Book of the month
THE BLACKWELL COMPANIONTO RELIGION AND VIOLENCE Edited by Andrew Murphy Wiley-Blackwell, 630pp, hbk
978 1405191319, £110
The Americans have rebuilt the ivory tower for a new century. I was both lucky and privileged, but I was studying in Paris back in the Seventies when one of the last century’s most exciting works of theology was published. Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde comprised nearly 500 pages of taped conversations between the university professor René Girard and two (non-academic) collaborators. A work of theology and anthropology, it focused on violence and it offered an understanding that made sense of the crucifixion, the story of Cain and Abel, and the Day of Atonement ritual. It took violence seriously and spoke to me as a young man in a way that no other philosophy, psychology or theology ever had. It was the passion of the book and its unapologetic confidence, as well as its conversational tone, that carried conviction.
Two decades later I read another of Girard’s works, in translation, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. The ideas that had inspired me were still there – mimetic desire, the scapegoat mechanism, and so on – and they were more clearly described and justified, but academic rigour and sound methodology had expunged most of the excitement and imagination: this was now a university text, a mere shadow of the former work.
The first book spoke to me about myself, and brought me face to face with God and his Son. Its evidence was in the world around me and the Bible texts. The second spoke of ideas and their relationships with other ideas. Its evidence was drawn from the world of scholarship, of which I know something but only at second hand.
There are only three references to Girard’s work in these essays, each of which is but a passing acknowledgement. And what of the biblical narratives he sought to expound and explain? Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac? Equally on the margins. Christ on the cross? Well, yes, often enough; but give those references a closer look and you will see that the writer is more concerned with the Christians or non-Christians, and their reaction to the crucifixion, than they are with the one crucified. This, in other words, is not a book of theology.
The sacrifice of the Mass may not be a literal act of slaughter, but the priest is still the minister of that sacrifice. Blood is still poured out; a death is still remembered and made present; ‘a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction’ is still made real. Violence, however attenuated and ritualized, is the focus of my own formal, religious life. I am, therefore, interested in the theology of violence.
Two months ago I reviewed the excellent Companion to Christian Ethics. Clearly its success has encouraged the same treatment for other subjects. Is ‘religion and violence’ one of them? We have here a collection of 45 essays, mainly from American academics, that set the scope and methodological boundaries for this relatively specialized but distinctive discipline. Each essay opens out to further study and research; other disciplines are appealed to and modified to the purpose. And, most tellingly of all, the subject is broadened, far beyond the Muslim extremists and right-wing American fanatics we expect to find. Although (is this an American influence?) nothing but a passing reference to the Troubles of Northern Ireland.
Actually, these two headline groups are rather poorly represented, and the alliance between the highly organized, internationalist Islamists and disparate groups of disturbed individuals across the western world does seem rather forced. A worldwide reach is assiduously sought, and so we have studies of religious violence in Jainism, Confucianism, Shinto, Buddhism, and so on. This, in other words, is a subject in its own right, not merely a particular issue that needs to be addressed.
Take for example an essay entitled ‘Gender in the Production of Religious and Secular Violence’ by Janet Jakobsen. A host of stereotypes are brought to mind, and you will not be disappointed. This is a contemporary, liberal, feminist interpretation of current sociological and political concerns. But you and I, religious traditionalists, will be happily surprised to find a telling critique of secularism, ‘The idea that ‘religion kills’ while secularism does not, is actually one of the ways that secular violence is legitimated.’ And yet, her strategy ‘to bring forward the multiple and interconnected forms of violence that women face’, however worthy (and there is no questioning her worthiness), leads only to further analysis and discussion.
All we can hope for (to use a current aspiration) is greater ‘awareness’. This does not speak to us of the Man on the Cross and the central moment of human history. This is not theology.
This is a fascinating and enlightening book (don’t ignore the searing indictment of colonial policies in ‘The Battle for Australia’) but it inhabits a different world. It is theologians such as Girard who have shown me my own violence in the face of the Crucified Jesus. The Church has more to say than the University.
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