Cookie-Cutter Creativity . . . and Christianity
A few weeks ago, I participated in a discussion on Erica the Art Project Girl's blog entitled Go on an Art DIET with Me. In that post, she challenged her followers to help her stop comparing her students' work to all the cute, cookie-cutter type art out there, where every student has a similar outcome in their art projects, and refrain from using assignments that produced such results. Now, I happened to disagree with some of what Erica was saying because I don't see anything inherently wrong with step-by-step projects and using tracers sometimes. But I see her point, and that discussion has really got me thinking about "imitation" -- in art, and in other areas of life.
I touched on this topic a while ago in my Copy Cat Art post, but I've had time to reflect (I'm a thinker -- and it always takes me a l-o-n-g time!) on Erica's post a bit, too, and I've come to the conclusion that usually the important issue around imitation in art, or any other form of creativity, is motivation. Erica talked about the temptation to strive for cutesy, homogeneous art projects because of "the pressure of the looming hallway" -- the pressure to have an impressive bulletin board display with which to wow colleagues and parents. The temptation is to forgo individual creativity for the sake of pleasing someone else. If we think about it even a little bit, objection to such cookie-cutter "creativity" only makes sense because it stifles personal expression and is motivated by pride.
There is, however, value in imitating. I know in the arts (be it visual, literary, musical . . .), there is a school of thought that advocates "imitation of the masters." The principle is that you learn to do something by copying someone who does that thing well. (We do this naturally from infancy when we learn to talk.) We may copy using our own observations, or by following a step-by-step procedure or formula with the intention of producing something that looks as much as possible like the original model. But this imitation is an instrument of instruction, not a means of expression or pleasing someone else in order to get their approval (which is what we force children to do if all their art work needs to match an example).The difference is in the motivation. Would you agree?
Because I want to use my own creativity as a means of connecting with my Creator, I can't help carrying this discussion of cookie-cutter creativity to an exploration of how it applies to faith. When we talk of "imitating the masters," I also think of the apostle Paul encouraging us to imitate him: "Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ" (1 Corinthians 11:1 KJV). We have something to learn from "the masters" -- or the great men and women of faith throughout history.
Of course, we are also advised to imitate THE Master. Various translations of Ephesians 5:1 say, "Be imitators of God." These are just a few verses that give direction about some specific ways to do so:
Matthew 5:48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (More about that one later.)
Luke 6:36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Ephesians 4:32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
(The above verses are from the New International Version ©1984 )
Yet, just as we run the risk of creating cookie cutter art by establishing and conforming to stringent guidelines with the goal of impressing others, we also run the risk of becoming cookie cutter Christians. Somehow, we move from striving to imitate the character of Jesus and true Christ followers to setting up rigid rules about how a "Christian" behaves or looks. Initially, we might set these standards for ourselves. But just as an art teacher (or parent, or other student) might judge the value of a piece of art based on its conformation to a particular set of criteria that exactly matches an example, we might feel justified in judging the faith of fellow followers of Christ. We might say, "Christians don't drink" or "Christians don't smoke" or "Christians don't . . . whatever." And we might add, "Christians go to church every Sunday -- dressed in their Sunday best," or "Christians always pray before their meals," or "Christians do . . . such-and-such." By pre-established criteria that we make up, we determine the value -- not only of our own -- but of other people's walks with God. But Matthew 7:1 admonishes, "Judge not, that ye be not judged" (KJV).
And like the art student that feels like a failure because his work doesn't resemble the example or the products of his peers, sometimes it works the other way -- we judge our own faith by how it compares to those around us. We feel inferior when we hear that Mrs. Smith gets up at 5:00 a.m. every morning to spend an hour in prayer before she starts her day. We feel inadequate when we can't rhyme off verses for every situation like Mr. Jones can. We feel like failures when we yell at our two children (again) because we know that Mrs. White is the picture of perfect patience with her brood of eight. We become defeated because we have set idealized, cookie-cutter Christians as our models, and we can never measure up.
Our motives for imitation in our walk with God should also be questioned. Do we really do the things that other "spiritually mature" people do because we seek similar strength and depth of Christian character? Or is it because we seek the approval of fellow Christians -- because we want to be admired, as they are? Do we really want to "be like Jesus" to become Godly -- or for our own pride?
I know that the WWJD? (What Would Jesus Do?) movement was well intentioned in its effort to encourage people to imitate Christ. However, I would argue that it actually robs believers of the power of Christ in us. Strive as we might, we will never "be perfect" (Matthew 5:48 above) by trying to figure out what Jesus would do if He were us in our situation. As believers, we have Christ IN us, so the better question is, WWJHMD -- What Would Jesus Have Me Do? Right here. Right now.
We need to let the power of Christ flow through us, moment by moment. Only then will we really escape from the grip of cookie-cutter Christianity -- and creativity.
What are your thoughts on imitation? Have you experienced its value? Have you fallen into any of its traps? I love reading your comments (and it lets me know people are actually reading!) -- so please do tell me what you think.