You and I, we are all born imitators. We have a special knack for taking our experience and pushing it back out into the world. At the summit of a craggy hike, we look out on the world in miniature and when we have returned to the valley and the world is full-sized again, we find someone and tell them what we saw* apeak the mountain. We use language in an attempt to recreate in our friend the hush and awe we felt in the presence of the panorama. Failing that, at least to stir in them the desire, like our own, to hike up and see it for themselves. Our experience of beauty is like breathing. We cannot inhale but that we exhale.
We do this especially in art. When we take something that’s next to nothing—a blank page, an empty canvas, a pile of wood or clay—and we shape it into something recognizably human-touched, we imitate the God who took actual nothing and worked it into everything including our blank paper and stacked lumber. We cannot inhale but that we exhale.
We do this even in the mundane. Who hasn’t found themselves standing over a sink of dishes humming out snatches of a familiar melody without really thinking about it? Songs come in at our ears and go back out through our voices. In and out. Stories cycle through us, picking up and shedding detail, but arcing along those old, familiar bends. The journey home. The fall and redemption. The restoration of order and justice. The romance. When you tot it all up—from the mundane to the sublime—what is all this work but the imitative life of human culture?
A while back, my church housed a music venue. In the halcyon days of The 930 music venue, one of the shows that I remember best was Bill Frisell alone on the stage with a guitar making sonic magic. So, when I heard that he had recorded a version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”—a Bob Dylan tune that I had long heard of but only recently actually listened to—I had a listen. The reinvention is sublime, but it’s a symbiotic relationship.
When it comes to an artist who has had their work reinvented and imitated ad infinitum, there is only one Bob Dylan. Perhaps it’s a consequence of his being revered and prolific in a way that makes the onlooker feel dizzy and quite lazy, but you flip through any muscian’s body of work and like as not you hit at least one Bob Dylan cover song. In this case of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, Frisell strips away the lyrics—a stream of opaque and increasingly ominous imagery punctuated with the invocation of that hard rain that might be a baptism or a judgement—and mines the seam of melody for all its worth and then some. In doing these increasingly complex and noisy variations on Dylan’s theme, Bill Frisell provokes a fresh emotional resonance from the song.
Now, Frisell’s distinctive playing has merit all its own but, honestly, one might find that Dylan’s simple folk melody grows a little repetitive if one didn’t have snatches of his excised lyric haunting you while you listen. The refraction through the prism of surrounding artists so often reaffirms and even magnifies the beauty of the original work. Frisell indeed bends Dylan’s vision in a gorgeous arc, but the cover is also elevated by memory. The source material remains vital.
What we see when Bill Frisell plays Bob Dylan is that some sort of alchemy takes place when we imitate even just other people. We’re a lot like Waldo. Not the guy we hunted in crowded kids books, but the myna bird from Twin Peaks. By mimicking the sounds he’d heard, Waldo added to what was known about who was present when Laura Palmer died. We, too, are mimics in our way and so we can also add to what’s known about the truth. Imitating one another is only the beginning.
It’s important, at this point, to remember that we don’t imitate as a sign of deficiency, a lapse in originality (at least, we don’t always imitate that way, though we must admit that there are eight Fast and Furious movies by now and who can even count how many Transformers movies we’ve been subjected to). We imitate because we are made that way. We are not originators. We are images of God. Reflectors. This is a distinction we often disdain as humility escapes us, but we best represent God in the world when we accept it. We cannot exhale but that we inhale.
As confessed image bearers, we have an opportunity to bear witness. We breathe in the world around us and it combines with the life which the Spirit breathes into us. Then we breathe it all back out. Changed as it is for having mingled for a while in that cauldron of thought and history and desire and dread that is our mind and further refracted for having re-entered the world tuned to the unique skill of our bodies, as distinctive as a thumbprint. Whether in acts of neighborly care, as works of art, or even as the simple routines of our daily life, we have the chance to add to what is known about how God moves in the world. By this overflow, our lives animate God’s work–so often hard to see–even as they are animated by God’s work.
This can feel like an overwhelming responsibility. Especially if we are honest about the real-life condition of our hearts suspended in the already/not yet paradox that is our common, limping pursuit of Jesus. Nevertheless, we should take heart. And, we should start small. If you ask me, we should stay small, but that’s an entirely other conversation. But, in a room with people we know, we have so much to see and so much to offer. We can testify how God has worked in the one and only us and we can see how God has worked in one and only others. On this shared peak, we can all gain a larger view of what God can do that we would have ever found deep in the valley of ourselves. This might just be the height of human culture.
* It bears noting that the mountain vista will always be bigger in our mind’s eye than in any photograph with its scissored edges and immobilized perspective. And would we rather remember the moment or the photograph?