Humanity’s fall: magic or mimesis?

David Bazan - Curse Your Branches album coverI’ve been listening this week to David Bazan’s album Curse Your Branches. This is not an easy album to listen to: Bazan has lost the faith he had when recording as Pedro the Lion, and now describes himself as an agnostic. This profile of Bazan describes Curse Your Branches as “a harrowing breakup record – except he’s dumping God, Jesus, and the evangelical life”.

That said, there is something compelling and attractive both about the music itself and the tortured honesty of the lyrics. Bazan is neither doubting nor triumphantly atheist: rather, he is angry with God – or at least at what Timothy Radcliffe calls the “Heavenly Boss”, “this oppressive figure in which no orthodox Christian believes anyway” (see this recent post).

The opening song, Hard To Be, is a good example of why listening to Curse Your Branches is both a wrenching and at times frustrating experience. Bazan writes:

You’ve heard the story you know how it goes
Once upon a garden we were lovers with no clothes
Fresh from the soil we were beautiful and true
In control of our emotions till we ate the poison fruit […]

Wait just a minute
You expect me to believe
that all this misbehaving grew from one enchanted tree
And helpless to fight it we should all be satisfied
With the magical explanation for why the living die

Well, let us indeed “wait just a minute”, and ask whether we are expected to believe that “all this misbehaving grew from one enchanted tree”; that the story of humanity’s creation and rebellion is merely a “magical explanation”. That may well be what Bazan has been taught, and it may well be what many Christians believe. And to be honest, put like that it does all sound rather arbitrary and unsatisfactory as an explanation for how things are.

But another reason to be grateful for this album is this way in which Bazan forces us to think, and Bazan’s words made me think again about what the account of Adam and Eve is saying – particularly in the light of René Girard’s concept of “mimetic desire” (and the resultant “mimetic rivalry”) as lying at the root of human sinfulness. In an interview in 1996, Girard makes the following remarks about the story of Adam and Eve:

At the beginning of the Bible you have the Adam and Eve story which is a story of mimetic desire because desire never comes from the subject but always from someone else. Eve’s desire is inspired by the serpent, Adam’s desire is suggested by Eve. The story of Adam and Eve is obviously a mimetic story. When God asks them what has happened, Adam says it was Eve’s fault and Eve’s says it was the serpent’s fault; and they are not completely wrong in the sense that they both borrowed their desire from someone else.

For Girard, mimetic desire is both what makes us human (since instead of animal instincts we have mimetic desires learned from those around us) and what makes us sinful (he points out that the word usually translated “covet” in the ten commandments is actually just the word “desire”). What was lost in humanity’s rebellion was the ability for human desire to avoid becoming rivalrous and violent.

The importance of this is that it provides a link between the sin of Adam and Eve and the sinfulness of each subsequent human being. There is nothing arbitrary here: there is a very clear link, and a link that is creational in nature, between the mimetic desire involved in Adam and Eve’s rebellion and the mimetic desire with which we are born and which leads us into rebellion and rivalry with God and one another.

So it’s frustrating to hear Bazan speak about “enchanted trees” and “magical explanations”. He has clearly never come across an explanation like that of Girard, and at the moment he is probably in a place where he couldn’t hear that explanation anyway. But perhaps Girard’s insight can provide a means of helping others see the credibility of the Christian account of human sinfulness.

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3 Responses to Humanity’s fall: magic or mimesis?

  1. Rick Ritchie says:

    So many things to comment on! The first two paragraphs could call forth pages. But I want to focus on Girard, as I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately.

    The concept of mimetic desire is intriguing. One of his interviewers mentioned how it’s so simple but explains everything.

    This fits in a scary way with the findings of a recent experiment:

    I have to admit I think I am more like the chimp in the experiment, relying less on copying than others. But however I am with problem-solving, I also know from watching myself that there is a lot of mimesis in my own desire. Rather scary.

    I think you are right about Girard’s theory being explanatory even in this area. I don’t know how far it goes, but it covers so much area, I don’t think it’s a fault if we need further explanations. And it is nice to have one that might be persuasive for those who have less interest in “magic trees” than some of us might have.

  2. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Image and imitation

  3. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » New music for 2010

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