Mimesis and Atonement

René Girard and the Doctrine of Salvation

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Michael Kirwan, Sheelah Treflé Hidden
Violence, Desire, and the Sacred
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , December
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


René Girard’s multi-disciplinary work on mimetic theory, scapegoat, and sacrifice is still actively considered and discussed within academia today, and religious thinkers are only now beginning to fully explore the ramifications of his work. In Mimesis and Atonement: René Girard and the Doctrine of Salvation, editors Michael Kirwan and Sheelah Treflé Hidden have collected an impressive group of essays to further this conversation. Mimesis and Atonement brings together a variety of perspectives, giving the reader a glimpse of the significance and richness of Girard’s work for religious thinkers. Jewish, Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox voices are all represented. The editors also bring a variety of disciplinary perspectives to the table; this not a work that deals only with the categories of systematic theology. The contributors engage with such fields as biblical studies, anthropology, and sociology. The diversity of this work is appropriate when one considers the inter-disciplinary and expansive nature of Girard’s own work. As Rowan Williams notes in his introduction, Girard is not a figure that theologians can afford to ignore, and this book is a fine example of engagement with his thought.

The variety contained with this volume is evident by simply describing the topics covered by each scholar. James Alison considers the phenomena of incomprehension and hostility, as he draws upon mimetic and scapegoating theory, to explore the intentionality of mercy and response found at the heart of the Biblical narrative of atonement. Vanessa Avery, working from a Jewish perspective, examines the account of Jonah in light of Girard’s theory of scapegoating, and suggests that the story actually urges its readers towards nonviolence. Antoine Arjakovsky provides a fascinating account of recent Russian Orthodox theologies of atonement, while paying careful attention to both the political and theological context of these developments. Stephen Finamore carefully outlines points of agreement and disagreement between the New Perspective on Paul and Girardian mimetic theory on the question of God’s wrath and concludes with suggestions on how to move forward with insights from both perspectives. Anthony Bartlett draws upon Girard to provide a non-violent reading of Paul that centers upon human transformation through the Messiah’s redefinition of what it means to be human. Nikolaus Wandinger explores the constructive possibilities of Raymund Schwager’s dramatic account of the life and death of Christ, which itself draws heavily upon Girard. Kirwan examines a complex web of questions in relation to Girard’s take on universalizability, sacrifice, and biblical interpretation. Duncan Morrow applies Girardian thought to the conflicts in Northern Ireland. Arpad Szakolczai addresses a perceived “Gnostic” danger in Girard by insisting upon the importance of an account of mimetic desire and scapegoating as arising from or in an original sin, and attempts to provide some anthropological evidence for just such an original sin. 

While each essay is unique, there are common themes that surface in multiple articles. Sacrifice is a central concept in many of the essays. This comes as no surprise, as sacrifice is a central concept in Gerard’s thought, as well as in many Christian articulations of atonement theory. Figures and movements beyond Girard himself also receive repeated attention. The possible connections (and contrasts) between Girard and the New Perspective on Paul is considered at length by Stephen Finamore, Anthony Bartlett, and Kirwan. Raymund Schwager, one of Girard’s earliest theological interlocuters, is also referenced repeatedly, especially in essays that comprise the latter half of the volume. These references to outside figures aid the reader in understanding the present status of Girardian thought in relation to other movements in religious thought, and also suggest further resources for those interested in deeper engagement with Girard from a theological perspective.

In an edited tome such as this, one expects variety in terms of how closely the contributors adhere to the theme of the volume. This volume possesses a remarkable coherence in terms of its connection to the main topic in question, despite the laudable diversity of perspectives and interdisciplinary approaches noted above. In this regard, the only notable exception is Arjakovsky’s essay, “Orthodox Debates in the Twentieth Century on the Question of Atonement.” Although this essay provides a fascinating look at recent Eastern (and particularly Russian) Orthodox discussions and disputes surrounding the topic of atonement, its connection to Girard and mimetic theory is somewhat unclear. In spite of this, Arjakovsky’s essay remains a helpful introduction to recent Eastern Orthodox discussions on themes such as violence, sacrifice, and wrath in atonement theory, themes which have obvious resonances with the work of Girard.

In the reviewer’s judgment, this book could be valuable for a wide variety of audiences. While the many connections made between Girard’s thought and other disciplines would be fruitful for the beginner, the book clearly assumes a certain level of prior understanding of the basic contours of Girard’s mimetic theory. It seems, then, that this book would be particularly helpful for students who have had some exposure to Girard, yet are still exploring the far-reaching implications of his thought. At the same time, this book would be helpful for those who have a greater familiarity with mimetic theory; even experts in Girard’s thought are sure to be stimulated by the wide variety of perspectives upon and appropriations of Girard contained in this volume. This reviewer commends Mimesis and Atonement to all scholars and students who have any interest in the significance of Girard for atonement theory, and for broader questions of sacrifice, violence, and reconciliation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

J. Caleb Little is a doctoral student in Religion at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dr. Michael Kirwan SJ is Head of Theology at Heythrop College in the University of London, UK.

Sheelah Treflé Hidden is a research associate with the Heythrop Institute: Religion and Society at the University of London, UK. She is the editor of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Mystical Perspectives on the Love of God (2014).



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