René Girard was one of the most important religious theorists of the last fifty years, offering insights that resonate with both believers and unbelievers. His ideas continue to be discussed in academic circles, but I believe he needs to be better known by the wider public. Bishop Barron has made efforts in this regard, upholding Girard as a modern Church Father, particularly praising his theory of the “scapegoating” mechanism as a way of helping people see the violence at the heart of society and in themselves. Basically, Girard helps us realize we are sinners in need of God’s grace.
When I read Girard, I am always reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation.” There’s always something in his writing that hits me like Mary Grace’s book, thrown at the self-righteous Mrs. Turpin, reminding me of what a warthog I am. But such violence is received as grace, helping me see my need for the Savior. I have found that most people who read Girard, or who are simply introduced to his thought, have a similar experience. It’s like an apocalyptic bomb, shedding light on the human condition.
Introducing students to Girard was always a delight for me because I got to see a lightbulb go off in them, hearing from them how useful his theories were in understanding the dynamics of every social phenomenon, from dating life to political elections. But I also saw how well it prepared my students to receive the Gospel. Like many of my students, Girard grew up in a Catholic home but eventually fell away from the faith, writing off the Gospel as just one more myth from the ancient world. However, through the study of literature, he came to see how the Gospel differed from those myths insofar as it was an apocalypse—that is, an unveiling. Unsurprisingly, many students have a similar perception of the Gospel as Girard did when he was a young man. But by guiding them along the path Girard discovered, they were better able to see that difference and their need for the Lord. In a word, Girard cut them to the heart, leading them to ask, “What shall we do?”