Asch Experiment/Bystander Effect

In the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch (1907-1996) published a series of studies that demonstrated the power of conformity in groups. His findings come as no surprise, since we, as human beings, have the natural tendency to imitate others… don’t we ;)? Because of this tendency we desire social recognition, and easily adapt ourselves to what others are doing – even if it doesn’t seem to make any sense.

The capacity to imitate others allows us to “walk in someone else’s shoes”, to imagine what others might expect and to be sensitive about those expectations. Hence, as said, the desire for social recognition springs from our imitative or mimetic tendencies.

Asch’s experiments were highly influential and directly inspired Stanley Milgram (1933-1984) and his studies of obedience to authority. In any case, these experiments are classical studies in the world of psychology, and naturally attract mimetic scholars – even if their theoretical framework is somewhat different from that of Asch and Milgram, and sustained by new empirical research from the neurosciences.

CLICK TO WATCH the Asch Conformity Experiment:

As proven by Milgram’s studies of obedience to authority and the later executed Stanford Prison Experiment, the way we adapt to our environment often leads to tragic situations. A variation of the Asch Conformity Experiment reveals how it can be comic as well.

CLICK TO WATCH:

Another interesting phenomenon from the point of view of mimetic theory is the so-called bystander effect. It shows how imitating others can foster mechanisms of exclusion and scapegoating impulses. “Why should I do what could equally be done by others?” seems to be the underlying question we use for avoiding our responsibility to help a person in need amidst a crowd.

CLICK TO WATCH:

These short films once again demonstrate how deeply embedded is the tendency to imitate what others are doing… or not doing…

Celebrating surrealism, a-ha pops up

As a kid, René Magritte used to play at an abandoned cemetery, together with a little girl. He saw a painter there, who seemed to him to possess magical powers… (thanks to Marcel Paquet’s Taschen book, for this and the following information on Magritte).

Of course, later on, Magritte (1898-1967) became a painter himself, and an intriguing one. The Belgian surrealist managed to create a world of ideas and suggestions on the canvas. As it turns out, many of his paintings drew from the experiences he had at the cemetery of his childhood. His surreal work contains a world of opposites: a heavy rock is painted as a levitating object, a nocturnal landscape is depicted under a blue, white clouded and sunlit sky… These and other examples remind of the contrasting experiences Magritte underwent at the cemetery: the promising life of two young children contrasts with a place of dead, decaying bodies, as the first hints of a sensual interplay between a boy and a girl contrast with the barrenness of the graveyard surroundings. At the same time, Magritte’s paintings convey the paradoxes of any artist’s ‘magical’ creativity: at once all-powerful and powerless. Indeed, a painter is able to create a world according to his own laws (levitating rocks, for example), yet he never manages to capture reality itself. The Treachery of Images (French: La trahison des images; 1928-1929), Magritte’s well-known painting of a pipe, makes this clear. The subscript Ceci n’est pas une pipe shows the idea that we only access reality through images, representations, or indeed, mimesis. The image of a pipe is not the pipe itself. A poetic equivalent could be the expression ‘I’m speechless’. For saying ‘I’m speechless’ actually implies speaking, so the reality of being speechless is misrepresented by the expression itself. The Italian movie La vita è bella (Roberto Benigni, 1997) contains a riddle in a similar sense: “When you say my name, I’m gone… Who am I? Answer: ‘Silence’…”

Medieval thinkers were very much aware of these paradoxes and of the mediated nature of all human knowledge. Reality, which was ultimately divine to them, is always bigger and ‘different’ than our representations of it. We live by symbols and images, referring to ‘what lies beyond’ them. Somehow we seem to lose this awareness more and more. We seem to lose ourselves to the impression we can control many aspects of our own life, and many aspects – if not all – of ‘reality’. We live in a world where everything is said to be ‘manageable’, a world of plans and strategies, of ideologies and calculations – calculated ‘risks’ and false certainties. We think we can master reality, that we are free and independent ‘Masters of the Universe’, yet the background radiation of our day-to-day conscience tells a different story: climate change gets at us in unexpected ways, terrorist attacks stun us time and again, and accidents ‘do happen’.

I just finished reading The Book of Illusions, a novel by Paul Auster. He’s on my list of favorites already (next to Milan Kundera and John Maxwell Coetzee – who are, as I discovered after I’d read them, both admirers of René Girard’s work –, and next to the not so well-known Craig Strete). I loved reading the story because of its surreal feel, because it breathes both the anguish and hope that ‘nothing is what it seems’. The story is carried by the character of a David Zimmer, a Vermont professor who lost his wife and two young sons in a plane crash. As fate would have it, he delves into the life of the mysterious silent comedian and film director Hector Mann. Writing the story of Mann’s life and films somehow saves Zimmer’s life from despair. As it turns out, there are some remarkable analogies between the two men. In some ways, the life of Zimmer is an imitation of Mann’s life. Moreover, one of Mann’s later films, The Inner Life of Martin Frost, represents an important aspect of Mann’s own life. So we have one imitation after the other. As a whole, Auster’s novel reflects aspects of our own ‘condition’. We are mimetic creatures, we live by ‘representations’ of ourselves and of reality as a whole. We construct our own ‘story’. Yet life is not a story. Louis Paul Boon (1912-1979), a famous Flemish writer, honorary citizen of my hometown Aalst, conveyed this insight in a great way. A book has a beginning and an end, while we don’t actually know when ‘we’ begin, nor can plan when we catch a deadly disease or undergo a life threatening accident. Our lives are ‘open endings’, fractures, interrupted beyond our control by unplanned experiences. Paul Auster seems to also make clear that in order to give life a chance, an author must be prepared to ‘burn’ his own work. He has to ‘question mark’ it. The chapter on The Inner Life of Martin Frost, the one late movie of Hector Mann watched by Zimmer, magnificently reflects this indeed ‘surreal’ and ‘poetic’ idea. The movie is about the muse of writer Martin Frost. Claire Martin, as she calls herself, is slowly dying while he finishes his story. In order to bring her back to life, Frost burns his story, thereby expressing the irreducibility of any human being’s character. He understands that capturing someone else’s life in a well-defined story (with beginning and ending) actually ‘kills’ this person in a way. Writing about Claire is also stating ‘this is not Claire’. Here’s the fragment:

Martin shakes out three aspirins from the bottle and hands them to her with a glass of water. As Claire swallows the pills, Martin says: This isn’t good. I really think a doctor should take a look at you.

            Claire gives Martin the empty glass, and he puts it back on the table. Tell me what’s happening in the story, she says. That will make me feel better.

            You should rest.

            Please, Martin. Just a little bit.

            Not wanting to disappoint her, and yet not wanting to tax her strength, Martin confines his summary to just a few sentences. It’s dark now, he says. Nordstrum has left the house. Anna is on her way, but he doesn’t know that. If she doesn’t get there soon, he’s going to walk into the trap.

            Will she make it?

            It doesn’t matter. The important thing is that she’s going to him.

            She’s fallen in love with him, hasn’t she?

            In her own way, yes. She’s putting her life in danger for him. That’s a form of love, isn’t it?

            Claire doesn’t answer. Martin’s question has overwhelmed her, and she is too moved to give a response. Her eyes fill up with tears; her mouth trembles; a look of rapturous intensity shines forth from her face. It’s as if she has reached some new understanding of herself, as if her whole body were suddenly giving off light. How much more to go? she asks.

            Two or three pages, Martin says. I’m almost at the end.

            Write them now.

            They can wait. I’ll do them tomorrow.

            No, Martin, do them now. You must do them now.

            The camera lingers on Claire’s face for a moment or two– and then, as if propelled by the force of her command, Martin cuts between the two characters. We go from Martin back to Claire, from Claire back to Martin, and in the space of ten simple shots, we finally get it, we finally understand what’s been happening. Then Martin returns to the bedroom, and in ten more shots he finally understands as well.

            1. Claire is writhing around on the bed, in acute pain, struggling not to call out for help.

            2. Martin comes to the bottom of a page, pulls it out of the machine, and rolls in another. He begins typing again.

            3. We see the fireplace. The fire has nearly gone out.

            4. A close-up of Martin’s fingers, typing.

            5. A close-up of Claire’s face. She is weaker than before, no longer struggling.

            6. A close-up of Martin’s face. At his desk, typing.

            7. A close-up of the fireplace. Just a few glowing embers.

            8. A medium shot of Martin. He types the last word of his story. A brief pause. Then he pulls the page out of the machine.

            9. A medium shot of Claire. She shudders slightly–and then appears to die.

            10. Martin is standing beside his desk, gathering up the pages of the manuscript. He walks out of the study, holding the finished story in his hand.

            11. Martin enters the room, smiling. He glances at the bed, and an instant later the smile is gone.

            12. A medium shot of Claire. Martin sits down beside her, puts his hand on her forehead, and gets no response. He presses his ear against her chest–still no response. In a mounting panic, he tosses aside the manuscript and begins rubbing her body with both hands, desperately trying to warm her up. She is limp; her skin is cold; she has stopped breathing.

            13. A shot of the fireplace. We see the dying embers. There are no more logs on the hearth.

            14. Martin jumps off the bed. Snatching the manuscript as he goes, he wheels around and rushes toward the fireplace. He looks possessed, out of his mind with fear. There is only one thing left to be done–and it must be done now. Without hesitation, Martin crumples up the first page of his story and throws it into the fire.

            15. A close-up of the fire. The ball of paper lands in the ashes and bursts into flame. We hear Martin crumpling up another page. A moment later, the second ball lands in the ashes and ignites.

            16. Cut to a close-up of Claire’s face. Her eyelids begin to flutter.

            17. A medium shot of Martin, crouched in front of the fire. He grabs hold of the next sheet, crumples it up, and throws it in as well. Another sudden burst of flame.

            18. Claire opens her eyes.

            19. Working as fast as he can now, Martin goes on bunching up pages and throwing them into the fire. One by one, they all begin to burn, each one lighting the other as the flames intensify.

            20. Claire sits up. Blinking in confusion; yawning; stretching out her arms; showing no traces of illness. She has been brought back from the dead.

            Gradually coming to her senses, Claire begins to glance around the room, and when she sees Martin in front of the fireplace, madly crumpling up his manuscript and throwing it into the fire, she looks stricken. What are you doing? she says. My God, Martin, what are you doing?

            I’m buying you back, he says. Thirty-seven pages for your life, Claire. It’s the best bargain I’ve ever made.

            But you can’t do that. It’s not allowed.

            Maybe not. But I’m doing it, aren’t I? I’ve changed the rules.

            Claire is overwrought, about to break down in tears. Oh Martin, she says. You don’t know what you’ve done.

            Undaunted by Claire’s objections, Martin goes on feeding his story to the flames. When he comes to the last page, he turns to her with a triumphant look in his eyes. You see, Claire? he says. It’s only words. Thirty-seven pages–and nothing but words.

            He sits down on the bed, and Claire throws her arms around him. It is a surprisingly fierce and passionate gesture, and for the first time since the beginning of the film, Claire looks afraid. She wants him, and she doesn’t want him. She is ecstatic; she is horrified. She has always been the strong one, the one with all the courage and confidence, but now that Martin has solved the riddle of his enchantment, she seems lost. What are you going to do? she says. Tell me, Martin, what on earth are we going to do?

            Before Martin can answer her, the scene shifts to the outside. We see the house from a distance of about fifty feet, sitting in the middle of nowhere. The camera tilts upward, pans to the right, and comes to rest on the boughs of a large cottonwood. Everything is still. No wind is blowing; no air is rushing through the branches; not a single leaf moves. Ten seconds go by, fifteen seconds go by, and then, very abruptly, the screen goes black and the film is over.

(Taken from Paul Auster, The Book of Illusions, Faber and Faber open market edition, 2003, p.265-269).

As a Phoenix rising from her ashes, Claire breathes new life into Martin Frost’s existence, melting away his ‘frost’, taking him away from the reflections in his books to the tangible reality of her ‘body’ – born, nevertheless, from the sparks of his imagination… Spicy, ‘mimetic’ detail: as Claire (‘the brightness’) was willing to sacrifice herself to let Martin’s story come alive, Hector was willing to sacrifice himself to save… well, you’ll have to read the book to know ;-).

Paul Auster’s is a story of the paradoxical power of art, storytelling and human communication in general. In order to ‘experience’ reality, we cannot but refer to it by ‘duplicating’ or ‘imitating’ it. As this is also a ‘treason’ of reality it’s exactly what ‘saves’ it at the same time. For that which we ‘possess’ in words, images and gestures is not reality ‘itself’, reality remains ‘untouched’ and ‘unspoiled’ in a way. It’s what lies ‘beyond’, as that sublime, ungraspable mystery…

sunset-boulevard-posterWhile reading the book, I couldn’t help but imagine the films of one of my favorite directors, namely Billy Wilder (1906-2002). In more than one way, the story of Hector Mann in Auster’s book reminded me of the story in Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. I also had to think, surprisingly perhaps, of another kind of moviemaking. I was reminded of a video-clip by Norwegian pop-band a-ha, for their big hit song ‘Take on Me’. 25 years after the song earned six awards at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards (September 5, 1986), I’d like to celebrate the art and craftsmanship of the video once more. Like Paul Auster refers to moviemaking in his novel, a-ha made a video-clip with references to yet another art-form, comics. Scott McCloud points to the distinction between animation and comics in his truly inspiring book Understanding Comics – The Invisible Art: “Each successive frame of a movie is projected on exactly the same space – the screen – while each frame of comics must occupy a different space. Space does for comics what time does for film!” Makes one think about the mysteries of space and time, and our vain attempts to grasp them…

understanding-comics-the-treachery-of-imagesWell, what kind of storytelling you prefer, doesn’t really matter. However, I’m strongly convinced that what we need today is the art of storytelling. Too many tragedies seem to happen nowadays because of people who live from ‘indisputable ideologies’ (stories turned frigid) – the Norwegian had their tragedy, the world as a whole had 9/11. To write the story to let others come alive, while also realizing that ‘the other’ is  always bigger than ‘our story’ – that’s what we need… “In the beginning was the Word…” (John 1:1). The Word between one man and the other, the Poet creating proximity and distance at the same time, creating tenderness… Like a painter, who caresses the image of his beloved model with a paintbrush, leaving the model herself ‘untouched’…

‘She’ is always the one who saves us from ‘the labyrinth’ – from the dark cave of the womb into the light. ‘She’ is reality beyond our words and imaginations, beyond the games we play, beyond virtual competitions where we try to find a sense of ‘victory’, beyond the illusion that we are ‘masters’ of reality. Life is not a programmed, predestined computer game (Tron, the movie, anyone?).

Enjoy ‘Take on Me’… and the life bringers. Click to watch a pop defining moment – ‘mirror, mirror…’ indeed:

Monkey Business

Just recently I stumbled upon quite a fun BBC documentary about monkeys. Fragments can be watched below.

Of particular interest to anyone who’s concerned with mimetic theory are the following observations, eminently shown in the documentary:

Besides getting smarter, monkeys living in larger groups also become more competitive, even aggressive and violent. From the point of view of mimetic theory this comes as no surprise, since an increased learning capacity is based on the same principle as an increased tendency for a certain type of rivalry: imitation or ‘mimesis’. Monkeys learn through imitation, but they can also become rivals through imitation. The latter happens when they imitate each other’s desire for a certain object – be it a female, a piece of food or some favorable territory. It is from this mimetic interplay that a craving for ‘status’ and ‘power’ emerges, as well as a certain ‘greed’.

Individual rivaling monkeys tend to gather allies to compete with each other. Again, the engine behind these forms of empathetic bonding seems to be mimesis by which monkeys are able to ‘project’ themselves in other members of the group. They might even ‘imagine’ what others are up to and make plans for themselves. The so-called mirror neurons in the brain play a tremendous role in this regard.

Normally, rivaling groups balance each other and keep their violent tendencies in check. However, sometimes an individual monkey becomes the victim of a whole group. The documentary shows what happens when this victim dies. His former attackers – actually the ones who murdered him! – gather around the dead body, unusually calm. [WATCH THE DOCUMENTARY FROM 4:23!]

René Girard considers this type of event foundational to the way human culture eventually originated and to the way it developed sacrificial rites. Already the BBC documentary states that more monkeys are victim to other monkeys than to predators. Girard claims that the intra-violence of mob lynching must have occurred even more in primitive ape-man societies, since rivalries must have been more intense there due to an ever stronger mimetic ability. Gradually, our primitive ancestors might have made associations during their experience of killing a common ‘enemy’ that account for the emergence of sacrifice. Aggression, rivalry and turmoil within the group seem to persist for as long as the common enemy lives. From the moment he is dead, contention ceases. ‘Chaos’ no longer reigns. ‘Order’ is restored.

The sacrificial rites of our ancestors suggest that they indeed gave meaning to victims of ‘mob lynching’. According to René Girard, the significance these victims and the mob lynching eventually received, creates the dividing line between animals and humans, and has two aspects:

1. Chaotic situations or crises within a community can be controlled by killing someone – hence the rise of what is eventually called ‘sacrifice’.

2. Chaotic situations are associated with the resurgence of a victim that is held responsible for previous chaotic situations. Indeed chaos reigned for as long as some victim was alive. That victim, therefore, is perceived as ‘being’ chaos – what seems to be beyond the control of the community, as a ‘transcendent’ or ‘sacred’ force. This violent force – i.e. the now divinized and ‘invisible’ victim – can be stopped, as experience seems to show our ancestors, by killing a new victim. So together with sacrifice the potentially violent gods originate who demand that sacrifice.

Very important to understand Girard’s mimetic theory is the observation that the victims of this type of collective violence are scapegoats, meaning: held responsible for something they’re not really responsible for (even when they are, in fact, considered ‘bad’ individuals). The real source for certain types of rivalry, tensions, conflicts and chaotic situations within communities are all sorts of ‘mimetic’ interactions. This is something the first human communities don’t realize, and that’s why, according to Girard, religion and human culture as a whole developed in all kinds of directions from sacrificial origins. Some of these origins can still be observed in groups of our actual ‘family members’, the monkeys and the apes, who, more than ever, seem to mirror fundamental aspects of ourselves.

‘Know thyself’ the Temple of Apollo at Delphi read. Start this quest by watching the fragments from the documentary Clever Monkeys

– CLICK TO WATCH:

Bruce Springsteen’s Passion

Bruce Springsteen‘s take on the story of Christ’s Passion certainly reflects a profound spiritual awareness of what this event is actually about. In an episode for VH1 Storytellers, Springsteen meditates on his song Jesus was an only son, and brings out the universal and existential truths the story of the Passion reveals.

CLICK TO WATCH it right here:

Click here to read a full transcription of this video.

Springsteen’s interpretation of the song’s ending is especially moving. A transformation takes place. Whilst in the beginning of the song Jesus is comforted by his mother Mary, at the end it’s the son who comforts his mother. Mary is asked to respect the particular destiny of her child. Jesus chose the path of compassion and love. He was touched, so deeply, by the suffering of the outcasts that he couldn’t do anything else but reach out to them. By associating him with these scapegoats, he eventually became a victim himself. In refusing to take part in a social system that constructs itself by means of sacrifices, Jesus was eventually sacrificed himself.

Following Springsteen’s reasoning, Jesus cannot start some sort of ‘civil war’ to defend himself, because that would make him the imitator of his persecutors – Jesus would thus become a sacrificer himself, a ‘prince of this world’, a ‘Muammar Gaddafi’… Christ’s kingdom, on the other hand, is ‘not of this world’. Jesus follows, in the song’s words, ‘the soul of the universe’ which ‘willed a world and it appeared’. Indeed, by withdrawing from vengeance (i.e. the imitation of the persecutors), Jesus creates the possibility of a new world. Imitating the one who ‘offers the other cheek’, the one who forgives and approaches his persecutors and betrayers with compassion, allows us to accept our own and each other’s weaknesses and iniquities, without us being victimized or ‘crucified’ for doing so…

At the end of Springsteen’s song, Jesus seems confident that his ‘Heavenly Father’ would ultimately refuse the sacrifice of his son – and this confidence is reflected in the stories of Christ’s resurrection. Jesus fully imitates ‘the One who doesn’t want sacrifices or victims’ and therefore he is said to be the ultimate incarnation or ‘materialization’ of Love: A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory.” (KJV, Matthew 12:20). Bruce Springsteen speaks of this mystery of the incarnation at the end of his ‘sermon’:

“Whatever divinity we can lay claim to is hidden in the core of our humanity… When we let our compassion go, we let go of what little claim we have to the divine.”

Love seeks to be concrete and ’embodied’. The very nature of Love is to throw off its spiritual garment, to ’empty’ itself from the ‘sacred’ realm in order to become ‘flesh’ – which is called ‘kenosis’. The story of Christ’s Passover can be considered a pinnacle in our clumsy attempts to express this reality. However, if these attempts produce songs like Bruce Springsteen’s Jesus was an only son, we should be grateful, as we are comforted by the fragile light of hope amidst our own ‘darkness on the edge of town’.

The sports-minded Jesuit Patrick Kelly wrote the following on Bruce Springsteen’s faith and his Roman Catholic background in a column for America Magazine (The National Catholic Weekly) – February 10, 2003 (click here to read):

Faith, hope and love have always played a part in Bruce Springsteen’s songs, but this has become more explicit in recent years. Springsteen’s willingness to talk about these themes also is relatively new.

The Rev. Andrew Greeley’s article, “The Catholic Imagination of Bruce Springsteen” (click to read Am., 2/6/88), seems to have been a catalyst in this regard. The Catholic novelist Walker Percy read the article and wrote to Springsteen in early 1989, particularly interested in the fact that Greeley described him as a Catholic. “If this is true, and I am too,” his letter read, “it would appear the two of us are rarities in our professions: you as a post-modern musician, I as a writer, a novelist and a philosopher. That and your admiration of Flannery O’Connor. She was a dear friend of mine, though she was a much more heroic Catholic than I.” Walker Percy died before Springsteen responded to his letter, but the musician wrote in a four-page letter to Percy’s widow:

“The loss and search for faith and meaning have been at the core of my own work for most of my adult life. I’d like to think that perhaps that is what Dr. Percy heard and was what moved him to write me. Those issues are still what motivate me to sit down, pick up my guitar and write.”

Percy’s nephew, Will Percy, subsequently interviewed Springsteen about the formative influences on his song-writing for the Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles’s magazine Doubletake in 1998 (click here to read).

I assembled some excerpts from this interview. Click here if you’re interested.

Bono (U2) and The Imitation of Christ

René Girard’s mimetic theory is heir to a long and widespread Christian tradition of meditating on imitation, more specifically on the imitation of Christ. This tradition is such an essential part of the Christian ‘DNA’, that Christians throughout the ages have dwelled upon it. Not surprisingly then, the wisdom of a famous Medieval Catholic monk – Thomas à Kempis – coincides with the insights of a contemporary Christian rock star – Bono. I found it interesting to organize a meeting between the two. So, here you have it: some excerpts from De Imitatione Christi next to a video fragment of an interview with Bono.

Thomas à Kempis (c.1380-1471) is famous for his spiritual guide De Imitatione Christi – ‘(On) The Imitation of Christ’. These are its first words:

Qui sequitur me non ambulat in tenebris dicit Dominus. Hæc sunt verba Christi, quibus admonemur quatenus vitam eius et mores imitemur, si volumus veraciter illuminari, et ab omni cæcitate cordis liberari. Summum igitur studium nostrum, sit in vita Jesu meditari.

(De Imitatione Christi, Liber Primus Caput I, 1).

Translation:

“He who follows Me, walks not in darkness,” says the Lord. By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ.

Christ indeed asks us to imitate him, thereby reorienting our mimetic abilities. Bono, lead singer of rock band U2, tried to follow this call from an early age and always looked for authentic ways to develop his life as a Christian. He tried to follow in the early church’s footsteps:

In school I met some people who knew the Scriptures. It was quite a moment there when people got very interested in the early church and the possibilities of imitating the early church.

Because of certain mimetic tendencies, our ears often remain deaf to these possibilities. All too soon we imitate those who judge us, and we become judgmental ourselves. Answering Christ’s call to ‘follow’ him has to do with finding out the truth about our’selves’ and with the ability to love our neighbour. The evangelical paradox is this: in obeying Christ we don’t lose ourselves but instead we actually find who we are – we become free! Christ represents the realm of grace and forgiveness, where we don’t have to hide our weaknesses and iniquities. This realm is an antidote for the temptation to present ourselves in such a way that we don’t run the risk of being judged. We are often tempted to enslave ourselves to an admirable image (Latin: imago) or to imitate an illusory idol. Bono puts it this way:

The key that great art has in common with Christianity is: “Know the truth and the truth will set you free.” I’ve held on to that very tightly. That’s how I start my day as a writer. I (can) start on a lie… and a lie can be being the person that you’d like to be, rather than the person you are…

If we don’t experience ‘the space of grace’, we will indeed easily lie about our own shortcomings and place the blame on something or someone else – and thus create scapegoats. We are so used to being judged that we judge others in our defense, and so multiply the evil we are trying to avoid. To imitate Christ means to imitate the One who is merciful and by doing so, in turn, free others in becoming and accepting themselves. The dynamic thus created is a dynamic of love which eventually hopes to save the world from the ‘bad’ imitation of ‘an eye for an eye’ violence. Bono also talks about this interruption of ‘the laws of karma’ (i.e. the laws of harmony, balance as well as revenge) by the creative, unexpected and ‘unbalancing’ dynamic of grace and forgiveness:

I’m pretty sure that the Universe operates by the laws of Karma essentially. All physical laws do. What you put out comes back against you. Then enters the story of Grace, which really is the story of Christ, which turned this view of the Universe upside down. And it’s completely counter-intuitive. It’s very, very hard for human beings to grasp Grace. We can actually grasp atonement, revenge, fairness… all of this we can grasp. But we don’t grasp Grace very well. I’m much more interested in Grace because I’m really depending on it.

In order to become loving persons – which is the ultimate goal of the biblical enterprise – we first need to accept ourselves as we are. That’s why Thomas à Kempis advises us to temporarily withdraw from a world where we are tempted to keep up appearances by gossip and rumors. From time to time, we need to retreat from ‘the company of men’ in order to distinguish ‘the call of the One who creates us’

… so we might truly become ‘imitators of Christ’:

Quære aptum tempus vacandi tibi, de beneficiis Dei frequenter cogita. Relinque curiosa, tales potius perlege materias, quæ compunctionem magis præstent quam occupationem. Si te subtraxeris a superfluis locutionibus et curiosis circuitionibus nec non a novitatibus et remoribus audiendis, invenies tempus sufficiens et aptum bonis meditationibus insistendis. Maximi Sanctorum humana consortia ubi poterant vitabant et Deo in secreto vivere eligebant.

Dixit quidam: Quoties inter homines fui, minor homo redii. Hoc sæpius experimur, quando diu confabulamur. Facilius est enim tacere quam in verbo non excedere. Facilius est domi latere quam foris se posse sufficienter custodire. Qui igitur intendit ad interiora et spiritualia pervenire, oportet eum cum Jesu a turba declinare.

(De Imitatione Christi, Liber Primus Caput XX, 1-2a).

Translation:

Seek a suitable time for leisure and meditate often on the favors of God. Leave curiosities alone. Read such matters as bring sorrow to the heart rather than occupation to the mind. If you withdraw yourself from unnecessary talking and idle running about, from listening to gossip and rumors, you will find enough time that is suitable for holy meditation. Very many great saints avoided the company of men wherever possible and chose to serve God in retirement. 

“As often as I have been among men,” said one writer, “I have returned less a man.” We often find this to be true when we take part in long conversations. It is easier to be silent altogether than not to speak too much. To stay at home is easier than to be sufficiently on guard while away. Anyone, then, who aims to live the inner and spiritual life must go apart, with Jesus, from the crowd.

The video fragment of an interview with Bono on ‘faith, hope and love’

– CLICK TO WATCH:

For more cross-references between U2 and mimetic theory I highly recommend a book, in German, by Austrian Brigitte Dorner: U2 ist ihre Religion, Bono ihr Gott. Zur theologischen Relevanz der Rock- und Popmusik am Beispiel von U2. For more information, click here.