Review: The Gospel & The Sacred: Poetics of Violence in Mark

Gospel and the SacredThe Gospel and the Sacred by Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

This is mostly a very good book. The introduction to mimetic theory (and its application as a method of biblical interpretation), and the appendix with its even more detailed discussion of the scapegoat mechanism, are valuable in and of themselves. The main body of the text, chapters one through four, is akin to a commentary on the gospel of Mark as interpreted through mimetic theory. H-K’s reasonably close reads of the text and his explications of significant or puzzling passages are well done, frequently although not invariably persuasive; they are slightly marred by the ubiquitous use of the technical terms for elements of mimetic theory: these make the text hard to follow for a reader who has not mastered H-K’s presentation of mimetic theory, and thus difficult for a reader to share with others. But this slight flaw is actually consistent with H-K’s premise that in order to fully understand the gospel, one must indeed have mastered mimetic theory.

His thoroughgoing demythologization, and unhesitating dismissal of passages that are inconsistent with a mimetic reading as later material added by a Christian community that had fallen back under the spell of the violent Sacred, will disturb some readers. I found the former occasionally excessive and mildly annoying; I was more concerned by the latter, but as something to keep an eye on rather than as a fundamental flaw. His analysis of the gospel in terms of sacred and profane space (”the poetics of space”) and of the dynamic between the individual and the group (”the poetics of faith”) provide very helpful overarching conceptual structures.

In chapter five, he engages with two other approaches to the “poetics” of Mark, one in terms of space, the other in terms of time. This chapter either ventures into philosophical discourse about narrative that I am unequipped to follow, or simply jumps the shark.

The last chapter attempts an application of this interpretation of the gospel for today’s Christians in today’s world. I found the arguments in this section relatively weak and the conclusion depressing. Arguing that the structures of sacred violence, while they have been damaged by the gospel, continue to operate and will continue to do so until after the eschaton, he concludes that even those to whom the workings of the mechanism have been

unveiled . . . must continue to live as victims among executioners and take the necessary measures to defend ourselves. Out of this realization comes the system of the uneasy conscience that is characteristic of the Christian’s political posture, the theory of the just war, and the Christian support for the state and its claim to a legitimate security. (126)

The necessity of self defense is simply asserted, and seems to fly in the face of the risks and suffering to which the rest of the book, as well as early church history, calls faithful Christians. While it is true that a mimetic reading of the gospel as unveiling and thereby disabling the scapegoat mechanism requires a response to the objection that this mechanism continues to operate, I felt that this response goes too far in some ways and not far enough in others.

All that said, my biggest disappointment with this book is that the binding on my copy is defective and it deteriorated as I read it, which makes it impossible to subject to the heavy use I expect to give it without having it rebound. I read the main commentary section voraciously, repeatedly struck by new insights about the text: some observed by H-K and some observations of my own. I’ve already written about the fig tree and will be blogging about some of the others as well.

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2 Responses to Review: The Gospel & The Sacred: Poetics of Violence in Mark

  1. Pingback: Rejecting the Sacrificial System | Gaudete Theology

  2. Pingback: Mark’s Persecution Texts from a Girardian Perspective | Euangelion Kata Markon

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