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)

“I will”, said the Turkey.


I am indebted to Nassim Nicholas Taleb for the turkey analogy. Taleb borrowed it from the philosopher Bertrand Russel and used it in his provocative book The Black Swan to illustrate the folly of predicting the future by using the past as a point of reference. Along with scholars such as Daniel Kahneman (Fast and Slow Thinking) and Daniel Gilbert (Stumbling on Happiness) Taleb points out that humans are outrageously irrational when they try their hand at forecasting the future.

The topic intrigues me. As you may know, humans are most egotistical and idolatrous when they imagine what their own futures are going to look like. It is not our photo albums or mirrors that inspire self-worship, but our projections of an idealised future self. Our past and present selves are simply too real to be worthy of deification, and so we use the future to shape and mould the image of I.

All of this becomes rather interesting if we consider that the first motivational speaker in the history of the universe was a serpent. He convinced Eve that she could be more than what she was. He managed to divert her gaze from what she was and had in God to what she could have and be in herself, and thus from the present to the future. “Eve, you can maximise your potential. Eve, you can fulfil your destiny.”

Ever noticed that God identifies himself as “I am”, even in His self-declaration in Christ, but that Satan identifies himself as “I will”? Note the contrast:

I am who I am. Exodus 3:14
I am the bread of life John 6: 35, 48
I am the light of the world John 8: 12, 9:5
Before Abraham was, I am John 8: 58
I am the door John 10:9
I am the good shepherd John 10:11
I am the resurrection and the life John 11:25
I am the way, the truth, and the life John 14:6
I am the true vine John 15:1

“How you are fallen from heaven,
O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
you who laid the nations low!
You said in your heart,
I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
in the far reaches of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’
But you are brought down to Sheol,
to the far reaches of the pit. Isaiah 14:12-15

Reading Isaiah 14, it is clear why John tells us that “the devil has been sinning from the beginning” (1 John 3:8). The seed of the serpent was forged in eternity before time, when the contentment and perfection of “I am” was replaced with the desire of “I will”. And so “being” was replaced with “becoming”, beholding with visioneering, the Creator with the creature, rest with striving, contentment with anticipation, the now with the then, the “thank you” with “if only”, the treasure of having with the emptiness of wanting.

Of course there was only one way in which the toxic seed of the serpent could be injected into God’s creatures, made in his image and likeness, birthed into his rest, partaking of his identity of life, enjoying the abundance of his provision. They too were to utter the venomous “I will…”

And so the serpent whispered to them: “You will… be as God.”

The moment they believed the promise, and acted on their newfound faith, they too were brought down to Sheol. Note that the first sin was in fact the second sin, but that it was like the first sin.

The enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent began here. The “I will” became a collective in Genesis 11, when an entire nation aspired to penetrate the heavens and found a name and identity for themselves. “I will” became “we will”, and so the seed of the serpent that had become the seed of humanity became the seed of the kingdoms of this world.

Two Seeds, Two Births, Two Confessions

The enmity continues throughout Scripture and finds its ultimate manifestation in two births. The first came into the world and restored our understanding of the “I am” identity, the partaking in that which is and cannot become, for how can perfection be more than what it is?

This was the one who defied the arrogance of the serpent and his offspring, by saying “not my will, but yours be done.” This was the one who defined divinity in his “I am” statements, quoted above. This was the one of whom was said that he, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” In each and every way he contradicted the aspirations of the serpent and his offspring.

Of course the serpent tempted him in the traditional, tried and tested way that had successfully led the whole word astray: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

Note the underlying transactional and graceless philosophy that has governed all human relationships and marriages since the fall: “I will, if you will.”

But Christ resisted. As he would later say: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” In the same manner, he taught us to pray “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

The first birth manifested the seed from heaven, and revealed its nature as that which is and cannot become, which has and cannot want, which beholds and does not imagine.

If the first birth was God’s Messiah and a revelation of his perfection, then the second birth is Satan’s messiah and a revelation of his imperfection and subsequent striving to “become”. As the seed of the woman brought Christ into the world, the seed of the serpent brought forth the exact opposite and antithesis of Christ, aptly referred to as “Antichrist”.

Naturally, the Antichrist is the incarnation of the human will and its striving, and so, in accordance with the first and second sin, and all the sins since then, he is made manifest in one way only: “He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thessaloninas 2:4). Naturally, for his coming “will be in accordance with how Satan works” (verse 9).

These insights reveal why it is futile and sinful to obsess about “tomorrow”, and why God has a habit of only providing enough manna for “today”. A focus on tomorrow is an inevitable invitation to idolatry, and so we are warned:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. James 4:13-16

Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring. Proverbs 27:1

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6:31-34

Give us today our daily bread. Matthew 6:11

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions… The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed. Then Moses said to them, “No one is to keep any of it until morning.” However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them. Exodus 16:4, 17-20

Needless to say, the above insights have made me not only highly suspicious of the motivational revolution of the last few decades, but especially of its recent infiltration into the church world. A quick visit to the Google Ngram Viewer (an online phrase-usage graphing tool indicating usage of words and phrases in more than 5 million prominent publications) reveals the following disturbing trend:

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All of this has prompted me to rethink the contemporary hallowed usage of the word “destiny” amongst Christians. Wondering if the word is actually used in the Bible as it is currently being used on the covers of Christian bestsellers, I went to my concordance. This is what I found:

But as for you who forsake the Lord and forget my holy mountain, who spread a table for Fortune and fill bowls of mixed wine for Destiny, I will destine you for the sword… Isaiah 65:11-12


Correct me if I am wrong, but it would appear that even the great apostasy is no longer in the future, but in the present.

Black Swans and the Bible

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”. Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” James 4:13-15

In recent years there has been an upsurge in books and scholarly articles dealing with humanity’s inability to correctly predict the future. Most notable has been Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan. These are scary reads, revealing how vulnerable we are to constructing idealistic visions of the future whilst heading straight towards disaster.

What we call forecasts are oftentimes no more than wish dreams, and this is true whether we are New York stockbrokers, politicians with bags full of promises or young professionals embarking on the road to their first million whilst raising the perfect family.

It all sounds pretty cynical, especially when the bookshops and airwaves are crammed with messages that you can attract your own future by following a few basic universal laws to which even God is subject. But thinkers like Taleb, Daniel Kahneman and Daniel Gilbert are vindicated by two factors: Firstly, history testifies on their behalf with millennia of grim statistics, confirming how often the unexpected violently intrudes into the lives of the most decent of people. Secondly, and more importantly, the Bible has been saying for ages what these scholars are propagating.

The Bible, however, goes one step further. Instead of merely shattering our wish dreams it introduces us to an alternative focus that is immune to surprises: The eternal, unshakeable will of God.