Life Imitates Heart

The 30-second ad showed a dad washing his car while his young son imitated him: soaping when the dad soaped, spraying when the dad sprayed, drying when the dad dried. Then dad sat down and leaned again a tire; so did the son. The dad pulled out a cigarette and lit it; the son took one and put it in his mouth. End of ad.

I recall this ad every time I think about the gap (sometime a chasm) between my preaching and practice in a Christian high school. Sponsored by the Mormon Church, the ad depicted how imitation is a powerful tool for learning, both for good and for ill. These days we use the term “follower” as a negative, e.g., “He’s just a follower,” like a student who follows the leader of a social group into trouble. Ralph Waldo Emerson, an America writer who celebrated “self,” said, “Imitation is suicide.” Likewise, Samuel Johnson claimed, “No man was ever great by imitation.” In education, imitation is in a recession; what’s taken its place is innovation, originality, and creativity. For the proponents, imitation is lazy, restricting, and deadening.

It can be. Christian school boards that conduct their business in the same pattern boards did 50 years ago, with excuses such as “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” may harm the school. Teachers who experienced only lectures in their own education may follow their “masters” in their own teaching, rationalizing “It was good enough for me,” an explanation that covers a refusal to seek better, or at least additional, ways of making things clear to students.

It need not be. All of us imitate, from children to codgers. Early on, and even later on, it is without discernment. With discernment, we often imitate the actions of someone we admire, believing that by doing that we will achieve a quality that person has. Small boys throw stones because slightly older boys dare to do it. Some school girls beg for clothes that match the “in” crowd’s clothes, assuming that they will be “in,” too. However, some students look up to dads and moms, caring teachers, and older siblings who have helped them, while musing, “I really want that quality (taking time to listen, not seeking attention, always being courteous), too.”

Twenty-five years ago, I asked 230 Christian high school students to write the answer to these two questions: “Which currently living person do you think is an outstanding Christian, and why do you think so?” I classified the answers by category, i.e., pastors, parents, grandparents, religious stars, etc. The most often mentioned category was peers, fellow students. One girl wrote, “The most outstanding Christian I know is Lisa in my grade. She’s always thinking of other’s welfare, even those who laugh at her ‘piety’ or whatever.” A boy wrote, “My best friend is the one I want to follow. He would play basketball at noon with those who otherwise might be alone.”

Parents, grandparents, teachers, and pastors were next—all with specific details of why they wanted to be like them, to imitate them. The imitations were almost always what the model did, not what the model said, e.g., a teacher who stood at his door always to talk with kids; a grandma with bad hips who worked at church each week; a dad who was really sick but “never asked why, just trusted.” One writer on Christian education noted that our children will end up preaching what we preach and practicing what we practice. It’s caught in the aphorism, “What you do speaks so loud, I can’t hear what you say.” That can be scary for us parents, teachers, principals, and boards.

God gives high marks to imitation as a key means of learning. Christ himself called his disciples by simply saying, “Follow me.” His disciples got the message from watching the example of Jesus, asking him how to pray after watching him pray. Peter wrote the dispersed Christians this: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). Paul the apostle even invited imitation: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). But clearly Paul also warned against our actions becoming trouble for unwary followers: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Corinthians 8:9).

Teachers, parents, students, board members, administrators—all of our deeds are under inspection almost every day. Imagine a 30-second ad for your Christian school’s website featuring a teacher expressing how to read Genesis 1 to an audience to stress that God made the world, and then showing a student listener imitating the teacher in reading the chapter to a younger class. It’s not that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” but it is the root of real learning.

– Dan Vander Ark

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