The most basic definition of mimesis is to mimic or imitate. In this essay we’ll explore three levels of mimesis and how they relate to Jesus’ imitation of the Father and our imitation of God. 

A few years ago we visited friends in Haarlem in the Netherlands. They knew we loved art and organized a day trip to the Vincent Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. Van Gogh was a late starter, but a prolific painter. And he learned much from imitating the techniques of other artists. Besides the many works of art there were a number of letters that gave surprising insights into his development as an artist. I remember one amusing letter between two others artists, discussing Van Gogh’s progress. It was rather condescending and the artist did not seem to have much hope for Van Gogh becoming a real artist. I was amused because this artist’s work is not valued nearly as much as Van Gogh’s. 

Painting is a great way of illustrating the three levels of mimesis.

Level one would be imitating every brushstroke. Although one may be able to reproduce the artwork of a great master with precision, we would not consider the imitator to be an artist in his own right. Such imitation lacks authenticity and originality. This level of imitation is however necessary to move onto higher levels of mimesis.

Level two would be the imitation of the techniques used by the master/model. The kind of brushstrokes, the process of preparing the canvas, the technique of starting with darker colors and working towards lighter colors … all these can be imitated without a slavish copying of every movement. This kind of imitation could produce an artist that we recognize as an artist in his own right. Yet, if the technique is too obviously a copy of a technique already well known, it would diminish the value we place on its uniqueness.

Level three would be to reflect or imitate the desire of the model. For instance, impressionistic painting does not aim to reproduce a photo-realistic image, but rather it aims to capture the movement of light, to give an impression that allows the observer to imaginatively complete the image. It therefore takes into account the way in which the mind of the observer would perceive color etc. Van Gogh’s early learning involved the first two levels of mimesis, but what made him the unique artist he was, was this third level. The desire to present the living, moving beauty he observed allowed him to produce art that still captures our hearts today. It is this level of mimesis that is most unconscious.

In the gospel of John, words indicating mimesis such as ‘even as’; ‘just as’ occur more than forty times. Eleven times in the context of Son-Father mimesis, and twenty-six times in the context of Believer-Jesus/God mimesis. That could be the subject of another essay – what I want to emphasize is that the mimetic relationship between Son-Father-You is prevalent throughout this gospel. But mimesis has often been reduced to a mere mimicking of Jesus on the first two levels. 

I can mimic the action of another and still remain exactly who I am. I can mimic the technique of another and remain exactly who I am. But I cannot mimic the desire of another without being transformed in the process. For desire is not a quality separate from what I am, it is the movement that animates and gives life to who I am. To reflect the desire of another is in fact a process of allowing myself to become the image of the one I behold. 

Maybe because of the first two types of imitation we naturally have an aversion to the idea that we are formed by others. We don’t want to be copies. But in reality, nothing influences us more, nothing shapes us more profoundly than the relationships we are in. It might even be our determination not-to-be like someone, that shapes who we are. There is however no way we can escape the fact that we are beings in relationship and without relationship we are not. 

It is exactly in the context of reflective, transformative relationship that Jesus introduces us to Abba – our source and goal. We cannot reflect what we cannot see. Jesus visibly demonstrates what the Father is like so that we might be … astonished.

…the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father[e] does, the Son does likewise. The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished. (John 5:19,20)

It is in this moment of astonished wonder that we are transformed, that we are the image, the reflection of God.

14 Responses to “Astonished – Three Levels of Mimesis”

  1. Robert on

    Andre,
    Thanks for this beautiful, simple explanation of mimesis. I was getting stuck on the first two types. We look forward to more time together in the new year!
    Best, Robert

    Reply
  2. Al Carden on

    Andre,
    It is amazing to me how many times and how many ways I have needed to hear, read and meditate on such thoughts in order for the truth you share to begin making it’s way into my understanding. It seems I am just beginning to capture the enormity of this seemingly simple concept and yet I am overwhelmed with the multiple layers I’ve yet to explore. Thank you for continuing to share your journey with us!!!!
    Al

    Reply
    • Andre Rabe on

      Thank you Al. The mystery revealed does not mean the mystery exhausted. I continue to stand amazed at the inexhaustible depth of our Abba. And just as he loved Jesus and showed Himself, so He continues to reveal Himself to us. Beholding Him with unveiled faces, we are transformed.

      Reply
  3. Rick Shrout on

    Andre, I appreciate how you explained these three levels. The old line from days gone by was to basically suck it up religiously and “be more like Jesus” in an attempt to be “Christ-like.” Do we want to be more “like him” or transformed by him? It seems to all begin in and end in the revelation of the divine embrace…”we love because he first loved us.”

    Reply
    • Andre Rabe on

      What a place to begin and end – the divine embrace! Love it. I think the old paradigm also began in a sencse of lack – you are not, therefore you must become. The divine embrace, however, begins with: ‘you are loved’.

      Reply
  4. Michelle Donovan on

    I love the statement; we cannot reflect what we cannot see. I have come to the realization in the last year that we have to see what He sees. See the world, people, ourselves, as he sees them…so that we can be as He is in this world. I love the idea of reflection! Also, the example of Van Gogh is awesome as his art pieces are considered masterpieces; but we have the Masterpiece of all masterpieces!
    So excited to start learning more!
    Happy New Year!

    Reply
    • Andre Rabe on

      2 Cor 3:18 is so appropriate here – beholding him as in a mirror, we are transformed. Wishing you an amazing year as well and so looking forward to the Mimesis conversations.

      Reply
  5. Don Merideth on

    Andre, thanks for sharing. I have always shared how important it is to spend time with Jesus in a quiet place. I don’t think we can develop a strong relationship with Jesus unless we spend quality time with Him, but as we do it extends to other relationships as well. No relationship with Him, no relationship with others. As 2nd Cor. states we are transformed by (beholding), as we do we are engulfed by His glory that others see even when we think we’re not shining. I try to keep these simple statements before me:

    The first day I miss my quiet time I know it.
    The second day my family knows it.
    The third day everybody else knows it.

    I believe this is the only way to walk in the third level of mimesis, behold, see, transformation, strong relationships.

    I really appreciate your in-depth teachings and insights.
    Sincerely, Don Merideth

    Reply
    • Andre Rabe on

      Thanks Don. I love this place of silence … of simply consenting to the presence of our Abba. Such encounters do go beyond words, beyond concept. It goes even beyond what we behold to the surprising realization of another gaze focussed on us … and what He sees in us is overwhelming.

      Reply
  6. Marianna on

    Thank you for such a beautiful explanation and example. So many layers to it! Thank you for sharing it with us. Copy Jesus to the letter; copy His acts following methods/formulas -sounds like religion and self righteousness- it might produce some works/acts but will never transform you. Behold Him and focus on things that are lovely and from above to be astonished of transformation that takes place in your desires. Soon you will love more – sounds so much like the Father and His character 🙂 Wonderful design by the only One Creator!

    Reply
  7. John Ernest Twemlow on

    I’m enjoying you posts very much, even though my brain struggles to comprehend totally what you have to say. I’ve been reading a little about van Gogh and his style, and I understand he is recognised as a POST impressionist! Your article (to me) infers he is an impressionist. Does not that take something away from your suggestion that he works on light and colour to capture the image as he intended? Appreciate your clarification.
    P.S. I still love the inference that our relationship with the Lord needs to be “alive” and not static.

    Reply
    • Andre Rabe on

      Thanks for the question John, and the opportunity to clarify. Because post-impressionism developed out of impressionism, they have much in common. Most importantly the desire to give an impression of reality rather than a foto-realistic replication of it. Yes there are nuanced differences, specifically, post-impressionism is not concerned with naturalistic colors

      Reply

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