This past summer, my husband and I spent a few days in Memphis. Unbeknownst to us, it was Elvis Presley week. The city was filled with fans and impersonators wearing Elvis t-shirts, purses, and jewelry. Men and boys slicked their hair back like Elvis, dressed in a 50’s style to mimic Elvis, and posed like Elvis, mimicking his voice when they said, “Thank you. Thank you very much.” To be honest, it was a little unnerving to walk through the hotel lobby and see not just one or two, but three Elvis impersonators having a drink together.
Watching these invested fans made me uncomfortable at first. I grew up in the white pantsuit, drugged-out phase of Elvis’ career, so I have never really been a fan. As I watched the crowds, I wondered why anyone would admire a dead rock and roll star so much that they would dress like him, dye their hair to look like him, and mimic both his walk and talk? But this really isn’t a strange phenomenon in our society. Think about it – we buy t-shirts or jerseys, Nike shoes, and even underwear so we could “be like” Michael Jordan or some other favorite athlete. Some of us buy certain clothing or make-up and perfume so we can be as stylish as the latest movie or reality show star or even a royal princess.
Why do we desire to imitate someone? Theorists propose that we imitate famous people because there is something about them we admire, and the imitation of them fulfills some deep desire within us. By imitating them, we are saying, “Hey, look! I am just like them.” For young children, imitation is a social learning process that aids the acquisition of new knowledge. Children learn behaviors by careful observation and mirroring it. In the New Testament, Paul exhorts us to follow God’s example (Ephesians 5:1). He challenges us to imitate him (1 Corinthians 4:16) and follow him as he follows Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). Theologians such as Luther and Calvin speak of conforming to Christ or being incorporated into Christ as a form of union with him.* We imitate others in order to learn new behaviors, to gain skills and to acquire new knowledge.
Imitation shapes and forms our identity.
So, in my journey to become more Christlike, who am I imitating? If I am a child of God, who am I carefully observing and thus, mirroring their behavior? As someone who is passionate about a child’s faith formation, I want to ask – who are we encouraging our children to imitate? Is it a dead rock star…a royal princess…a talented athlete? What would it look like if I was as passionate about imitating Christ as the Memphis fans were about imitating Elvis? I don’t mean this in a t-shirt wearing way. I wonder if my imitation could be lived out in such a way so that when you looked at me, you couldn’t help but wonder if you were encountering Christ in me.