"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       


A Season of Incarnation

December 20th, 2016 by

Here we are again. Christians around the world are preparing to celebrate the incarnation, the time when we believe God became human and lived among us. This seems as good a time as any to contemplate a question that consumes both religious people and artists the rest of the year, if they are living and doing their work with any conviction.

To imitate or to incarnate? That is the question.

When approaching faith, through prayer and meditation, what is our focus? As well, when writing, painting, dancing, or composing music, what is our focus? Is it imitation? Are we imitating our understanding of what we are about? Are we imitating those writers/artists/composers/musicians we most admire and want to be like? I know that I have for years. Imitation was how I began to understand how to make scenes, dialogue, and characters somewhat convincing.

Yet when we pray and meditate, or do our craft, is there also, possibly, something new we are moving toward bringing into existence. That is, are we involved in an activity that bears some resemblance to incarnation?

My Students and the Ancients
Faith and creativity are two great mysteries to me. I spend a great deal of my time reflecting on them, usually to no great insight. The more I read about them, the more elusive to understanding they seem. When I get anywhere in thinking about them lately, I’ve found myself thinking in human terms, as I’ve noted: Imitation or incarnation?

My students often have a very different take on this. They are convinced that imitation holds no value for creativity. Definitions matter. For them, creativity requires that they throw out all guidelines and rules. Unless they do that, they aren’t being creative.

This seems to be setting up for failure.

The ancients would have thought about this differently than most of us would today. They saw imitation as the beginning—learn from those who have gone before. The ancient Roman educational system known as the progymnasmata had many examples of simply copying over and imitating the great poets or statesmen and making up from what were considered excellent models. This was the start of learning a craft.

We don’t really have models in American education, but this path was one that I took when I decided to learn to write. I picked up things from the writers I most admired. Sometimes when I imitated them, I would gain new insights. At other times, the imitation seemed to be little more than an exercise–I seem to remember a teacher once calling a scene I wrote for a class “wooden.”

I wonder about the same with faith. The Imitation of Christ is a famous, early Catholic book that has guided millions of believers into deeper expressions of their Christian faith. Looking at this, it would seem that imitation could help a people to develop new habits and better ways of giving to others and loving their neighbors. But as my friend, Christian writer Joseph Bentz has pointed out, uninspired imitation, where we assume that Jesus would act as we would, can also catch us in idolatry, as we make God over into ourselves. I think the term “wooden” might apply here.

Tis the Season
As with other seeming binaries or paradoxes (or befuddlements), I suspect that this is again a case not of either/or but of both/and. It is not a question of either imitation or incarnation. It is a bit of both.

So we are again in this season of celebrating the birth of Christ. And though I know that he was probably born in the fall, and even though the real meaning of Christmas might be an ancient pagan tradition, and even though I find myself fighting off commercialism and sadness over lost relatives at this time of year, I find this a worthy time to think about the incarnation—the divine manifested in the human.

There is no snow where I live. And I’m an adult now. But it is still a time of wonder at the possibilities.

It is a time when I reflect on the possibility that I am learning to imitate divine examples so that something, someone new, might be brought forth again, and others are better for it.

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Comment by Kristen on January 17, 2017 at 12:57 pm

Deep thoughts indeed. And an enjoyable read.

Comment by Tom on January 17, 2017 at 1:04 pm

Thank you for reading, Kristen.

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