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Is mimetic theory biblical?

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Mimetic theory is an attempt to explain humanity’s tendency toward violence and the social mechanisms we use to preserve society. Mimetic theory was developed by René Girard through his studies in multiple disciplines, including mythology, anthropology, and history. Mimetic theory, as presented by Girard, could be classified as a philosophical approach to Christian theology. His claim is that the gospel represents the ultimate expression of both the problems and solutions to mimetic theory in humanity. Whether or not mimetic theory is fully compatible with the Bible is greatly subject to opinion.

According to mimetic theory, humans only learn by mimicking others. Hence, the term mimetic, derived from the Greek word mimesis, meaning “imitation.” This mimicry includes not only behavior but also desires. Consider that a core technique of advertising is claiming that other people desire a product: everyone wants this, so you should, too. This technique inspires an inherent desire for that product in the audience. The problem, according to mimetic theory, is that desires prompted by mimicry are often competitive. People are capable of coveting something that only some, not all, can have. This could be true of sexual partners, power, money, or virtually any other object of desire. The result of competitive desires is violence and other social ills.

To alleviate conflict, according to Girard’s mimetic theory, humanity has developed certain mechanisms such as scapegoating and taboos. Under scapegoating, society blames unfulfilled desires on a single victim who may or may not actually be guilty of causing the problem. The harm done to the scapegoat satisfies culture’s urge for violence in response to frustrated desires. Using taboos, certain forms of competition are presented as off-limits to reduce conflicting desires and their resultant violence. Examples of taboos include societal mores that prohibit incest and parricide (killing one’s relatives).

Of course, mimetic theory is far more nuanced than the above summary. There are many different interpretations of how these ideas play out in history and culture. Some philosophers support Girard’s claims; others doubt them. The same is true of theologians, who variously accept or reject applications of mimetic theory to Christianity.

Interestingly, among the common criticisms of Girard’s mimetic theory is that he is “too friendly” to the Judeo-Christian worldview. That is, Girard presents the message of Jesus as the resolution to the problems of scapegoating and violence. He distinguishes Christian stories from ancient myths, especially in that only the New Testament Gospels claim both absolute innocence and absolute willingness on the part of the scapegoat (Christ). In its defense of the weak, renunciation of revenge, and empathy with victims (rather than scapegoaters), the biblical narrative is unique in human history.

There are elements of mimetic theory compatible with Scripture. Jesus said that the goal of teaching is to produce imitators: “Everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher” (Luke 6:40). Imitation of Christ is an overt part of our calling as believers (John 13:12–15; Ephesians 5:2), even as Christ emulates God the Father (John 5:7; 14:11; 15:9–11). Paul promoted beneficial mimicry, too: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). According to mimetic theory, one danger of mimicry is that the student and teacher can become rivals as the student approaches or even surpasses the master’s skill. In the Christian context, this is impossible—we never live up to the standard of Christ (Romans 5:8; 1 John 1:8); plus, Christ would never be inclined to fear or resent us (Revelation 19:7).

Similarly, the transforming of our desires is central to our progressive sanctification (Romans 7:18; 12:2; Ephesians 4:22). The sacrificial system of the Old Testament, as well as the crucifixion of Christ, can be seen as divine scapegoating, where blame was transferred from a group to an individual (Exodus 29:36; 1 Corinthians 5:7; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 9:23). In fact, Leviticus 16 contains instructions for an actual scapegoat that bore the sins of the people away from the camp on the Day of Atonement. These biblical teachings are certainly compatible with mimetic theory, at least in broad strokes.

Girard, though a Roman Catholic, developed his mimetic theory prior to an intensive study of the Bible. That is, mimetic theory is not inspired by Scripture but something that Girard felt the Bible confirmed. Strictly speaking, this makes mimetic theory “extra-biblical”—it’s an idea not explicitly described, supported, or condemned by God’s Word.

In short, mimetic theory is much like other philosophical attempts to define what it means to be human and how to correct our flaws. While it is far friendlier to Christianity than some other systems of philosophy, mimetic theory is not an inherently biblical view. That’s not to say it blatantly contradicts the Bible, either. At the end of the day, it’s important to gauge any application of mimetic theory on the basis of whether it agrees with Scripture, and not gauge Scripture by any man-made theory.

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Is mimetic theory biblical?
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This page last updated: January 4, 2022