Earlier this week, I wrote a brief review of Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary, which explores the differences in the brain’s left and right hemispheres. I pointed out a section of McGilchrist’s work on the importance of attention, and how what we give attention to changes both the perception we have of a particular object as well as ourselves in the process.

Today, I want us to look at another section of McGilchrist’s research on the brain and see how it intersects with discipleship.

Imitation and the Christian Life

“Imitation” is one of the words that has long been part of a Christian’s vocabulary, ever since the apostle Paul commanded the Corinthians to “imitate me, as I also imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1), the apostle Peter told us to follow Jesus’ examples (1 Pet. 2:21), and Thomas à Kempis wrote the classic devotional The Imitation of Christ. But in recent years, in reaction to some theologies that reduce Christ’s work to merely setting an example, and in reaction to a moralistic approach to the Christian life, imitation has fallen on hard times.

Properly understood, however, imitation is a key component of Christian discipleship. We call others to imitate us, as we imitate Christ. My friend Matt Rogers writes:

“The call to imitation is predicated on the fact that Paul’s life was ‘in Christ.’ He was worthy of imitation to the extent that Paul’s life reflected the work of Christ in his heart. Imitation is a gift of God’s grace and not another task on a person’s religious to-do list.”

This is a point that Kevin Vanhoozer also makes. A focus on cultivating virtuous habits doesn’t have to lead us back to a place of never measuring up, of moralistic preening and merely “pretending” to be like someone else, or putting on a show of living like Jesus. The answer for the Christian who seeks to live in light of the gospel is, in the words of Vanhoozer, as follows:

“Imitating Christ is no burden for genuine disciples who act out only what, or rather who, is in them. The disciple’s mandate is simply ‘Become who you are already are [in Christ].’ . . . The real work of discipleship, growing into our parts as little Christs,’ therefore remains, not as a condition bust as a consequence of our salvation. . . . . If disciples are to become Christlike, they must do more than learn their lines; they must also develop their characters.” (Faith Speaking Understanding, 129)

Imitation and the Human Brain

So, what does Iain McGilchrist say about imitation? It has every bit as much to do with the imagination as it does with mimicking someone’s actions.

“Human imitation is not slavish. It is not a mechanical process, dead, perfect, finished, but one that introduces variety and uniqueness to the ‘copy,’ which above all remains alive, since it becomes instantiated in the context of a different, unique, human individual. Imitation is imaginatively entering into the world of the one that is imitated, as anyone who has tried the exercise of imitating an author’s style will know.” (247)

He goes further:

“In imitation one takes up something of another person, but not in an inert, lifeless, mechanical sense; rather in the sense of its being . . . taken into ourselves and transformed. . . . Imitation is imagination’s most powerful path into whatever is Other than ourselves.” (247-248)

We All Imitate Something

The question, then, we should ask is not whether imitation is a part of human experience or Christian discipleship, but what it is we are likely already imitating. We cannot help but imitate something or someone. McGilchrist mentions how prevalent this process is:

“Babies as little as forty-five minutes old can imitate facial gestures.” (249)

Wait a minute! Some might say. We’re living in a world where individuality is prized. You need to be you. To imitate someone else too closely is to sacrifice whatever it is that makes you unique. Right?

Not really. McGilchrist believes that it’s only in imitation that we truly find our individuality. No one can perfectly imitate another. The imaginative effort gives us uniqueness.

“Imitation gives rise, paradoxically as it may seem, to individuality. That is precisely because the process is not mechanical reproduction, but an imaginative inhabiting of the other, which is always different because of its intersubjective betweenness.” (249)

Here’s the paradox of imitation that is so crucial to the Christian faith. Our imaginations form our future. Our church—the people we see living the Christian life—have more of an effect on our discipleship than we realize. We instinctively copy others whose walk with Christ we admire. What we see, we imitate.

“We need to be careful of our imagination, since what we imagine is in a sense what we are and who we become. . . . There is ample evidence, some of which I cited earlier, that imitation is extremely infectious: thinking about something, or even just hearing words connected with it, alters the way we behave and how we perform on tasks. This was understood by Pascal, who realized that the path to virtue was imitation of the virtuous, engagement in virtuous habits—the foundation of all monastic traditions.” (250-251)

Imitation and Discipleship

As I’ve written before, evangelicals have a tendency to see disciple-making as primarily a knowledge exercise. Teach people truth and doctrine, make them aware of the biblical exhortations to holiness and obedience, and then encourage them in their “personal walk.”

A more holistic approach must include a healthy emphasis on modeling the Christian life. Modeling takes us beyond the transfer of information; it includes the practice of spiritual disciplines and the intentional copying of one’s thought processes that lead to certain decisions. This is imitation. It’s a work of the imagination. And it’s indispensable to the life of a Christian.