Society for the Arts,
Religion and Contemporary Culture

Fall 1999 Program

Myth, Ritual and the Mediation of Violence

With the violence of Columbine High and the more recent massacre in Atlanta and L.A. still so fresh in our memories, there has been much soul searching (as well as scapegoating) about the causes of such violence. Many commentators have pointed to the violent images in today's computer games, movies or music videos as a contributing factor.  But much of this conversation has been carried out as if in an historical vacuum, with little awareness of how the violence of our time compares with that of prior generations. Clearly, the problem of violence has been one of the main themes reflected in the religion, myth and ritual of the world's peoples throughout history. To help us make the sorts of connections that may shed  some light on what many now refer to as today's  "culture of violence," we have invited a panel of speakers who can address these questions with both knowledge and conviction, either because of their familiarity with how people have dealt with the problem of violence in the past, or because they are leaders within the digital culture which others have identified as a main cause of the problem.

Saturday, Nov 6, 1999
Society for Art, Religion and Contemporary Culture. Spring 1999 Meeting.
The House of the Redeemer
7 East 95th Street
New York, New York


Mark Pesce heads the Interactive Media Department at USC School of Cinema-Television and is an Internet visionary and co-creator of VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language). As lecturer and teacher, Pesce has educated people around the world to the power and potential of interactive technologies. Through articles and lectures, Pesce frequently discusses the ethics and aesthetics of electronic media  Author of three books, Pesce was selected as one of the “ID 40” for 1997 by International Design magazine. Pesce hopes that the VRML environment contributes to a more human means of computer-mediated communication. "A lot of people are concerned that computers dehumanize us. Computers mirror us. If they're dehumanizing, it's because we forgot to make them human. If they're profane, it's because we forgot to make them sacred." 

Anne Foerst is theologian in residence at MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab and is Director of the "God and Computers" project, a dialogue-project between MIT and the Boston Theological Institute. Elements of this project are: 1.Public Lecture Series "God and Computers: Minds, Machines and Metaphysics;" 2. A Conference: "Identity, Formation, Dignity: The Impact of Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science Upon Jewish and Christian Understandings of Personhood."

Her Research

Develop a new epistemology based on the dialectic of mythos and logos, and an existential approach which opens up new dimensions for the dialogue between religion and science. Demonstrate the relevance of an interdisciplinary dialogue between Artificial Intelligence (AI), Cognitive Science and Theology. Analyze religious elements within computer cultures, and compare them with traditional religions, especially Judaism and Christianity. Show the importance of embodiment and social interaction for human personhood, and analyze the implications of Embodied AI by observing and participating in two robot projects: for one, the Cog project, an attempt to build a humanoid robot in analogy to a human infant; also, the Kismet project which is less focused on embodiment but entirely on social cues; using the care-giver care-taker interaction and its inherent mechanisms and ritual.

Anne writes:

"The situation of being a theologian in an AI-Lab has its own charm... and its own difficulties. I use to describe this situation with the expression "The Courage to Doubt" - an expression I have chosen in accordance with the central expressions of Paul Tillich's: The Courage to Be. An explanation of this expression can be found in a talk I gave in November 1995 at Harvard Divinity School: The Courage to Doubt: How to Build Android Robots as a Theologian."

James G. Williams is author of, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred: Liberation from the Myth of Sanctioned Violence (Trinity, 1995)

Williams received his Ph.D. from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1966. He is a member of the Advisory Board of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion.  He is editor of  The Girard Reader (Crossroad, 1996) and the translator of Girard's monograph,  Resurrection from the Underground: Feodor Dostoevsky (Crossroad in 1997). He is professor emeritus of religion, having taught at Syracuse University for 32 years.  His areas of work and interest include above all the Bible, Christian spirituality, the work of René Girard, and the novels of Dostoevsky.

Rene Girard's theories on violence, civilization, and religion have intrigued and confounded scholars in the humanities for almost two decades. In this book, Williams has provided the first comprehensive application of Girard's thought to the whole Bible. What emerges from all of this is a proposal for a biblical theology of the nonviolent God.

Writes Williams: "The primary object of this study [is] to shed further light on structures of  violence as grounded in sacred social order and to show how the biblical witness to the innocent victim and the God of victims demystifies and 
demythologizes this sacred social order."
From The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred, p. 243.

On the possession and use of guns as an addiction:

"[The possession and use of guns] is a difficult issue because the dangers are real. The dangers of attack on person and property are real because of the uncontrolled mimetic forces in American culture...[But to] the extent that the ownership and use of guns in this country has reached the point that the firearm is a sign of behavior that brings supposed benefits and that is felt to be necessary or fated no matter what the consequences, it is an addiction that must be healed." 
From, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred, p. 252. 

From Joyce Swartney - The Christian Century: "Williams gathers up the strands of Girardian inquiry to produce a mini-systematic theology and cultural history of violence in the biblical traditions. . . It reveals the violent origins of sacrifice and the complicity of us all in victimization, which makes our world go round."

A sample of Professor Williams' writing: René Girard without the Cross? Religion and the Mimetic Theory 

Erling Hope, a contemporary liturgical artist, incorporates the insights of several fields in a multidisciplinary approach to modern sacred space. Combining the forms, materials and concerns of the visual arts with the rigors of traditional craft and the particular psychology of the sanctuary space, he explores the influence of the built environment on faith. He has exhibited widely and is represented in private and liturgical collections throughout the United States. He most recently served as artist-in-residence at Andover Newton Theological School’s Institute of Theology and the Arts in Boston, and currently serves on the board of ARC.

"I used to tell my daughter that all monsters are really afraid of the human being, because we are the most terrible creatures of all. The ferocity to which we are heir, as these desperate beings in a brutal world, can destroy us. But it can also animate our lives, provided it is owned and positively engaged. Just what is meant by “positively engaged” is a delicate matter, to be sure. But the problem has never been one of conquering our lower natures to live out the letter of the Golden Rule. It is rather one of engaging our innate fierceness in the search for the true Spirit of the Nazarene’s radical pacifism."

Paul Bader is currently CEO of M-2K in Seattle, Washington.  M-2K was founded by Mr. Bader in February of 1998, using the acquired assets of Multicom Publishing, an early purveyor of CD-ROM lifestyle software, along with the associated libraries of HarperCollins and Meredith (Better Homes & Gardens).  Subsequently, M-2K became one of the early pioneers in DVD and DVD-ROM publishing, working closely with Pioneer and Microsoft.  Over the past year, M-2K purchased iPromotions, an internet sweepstakes concern. Earlier, Bader was Vice President and Director of Sales for Houghton Mifflin Interactive. Currently, he serves on the board of advisors for Om Records in San Francisco and Genetic Anomalies in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Bader is also the CEO & Founder of Bader Publishing, the publishers of the first Y2K desktop solution, Countdown 2000. Bader is a frequent speaker and author on multimedia publishing and distribution issues.

"The question, "What breeds violence in today’s culture?" begs the question ; "How is this different than in the past?" In a media rich, “the world is drowning in content," universe; choice is a fact of life. Soon you will have a better chance of being hit by lightening the have experienced reading “The Dubliners” for the first time. There is an over saturation of content. The real issue is not the effect violence has on today’s American youth (a small percentage of the world's population) but in the America that I know, the real disparity between of the haves and the have-nots. I think the salient issues will be about both responsibility and access." 

"Columbine was a reflection of a lack of spiritual ritual which instructs: values, responsibility & ethics. It was not a lack of wealth, or parents that couldn't provide; it was the dashed hope of disaffected youth who believed that they could not achieve what their parents had. This cajoled them into some sort of nihilistic nightmare." 

The Program



10:15 Erling Hope
"Useful Violence: Destructive Elements in 
Art, Religion and Everyday Life"

11:00 Q&A / Discussion

11:15 James G. Williams
"Sacred Violence and American Culture"
12:00 Q&A / Discussion
***** 12:15 LUNCH *****
1:15 Anne Foerst
"Myths of the World Wide Web"
2:00 Q&A / Discussion
2:15 Mark Pesce
 " Death and the Maiden: 
Natural Violence and Unnatural Acts"
3:00 Q&A / Discussion
3:15 Paul Bader
"Identity, Myth & Cyber-Responsibility"

4:00 Panelists in Conversation

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