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SCANDAL AND IMITATION IN MATTHEW, KIERKEGAARD, AND GIRARD David McCracken University ofWashington Charlie Chaplin once entered a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest, but his resemblance was insufficient for the first- or secondplace prize. He finished third, and thus created a small scandal: the judges—experts on Charlie Chaplin—proved to be so inept that they could not recognize the genuine article1 . The simple, mimetic entertainment of a look-alike contest can become more interesting when marked by a spirit of ironic play, which we may plausibly attribute to Charlie Chaplin, and it certainly becomes more interesting when marked by the scandal of inept authorities. Scandals have a way of attracting attention: we take notice, and often pleasure, when experts are shown to be fools. If, on the other hand, we are the experts, then we are likely to take offense and become embarrassed or uncomfortable, defensive or aggressive, humiliated or angry. Either way, we may be scandalized—at the actions of others or at the treatment of ourselves. The Chaplin story suggests three observations about scandal and imitation, which must be understood together because they are necessarily related, one requiring the other. First, models (in this case, Chaplin as the object ofimitation) may be transformed into idols, something fantastic or untrue that we are led to admire, desire, or worship. The movie idol Chaplin was sufficiently far removed from the actual human, Charlie Chaplin, that Charlie Chaplin finished the contest in third place. In the 1 The story, perhaps apocryphal, has been around for some years and reappeared recently in Barash (87), but it is not recorded in Chaplin's autobiography. David McCracken147 Hebrew Bible, idolatry is more extreme: the golden calf is an attractive idol because it can be seen, a fantastic improvement (it would seem) over an invisible God whose mediator has decamped. Instead of worshipping God, the Israelites worship their own desires, which are literally "dungballs " in Ezekiel's graphic vocabulary. Whether the movement is from an invisible God named YHWH toward a golden calf or dung-ball, or from a movie star, who is usually seen as a large image on a silver screen, toward the movie-goer's fond, mental reconstruction ofhim, the process of idolatry leads humans to mistake the false for the real. Second, imitation has different forms: in a look-alike contest, imitation will depend to some extent on the happenstance of physical similarity—the size and face should resemble Chaplin's—but it will also depend on clothing and movement. The entrant Chaplin must have had a significant advantage in size and face, but this advantage was obviously not decisive. Since he failed to win, we begin to wonder: Did he wear the right clothes and hat? Did he, consummate actor that he was, move like Charlie Chaplin or rather more like Buster Keaton? Did he, for the sake of his little scandal, fail to appropriate himself, so to speak; did he misrepresent himself in order not to win? Looking alike is one thing, but appropriating and representing are quite another. Finally, imitation often involves rivalry, which leads to scandal: the Chaplin look-alike contest is a competition, a form ofrivalry that involves winners and losers—that is the point of the contest. By entering the contest, Chaplin made himself an unfair obstacle to the other contestants. But ifhe tried to lose, by not acting like Chaplin, he became an obstacle to thejudges, misleading them into the ludicrous conclusion that someone other-than-Chaplin looked more like Chaplin than Chaplin. The potential scandal is inextricably related to judgment and rivalry, however lighthearted it may be in this case. Like our ordinary contests, New Testament imitation raises the specter of competition: the Pharisee gives thanks that he is not like the poor man (he wins the competition for righteousness hands down, he thinks, and he is fundamentally persuaded that there is a competition); the disciples want to know who among them—the competitors—gets to sit on the right hand; and Peter maintains that, while other disciples may be scandalized, he will not be (he wins, they lose). All ofthese miss the point decisively: New Testament imitation requires the renunciation ofrivalry. The...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1930-1200
Print ISSN
1075-7201
Pages
pp. 146-162
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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