Mimesis, Anti-Mimesis, and the Bible

Posted by Ella Tang on

Mimesis is a Greek word meaning “imitation.” It was used by Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece to discuss the creation of art representing nature. The phrase used today to convey this concept is “Art imitates life.” Plato and Aristotle both stated that it is a universal trait of humans to want to express via art what is in their everyday environment. Both acknowledged that art was an imitation, a representation.

There are limitations to what the artist can do. God created nature. It is a physical manifestation of His love. It represents God but nature is not God. We Christians can find spiritual worth in trees, but we do not worship trees. God exists in the non-material world of pure thought and love. We cannot directly thus “see” God, but we can see His creation. For the artist, there is an extra step. The artist must produce a representation of this representation of God’s love. For my photographs, I realize my work, at it’s very best, is a representation of a representation. As a result, I work hard on my photography. I can spend 15 minutes just walking around a single plant or flower or take dozens of pictures of one patch of clouds. Something that looks beautiful to the eye can make for a pedestrian photograph. But what keeps me inspired despite the daunting task is what a great subject matter I have chosen!! God is an awesome God so even His representation is one of awe and splendor. If you start with a lesser beginning, then a representation of a representation would be lacking in any power or beauty.

So, let us now turn to the contrarian view of anti-mimesis. One of most well-known artists who supported this was poet and playwright Oscar Wilde. It states that art is what influences how we view the world. Wilde provided his view of the relationship between art and life in his 1889 essay entitled The Decay of Lying. He stated, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life.” He also stated, “things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the arts that have influenced us.” Wilde believed that exposure to art changes our perception of life. For example, you see a painting or photography of a beautiful sunset. The next time you see a sunset it reminds you of the beauty expressed in the work of art and thus enhances your appreciation of it. In other words, the sunset may not have really been that special, but we have come to appreciate sunsets as such because of the art we have seen depicting them.

Literature is a type of art. The Bible is literature. It is, in fact, great literature and thus great art. According to Kenneth Boa, ThM, Ph.D., DPhil, president of Reflections Ministries, on the website bible.org, “The Bible, as a unity in diversity, expresses its unique message in a rich variety of literary forms. The literature of the Bible is an aesthetically beautiful interpretation of human experience from a divine perspective. As we read, interpret, and seek to apply the truths of Scripture, we must be careful not to overlook this artistic dimension, or we will miss an important part of enjoying the Bible.” There are different categories of literary forms of the Bible, but style categories used on Boa’s website are the following: 1) Figurative language, 2) Narrative history, 3) Poetry, 4) Wisdom literature, 5) Prophetic literature, 6) Gospel, 7) Oratory, and 8) Epistle. A discussion of each of these literary forms could be a blog topic by themselves, of which I will probably one day contribute!!!

Using the ancient Greek concept of mimesis, the Bible is art imitating life. The Bible is the story of humankind and our relationship to God. Yes, written about people thousands of years ago but everything in the Bible is, in essence, still happening today. In Ecclesiastes 1:9 it states “That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun.” (NASB). All our follies are the same. There are no “new sins,” they are ALL in the Bible. Conversely our ability to redeem ourselves is also the same. We are tempted and fall to evil. We are able to receive grace and rise above our sinful nature to do good, to be the person God means for us all to be. It is crucial to understand the phrase “under the sun” here means that all things in this earthly life are the same. God does not have our inherent limitations.   

It is remarkable that the Bible manages to showcase all our failures, as well as our possibilities. God inspires the story, but the individual writers’ artistry comes out in how they address these great truths. Either God has chosen the most gifted to convey His thoughts or God had already given them the spiritual gift of literature to know they can be trusted with such important concepts. The artistry is part of the message because they convey the love, through artistic expression, of His word. I agree with Dr. Boa quoted from above, we need to appreciate that the Bible is written in such creative literary styles. It shows that for us to be fully spiritual beings we need to have an appreciation of the religious arts. The arts are indeed symbolic of the “real thing”, but great art enables us to have a better appreciation of the splendor of God.

Mimesis has its limitations in the Bible as it does in all art. As I said previously in this blog entry, God is the ultimate truth, the love. The Bible is a representation of that power but is not God Himself. We worship God, not the Bible. Now we have a second complication for all of us that do not fluently read, write, or speak ancient Koine Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew. For us English speakers, we are reading a translation, thus a representation, of the original Biblical works. Adding to the complication more, is that there are so many different English versions of the Bible. This fact is why those who study theology and go to seminary often study Greek and Hebrew to help with a full meaning of the Bible.

It is easy to unknowingly fall into idolatry. The “thing” – whether it be a given specific Christian denomination, a sculpture, a Christian symbol, a ritual - is here and present. The concrete that we can hear, see, and touch is easier to direct our spiritual efforts, with God being an abstract being for our human mind to fully understand. We must be vigilant that these are all representations. If we fail to do this, then we will fail to understand the profound truths, to develop a personal relationship with God Himself. We will have a relationship with a “thing” not Him.

However, if we realize the Bible is a divine representation, then it has great value in us studying to better understand God. But like all literature, the Bible must be studied. It takes effort to glean from a representation the great truths we need to better order our steps. Where are we in these persons described in the Bible? How do their failings illustrate our own? How can we find strength and wisdom in His word? How can we be brave in the face of opposition to God, to be willing to be unpopular or to be ridiculed? How can we grow in our love for our neighbor, broadly defined to being all of humankind? How can we face personal hardship? How can we fully experience joy in life?

So here we end with a question of which influences which the most- art or life? It should be both ways in matters of faith. The literature art of the Bible imitates life of humankind AND inspires us to see the world anew. In other words, both should happen in our relationship with the Bible – Art is imitating Life and Life is imitating Art. We should take in the lessons about the fragility of ourselves and the love God has for us, but also glean from it a changed worldview that enables us to see the wonder, the awe, of the everyday world around us. Appreciation of nature includes appreciation of all that God has made, the flowers, the sunrises, the beauty of a person smiling. God made it all. God is everywhere.


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