If you read this blog, chances are you’re a more cerebral type. You like reading in general. You probably own a library. And you probably like listening to podcasts, as well as reading other blogs. You’re an advocate for reading ‘dead guys’, and you’ve quoted CS Lewis on the importance of reading a healthy ratio of old books. When Al Mohler memorably challenges us that ‘Leaders Are Readers’ you’re ready to stand up and wave your hand and shout Hallelujah, except that you’re an introvert and it feels odd to do something like that.
I am deeply convinced about the importance of reading in personal growth. I will never cease to be amazed at the grace of God to me and my family by taking hold of my dad, from a dirt-poor home with divorced parents in Bootle, Liverpool, and turning him into a reader of theology after he got saved in his teens. This all led to a transformation that not only changed his life (and earned the nickname ‘Banner-of-Truth Haslam’), but had a trickle down effect by totally altering his entire worldview, and so enabling him to be a wonderful husband, father, and pastor. Being surrounded by books from a young age, I too grew in my enjoyment of reading and I’m often dropping books into people’s hands when I think it will be helpful. So while I want to wholly endorse books (and podcasts and blogs) as a means to growth, we should also quickly acknowledge that there is something deficient about a book as a teacher. Why?
Learning is imitative. We are born to imitate, and we imbibe most of our presuppositions, cultural biases, modes of behaviour, and of course the very words we speak, through imitation.
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that Jesus’ method of building his church was to establish his teaching and his way of life among a small band of men. He was setting a new way of thinking, a new culture, and as has often been pointed out, he didn’t write anything down.
The obvious rebuttal is that the Bible itself is a book, written (in a sense) by Jesus; it is all red letters. And yet, even within that book, the pattern we’re encouraged to follow is this: watch and learn from others.
‘I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church’ (1 Corinthians 4.16-17).
‘Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 11.1).
Despite the unspeakable privilege of having God’s word and God’s Spirit the fact remains that there is a type of learning that only happens (or happens most effectively) through imitation, and often unconscious imitation at that.
This goes part way to explaining how movements take off and break new ground. A culture develops and leaders imitate one another, so that while a movement may be headed by one great pioneering mind, there is also a lifting affect on everyone around them. To take a longer view, learning-through-imitation also explains why certain countries have a rich, centuries-old heritage of innovation and invention and creativity. Michael Horton puts it well:
Excellence cannot be cultivated by lone rangers. We may remember some of the great scientists, artists, and philanthropists in history. But they would never have acquired their knowledge or skills apart from being formed by a community of expertise over time. Standards of excellence in each of these fields are not something that each person invents or even votes on. Rather, they evolve over generations through countless negotiations, failures, and successes.1
He’s right. Excellence in any given field can take generations to produce. We often only get stand-out men and women in history because they are part of a culture of imitation and learning.
Here’s Matthew Crawford making a similar point in a recent interview:
Matthew Crawford: Let’s take a different example: scientific practice, and scientific apprenticeship. It’s inherently progressive, it’s about discovery of a new. But how does that happen? I’m convinced by [the philosopher and scientist] Michael Polanyi. He found that scientific knowledge is really best understood as a species of craft knowledge, in a sense that knowing is a skill and it’s a skill that you have to learn, and you have to learn it from particular people, within a kind of mentorship.
What that means is that as a beginning scientist you have to submit to authority, the authority of your teachers. You don’t fully understand why one does things this way rather than that way. It’s in the course of doing it that you begin to get habituated into the characteristic judgment of a competent scientist. That element of personal involvement is absolutely necessary.
Brian Dijkema: Right, you talk about the movement of a practice of science that resulted when emigrés left Europe for America during the war. They brought the expertise, they became the masters who travelled from Europe to the United States and that is how American science progressed.
Matthew Crawford: Right. It was the Manhattan project. Polanyi points out that there were other countries that had plenty of money for research and they had access to all the same textbooks. But the practice of scientific enquiry hadn’t yet taken root. Science and all knowledge are passed on from one generation to another through personal contact. And what he was worried about it is the fact that if you break that train of transmission it only takes one generation for a lot of knowhow to be lost forever. He talks about how we, with all the techniques of modern science, can’t reproduce a Stradivarius violin.
We could multiply examples of this ‘craft knowledge’ or learning in community to explain so many extraordinary things in history: the building of the pyramids, the development of philosophy in the academies of Ancient Greece, the techniques used to hunt narwhals from canoes in the Arctic or sperm whales in the Pacific.
And all of this leads me to think about the church. Every church has a culture, and disciples are made automatically in that culture; discipleship is passing on craft knowledge. Further, every eldership team has a culture, and when new guys are brought in they imbibe so much that is unspoken about how to lead and pastor a church. This principle can work negatively where poisonous ways of thinking and doing persist within a church or eldership. But of course, this principle works powerfully in our favour when we see people beginning to flourish and grow because, without even realising it, they start to imitate those around them just by being near them.
The implications are endless, but as a pastor I’m particularly interested in the way men can be trained for pastoral ministry by imitating other pastors. So, although I attended a seminary and would advocate for the importance of a theological education, I suspect that most of our practical knowledge is learned from the people we hang out with.
This is not to say that we only learn by imitation. We can still go beyond our peers and the people we learned from, otherwise knowledge would never develop and grow, even in communities. However, it takes a special kind of pioneering mind to consistently break out of the mould in which they were formed. And this is where learning from books can slingshot a person beyond their immediate cultural environment. But since most of us are not those special kinds of pioneers, but instead rather simple people, we will get most of our learning by imitation. Turning this around, let me ask a question: If you’re a pastor, how are you offering opportunities for young men to imitate you and your eldership team? Are there unordained guys sat in the room when you have elders meetings? Are they able to come and pray with you in the morning? Are they able to study and plan and lead with you?
It seems to me that in an age in which we are moving away from person-on-person interaction towards online relationships and learning, understanding imitation has never been more important. If we neglect this, then so much good practice will simply be forgotten.
All of this speaks so powerfully into the genius of the church, of God’s plan to form a community. Here’s Horton again:
This is why Christ places us in a local expression of his visible body. Especially as Americans we think that we can figure things out on our own. We are only a “do-it-yourself” guide, seminar, or mouse click away from mastering whatever we want to do or be. However, in any field, excellence requires discipline — submitting to a community that cultivates expertise. Discipline requires disciples, just as craftsmanship requires apprentices. Much wisdom for this discipleship may be found in the community’s accumulated resources. However, books will not be sufficient. In the church today, we do not need more conferences, more programs, and more celebrities. We need more churches where the Spirit is immersing sinners into Christ day by day, a living communion of the saints, where we cannot simply jump to our favourite chapter or Google our momentary interest.2
1. Michael Horton, Ordinary, p.34
2. Ibid. p.35
This post originally appeared over at Think Theology.