These lessons combine well, I think, for a wholistic view of the interpretative power of mimetic theory. Overall, they give glimpses of several ways into the human problem of getting caught up in rivalrous desire and the ensuing attempts at scapegoating.Of special interest this week might be a substantial exegesis of the day's Gospel Lesson, from the perspective of mimetic theory. In 1995 I found myself having a very different reading of this passage than my colleagues in Racine at our weekly lectionary study. That's not so unusual -- they've learned to expect that from me. But this is one that I actually sat down and wrote about at length, which was ultimately published in our seminary journal (excerpt), Currents in Theology and Mission. (See the full reference and excerpt below.) Here are highlights of my essay:
1. One needs to encounter the full story of Elijah, I think, to get the point. (The Lutheran version of snipping up this story is even stranger: verses 15-16, 19-21, intentionally skipping all the bloody parts.)
James Alison gave an address to a theological conference in Mexico, entitled "Theology amidst the stones and dust," which is now chapter 2 in his book Faith Beyond Resentment. He begins with three scriptural moments of what he calls a "theological blush." The first of those scriptural moments is the story of Elijah's victory over the priests of Baal and then his struggles afterward at Mt. Horeb (from which our lection is the tail-end). As usual with Alison, I've never run across a more insightful reading of this text, so let me give it to you in its entirety:
*****Excerpt from Alison's "Theology amidst the stones and dust"*****
Let us look closely, first of all, at the prophet Elijah. The altars of Yahweh are in ruins, Ahab's regime favors the followers of Baal. Elijah, the champion of Yahwism, undertakes to wage a valiant war against the prophets of Baal, organizing a competition to see which god can burn a sacrificed bull with fire from heaven. As the prayers and litanies of the prophets of Baal pile up, Elijah mocks them, suggesting, among other things, that perhaps Baal can't put in an appearance owing to being busy with a bowel movement. When it is Elijah's turn to offer his sacrifice, first he rebuilds the altar of Yahweh, then soaks his bull completely, and boom!, the lightening strikes. All present fall to the ground, crying: "The Lord is the true God." Elijah immediately takes advantage of this unanimity to point his finger at the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, ordering that they be seized and killed. His order is at once obeyed.
After this triumph, feeling somewhat depressed, Elijah goes off to the desert, where he desires death. God gives him food necessary for survival, but not even that pleases him much, and an angel has to tell him to eat up, and then to go for a forty day and forty night hike to Mount Horeb, like Moses to whom God had spoken at the same place. Once there Elijah hides in a cave, where God has to come and find the disillusioned prophet. God asks him what he's doing there, and he replies:I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away. (1 Kings 19:10)God orders him to come out of the cave and to stand before the Lord, who announces that he is going to pass by. Well, you know the story: first comes a mighty wind which rends the mountains and breaks the rocks in pieces, but the Lord was not in the wind. Then comes an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake, and then comes a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire there comes a still small voice. At this Elijah goes and stands at the entrance to the cave, and God speaks to him, asking what he's doing there, and once again, Elijah repeats:I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away. (1 Kings 19:14)Then, in an extraordinary anticlimax, God tells him to go to Damascus to anoint Jehu king, and to pick Elisha as his successor, adding that God will reserve for himself seven thousand men who haven't bent the knee before Baal. Elijah goes off and obeys. From then on his interventions are few until he's whisked off to heaven and Elisha's ministry begins.
What I'd like to point out about this story is this: what seems to be a story of the triumph of Yahwism is in fact presented as the story of the un-deceiving of Elijah. Elijah before his un-deceiving was a champion fighter without problems of self-esteem or self-confidence. God was a god like Baal, but bigger and tougher, and Elijah was his spokesman, the one who pointed out his victims. The contest of Mount Carmel was a splendid battle between rival shamans or witch-doctors. After the bloody interlude, which he had won, Elijah sinks into a depression, and doubts the value of all that:Enough, O Lord, take away my life; for I am no better than my fathers. (1 Kings 19:4)The sacred author presents us with something rather remarkable: not a series of praises for the Yahwist champion, but rather the story of how Elijah learnt not to identify God with all those special effects which he had known how to manipulate to such violent effect. All the commotion around Mount Horeb is presented as something rather like a de-construction of the sacred scenario associated with Moses, for the Lord was present in the still small voice, rather than in something of more imposing majesty. Furthermore, rather than taking advantage of the zeal which Elijah bleats on about, Yahweh gives the prophet some rather modest tasks - instructions for passing on command to others. Where Elijah, thinking himself something of a heroic martyr, tells God that he's the only one who has remained loyal, Yahweh tells him that he has seven thousand men up his sleeve who haven't bent the knee before Baal. One can understand what might be meant by zeal exercised on behalf of a god who appears with hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires. But what on earth might it mean to be zealous in the service of a still, small voice? It is a somewhat humbled Elijah who sets off to carry out his appointed tasks.
Well, I'd like to suggest that this scene offers us a valuable witness to the theological process which is at work in the development of the Hebrew scriptures: the theological power of the crisis of confidence which goes along with the collapse of the sacred. At the beginning we have a sacred Yahwism, which can shine alongside another sacred religion, but whose sacrifices are more efficacious, whose God is more powerful, and whose capacity to unite people for a sacred war is greater. Then we have all that undone. The still small voice says much more than it seems to: it says that God is not a rival to Baal, that God is not to be found in the appearances of sacred violence. Elijah, when he entered into rivalry with the prophets of Baal became one of them, because God is not to be found in such circuses, nor in the murders which go along with them. At the end of his un-deceiving, Elijah is more Yahwist, more atheist, less of a shaman, less of a sacrificer, because God is not like the gods, not even so as to show himself superior to them. The cave of Horeb was, for Elijah, the theological space for a blush.
Here we are face to face with the collapse of the sacred, a real demolition of personal structures and ways of speaking about God. This collapse is the crucible in which theological development is wrought. (Faith Beyond Resentment, pp. 27-30)
2. Andrew Marr, "On Being Bread from Heaven: The Way of Mimetic Participation" (online article).
Reflections and Questions
1. What is Elisha's role in all this? He undoubtably only knows of the Elijah of Mt. Carmel, not of Mt. Horeb. He's eager to get caught up in the religious rivalry, to be a servant to the victorious sacred order. It's interesting to note that in the story of Elisha's official taking over, Elijah is taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. Fire is most often a mythological code-symbol for a sacrificial act in such legends. Does an act of violent takeover against Elijah actually lie behind that later story? If so, then Elisha has truly gotten caught up in the spirit of Mt. Carmel without benefitting from the Spirit of Mt. Horeb that came to Elijah in the small voice of a gentle breeze. Which spirit do we want to get caught up in? (Which is precisely St. Paul's question in the following text!)
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 71-77,
2. James Alison, Jesus
the Forgiving Victim, p. 230. Alison concludes his
essay "Stand Up and Be Godless!: On Receiving the Gift of Faith"
with the image of the difference between parents who actively
usher their toddler into walking, as opposed to parents who simply
plop them into a baby walker (which Alison calls a "Zimmer frame"
and "cart") and let them learn on their own. In this adult
catechetical course, Alison helps the learner to understand the
gods as the projection of the "social other," our cultures. And
the true God has to break into our worlds structured by the social
other as "Another other," or the "Other other." He concludes this
essay with Gal. 5:1 at the heart of it:
So when Paul talks about the Law of Moses, he’s saying “Yes, the law is perfectly fine, its perfectly reasonable. It’s a frame, a good thing in itself, not a bad thing. Children do occasionally have carts which they can stand up with and push at the same time as they learn to walk, and these are temporary things, educational toys. But we would all be worried if their grasp of their cart was so great that they never learned to walk. The problem is not with the cart, it’s with the grasping of it. Instead they must be nourished into learning how to walk.”
And this is the point of the gift of faith. It is the disposition produced in us by someone who really, really, wants us to be free, not bowed down or crippled. Someone who is prepared to go to great lengths to induct us into a habit, a disposition of being able to walk freely, not to be trapped by gods or frightened of death. “For freedom he has set us free” is Paul’s great cry in the epistle to the Galatians (5:1). Do you begin to get a sense of how strange it is that the gift of faith is what is absolutely central to Christianity, how absolutely it is linked to the notion of freedom? For just as a parent does not induct a child into the habit of walking so that the child will thereafter follow it around and do exactly what the parent does, so the Other other who produces in us the habitual disposition not to bow down to gods and not to be run by death doesn’t do these things so that we will “behave properly.” Rather the attitude of someone who seeks to give you faith is someone who is not in rivalry with you, is not concerned with the inevitable mistakes you will make, knows that perfectionism is the enemy of learning and of growth, and wants you to be able to discover for yourself what is good for you, where you will take it, what you will make of the adventure and the ride.
So faith, the habitual disposition induced in us by the Other other, to allow ourselves to be relaxed about being stretched beyond our possibilities, turns out also to be something like a huge, happy, bracing challenge to freedom: “For God’s sake, stand up and be godless!” (pp. 230-31)
Reflections and Questions
1. In my 2013 sermon "The
Crack in the Container," shifting the focus to the
'container', culture, also helps in reading Galatians. (See
previous weeks -- e.g., Proper 6
-- on Louis Martyn's Galatians
in the Anchor Bible Series, his thesis that Paul understands the
cross as a revelation critical of religion.) "In the flesh" is
best understood as naming the cultural container given to us by
the world. "In the Spirit" is the cultural container we can begin
to inhabit in Christ. Another amazing line is, "But if you are led
by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law." I believe that
Paul sees the law as having come under the corruption of cultural
shaping "in the flesh." The law is a crucial piece of the cultural
container that we are no longer subject to when living into God's
culture "in the Spirit."
2. In this light, would Paul say that the law, as a key element
in the world's cultural container, strives for the fruits of the
Spirit but falls short? I would say that the crack in the
container, the fault-line of us vs. them, makes it impossible to
achieve the fruits of the Spirit because they are aimed only at
the us in the equation. We can never have these fruits on
a partial basis, meant only for those who are insiders to our
cultural group. The fruits of the Spirit can only be experienced
on the basis of the Spirit's unity in Christ, making one new
humanity out of two, so that there is no longer Jew and Greek,
male and female, free and slave.
3. Why does this lection stop one verse short of the end of Galatians 5? It takes us up through what the lectionary editors must have assumed was Paul's conclusion, while perhaps taking verse 26 to be some sort of parenthetical remark tacked on. Here's verse 25: "If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit." It sounds like a nice conclusion. But the ears of a mimetic theorist prick up with the final verse in the chapter, verse 26: "Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another." I would suggest that skipping this verse leaves out of Paul's summary precisely what the Spirit guides us to avoid, the dangers of mimetic rivalry.
Link to a sermon on these themes that relates the omitted verse 26 to mimetic desire, and the ensuing rivalries, entitled "Thinking We're Right: The Ultimate Conceit."
4. The positive aspect of the lectionary's editing of this passage is the inclusion of verse 1 to begin it with the ringing out of the note on freedom. In a very real way this is the central issue of this letter for St. Paul: will followers of Christ open themselves to the real freedom of life in the Spirit, or will they be tempted to fall back to slavery under the Law. This is a timely passage given its proximity in the lectionary to our national celebration of freedom on July 4th. The false hopes of our freedom, and its slavery to the need shed blood in order to maintain it, is exemplified in other remembrance over these days: the anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3. On the first anniversary of that battle, Lincoln spoke about a "new birth of freedom." The old sacred order constantly requires such sacrificial bloodshed to give rebirth to the freedom of its brand of order. That's why it can never give us real freedom.
Link to a sermon developing these themes entitled "Real Freedom."
1. Paul Nuechterlein, "The Work of René Girard as a New Key to Biblical Hermeneutics." Currents in Theology and Mission, June 1999, pages 196-209. I use a substantial exegesis of this passage as the key illustration for using Girard's anthropology as a tool for biblical hermeneutics. I take a different angle on this passage than the usual one. Most commentators spend a lot of time trying to explain the rejection of Jesus by the Samaritans. I see the request to rain down fire by the disciples as the real point of the story; they still aren't getting what Jesus is trying to show them -- and neither are we when we focus on the Samaritans to the exclusion of the disciples' response. Link to an excerpt of the portion regarding Luke 9:51-62.
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from July 1, 2007 (Society of St. John at St. Mark's Chapel, Palo Alto).3. Dan Clendenin, journeywithjesus.net essay posted June 25, 2007, pointing to the ancient addition in some manuscripts for Luke 9:56 as "The Most Important Verse Not in the Bible." With the variant included, Luke 9:55-56 reads:
But he turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what spirit you are of, for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.” Then they went on to another village.I'm not sure how I missed this textual variant when writing the essay on this passage. How perfectly it fits a reading from the perspective of Mimetic Theory! One point which I would add to Clendenin's discussion is that the King James Version does include this addition. Clendenin abides by the findings of the contemporary scholars in omitting it, but cites other passages which are similar to it, such as Luke 19:10 and John 3:17. He reasons:
But I'm not so ready to give up. I'm actually glad that a later copyist inserted his gloss. It's like a one-sentence commentary of what he considered the gist of the Gospel story to be: "Jesus didn't come to destroy men's lives, but to save them." Even though the addition doesn't convey the original words of Luke, it surely communicates the authentic spirit of Jesus.In 2007 my sermon was based on this essay, even borrowing the title, "The Most Important Verse Not in the Bible."
Reflections and Questions
1. The image of moving forward with determination and not looking back forms an inclusion in this passage. It begins with Jesus setting his face toward Jerusalem and ends with Jesus' remark about not being fit for the reign of God if you look back. Why such an emphasis on not looking back? Because Jesus offers a surprise ending. The usual end in sight according to the sacred order will be the sacrifice of one's enemies, the supposed purging of all that's bad. But Jesus will be calling his disciples to follow him to the cross where he will become victim to our sacrificial cultures, not victorious Lord over them. He is Lord to the alternative to those cultures of death, the reign of God of life. Life is ultimately the end to look forward to, but the way is through death, so one will be tempted to look back.
Link to a sermon on this text entitled "Travelogue of a Journey into Death."
2. I think it's important that Luke 9:51-56 follows very closely upon Luke's account of the Transfiguration (9:28-36). When James and John, two of the three on the mountain of Transfiguration, ask about calling down fire from heaven, they likely were thinking of the story of Elijah calling down fire upon Samaritans in 2 Kings 1:10. Some ancient authorities make this explicit and complete James' and John's question in 9:54 with "as Elijah did." When the voice from heaven at the Transfiguration commands them to "Listen to him!", here is an immediate instance of a contrast between Elijah and Jesus. Eliajh called down fire from heaven on their Samaritan enemies; Jesus rebukes them for even thinking of it.
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