Mimetic theory is the hot topic in Christian theology these days. Unfortunately, most of the information I’ve found has been extremely academic and hard to wrap my head around. I was able to piece together a basic understanding from Brian McLaren’s book We Make The Road By Walking, but overall mimetic theory has caused me as much intimidation as intrigue. André Rabe’s new book, Desire Found Me, however, promises to make the topic clear, simple, and practical.
Desire Found Me is a refreshing perspective on scripture and theology through mimetic theory. It offers a synthesis of historical context, literary criticism, and progressive insights, while remaining rooted in Christian tradition. The book begins by explaining the concepts of mimetic desire, which is foundational for understanding the rest of the book. Following that is a grand overview of the old testament with an eye towards both good and bad mimetic desire. Finally, André tackles the implications of those insights on Christian atonement theology.
It seems a given that children learn a great deal by mimicking those around them. As adults we often delude ourselves into thinking we’re immune to such behavior, but we never really outgrow this behavior. Mimetic theory provides a model which shows that humans even learn what is desirable to them by mimicking others. There are a great many benefits of this “mimetic desire.” One benefit is that it creates and propagates cultures. Groups form that tend to like the same things, work towards the same goals, etc.. New members born or assimilated into the group mimic the wants, desires, and dreams of those around them without question. In this way it becomes the binding glue of families, social groups, societies, and nations.
The same mimetic desires that bind us together can often tear us apart. A group or even a single individual’s desires can often conflict with another’s. A romantic relationship is a simple example of how this conflict occurs. Let’s pretend that my best friend Jessie is in a romantic relationship with Jenny. Mimetic theory predicts that this will make a romantic relationship with Jenny more desirable to me. As my desire for a romantic relationship with Jenny increases, so does serious conflict between myself and Jessie. History tells us that often these conflicts of desire result in some form of violence. In a world of perceived limited resources, you just need to pick up the newspaper to see that this sort of conflict happens consistently and on larger scales.
Desire Found Me introduces another aspect of mimetic theory called scapegoating. Scapegoating is the resolution system of mimetic desire within groups. When conflict of desires reach critical mass in a group, often the group’s leaders will transfers blame to a single person or group of people. This way the community can become unified in focusing it’s violence on the scapegoat and feel as if the conflict has been eliminated. Although we may not be aware of it, this scapegoat resolution system is the plausibility structure of humanity. That kind of retributive violence is entrenched in myth, news media, politics, and cultural norms around the globe. Again it only takes a cursory glance around to see this scapegoating in action.
The next section discusses the implications of mimetic theory on understanding the biblical narrative. Not only does the author share how biblical stories reflect positive and negative mimetic desires, but he also surrounds them with historical context. This section also served as a great primer for applying mimetic theory to texts. Readers learn to wield mimetic theory as they see the author guide them through his uses in the old testament. It was exciting to see what the model revealed about singular events like Abraham’s almost sacrifice of Isaac. My favorite parts where it’s explanations of the emergence of monotheism and Satan. Another great part was how it details the ways the creation myth in Genesis subverts the prevailing creation myth of that time, the Enuma Elish.
The last section of the book deals with atonement theories. If you have any experience with Christian theories of atonement you may already have begun to see some connections between Jesus’ death and scapegoating. While most American Christians are familiar with Penal Substitutionary Atonement, there are in fact many atonement theories. Each atonement theory generally agrees that atonement is gained through Jesus’ ‘sacrificial’ death, however they disagree on how his death achieved that atonement.
Desire Found Me tackles this complex and sometimes touchy subject head on by deconstructing the most popular atonement theories. It explores each theory on it’s own terms, sharing each one’s history, context, and biblical support texts and identifies their weaknesses and strengths before examining them through the mimetic lens. Taking all of this information into account, the author introduces and offers support for a new atonement theory called Reflective Atonement.
I won’t spoil the details, but I will say that Reflective Atonement offers a compelling and scripturally rooted paradigm shift in atonement theology. It accounts for the “fall of man” without requiring the nature of God to change or for his power to be limiting. It addresses the issue of sin and separation from God in a more biblically consistent way than PSA. It remains true to the New Testament writer’s focus on the resurrection while providing a more rational understanding of the defeat of Satan than Christus Victor. Though it may seem to have much in common with Moral Influence, it keeps Christ’s death and resurrection central.
Desire Found Me starts and finishes strong. It delivers a clear and simple understanding of mimetic theory whiling showing it’s ability to model literature, history, and current events. It’s uses are even apparent for introspection and self-improvement. Along with the information about mimetic theory, this book also has extremely interesting and relevant historical context that I haven’t seen in other books.
My biggest take-away however was something more personal. Since leaving behind many of the evangelical views I grew up with, (biblical literalism, penal substitutionary atonement, etc…) I have felt more than lost at times. The Bible often seems distasteful and useless. It’s difficult to read without hearing the gag-inducing ghost of PSA in my brain. During this process I’ve realized that there are many authors who are ready to help deconstruct, but few willing to help rebuild afterwards. André Rabe’s Desire Found Me is different. It left me with a renewed sense wonder and awe for the story of scripture. It also offered a perspective of atonement that was rational, “non-violent”, yet rooted in the nonnegotiables of Christianity. It does the hard work of building faith.