Popular Culture’s Hidden Depths: René Girard, Theology, and Pop Culture

By Ryan G. Duns

It seems fitting that a post intended to explain the importance and relevance of René Girard, Theology, and Pop Culture take, as its point of departure, some aspect of popular culture. Let me begin, then, with a snippet from the 1996 hit “Wannabe” performed by the Spice Girls:  

Yo, I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want

So Tell me what you want, what you really, really want…

I wanna really, really, really wanna zigazig ah

The British band’s ode to female empowerment or “Girl Power” never tells us just what zigazig ah is. Nor, for my purposes, does it matter. What is of consequence is that this is a song that names a phenomenon the French theorist René Girard equips us to explore and elaborate with remarkable sophistication: human desire. 

Think about it: What do you really, really, want? The latest iPhone? The newest car model? A coveted job? A certain sneaker or fashion item? A new career? Now, think about why you want what you do. What makes this phone, or that career, or those jeans so desirable? What was it about Tickle Me Elmo that led to store-aisle brawls? What kicked off the Beanie Baby boom and bust? Recall the Tulip Bulb craze? Every season has an itthing: but what endows each it with its allure?

A small but growing cadre of scholars believe that René Girard (1923–2015) offers a compelling way of thinking about the nature of human desire. According to Girard, our desires are mediated to us by others or, to use a more technical term, by models. Typically, we assume that we desire in linear way: desire that, the vector of desire extends directly from the desiring subject to the desired object. But as Girard read works of great literature—Proust, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dostoevsky—he discerned a different pattern to desire. Instead of a direct line, he saw a triangle: desire that object because another person also desires it. Those familiar with Girard’s work know the slogan: “I desire” is desire according to the desire of another

To those familiar with marketing, this is not an earthshattering insight. Watch TV, look at billboards, scan magazine ads. How do advertisers convince us to buy what they’re selling? Commercials regularly depict the product being used and enjoyed by models. If a celebrity endorses product X, or a social media influencer hawks item Y, that product or item becomes a must-have item. But, as Girard helps us to understand, models do more than direct our attention to individual objects. Our models show us what we want because, deep down, we desire to beour models. The implicit logic of many ad campaigns is something like, “If you buy this product, you are buying into this way of life, this mode of being, as depicted here.” 

When I teach Girard’s mimetic theory of imitative desire (from the Greek mimesis), students get very excited about this insight because, well, it’s observable. We spend a whole day watching commercials, looking at ads, and watching film clips to give examples of Girard’s insight. Once they are familiar with terms like mimesis, linear versus triangular desire, and modeling, we begin to tease out mimetic theory’s implications for understanding anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and religion. Interestingly, students with strong religious affiliations and students with no affiliation whatsoever find Girard to be an exciting, if at times exasperating, figure. As one student exclaimed in the middle of class, “If Girard is right, I have to rethink everything!” That, to this teacher, is pedagogical gold!

When Derrick and I decided to co-edit René Girard, Theology, and Pop Culture, our goal was to provide readers with an array of entry points into Girard’s thought. The book has something for everyone. The book begins by introducing readers to mimetic theory through The Devil Wears Prada. For newcomers, we hope this will provide an accessible orientation to some key Girardian ideas. All the chapters that follow develop and apply mimetic theory in dialogue with aspects of popular culture: Star Wars and Wonder Woman, TV shows like Cobra KaiHoarders, and The 100, social media, literature, and graphic novels. The guiding thread throughout, as indicated by the book’s title, is the way that the mimetic theory can be used to uncover the theological depths of popular culture. With Girard as our companion, one soon discovers the power of an adage made familiar by Transformers: when it comes to culture and theology, there is “more than meets the eye.” The ordinary and everyday can, to those rightly attuned, disclose the extraordinary and eternal. Christian thinkers especially should give Girard a hearing because, as he once expressed it, “Mine is the search for the anthropology of the Cross.” 

 Who, then, should read this book? For sure, anyone interested in a user-friendly and engaging introduction to René Girard will find this a helpful volume. Although the chapters can be read as standalone pieces, the pieces as a whole complement and deepen one another. Read straight through, the book will equip readers not only with the concept of mimetic theory but also with concrete instances of it. In this way, the book can be thought of as an invitation to an apprenticeship in learning to see the world through Girardian eyes. In addition, those with interests in the topics treated—Star Wars or Jonathan Hickman’s comics, eating disorders or The Sons of Anarchy—will encounter some “fresh takes” on their topics. 

My target audience is religion and theology teachers. As a as a teacher of students who are not always enthusiastic about studying theology, experience has taught me that I need a “hook” to get them interested. Because they can observe Girard’s theory at work, students are excited to consider how mimetic theory might “cash out.” Not a week goes by that a student doesn’t send a message saying, “Father Duns, you need to read/watch/listen to_______. This has Girard written all over it!” 

An example: In Spring 2021, I taught Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning during Lent. After Easter, many of my students reported how deeply they were moved by the Holy Week services they attended. One young man reflected, “I have never been a religious person, but this year something was different. I went to a Good Friday liturgy and I recognized myself in the crowd…and it scared me. I am used to reading the stories of the Bible…but now, it’s like the stories are reading me.” It is my sincere desire that the essays in this volume will facilitate a similar experience for others.

Read this book if you are interested in learning who René Girard is and what he thought. Read it if you are interested in one or more of the topics illuminatingly addressed within it. But read and teach it if you are interested in finding a way to use popular culture as an entrée into theological reflection. Each of our chapters has been written by scholars who have found Girard to be a thinker capable of transforming how we think of and perceive the world. Especially for those who desire to show students how theology can interface with, illuminate, and challenge aspects of our culture, this volume gives you a variety of ways to do so. This book is hardly the final word on Girard’s theory, but by applying to dimensions of culture we hope to entice others to “take up and read” and experience for themselves how Girard can bring into vibrant relief the theological depths of popular culture. 


2 Comments Add yours

  1. John Davies says:

    Ryan, thank you for this welcome introductory article to your book: you hooked me in straightaway with the Spice Girls line! If the rest of the book is written in the same accessible and positively provoking style then it’ll be great! As one who is weekly (weakly?) trying to help my congregations to make connections between Girard, theology and the stuff of their everyday lives and culture this seems like a must-read book for me. However, my question is, for those of us who are not in academia (and who struggle with ebooks), is there an affordably-priced paperback in prospect?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ryan Duns, SJ says:

    John, I’m glad you enjoyed this piece. I’m glad to say that the chapters in the book are similarly crafted. That is to say, they are all engagingly written and do a great job showing how aspects of “ordinary” life can, when read alongside Girard, yield extraordinary insights. That said, there’s no question that the book’s present price makes it inaccessible to many readers. Our hope is that it will make it to paperback, but we need people to encourage their libraries to order a copy. So, please write your library and encourage your friends to do likewise. Other volumes in this series have gone to paperback pretty quickly (at least the one on Prince has). Let’s hope this one sets a record!

    Liked by 1 person

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