Thursday, February 9, 2012

Superbowl XLVI: Rene Girard vs. the Sacrificial Cult

This week my friend and neighbour Victor forwarded James Howard Kunstler's cunning Superbowl commentary "All Screaming Id, No Brains, No Honor" ( Kunstler's brilliant lampooning of this cultic national moment first thrilled me, then left me reaching for my copy of "Violence Unveiled" - Gil Bailie's "reader's digest" of the revolutionary insights of Rene Girard, on violence, culture and the scapegoating mechanism. I suggest you check out the link to Kunstler before reading on. If you find any of my commentary useful, I suggest you buy a copy of Bailie's book.

Oh, Victor.

I laughed, I groaned, I cried.

As the saying goes, you can't make this stuff up.

And then after I was done my cathartic chuckles, the voice of Girard was in my head again.

What Girard would want to point out, I think, is that there is nothing remarkable about a culturally unitive sacrament wherein "all the problems of life are depicted as coming from outside our society (or world)," or wherein peace is construed as a reality to be enjoyed "by a few human remnants...after a cosmic showdown."

This is the ancient sacrificial cult, as old as human culture itself. It is the way we have achieved cohesion and coherence all along. It is what makes "Super Sunday" the biggest religious holiday of America's other, older faith.

What is remarkable is that someone inside US culture is able to see and unveil and lampoon this cult so effectively.

Where did he get the cultural tools to "pick out the log in your own [society's] eye" instead of being preoccupied with the "dustmote in your brother's [society's] eye?"

Girard's take is that we Westerners have been living with (and distorting) the Bible for so long that we take its cultural critique of sacrificial violence to be an instinct natural to ourselves, and not as something we inherited from it.

Girard's interpretation of the Bible both puts essays like this in context, and pushes cultural critique even further.

What liberals like us, who enjoy these types of rants, don't take seriously is how dangerously destabilizing such messages are to society. Imagine for a moment that Kunstler had somehow pirated airtime during the Superbowl and broadcast this message, and that the millions of viewers had somehow let their psychological defenses down long enough for the truth of this essay to sink in? The American social contract would be finished. There would be blood in the streets.

Social conservatives have good reasons for wanting to shut up or drown out prophets like Kunstler: What sacrificial violence keeps at bay is apocalyptic violence.

As much as I agree with the essay's very sharp analysis of the real threats to America today, I would add the demythologizing of our dominant cultural narratives and sacraments, such as performed in this essay, pretty high on that list. Probably at the top.

What I have learned from Girard is not to underestimate the dangers of undermining our cultural institutions and myths, without an alternate way of reconstructing our togetherness. Kunstler fascinates, because, like a high priest of old, he has the ability to cut the beating heart out of the culture and lift it up into the sun for all to see. But that is only step one in the cultural heart transplant our times demand of us. Step two is no less urgent.

We have to find an entirely new way of achieving social solidarity - nonviolently, nonjudgementally.

In a sense, you could say we need a new kind of comedy. What you might call a comedy of grace, rather than a comedy of judgement:  a comedy that invites us to laugh at our human folly all together. And this, I think, requires a deep connection to a goodness not our own. Otherwise, I fear we will not be able to resist the illusions of wellbeing or the thin camaraderies that come from telling ourselves we are better than the caricatured "other," whether the other be the Aliens of the Mayan Apocalypse, or the Stupid Diabetic Football-Watching, Propaganda and Cheezy-Eating Fat Man glued to the Superbowl game.

The only way out of the scapegoating game is by grace. We will find that way, or we will destroy ourselves. That, Girard would say, is the meaning of the Bible's Apocalypse.

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