without warning, and yet it impatiently demands uncompromised attention from its reader. Indeed, not only does the Book of Mormon close by asking its readers to rethink the whole of world history carefully in light of the book (Moro. 10:3), but it also dares to assume that the pondering reader will naturally come to trust that the book is true even before asking God (Moro. 10:4).1 The Book of Mormon's Old World predecessor-the Christian Bible-might be said to be slightly less inconvenient than the Book of Mormon (at least for believing Mormons). Offering recourse to the tangles of translation issues, to typological and allegorical readings justified by the relationship between the two testaments, and to a variety of rival but equally canonical traditions uncovered by historians and textual critics, the Bible provides the wary reader with a number of ways to get around passages with which one is not perfectly comfortable. Indeed, in an obviously reductive way (but not therefore without some truth), one might suggest that a major thread running through the history of biblical interpretation is the sustained attempt to render convenient what began as a decidedly inconvenient collection of texts. At least to some extent, the history of reading the Bible is the history of the battle between those who would convert scripture into something convenient and those who stubbornly insist on scripture's essential inconvenience. Among those currently battling in behalf of scripture's inconvenience is René Girard.

The evolution of Girard's work-which led to and follows from his conversion from atheism to Catholicism-is nicely summed up in Girard's recent and appropriately titled book, Evolution and Conversion.2 Having developed, through work in comparative literature and comparative religion,3 a unique anthropological theory about the nature of myth and the origins of culture, Girard discovered what he has since defended as the Bible's remarkably distinctive place in world literature.4 His work, starting with Things Hidden since the Foundation of theWorld and continuing into the present, amounts to a systematic defense of scripture's indispensable inconvenience.5

Of course, for Girard, scripture is inconvenient in a very particular sense. He sees scripture as that literature whose burden it is to reveal the nature of mythology. Since Sterling has, in the article referred to above, provided a summary of Girard's basic anthropological theory, explicating myth's obfuscatory function, I need not outline the theory here. Rather, I would like to contextualize and clarify the stakes of Girard's project, touching on important Girardian points not emphasized in Sterling's discussion.

In large part, Girard's claim about scripture is framed as a polemic against the arguments of students of comparative religion. As Girard summarizes their position: "For centuries the most respected scholars have declared that the Gospels are merely one myth among many, and have succeeded in convincing most people [of the idea]."6 But Girard points out one crucial difference between the Passion narratives and the apparently parallel myths of the dying and rising God: It is only in the Christian story that the one put to death is recognized as innocent. Whereas in every mythological account, the person/god persecuted and/or put to death is clearly presented as guilty, in the Gospels Jesus is innocent and that innocence "is advertised widely, and becomes the most talked-about and well-known news. …

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