lds-herm blog

Discussion of hermeneutics, esp. as it pertains to LDS scripture

“The Key Words of the Gospel Passion” – The Scapegoat, Chapter 9

Posted by joespencer on December 2, 2007

I had a bit of time this morning to read further in Girard, and I find I am really wrestling with this now. After the brilliance of chapters 6-8, which provided me with a way to “appropriate” Girard’s work as a whole—with a way to make some sense of what Girard is doing with this massive project of his—I was a bit more prepared to tackle the thick substance provided in chapter 9. Some thoughts—evidence of a massive wrestle, I hope—follow.

The overarching argument of the chapter can perhaps be summarized rather simply: “The Gospels do indeed center around the Passion of Christ, the same drama that is found in all world mythologies . . . . But this same drama is also needed to present the perspective of a victim dedicated to the rejection of the illusions of the persecutors. Thus the same drama is needed to give birth to the only text that can bring an end to all of mythology.” (p. 101) In a sense, this is a variation on something C. S. Lewis says in Surprised By Joy: the Gospel narratives in the New Testament bear every sign of world mythology (Jesus is the Corn God, etc.) except…

Much of this chapter is a fleshing out of this claim (though the last couple of pages of the chapter will make some startling steps forward beyond this claim in what is to me to the promising moment of this book so far). I don’t see any particular need to take up in any detail the way he does this fleshing out: it amounts to a clarification of the roles of the Old and New Testaments, but it seems sufficiently straightforward as it appears in the text.

Now, I want to accomplish two other things in this brief reflection. First, I want to get a few concerns on the table, what it is that makes me suspicious of this project. Second, I want to look at what Girard does at the conclusion of the chapter and how that makes me wonder whether all of my suspicions should not simply be thrown out the window. First, then, to the question of discomfort.

A sentence like the following makes me nervous, to say the least: “The scapegoat mechanism . . . becomes the most talked-about and well-known news.” (p. 108) It almost appears here that Girard equates the euangelion, the Gospel or Good News, with the recognition of the scapegoat. In the last analysis, I think that is precisely what Girard means to do. And that makes me quite nervous: is there not a kind of banalizing of the Gospel at work here, the assertion of a kind of almost vulgar equation of the Enlightenment and the Atonement? Several things in the chapter would seem to point in this curious direction. A good example is this: “Marxists, Nietzscheans, and Freudians for once all agree on this one point—that the Gospels are at fault.” (p. 109) Now, honestly, what kind of a statement is that? While there most certainly are Marxists and Nietzscheans and Freudians who see the Gospels as being at fault, it is hardly true that they “all agree” on such a point. Indeed, what seems to me to be so redemptive about what Girard does in the last couple of pages of this chapter are perhaps redemptive precisely because the project suddenly seems to become Lacanian, that is Freudian, Marxist, and Nietzschean, all in one move.

The clincher, of course, is this: “It becomes increasingly clear: after German idealism all the ups and downs of contemporary theory are no more than petty arguments meant to prevent the demystification of mythologies, new mechanisms for retarding the progress of biblical revelation.” (p. 110) On the one hand, this statement would seem to be simply wrong, especially in light of his indictment of the three “masters of suspicion”: it is precisely Freudian psychoanalysis, Marxism, and Nietzschean genealogical thought that has attempted to demystify all mythologies in the past two centuries. Now, it is not exactly so simple as that, because Girard might be here simply condemning what Terry Eagleton groups under the rather broad term “postmodernism”: (bad) pomos do their mystifying work all to often in the name of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, and there is reason to think, of course, that it is only this that he is critiquing. But if so, it seems it would have been far more responsible of him to make that point quite clear.

Let me be quite clear myself: I don’t mean here just to accuse Girard of being irresponsible toward good Marxists, Freudians, and Nietzscheans. Rather, this irresponsibility is symptomatic—as any good Freudian/Marxist/Nietzschean might put it—of something still more disconcerting: the apparent plug here for German idealism! Girard unapologetically here calls for a return to German idealism, does he not? He calls for a return to Hegel. But let me be still more faithful to Girard’s text: by saying “German idealism” rather than “Hegelianism,” he seems to be pointing toward the broader (right) Hegelian project rather than to the rather difficult work of Hegel himself (which inevitably involves us in the broader thrust of Freudian, Marxist, and Nietzschean work anyway). What Girard calls for—let me at last be quite clear on this point–is thus a return to an absolute (the pun is intended and appropriate) marriage of the Enlightenment and the New Testament. Actually, “marriage” isn’t strong enough: he is equating them. Girard wants us to take up the right Hegelian project of the nineteenth century. I have so many qualms about that project that I can’t even begin to explain them here.

That equation, in a word, disturbs me.

But then what is Girard doing in these last couple of pages? He seems, quite suddenly, to offer a remarkably Freudian/Marxist/Nietzschean reading of a few key passages from the Passion narratives (and in this, at last, they “all agree”…). The brilliant move is this: “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing” from Luke 23:34 is alerting the reader to the place of the unconscious! This absolutely amazing insight recasts the project of the Gospels as one of recasting the split subject, as forcing the mythological subject (the subject living in a world of myths… living politically, one could say) to come to be in a radically different way (radically; subjectively).

But then I have to ask this: does Girard not contradict himself here? Is this chapter not interwoven with two contradictory appeals, one to objectivity and one to subjectivity? I’ve got to think about this more.


5 Responses to ““The Key Words of the Gospel Passion” – The Scapegoat, Chapter 9”

  1. cherylem said

    Just keep going. I’m enjoying reading your readings of Girard.

    How is school? You have an amazing amount of mental energy. . . .


  2. cherylem said

    Also, remember that this is EARLY Girard . . .

  3. Cheryl,

    So what is late Girard?

  4. joespencer said

    School is going well (meaning that I have one paper left to write for the semester and then no school until January 21st! 🙂 ).

    By the way: remember that this is my EARLY reading of Girard. 🙂 That is, I have had some “maturer” views in the past few days that, as I have time for it today, I will be posting. Soon, soon.

  5. Robert C. said

    Well, I’m more and more swamped, so I’m anxious to join the ride, and to add my uninformed comments and questions, but I probably won’t be finding much time to read this, at least for the next little while (the next few weeks, probably…).

    As I’ve said before, this psycho-analytic move, which you’ve identified as the unconscious, is probably what interests me most. Is Girard suggesting that . . . well, “the direction of causation” I’ll say . . . is from Christ to Christians with this quotation of Luke 23:34, or merely that this statement reflects the unconscious of the community, or what? It’s this less-Englightenment-focused reading of Girard that I’ve been trying to uncover in his text from the beginning. The desire to ascribe meaning to violence, and the psychological effects of mimesis seem very interesting and promising to me….

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