I shall nev­er for­get the scene. With a mug of black cof­fee in hand, I was on a walk through my woodsy, rur­al neigh­bor­hood ear­ly one spring morn­ing. As the sun began to bathe the land­scape with light I came over a hill and was able to look down into a horse coral where I saw my neigh­bor, Mary, hunched over a foal. As I came clos­er it became appar­ent that the foal had just been born: she was unsteady on her hooves, and still wet. While the moth­er mare stood close by and kept a watch­ful eye, Mary strad­dled the foal, press­ing her face up against the side of the newborn’s face, vig­or­ous­ly rub­bing its neck. I had nev­er seen any­thing quite like it before, but it all looked very inti­mate, up close, per­son­al, even affectionate.

A day or two lat­er when I ran into Mary at the post office I asked her about that pecu­liar morn­ing. What was the thing you were doing the oth­er day with that foal”? Very mat­ter-of-fact­ly, almost as if she was annoyed to have to explain such a thing to a city boy, Mary respond­ed with a sin­gle word: Imprint­ing.” See­ing that the word wasn’t reg­is­ter­ing for me, she con­tin­ued: If, in the first hours of its life, a horse is exposed to you, where it gets your smell, and hears your voice, it’s much eas­i­er to train as it grows up. From now on I’m like a sur­ro­gate moth­er to that horse, and it will respond to my voice, and trust me to lead it. We’ve bonded.”

Imprint­ing. A deep and mean­ing­ful rela­tion­ship with God begins with our bap­tism into Christ, where we get acquaint­ed with the voice of the Son, where we become famil­iar with his ways. And, it devel­ops as we prac­tice our bap­tisms, enter­ing the rhythms of a life of dis­ci­ple­ship, most sig­nif­i­cant­ly as we exer­cise the holy affir­ma­tions and the holy denials of our new life: No” to sin and evil; Yes” to the King­dom of God and the Jesus Way. We hear the voice; we heed the voice. We get trained up in right­eous­ness, and we become increas­ing­ly inti­mate with the Lover of our souls.

Imi­ta­tion

From the time when we are still wet behind the ears, we are influ­enced and formed by oth­er peo­ple. Obser­va­tions con­cern­ing infants reveal that they begin to mir­ror their mother’s facial expres­sions long before they can speak their first word. As chil­dren mature it becomes appar­ent that they are unnerv­ing­ly astute, observ­ing and then imi­tat­ing the behav­iors they are exposed to, both for good and for bad. 

Imi­tat­ing oth­ers does not end once one reach­es phys­i­cal matu­ri­ty. We con­tin­ue to be influ­enced by oth­ers around us, and we have a strong ten­den­cy to adopt var­i­ous ver­sions of their val­ues, idio­syn­crasies, and lifestyles as our own. The notion, for exam­ple, that mar­ried cou­ples begin to look and act more sim­i­lar­ly as the years go by is a real phe­nom­e­non, because peo­ple in long-term prox­im­i­ty to one anoth­er tend to mim­ic each other’s facial expressions.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, healthy mod­els show­ing us how to live Chris­tian­ly are spot­ty. Almost every Chris­t­ian I have ever known has, at some point, dis­ap­point­ed me. That, how­ev­er, does not mean we should stop imi­tat­ing peo­ple; it just means that we need to choose care­ful­ly, search­ing for men and women who are liv­ing pur­pose­ful­ly, sac­ri­fi­cial­ly, coura­geous­ly, as peo­ple of truth and grace, ones in whom the fruits of the Spir­it are evi­dent. Integri­ty, more so than per­fec­tion, is the chief cri­te­ri­on in the selec­tion of mod­els that mime messiah.

Six hun­dred years ago Thomas À Kem­p­is wrote a book. The Imi­ta­tion of Christ has become one of the most beloved of devo­tion­al clas­sics, sec­ond only to the Bible in the num­ber of lan­guages into which it has been trans­lat­ed. Even if the book itself was nev­er read, how­ev­er, the title alone would be instruc­tive: the goal of the Chris­t­ian life is to become more and more like Jesus, so that we grad­u­al­ly grow to actu­al­ly man­i­fest him.

Nobody knows how to do this innate­ly. Our nat­ur­al instinct is to go the way of Adam, rebelling against God. Recon­di­tion­ing our minds and hearts for life in the King­dom of God requires a mimet­ic ener­gy influ­enced by the saints and oth­er more ordi­nary heroes of the faith, not exact­ly mim­ic­k­ing, but emu­lat­ing, imi­tat­ing, but not copy­ing. It avoids liv­ing one’s faith vic­ar­i­ous­ly through anoth­er, while mod­el­ing a life of dis­ci­ple­ship after some­one who is mature in Christ, and who exhibits spir­i­tu­al fruit. St. Paul claimed to be one among numer­ous such mod­els for the church in Philip­pi when he wrote, Broth­ers and sis­ters, join in imi­tat­ing me, and observe those who live accord­ing to the exam­ple you have in us” (Phil 3:17).1 The let­ter to the church in Eph­esus, how­ev­er, goes direct­ly to the source, say­ing, There­fore be imi­ta­tors of God, as beloved chil­dren, and live in love, as Christ loved us … ” (Eph 5:1 – 2; ital­ics mine).

Rene Girard, the founder of mimet­ic the­o­ry, dis­cov­ered a sim­ple yet pow­er­ful pat­tern detectable in all inter­per­son­al rela­tion­ships, claim­ing that imi­ta­tion is the fun­da­men­tal mech­a­nism of human behav­ior.” In oth­er words, we become and we behave like the peo­ple with whom we keep com­pa­ny. This is why, with both warn­ing and encour­age­ment, St. John wrote, Beloved, do not imi­tate what is evil but imi­tate what is good” (3 John 11). The bap­tized lifestyle is the art of imi­tat­ing the Mas­ter Artist, the one who both cre­at­ed all things good, and the one who is restor­ing good­ness to all things. It is this god­ly mis­sion of good­ness that gets reflect­ed in chil­dren of God as they prac­tice the art of imi­tat­ing Christ. Michael Polanyi expands on the concept:

All arts are learned by intel­li­gent­ly imi­tat­ing the way they are prac­ticed by oth­er per­sons in whom the learn­er places his con­fi­dence. To know a lan­guage is an art, car­ried on by tac­it judg­ments and the prac­tice of unspeci­fi­able skills. The child’s way of learn­ing to speak from his adult guardians is there­fore akin to the young mammal’s and young bird’s mimet­ic respons­es to its nur­tur­ing, pro­tect­ing and guid­ing seniors. The tac­it coef­fi­cients of speech are trans­mit­ted by inar­tic­u­late com­mu­ni­ca­tions, pass­ing from an author­i­ta­tive per­son to a trust­ing pupil, and the pow­er of speech to con­vey com­mu­ni­ca­tion depends on the effec­tive­ness of this mimet­ic trans­mis­sion.2

This mimet­ic trans­mis­sion” is the art of mak­ing dis­ci­ples, the jour­ney of begin­ning in, and becom­ing like Christ.

Jamie Smith, com­ment­ing on Charles Taylor’s obser­va­tion on the role of art, points to “ … a fun­da­men­tal shift from art as mime­sis to art as poei­sis—from art imi­tat­ing nature to art mak­ing its world.”3 It is the sense of the Greek word poiema used in the New Tes­ta­ment: For we are poems, cre­at­ed in Christ Jesus for good works, which God pre­vi­ous­ly pre­pared to be our way of life” (Eph 2:10; my trans­la­tion). Like good art, dis­ci­ples do not mere­ly look good; rather, their lives have agency, and are gen­er­a­tive exhibitors of the King­dom. Good art moves us. Good poet­ry inspires us. Those who are bap­tized into Christ are God’s liv­ing poems, artis­tic agents in the redemp­tive work of re-mak­ing the world. The poet­ic nature of bap­tism sug­gests that it is less about pen­man­ship than it is about workmanship.

Again, this notion of becom­ing like Christ” is not mere­ly mimet­ic; it involves the actu­al par­tic­i­pa­tion in the very nature of Christ in the full­ness of his essence. As Leonard Sweet once observed to some of his stu­dents, “ … it is not imi­ta­tion’ but implan­ta­tion’ and impar­ta­tion’ through the hypo­sta­t­ic union with the Holy Spir­it” that is the goal of dis­ci­ple­ship. Addi­tion­al­ly, Sweet fre­quent­ly empha­sizes the notion that we are not mere­ly mim­ic­k­ing Jesus, but man­i­fest­ing him. The act of bap­tism acti­vates us for a life that is both mimet­ic and poetic.

Bap­tism as a Lifestyle

The life­long dynam­ic of bap­tism as a lifestyle is what makes it end­less­ly mean­ing­ful, offer­ing both descrip­tive and pre­scrip­tive lan­guage to iden­ti­fy not only what is, but what should be. Bap­tism offers a cor­rec­tive (repent!) when lives lose their holy telos and aim, and it pro­vides affir­ma­tion (beloved!) when rela­tion­al­ly rec­on­ciled. This is the ten­sion of hold­ing a coin on the edge of the Gospel’s nar­row way. Bap­tism pro­vides the bound­aries and guardrails nec­es­sary to stay on the Way with and toward Jesus.

Peo­ple who are splashed in the waters of bap­tism grow to devel­op their sacra­men­tal sen­si­bil­i­ties; they become alert to the vari­ety of smells, sounds, sights, tastes, and feel­ings asso­ci­at­ed with water and its semi­otic sig­nif­i­cance, rec­og­niz­ing that every­thing in it is charged with val­ue and encod­ed with mean­ings.”4 Each of our five sens­es serves this sacred pur­pose: point­ing to the Spir­it who brood­ed over the water; point­ing to the One who com­mand­ed the chaot­ic waters to come to order; point­ing to the Son who came drip­ping up out of the Jor­dan; all point­ing to the Three­some giv­er of life who is par­tial to water as an agent of both cre­ation and re-cre­ation. As Tom Long pro­pos­es, To be bap­tized is a sign that every­thing we are — work and play, per­son­al­i­ty and char­ac­ter, com­mit­ments and pas­sions, fam­i­ly and eth­nic­i­ty — is gath­er­ing up and giv­en shape and def­i­n­i­tion by our iden­ti­ty as one of God’s own chil­dren.”5 Grow­ing into such a sacred iden­ti­ty is the bap­tismal process, a holy lifestyle, requir­ing a life­time of practice.

Related Podcast

Excerpt­ed from Wade In the Water by Eric E. Peter­son. Used with permission.

[1] A sim­i­lar exhor­ta­tion appears in 2 Thes­sa­lo­ni­ans 3:7 when Paul, along with Sil­vanus and Tim­o­thy, wrote, “ … you your­selves know how you ought to imi­tate us.”

[2] Polanyi, Per­son­al Knowl­edge, 206.

[3] Smith, How (Not) To Be Sec­u­lar, 74.

[4] McEn­tyre. Car­ing for Words in a Cul­ture of Lies, 78.

[5] Long, Accom­pa­ny Them With Singing, 143.

Pho­to by Wayne God­frey on Unsplash

Originally published April 2018

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