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Volume 14, Issue 1: Childer

Imitation and Imagination

Douglas Wilson

Children learn most naturally by imitation. In their manner of speech and walking, in their habits of thought and feeling, in their grasp of their native language, imitation is one of the foundational laws of learning. And that which is acquired through imitation lies close to the bone. The principle does not change with age, but it does become harder to apply because of adult pride, and slows down because of adult "settledness." But Scripture makes this observation about children, and does so while exhorting adults to be more childlike in this. Christians are to be imitators of God, as dear children (Eph. 5:1). In many ways, in many places, the Scriptures call disciples to a life of imitation (1 Cor. 4:15_17; 11:1; 1 Pet. 2:21; Heb. 13:7). This comes easily to children, and it is harder for adults, but all are called to it.

Now when it comes to the life of the imagination, the assumption of moderns is that creativity must spring unbidden from the artist's heart, and that imitation is the practice of hacks. But this owes more to the junk philosophy of Rosseau than to the Scriptures. A biblical aesthetic requires that true creativity be built upon an inheritance. Perpetual revolution is as destructive to the arts as it is to civil order. The fact that some imitate without understanding should not cause us to turn away from this approach at all. Some students struggle through math classes too, contenting themselves with the mere memorization of formulae, and they do not think about what they are learning. Nevertheless, we know that the truly creative work in mathematics is done by those who have internalized the basics—those who have grasped their inheritance can go on with it and do great things.
For a student hungry for imaginative wisdom, privileged to study with a wise master, there is no substitute for the opportunity to imitate. Imitation brings the student "up to speed," and once this is done the mystery of God's giftedness to him then comes into play. J.R.R. Tolkien once spoke about how his creative work sprang up out of the "leaf mold of his mind." But how does that "leaf mold" get there in the first place? John Bunyan, speaking of the creative process, said that as he pulled, "it came." But where does it come from? The fact that this final mystery in creative imaginative work appears to come ex nihilo is only an appearance. True creativity assumes a foundation of imitation. Spurious creativity wants to pretend that no outside influences can be permitted, and that the freer an artist is from such influence, the more creative he is. But such a man, could he exist, would be autistic, not artistic.
Incidentally, this is one reason why all forms of cyber-education will necessarily, at best, be second best. Certain things can be acquired at a distance, and in one sense every book ever written is a form of distance learning. Consequently, those things which can be placed on a page and withdrawn from that page many years later, can also be posted on the web. But the center of true education will always be flesh and blood community—first in the family and church, and then in the school or college. Flesh and blood situations are those in which the powers of imitation display their potency.
Biblical parents of course know that it is necessary to live out themselves what they require of their children, and not simply in an attempt to avoid the charge of "do as I say, not as I do" hypocrisy.
But another problem frequently arises from parental inconsistency (as well as inconsistency in teachers). A child can know and make the distinction between the message and the faults of the messenger, and he can be fully willing to do the right thing. But he still does not know what it looks like. Without an incarnational model to follow, he does not know exactly what to do.
"Kindness to a wife" are just words on a page to a son who grew up in a home where it was not practiced. An "incarnational aesthetic" is an impossible ideal for a daughter who does not know how to adorn a table for a feast. "You iron the napkins?" There are many young people who are sold on the concept, but they still have never seen it. When children see something put into practice, they can imitate it. When they start imitating at a young age, and if they do it long enough, it settles into them and they understand it. Then they are in a position to exercise true creativity, and what they do becomes worthy of imitation.
Abstractions can be true, and they can be affirmed. But they cannot be imitated. This is why many churches are filled with children who learn theological abstractions, and can repeat them back. But there is nothing to imitate. Children from other denominational traditions repeat back a different set of abstractions. The lives of the two groups of children do not differ that much from one another, because you imitate what you see, not what you hear. And none of the children see a distinctively Christian culture—they all see the same basic secular American culture, poured through a rudimentary sieve designed to catch the larger chunks of secularism into the jars of differing ecclesiastical traditions. And they imitate what they see.
If we want a rennaisance of the imagination in the next generation, we have to give them something to copy. If they can imitate it, they can eventually surpass it. If they cannot, they we will continue our time in this cultural quicksand.

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