The faces of children show us just how foreign to human nature violence actually is. Children shrink from violence. They withdraw inside of themselves, and the face they turn outward to the world is one stripped of their personalities. They lose their affect, are unable to smile or respond to overtures from others. I suppose if you think that joyless, lifeless, blank stares are “normal,” then violence can be thought of as essential to normal human functioning. But if you think that children like this are abnormal — in other words, if you think that violence has prevented them from developing normally — then it’s fair to conclude that violence is anathema to human life and therefore cannot be part of our DNA. Violent behavior must be contingent, just one possibility among others in the vast repertoire of human behaviors. One we can opt for or opt out of as we choose. A choice that a careful study of mimetic theory forces us to face.
In the midst of my family’s Easter celebration yesterday, I decided to check Facebook. Most of my friends posted comments like “Happy Easter!” and shared pictures of their celebrations.
But this meme also appeared on my feed:
The meme is attributed to Richard Dawkins’ Foundation for Reason and Science and is meant to debunk Christianity and Easter as just another example of an ancient myth. The reasoning goes like this – Christianity has so much in common with other ancient myths, so how can we take Christianity seriously?
The meme shows the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian goddess Ishtar and makes a few claims against Christianity. The first is that “Ishtar” was pronounced “Easter.” The second is that Ishtar was the goddess of fertility and sex and so her symbols were an egg and bunny. The meme concludes that Easter is merely a copy of the Ishtar myth and its roots are “all about celebrating fertility and sex.”
Megan McArdle of the Daily Beast did an excellent job debunking the meme.
It was a rough week at work. It got off to a bad start and didn’t improve much. Maybe you’ve had one of those weeks.
It all started when one of my supervisor decided to observe me talking with a client. In my view, the conversation went really great. In fact, in the middle of our discussion, I literally thought, “I’m so glad my supervisor is witnessing this! I’ve built great rapport with the client, I’ve elicited his story, and he’s talking about his emotions and his relationships!” I decided that the universe was clearly on my side, because as we left, the client said, “Thank you so much for this conversation. I feel much better. You really brightened my day.”
In other words, I nailed it.
Then my supervisor wanted to debrief and provide some “constructive criticism.” After asking what I thought was good about the conversation, he proceeded to “should on” me. Have you ever been “should on?” It’s no fun. He said things like, “You should have done this,” “You should have done that,” “You shouldn’t have pushed so much with this,” “You should have noticed when he said this.” He said nothing positive about the conversation. Except at the end when he claimed, “You’re doing fine.”
Then I started to get critical.
“I’m doing fine?!?” I thought. “What does ‘fine’ even mean? Is that some kind of backhanded compliment? Fine is bland. It’s neither good nor bad. It’s like the word ‘interesting.’ I hate that word. Tell me what you mean by ‘INTERESTING!’ Well, in the context of this “constructive criticism,” fine apparently means that I’m not good.
And that’s when the voices came. I’ve had them before. I’m sure you’ve had them, too. It’s the voice of doubt that says, “Do you really think that you can do this? Well, you can’t. You’re a joke. You’ve been studying this and practicing this for six months, and you’re still making rookie mistakes. Even when you think you are doing great, you fail.” Then comes the kicker, “You aren’t good enough and you will never be good enough.”
The Christian journey of Lent is upon us. Lent commemorates Jesus’ journey into the wilderness. After his baptism, where Jesus heard the voice of God say to him, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. After 40 days of fasting, he was tempted by the devil.
In good mimetic fashion, Jesus had received his true identity from God at his baptism. As radically relational creatures, mimetic theory claims that we receive our identity in relationship with others. If you were to ask me to identify myself, I would respond by referring to my relationships — I am a husband, a father, a son, a friend. Even when we identify ourselves by what we “do for a living,” relationships are implied. An accountant, for example, helps people allocate their financial resources. Our very identity as humans, and everything we do, is dependent upon our relationships with others.
I hope that mimetic theory’s emphasis on human relationality seems obvious, but it actually runs against the modern grain. René Descartes gave the impetus for the modern world with his statement “I think, therefore I am.” But that statement is false. You don’t exist because you think for yourself. You exist because you are related to others.
Jesus received his identity as the Son of God from his relationship with his heavenly Father, but in the wilderness he was tempted to doubt that relationship. The story tells us that “The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’”
If. It’s such a small word, but don’t be fooled by its size. If is loaded with significance. The devil tempted Jesus three times. Each time the devil used the word “if.” And each time the devil tried to seduce Jesus into doubting his identity as God’s Son.
It is an identical claim to moral superiority which matters and which is in fact the cause of the apparent conflict. The underlying issues, whatever you think they may be, whether religious freedom, women’s reproductive rights, creeping restrictions on abortion or loosening of civil rights protections—all these issues are things we can talk about and solve together through discussion and compromise. ...Unless we begin from a position that says, "We refuse to talk with you or compromise."
I don’t know where God gets the patience. We are absolutely the most difficult people to communicate with! As the Letter to the Hebrews begins, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets.” Many and various ways – thank you, God, for trying everything you could think of to get through to us. And then, as Hebrews continues, “in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.” And not just any, run-of-the-mill offspring. No! This Son was “appointed heir of all things,” by God, “through whom he also created the worlds.” Sending such a magnificent messenger means nothing less than a passionate desire to be heard: I AM SENDING YOU MY SON, THE ONE THROUGH WHOM I DO MY GREATEST WORK TO SHOW YOU WHO I AM! IS ANYONE LISTENING??
That was two thousand years ago and still God has not abandoned hope. At least I think God hasn’t! Which is so like God. But what is so not like us is that finally, tentatively, it appears that we are beginning to get the message. At least a part of the message that has not gotten through to us before. A Spirit of renewal has been moving through Christianity. New meanings are being discovered in Scripture, meanings that are so strange and unnatural to us that they could only have come from God. Or should I say, that they could only have been coming from God for a long, long time until we finally developed ears to hear.
If the new Disney Studios movie Maleficent is, as some are saying, a feminist attempt to redeem images of weak and powerless women in fairy tales, then it is a cautionary tale. Feminism has always been its own worst enemy when it strives to create women in the image of men rather than encourage women to abandon rivalry with men and seek their flourishing elsewhere. This is a story about the redemptive power of a mother’s love. I wonder how many feminists will embrace that message?
How do you defeat Satan?
That was the question the University of Harvard had to answer last week when the Harvard Extension School’s Cultural Studies Club planned a satanic “Black Mass” at the university.
The Harvard community, led by Harvard president Drew Faust, was outraged by the Black Mass. Faust addressed the situation by stating, “The ‘black mass’ had its historical origins as a means of denigrating the Catholic Church; it mocks a deeply sacred event in Catholicism, and is highly offensive to many in the church and beyond.” Although Faust was offended by the planned event, she defended the right of the Cultural Studies Club to proceed with the black mass. “Nevertheless, consistent with the University’s commitment to free expression, including expression that may deeply offend us, the decision to proceed is and will remain theirs.”
The Archdiocese of Boston also responded with outraged offense. Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley claimed, “Why people would want to do something that is so offensive to so many people in the community, whether they’re Catholic or not, it’s very repugnant.”
As a Christian, I understand the outrage. After all, the black mass mocks the Eucharist, one of the most holy events in Christianity. But, before we fester in our animosity toward the Satanists, I want to encourage us to take a step back and analyze this event from the angle of mimetic theory.
When I was growing up, I had three older cousins who were my models for being awesome. They were funny, smart, athletic, and they loved baseball.
And so I wanted to be all of those things, but the one thing I could do without any effort was love baseball.
But I had one major problem. I’m missing the athletic gene of the Ericksen family. While I could share in the love my cousins had for baseball, I couldn’t share in their athletic ability. I lack coordination, which creates problems in every aspect of baseball. I once tripped while running to first base. Embarrassed, I ran back to the dugout and insisted to my teammates that I didn’t trip – I dove. But by the fourth grade, every baseball player knows that you never dive into first base. You run through it.
In sixth grade I played third base. I fielded a grounder that took a bad hop – right to my forehead. I laid on the dirt, crying, and thinking that I never wanted to play again. I finished that game, but never replay organized baseball again.
So, my baseball career was a failure, but I still love the game. The smell of the grass, the crack of the bat, a diving catch – my total lack of athletic ability allows me to appreciate those who have honed their athleticism.
The writers of Parenthood, the popular NBC family drama, use an interesting device to dramatize conflict. When two characters have a difference of opinion their exchange begins in measured, even tones. One person talks, while the other listens. Then the second person talks, while the first one listens. But as their disagreement heats up, the exchange gets faster and faster until no one is listening and both characters are talking over each other so loud and fast that it’s difficult to understand exactly what they are saying. This clip is typical. It’s an argument between Sarah and her boyfriend, Mark, over whether or not she will be able to keep her promise to attend a weekend getaway with him.