Volume 14, Issue 1: Childer
Imitation and Imagination
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 basicsthose 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 communityfirst 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 culturethey 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.