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Part 1: Gaze on God and Imitate What You See

Greg E. Gifford, PhD, CBC



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“Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children.”

—Ephesians 5:1

In 1961, Albert Bandura conducted a social experiment with seventy-two, 3-6 year-olds. The experiment is famously known as the, “Bobo Doll” experiment in which Bandura’s Social Learning Theory (1977) was evaluated. The experiment took seventy-two children and placed them in a room for observation for twenty minutes each. In the room 1/3 of the children were exposed to aggressive behavior by an adult model to the Bobo doll, 1/3 were exposed to unaggressive behavior, and 1/3 were not exposed to any behavior at all. The model then would take the child to a different room and leave them alone. What Bandura found is that the children that were exposed to the aggressive Bobo doll behavior were far more likely to imitate that behavior than that of those who were not exposed to aggressive behavior (who doesn’t like to hit a Bobo doll!). Furthermore, girls were far more likely to respond with aggressive words, than boys—who would respond with physical aggression.[1] Bandura picked up on something in his theory and that is the power of imitation. (However, Bandura missed a great deal in his anthropology as a behaviorist; cf. A Believer or a Behaviorist?)

Imitation is part of the world in which we live—it is our very ethos. Did you know that the most elementary things you know how do were learned through imitation? Did you know that your native tongue was learned through imitation? You didn’t study some book, or memorize the language you first spoke via flashcards: you imitated it. Imitation is said by some to start as early as your newborn years (Meltzoff and Moore, 1977), with babies imitating another person by sticking their tongue out, opening their mouth, and closing their mouths. Secular research has studied the power of imitation but leaves one gaping hole in its research—the spiritual sphere. The behaviorist can make good observations about the imitation of man, but will miss they ‘why’ of man’s imitation.

Overall, imitation is a significant part of our social development. Language acquisition, social characteristics, and so forth are caught through imitation of others; this is for better and for worse. But there is something more significant than social implications—imitation is a significant part of our spiritual development. In fact, my aim is to show you that imitation is an essential part of our spiritual development. It begins with an understanding of Whom to imitate, and progresses towards intentional imitation. Moreover, this is one of the primary means of change prescribed in the Bible. It is my goal to show you that imitation is intrinsic to the change process, and that we are called to imitate if we are to grow spiritually.

Imitating Whom?

            One of the most rudimentary facts of imitation is that it does not occur in a vacuum. Imitation takes place in the context of a crowd. Meaning, one cannot imitate if there is no one else to imitate. Therefore, imitation requires exposure to another person or thing in order to duplicate their actions.

Moreover, we are people who imitate other people. In 1901, Charles Ellwood said, “Men imitate other men, but show little or no tendency to imitate sheep. The consciousness of kind, especially of mental and moral resemblance, evidently comes in to limit and control the process of imitation.”[2] The idea is that by-and-large, we are not people who imitate dissimilar things. We have little inclination to imitate animals, for instance (outside of our young kids imitating our dogs!). We innately know that imitation should only be conducted with those to whom we have similarities. This is both assumed and insinuated throughout the culture of the Bible.

What is interesting is that the Bible said this decades before Ellwood made his observations. We are imitative creatures who need to imitate well. In fact, Paul said circa A.D. 60 “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Eph. 5:1). “Imitate your Father, kids!” would be another way of saying this. A biblical theology tells us that we are quite similar to God in different ways (Gen. 1:27) and that our similarities grow through imitation. To frame this biblically, we grow into the image of God through imitation of Jesus (Rom. 8:29; “conformed to the image of His son”).

Consequently, if all imitation is directed towards a source of imitation, and that source is to be similar, then what should that final source be or Who should it be? Just as important, whom am I imitating regardless of whom I should be imitating? That source is none other than God, Himself but before we flesh out the one true Person worthy of imitation, let’s pose some evaluative thoughts to expose our current imitations.

Posters On the Wall

           Do you remember when posters on the wall were popular? I know this dates me, however I can vividly remember purchasing posters and Scotch-taping them to my wall as a kid. There were the posters of Michael Jordan floating through the air. I had posters of bands; there were posters of athletes performing amazing feats. All of which point me toward something assumed and understood within each of us—we all imitate. From your spouses barbed comment: “You sound just like your dad!” To the fitness aspirations we absorb every time ‘healthy’ commercials come on the television; we all imitate. Marketing perhaps notes this most acutely with their advertisements directed on our need to imitate others.

Researchers have proposed various reasons why they believe this to be of biological origin. One proposal is that we possess what is called “mirror neurons”[3] that are stimulated when we see others completing certain actions. For instance, I pick up a glass, a neuron in your mind responds as you watch me pick up a glass—the same neuron you would use when you pick up the glass. This would explain why we imitate and part of why we see others and respond to them when they act. Without being dangerously pragmatic I think it is safe to say that we imitate others. Implicit imitation, imbibed imitation, explicit imitation, intentional and unintentional imitation is at work.

Naturally then, whom do you imitate? What person has saturated their worldview into your life? How have you intentionally, or unintentionally imbibed the characteristics of another? What words to you now say that others are using? What is your vision of the good life and how have your peers shaped that vision? We all are imitators and have an unspoken understanding that we are such. Yet, this assumption needs clarification: there is only one true Being worthy of imitation.

Next: “Part 2: Imitating the Character of God”

[1] Christopher Green, “Classics in the History of Psychology,” York University, accessed December 29, 2015, http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Bandura/bobo.htm. Please note that I do not agree with Albert Bandura, nor espouse his anthropology. However, his observations are interesting and provoking.

[2] Charles Ellwood, “The Theory of Imitation in Social Psychology,” The American Journal of Sociology vol. 6, no. 6 (May 1901): 727.

[3] Cf. Giacomo Rizzolatti’s macaque monkey experiment in the early ‘90’s.

"God may be looked upon in an absolute consideration, as he is in himself the best and most excellent being, wherein we behold the concurrence of all perfections, the most amiable and beauteous excellences, to an intellectual eye, that it can have an apprehension of." --John Howe, On Delighting in God
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