home | FAQ |

Q & R: Girard and homelessness

Here's the Q:

I’m finishing up Rene Girard’s, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, having heard about him (and other authors of note) on your web page. His theories are stunning, as is his non-sacrificial reading of the crucifixion. I am persuaded that he is correct, but herein lays a huge problem for me. As a thoughtful evangelical for 35 years how can I comfortably continue to affiliate with an evangelicalism that holds to a redemptive violence view of atonement (penal substitution)? This isn’t a peripheral issue. The popular view that God’s wrath and holiness are somehow slaked by the violent death (and torture?) of his Son is foundational to most evangelicals. It also forms the basis for their view of God, and hence affects all other peripheral beliefs, including just war theory and a host of other unsavory responses to others. If Girard is correct, most of Christian history has widely missed the mark on what the death of Christ means, the very nature of God, and what it means to be a Christ follower. Going to church is becoming a painfully lonely experience these days. Is it possible to work from within when the differences are this profound?

Here's the R:
First, for folks unfamiliar with Girard, here are some slides from a presentation I did on his work:

Second ...


I'm so glad you have found his ideas a fertile and compelling as I have. The book I'm working on now [updated] - Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith world - deals with the issue of multi-faith relations, and I am more and more convinced that penal substitution theory contributes (perhaps unnecessarily, but nonetheless ...) to the hostility Christians (especially in America) bear toward other faiths and their adherents. I was just writing on this subject earlier this week.

My sense is that many Evangelicals will continue to "double down" on the idea that penal substitutionary atonement (psa) theory = the gospel. As they do, they will put more and more people in the situation you're in: faced with the choice of leaving their heritage and beloved community as spiritual refugees. The momentum running in this direction is strong, and I see too few Evangelical leaders with the courage to stand up to it. When people do so, they are quite bitterly denounced by certain gatekeepers. But there are worse things than being denounced ... and losing one's integrity is one of them!

It's not just rejection by gatekeepers that creates problems, of course. The songs that are sung, the assumptions of nearly all sermons and "gospel invitations," the meaning of the eucharist - all are framed by PSA assumptions and it gets harder and harder to go along with these liturgical elements when one sees problems with PSA theory.

That's why many are moving into a) Mainline Protestant settings, and I'm confident that both groups can benefit from the infusion. Others are forming b) alternative faith communities. Some are c) withdrawing from church membership entirely. And some, I think, are finding ways to say, d) "We are Evangelicals, but we must graciously differ with our fellow Evangelicals on several points." Speaking personally, I'm doing a mix of
a, b, and d.

If you do feel that you have to leave your church, here's what I'd recommend. Go to the appropriate leadership privately and say something like this: "I have a problem I need your help with.... I've been rethinking some things in my faith ... As a result I feel increasingly uncomfortable when ... My question is: would you rather have someone like me around or would you rather me find another faith community? Is there a place for me here? I don't want to cause trouble either by leaving or staying.... I don't want to have to pretend I agree with things I don't actually agree with ... I can accept that other people see things differently, but is it OK here in this church for me to see things differently? I need your suggestions." That wouldn't be appropriate in all situations, but it's the approach I would have wished people took when I was a pastor.