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.

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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