The ‘weird sheep’ is a phrase I recently came across in a video interview with Bret & Heather Weinstein where they talked about the concept of the ‘weird sheep’, a theme they develop in their new book ‘A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century: Evolution and the Challenges of Modern Life’. This intrigued me, because I’d not heard of the term before (at least not phrased exactly like that), yet the idea of it resonated. I had, however, heard of the ‘black sheep’. It’s likely we all know about this because we’ve all got one or two in the family. It could even be me, or you.
1. ‘Weird sheep’ was a great concept to think about. Every society needs those who do not fit the normative roles and expectations of polite society. They are the ones on the margins, those who say weird and wacky things, those who, when they are socially present, others raise a knowing eyebrow to each other, signalling that “we all know they are the odd one and we are the normal ones” = the normal ones who always think they know and see things clearly. But it is the weird one that will alert a complying, self-satisfied and generally happy to maintain the status-quo crowd that something is up, or wrong, or about to go down.
It seems that the weird one is maginal, socially and probably financially, but also there as a figure of derision, a tolerated one, a hope-he-doesn’t-talk-to-me character. We must acknowledge that this is a reasonable observation – it’s hard work being around the weird sheep – they are last to be picked for the football team, or the dinner party or whatever. And yet, every now and then, the weird one speaks something no one else would speak, either because they can’t see or because we’re too scared. Either way, if and when the weird sheep is right, and no one listens, disaster strikes. But if it so happens that people listen, then they are, so to speak, saved. In some films it is the homeless guy, the tramp, the wild one that speaks the truth and sees through the masks and buffers we wear and protect ourselves with (I can’t help but think of Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty – I think God was disguised as a tramp), or biblically, entertaining angels unaware as the Book of Hebrews reminds us, may not be bright, shiny and clean. It really might be dull, lame and dirty. John the Baptist, the announcer of Jesus Christ, was literally a weird sheep outsider, dressed in skins and eating insects, yet he is the greatest, according to Jesus. Even so, every healthy society needs the weird ones, for they may be announcing salvation!
2. On the other hand, all cultures have what Rene Girard has identified as ‘the scapegoat’. The scapegoat is the sacrificial victim of a society or culture in turmoil – in order that “peace” may be restored. The moment of sacrifice occurs at the greatest threat to the community. Of course, peace in this sense is only temporary, because the sacrifice is a murder, and as we know, murder does not produce peace and harmony, but more murder. The scapegoat is nearly always an inncocent, a pure one, a virgin, or, to use biblical language, a ‘spotless lamb’. Girard writes of the exemplary scapegoat myth of ‘Python and His Two Wives’ – a famous tale from the people of Venda, South Africa, described as “a typical witchcraft persecution text” – it’s worth checking out.
Typical within the scapegoat framework, the scapegoaters do not understand their own scapegoat mechanism and so they project upon their victim both their dissensions and their reconcilliation. In this way they enbody both malefactors and benefactors.
The scapegoat mechanism is typically characterised by these four elements:
- Mimetic Rivalry. The illigitimate desiring of another person, or things, and when given voice, violence ensues.
- The Distinctions which separated people collapse, where hostility is in the open and leads to violence. This ends when a scapegoat is found that unites factional groups and restores the distinctions.
- Difference. The scapegoat can be anyone different from “us”. Such as the black sheep, the weird sheep or the fool (see below), yet a member of the community.
- Throughout, the victim is viewed as both cursed and sacred – because it is their death that brings about a certain peace. In the subsequent peace, the victim may in fact be deified, idolised, revered. This is the essence of ritual in pagan religions.
It is not difficult to see where the crucifixion of Jesus fits within this scapegoat framework. Jesus is the archetype scapegoat, the pure victim, the innocent one, the exemplary mechanism by which God saves the world. His death is the overturning of all pagan sacrificial systems (what Girard calls “bad sacrifice”); his death is the means by which Jesus Christ, The ultimate Scapegoat, a once for all sacrice has been offered. In an interview, Girard sums up that Christ is ultimate because,
“…he is the Son of God, and since he is innocent, he exposes all the myths of scapegoating and shows that the victims were innocent and the communities guilty.”
A contemporary historical example to understanding this is the capture and subsequent death of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Although he certainly was not a pure innocent victim, his death triggered joyous scenes among the American population for days afterwards. Peace, though fleeting, returned.
And a contemporary cultural example can be seen in the ideolological movement that has come to known as ‘Wokeism’, which I have commented on before. The Scapegoat Mechanism is enacted in what today we call “cancel culture” – the silencing of voices that differ ideologically (they may or may not be the weird sheep), the rewriting of history, the relentless unforgiveness, the hypocrisy, sheer infantilism, self-righteous projection, and inate self-referencial subjectivism. This is not to say everything about them is wrong; it is to say, that even if they are correct, the manner in which resitituion is achieved is lacking any sense of grace, human fraility and compassion. In other words, they might be right here and there, but in pronouncing their judgment, they sin.
3. The third element, the Carnival Clown (or “prophet”) was where I had my epiphany. Drawing on the work of Helen Paynter in Reduced Laughter, a book I’ve reviewed here, she herself looks at the role and funtion of the seriocomic in the biblical book of Kings.
She draws on the work of Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), a Russian philosophical anthropologist, influencing the fields of literary theory, folk culture, social theory and philosophy. In recent years his work has been adopted as a lens for biblical interpretation, expecially the Hebrew Bible. The significance of this is validated by the expressed desire of Professor Anthony Thiselton, who stated in his 20th anniversary edition of New Horizons in Hermeneutics, that the work of Bakhtin would be one of his primary areas of research if he was not so aged.
What Helen draws out is the topsy-turvy world of the carnival in medieval and ancient cultures, and traces the idea back into the middle section of 1 & 2 Kings, and how the prophets engage with the society and the kings of Israel and Judah. In the written text, it is the literary device deployed by the author/editor of the final form, that gives rise to a subversive comic-effect of speaking truth to power and having a laugh whilst doing it, and in Helen’s work, it is the reader who is in on it. This style of literature is “playful, irreverent, multi-voiced, sunversive, and outrageous” (p.11).
The interactions are between prophets (Elijah and Elisha notably), and the kings, the powerful and often wicked. It is through subversive actions and words, that the power is undermined, as when the Medieval Court Jester can speak unspeakable truth to the King and not be killed (well, maybe sometimes they were, but generally, the topsy-turvey spectacle held out)! Think of the Prophet Nathan calling out King David for adultery with Bathsheeba, and David falling into the prophet’s parable trap by trying to cover it up with self-righteous rage at injustice! Nathan tells a story that catches David out. Nathan points his finger towards the King and announces, “Thou art the man!” (2 Sam. 12).
These are acts of resistance, in which the hermeneutical clue is embedded within the text as “hidden transcripts”, whereby the real meaning is hidden from the powerholders who are the objects of resistance and the target of the critique. Helen cites (p.50) a funny Ethiopian proverb to make the point:
“When a great lord passes the wise peasant bows deeply and silenty farts.”Ethiopian Proverb
Anyway, there is a lot more to say, but the idea, at least for me, of the weird sheep, the black sheep, the scapegoat and the clown/propet seems to have significant features in common that are worth thinking on in our day, and come as a challenge and reminder to make sure that we are not excluding voices, or silencing people or even failing to laugh at ourselves, lest we be led to our collective doom.