(This is the first post in our series Book Feature Friday. Come back next week for another book review that expounds on mimetic theory.)
On Thursday, July 31 at 3:00 Eastern, we interviewed the highly influential activist, author, and public theologian Brian McLaren about his latest book We Make the Road by Walking. Click here to watch this exciting chat about the events of Holy Week and interpreting biblical violence.
This is one of Brian’s most important books. As Tony Jones says, “This is Brian McLaren at his best.” Everything Brian writes is worth reading, but I agree with Tony – this book is particularly important.
We Make the Road by Walking will change the way we interpret the Bible – specifically the Bible’s violence. How we interpret the Bible’s violence is the most important topic for the future of Christianity; indeed, it’s crucial for the future of our world. While many use the violence in the Bible as a justification for their own violence, others see that violence and reject the Bible as an archaic book hopelessly mired in violence.
But Brian won’t let us use the Bible to justify our violence, nor will he let us reject the Bible because of its violence. In fact, he walks us deep into the Bible and claims that it has the capacity to make us come alive – truly alive with God in a nonviolent spirit of love, justice, and kindness.
In 52 brief and engaging chapters, Brian tells the whole biblical story, from Genesis to Revelation. He says that “The story began in God’s creative love and it ends in God’s creative love.” And the middle? It is brimming with God’s awe-inspiring love for humanity and all of creation.
God’s love is nice, isn’t it? But what about all of that violence in the Bible? Brian warns us not to ignore that violence, but to “expose these violent stories to the light of day. And then we must tell new stories beside them, stories so beautiful and good that they will turn us toward a better vision of kindness, reconciliation, and peace for our future and for our children’s future.”
Brian takes us on a guided tour of the Bible where he exposes those violent stories and juxtaposes them with alternative stories. In doing so, Brian leads us down the human evolution in our understanding of God. One of the key biblical stories for this evolution is the story of Abraham. In Genesis 12, Abram is called by God to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. Abram’s name is soon changed to Abraham, but his role remains the same: he is blessed by God so that he will be a blessing to “all the families of the earth.”
But the story of Abraham shows how easily we get distracted from God’s mission to be a blessing – and how easy it is for us to become a curse. While God’s voice calls us to bless others, many competing voices in our culture call us to harm others. Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac is a good example. Brian’s reflection on this story is worth the price of the book. He states that in the ancient world it was common for fathers to sacrifice their sons on top of a mountain to appease the voice of a perceived angry and bloodthirsty deity. Indeed, the voices within Abraham’s culture that were calling him to sacrifice and harm his son were competing with God’s voice to be a blessing “to all the families of the earth” – including his own family! Fortunately, the voice of the true God of Israel stopped the sacrifice. The Abraham and Isaac narrative begins the biblical process of transforming the human understanding of God as being angry, bloodthirsty, and in need of sacrificial violence to appease divine wrath. The story reveals that God doesn’t need God’s anger to be appeased through sacrifice. That was a huge evolutionary leap forward in the human understanding of God. Brian claims that from here the trajectory of the biblical story leads the biblical authors to realize that “God isn’t the one who is angry and hostile and needs appeasement. We humans are the angry ones! Our hostile, bloodthirsty hearts are the ones that need to be changed!”
But why are we humans angry? Here Brian walks us into the realm of anthropology and specifically René Girard’s mimetic theory. Girard claims that human desire is imitative. His formula is that we “desire according to the desire of another.” This is a good thing; it’s how we learn and grow. But it can become very dangerous. Our desires can become broken, or distorted, if we violently compete with one another as we imitate desires to acquire what others have: a new car, a new position at work, or greater prestige are just a few examples. As we compete for these things, we neglect God’s call to be a blessing and we become a curse to others. The authors of the Bible knew the dangers of this imitative aspect of human desire. Brian explains:
And they [the biblical authors] help us know what’s broken with our desires: we have stopped imitating God’s good desires to create and bless and give life. Instead, we’ve started imitating the prideful, competitive, fearful, and harmful desires we see in one another…the desire to acquire what someone else has, the desire to compare and consume, the desire to judge as evil those who get in our way, even the desire to harm or kill those who are obstacles to our desire.
Jesus knew that we needed a fundamental transformation of our desires, and so he called his disciples to “follow” him. In following him, we imitate his way of life and we begin the process of becoming truly alive in God’s desire for us to be a blessing to “all the families of the earth.” As Brian states, “For Jesus, true aliveness focusses on transforming our deeper desires.” Our deepest desire is to be in relationships of mutual blessing; to love and to be loved. In Jesus we find that “Love should now be extended farther than before, to outsiders as well as insiders, to them as well as us, even to our enemies. We may not have walked the road that far yet, but that is God’s intent for us.”
As followers of Jesus, that is the road we are called to walk. It’s not an easy road, but fortunately we don’t have to walk it alone. Jesus is calling us to make the road by walking together and we hope you join us as we make the road with Brian on July 31st at 3:00 Eastern.
If you can’t attend the live chat with Brian, it will be archived at the Teaching Nonviolent Atonement website.