What do Ernest Becker, René Girard, Anders Nygren, Daniel Gilbert and the Book of Romans have in common?

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Many moons ago I heard about a book that won the Pulitzer price for General Non-Fiction in 1974: The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. The title intrigued me, and so I ordered it from the USA. (I could not find a single copy in the whole of South Africa…)

The book blew my mind. To this day I regard it as the best “non-theological” commentary on the human condition that I have ever come across. I followed it up with Becker’s Escape from Evil, and the experience pretty much repeated itself. And I am still working through his The Birth and Death of Meaning. Slowly…

I don’t think these books are everyone’s cup of tea, but they exposed me to a line of thinking that helped me greatly to understand the predicament of being human, as well as my Christian faith.

The only other scholar in the field of the human sciences whose writings had a similar effect on me was Rene Girard. His work on mimetic desire, conflict and scapegoating is fast becoming legendary. It is also becoming extremely popular, which is perhaps unfortunate. Girard has been, and is being enlisted as an apologist for a number of causes and doctrinal novelties that I doubt he would have personally endorsed. Sadly, this is often the case with profound thinkers who are no longer with us.

Added to this, Girard is a human being and his insights are certainly not complete or perfect. One does not have to agree with every tenet of his theory to gain much from it (the proverbial fish and bones). To elevate him to the status of guru is unwise. Many of his views do not sit well with conservative evangelicals, but that does not have to create an either/or conflict. His main contribution is in the field of anthropology, and his readers should consider for themselves what the implications are for their theology. For instance, the notion that you HAVE to reject the penal substitution theory of atonement in order to gain much from Girard is, in fact, not true. His work is multifaceted, and can be thought of as a series of self-contained units, each flowing into the other. There is no need to follow him slavishly, or to adopt each of his conclusions.

I have often thought of these two men as Cyrus-like servants of God, in the sense that they fulfilled a spiritual purpose without knowing that they were doing so, or at least the extent to which they were doing it. I suspect that Girard discovered it along the way, but that he was too modest to actually make something of it.

To elaborate on these purposes would fill a book, so I will refrain. Suffice it to say that Becker’s assessment of the human condition is pretty dark and damning, and that he suggests, as an objective scholar and social scientist, that “primitive Christianity” may be the only answer to the succession of failed immortality ideologies and “hero-systems” that have marked the human race since the dawn of time. Biblical Christianity, of course, takes the problem of death really seriously. Modern Christianity, according to Becker, is simply another “hero-system” or effort to deny death, and thus he relegates it to the same status as all other immortality ideologies. (All Restorationists may now applaud.)

The irony of these scholars’ work is that it has been mostly overlooked by mainstream theologians and believers (Girard’s work is finally being noticed, as mentioned, but this only happened relatively recently), seemingly because it did not come in the stereotypical theological wrapping. But this is in fact what makes it so powerful. As young researchers neither of them were crusaders for a cause or motivated by some or other belief system that created a research bias and predisposed them to looking for clues that would fit into an existing schema. They truly “stumbled” upon the powerful truths that they ended up articulating for the rest of us, and only later related it to the sphere of religion.

My all-time favourite interview is of Girard telling how he discovered that the Decalogue’s Tenth Commandment reveals mimetic desire to underlie all divine moral codes, and that it did so millennia before he came up with his theory. He notes that he finds it absolutely befuddling that this obvious fact has been overlooked by theologians. (First five minutes of interview – you can skip the rest).

To me Becker and Girard’s work represents two sides of the same coin: Mimetic desire is in fact the subjective response to the reality of death, and thus our greatest and most sophisticated effort at denying death. (Eve found the power to dismiss God’s warning of impending death through the enchantment of desire).

What we covet is in fact the life of the neighbour, and the closest we can come to this is to appropriate his/her possessions. In the process the neighbour is “sacrificed” to effect the life-exchange and overcome death. Our fascination with vampirism is but one testimony to this subconscious drive within.

This, of course, is where the gospel comes in. My greatest companion volume to Becker and Girard is Anders Nygren’s Agape and Eros (another largely forgotten work) – a book that shaped Karl Barth’s theology significantly.

Barth beautifully summarises Nygren in these words:

Love, as Eros, is, in general terms, the primordially powerful desire, urge, impulse, and endeavor by which a created being seeks his own self-assertion, satisfaction, realization, and fulfillment in his relation to something else. He strives to draw near to this other person or thing, to win it for himself, to take it to himself, and to make it his own as clearly and definitively as possible. In Agape, however, the one who loves never understands the origin of his search as a demand inherent within himself, but always as an entirely new freedom for the other one… And because he is free for him, he does not seek him as though he needed him for himself as a means to his self-assertion and self-fulfillment…. He loves him gratis. That is to say, he desires nothing from him, and he does not wish to be rewarded by him.

The book that completed the puzzle for me was Daniel Gilbert‘s Stumbling on Happiness. His groundbreaking work in regard to affective forecasting reveals that we desire things because we anticipate that they will make us happy. In this way we become slaves to our projections of a happy future self who inevitable ends up being grumpy about everything we have accumulated and achieved for him/her when we finally meet him/her.

Gilbert is not a believer, but his insights into the things that make humans tick are worth noting – and a lot of fun to consider alongside a Bible open to Ecclesiastes.

I was blown away when I discovered the book of Romans to be an eternal and majestic exposition of all of the above, especially Paul’s interpretation of the Mosaic law as a vehicle to reveal that God handed humanity over to desire as a result of rejecting him, and that none of us, no matter how religious, can suppress the power and dictates of desire, and so we “all have sinned”.

It is indeed impossible to understand the much disputed Romans 7, or even Romans 2, without these insights. In Romans 7 Paul represents the religious persona trying to do good but being tripped up by desire, revealing him/herself as a lawbreaker and in need of a saviour. In Romans 2 he hints at this by telling very “righteous” people that they were doing exactly the same as the “sinners” whom they were judging.

To conquer covetousness, and in the process fulfill the intention of the law as revealed in the tenth commandment, something called “love” is needed, that is, the ability to joyfully take what is mine and hand it over to my neighbour, as opposed to taking what belongs to my neighbour and appropriating it for me.

Agape is therefore diametrically opposite to covetousness, and here Nygren is helpful.

This suggests a reversal between the subject and object in the sacrificial drama, and this, again, is where Girard becomes helpful. The identity of the scapegoat is changed, and the “living sacrifice” is revealed as the only one with the ability to live this life of love and service and so fulfill the law by proving him/herself to be covet-free.

However, to do so, the underlying death-conquering motive that manifests in denial, mimetic desire and “heroism” must be dealt with, and this can only happen where there is an actual participation in the life that is really life. Hence, an identification with the life of God (as opposed to the apparent life of the neighbour) is necessary as the first step to be delivered from acquisitive, mimetic, erotic desire.

Romans 4’s Abraham reveals this action as something called “faith:” “My body is as good as dead, but God can give life where there is none!” The acknowledgment of “my body of death” is imperative as a basis for faith, and so Paul’s despair in Romans 7 as a result of his inability to conquer mimetic desire is intended to produce this very cry “who shall deliver me from this body of death” as a precursor of the faith that followed and that would lead to an impartation of Spirit-life in Romans 8, and thus to the new identity of a “living sacrifice” in Romans 12 (one who has died yet is alive, like Isaac & Christ) who is finally able to live the life of love and service expounded upon in chapters 12 right through to the end of the book.

Interestingly, the introductory passage to the “practical” section of the book, in the first verses of chapter 12, reveals that the “renewing of the mind” has to do with not thinking higher of oneself than you ought to, but to think with sober judgment, namely as a particular, single member in this new, resurrected body of Christ.

Thus chapters 1 to 11’s covetous narcissistic self that seeks to be served is exchanged in 12 to 16 with an “alive” sacrificial self that seeks to serve, and who never thinks of itself outside the boundaries of its particular calling in the community of the saints. Thus the rivalry that is prohibited by the tenth commandment, underlying and constituting the covetous self, is done away with completely. Envy and inferiority, as well as pride and arrogance, are also done away with.

In the place thereof, an identity with a very particular calling and equipping, whose life is shared with others, is encountered, embraced and accepted. The only rivalry that is left is revealed by Paul (tongue-in-cheek, I’m sure) to be the following: Outdo one another in showing honour! (12:10)

I have been long convinced that most of our psychological ailments spring from the cognitive dissonance triggered by the failure of our death-denying, hero-aspiring tendencies.

In other words, our failure to keep up with the Joneses drives us mad. And so it should, for God is telling us to go back to the right tree. I have found in Romans a paradigm to challenge our most basic and dearly held presuppositions, rather than just another “therapy” aimed at helping us to live up to our delusions. In fact, in my experience virtually all efforts at therapy represent efforts to assist us to better deny death and to better actualise or authenticate ourselves.

The converse is also true. I have been completely astounded at the impact of going the opposite route, namely using the above truths as a basis for counseling (anti-counseling?) brothers and sisters in the Lord. Truly, only those who are willing to lose their lives can find it, and any therapy that is not based on this truth is tantamount to doing interior decorating on death row.

Ironically, the Buddhist insight into desire as the cause of suffering and its related ideals of selflessness and Nirvana are now being “discovered” by many Christians, causing them to reject Christianity in favour of a philosophy of selflessness and slow, restful religion. Yet Buddhism or any of its derivatives cannot compare with the majestic way in which Paul expounds these very same things – the “primitive Christianity” referred to by Becker.

The Bible has a much more sophisticated and practical approach to desire and selflessness than what you can find in any branch of Buddhism, or anywhere else in the entire universe for that matter, but you have to read carefully to find it.

(This post was originally a comment on the blog of David McAnulty)

Struck by Insight

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

One of the most fascinating books that has recently found its way into my library is My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. Taylor tells a gripping story of how she survived, and recovered from, a massive stroke that had left her without the functions of her brain’s left hemisphere.

What makes the book unique is the fact that Taylor was an accomplished Harvard brain scientist at the time of her stroke, and that she had enough sense to conclude that the experience of losing half her mind was the research opportunity of a lifetime. And so she began taking mental notes in her dazed and confused state, ultimately leaving us with a striking memoir, through the eyes of a scientist, of what it’s like to experience the deterioration of the left brain and its functions. Also, she provides an extremely practical step-by-step account of her recovery.

Taylor’s bravery was rewarded: The book became a New York Times bestseller and gave her international renown. Recently Ron Howard has signed on to direct the film of the book.

Reading it, I could not help but think of Paul’s words above. What do we do when we experience severe affliction? Do we become bitter and despondent? Do we blame others? Do we shake our fists at God? Or do we, like Taylor, see our affliction as the research opportunity of a lifetime; as a unique lesson of God’s infinite grace in the face of human pain and suffering that no textbook or sermon can ever convey?

The Second Call

In his classic The Ragamuffin Gospel author Brennan Manning devotes a chapter to the “Second Call” in the Christian’s Life.

Sometimes things don’t work out according to plan, Manning says. Sometimes Christians are devastated by death, disease, divorce, debt or disaster and find that they cannot live the afternoon of their lives by the morning plan. They have to find a new plan. They have to construct new goals and start over.

There is simply no other way.

This is the time when Christians are often surprised by a second call, when God intervenes and calls them as clearly and definitively as the first time around, and sometimes even clearer.

The Bible is full of second calls: Moses at the Burning Bush, The Prodigal Son, the distraught Peter at the Sea of Tiberias, to name but a few. These were people who once had a sense of destiny but who lost it as a result of the mistakes they had made: Moses became an exile in Midian, the Prodigal ended up in a pigsty, Peter went back to his fishing boat.

Yet they were all given a second chance. In fact, it was their response to the second call that made them legends.

The saying “God forgives, people don’t” is true indeed. Like the Prodigal’s older brother, we often frown when our fallen ones want to get up. Our sense of self righteousness is threatened by the notion that God wants to restore them fully and unconditionally, and so we prefer them to remain in the pigsty from where they can make us look better than them.

C. S. Lewis once spoke of the four ages that people go through: Unenchantment, Enchantment, Disenchantment, Re-enchantment.

If you have become disenchanted in your faith, don’t give up. Allow God to re-enchant you.

The Faith of the Fatherless

A number of years ago psychology professor Paul Vitz wrote a book with the title Faith of the Fatherless. In it he pointed out that many atheists maintain that religious belief arises from psychological factors.

Sigmund Freud, for instance, saw belief as a form of wish-fulfilment, an illusion deriving from powerful wishes or unconscious infantile needs.

The irony of this “projection theory”, Vitz says, is that it actually provides us with an explanation for unbelief rather than faith. According to him, it “provides a powerful new way to understand an illusion as the psychological basis for rejecting God — that is, a projection theory of atheism.”

A case in point: The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously proclaimed that “God is dead”. What few people know is that his father was a Lutheran minister who passed away a few months before Nietzsche’s fifth birthday. His conclusion might very well have been a way of dealing with his childhood loss – code for “Dad is dead”.

Nietzsche’s case is by no means an exception. Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, David Hume, Arthur Schopenhauer and Albert Camus were all atheistic philosophers who lost their fathers at a young age. Vitz mentions that many other famous unbelievers also had troublesome relationships with their fathers. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Freud, Voltaire, Thomas Hobbes, Samuel Butler and H.G. Wells all had abusive or weak fathers.

We can learn a number of things from Vitz’s book. More important than the insight into unbelief is the disturbing, yet glorious truth of how our children are affected by our actions. We fashion their understanding of God.

This may provide one reason why the Bible is so concerned with the plight of orphans. Where there is no parent to represent God to a little one, Christians should be ready to step in and fill the void.

From Eternity to Here

Every now and again a book comes along that captures the essence of Christianity in a remarkable way. These are the writings that subsequent generations refer to as “classics”, and they are usually only recognized for their profundity and timelessness once the author is no longer around. There are many examples (although not too many!): Watchman Nee’s The Normal Christian Life, Andrew Murray’s Abide in Christ, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, Gene Edwards’ The Divine Romance, and so on.

The latest addition to the “Classic” bookshelf in my library (reserved for the very best of Christian literature) was published only a few years ago. Yet it is regarded by many as one of the greatest Christian books of the last few decades, and a certain future classic.

I am, of course, referring to Frank Viola’s From Eternity to Here. Although not everyone agrees with Viola’s views on the church (he co-authored the controversial Pagan Christianity in which he and fellow author George Barna takes on “institutional Churchianity”), few of his critics find fault with this book. It has been endorsed by traditionalists and radicals alike, and is revolutionalising the way multitudes of believers worldwide see the “big picture” of Christianity.

Unlike so many Christian bestsellers of late, Viola has no new revelation to offer (thank goodness). On the contrary, From Eternity to Here combines in one volume the greatest and most precious insights from the best of the “Deeper Christian Life” authors of the past few centuries. People who are unfamiliar with authors like Nee and Murray, and with Christian movements such as the Brethren, will find this book astoundingly revelational and deeply edifying.

I heartily recommend From Eternity to Here. In fact, I recommend that you buy a few extra copies and give them away.

The Mark of a Good Book

My dad was a very wise man who taught me a number of unforgettable lessons. One that stands out is “If you want people to believe a lie, print it!”

I have seen the truth of these words confirmed again and again. Books have an air of authority around them, which explains why people are oftentimes disappointed when meeting an author.

In reality there is no difference between the authority of the printed and spoken word, no matter how popular the former may be. As Robert Boston has wisely pointed out: “How a book sells is not an indication of its merit. The … public has a seemingly bottomless appetite for nonsense, as evidenced by the countless tomes about astrology, aliens from outer space, quack diets, and UFOs that have regularly graced best-seller lists over the years. Some books that sold millions have later been exposed as hoaxes. A slot on the best-seller list tells you exactly one thing about a book: that a lot of people bought it.”

The same goes for Christian books. In fact, a Christian book’s fame may oftentimes be an indication of its shallowness (The road leading to perdition is broad, remember?). A Christian bestseller list is an indication of a book’s popularity, never of its theological soundness.

The single most important criteria for judging a Christian book is never its popularity, relevance, practical usefulness or readability. Rather, it is the degree to which the centrality of Jesus Christ dominates the book.

That may sound a bit abstract, so let me assist by listing a group of Christian authors whose books fall into this category (There are many more): Andrew Murray, Watchman Nee, A.W. Tozer, Dietrich Bonnhoeffer, Major Ian Thomas, T. Austin Sparks, Jessie Penn Lewis, Oswald Chambers.

Start reading these authors and you will know exactly what I mean.

Mistakes were Made

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick. Jeremiah 17:9

Everybody else but me; everybody else but me
He was talking to those people back in Galilee
Anybody else but me
– Don Francisco

The most frightening book that I have ever come across in my life is not one that comes from the pen of Stephen King, Dean Koontz or any one of the many horror writers who earn their living by scaring people out of their wits. No, it is a book with the seemingly boring title Mistakes were Made (but not by me).

Written by social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, the book is a fascinating study of the way in which human beings refuse to accept information that conflicts with their dearly held beliefs. Conflicting information causes ‘cognitive dissonance’, and the way in which the human brain reduces this mental discomfort is to create blind spots that blocks out the information that causes the dissonance. And so, Tavris and Aronson tell us, we end up deceiving ourselves in order to sustain our mental equilibrium.

This explains why we are attracted to information that confirms our own biases, why we love to play the blame game and why our memories are so highly selective. It also explains why a number of American presidents referred to their own massive blunders by saying ‘mistakes were made’, as though the mistakes made themselves.

The scary thing about the book is that it exposes the reader to the dark mechanisms at work in his (or her) own heart and mind, revealing how wrong we are when we think we are not quite as wrong as others.

I heartily recommend this book to all believers, especially to my fellow recovering Pharisees.

Lessons from a Lost Son

In his classic work The Return of the Prodigal Son Henri Nouwen offers some penetrating insights into the symbolism behind the younger son’s departure. He says: “Leaving home is living as though I do not yet have a home and must look far and wide to find one. It is a denial that I belong to God with every part of my being, that God holds me safe in an eternal embrace, that I am indeed carved in the palms of God’s hands and hidden in their shadows.”

The prodigal son experienced what we would call today an “identity crisis”, a term coined by the sociologist Eric Erikson to describe that period in our teens when we struggle to dissociate ourselves from our parents with the hope of forming a secure identity. This explains the turbulence of those years. We are like strangers in a storm looking for the bridge that will take us to adulthood and safety.

The prodigal tried to solve his particular crisis by dreaming of a “distant country” where he believed he would discover himself. He had not come to terms with the fact that he was the beloved of the father, and that this constituted his identity. Instead, he chose to be defined by the world.

In his book Nouwen draws a striking parallel between the prodigal’s fantasies and the temptations of Christ. Satan offered Christ instant gratification, worldly treasures and the acclaim of the people – a shortcut to self actualisation. Yet Christ resisted these: He had just heard the voice of his Father, saying “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

These words tell us who we are and where our true home is. When we are in touch with our sonship, as Christ was, we become immune to the onslaughts of the tempter.