Are Mimetic Theorists Becoming the Next Neo-Calvinists?

By Rich A Rosendahl

So, I used to be a Neo-Calvinist.  Yes, there was a time in my not so distant past when I couldn't wait to read the next Mark Driscoll book or listen to the new David Platt sermon.  And although I didn't know it at the time, John Piper was god-like to me.

I was an all-in, sold-out neo-Calvinist and not only did I wear that label with pride, I tried to evangelize others to it, with my ESV of course.  Although, I just called it sharing the Gospel because I believed Neo-Calvinism was just a way to experience and express 'true Christianity.' I thought (and often stated) it was really just all about Jesus.

The truth is - for me - it was not all about Jesus.

For those of you familiar with Neo-Calvinism, you may wonder how anyone could get wrapped up in some of that theological non-sense.  You may even look at me personally and question my judgment.  That's ok, I understand, this movement has often led to a whole lot of lousy things and sometimes treated people very poorly along the way, maybe even you.

If so, I am genuinely sorry.

Now a days, I think of myself as a recovering Neo-Calvinist.  I'm no longer linked to the movement or its ideology and would have to work pretty hard to even try to recite the Neo-Calvinist theological argument for TULIP.  Instead - with a great deal of effort and some truly remarkable experiences - my theological life died long ago as it now has an authentic focus on Jesus.  I explained this a bit more here.

It is from this perspective and these experiences that I wonder - are Mimetic Theorists becoming the next Neo-Calvinists? 

The thing is, I like Mimetic Theory and I especially love those who are talking about it.  Which is a large part of why I am writing this.  I like the questions it causes us to reflect on, I even like many of the answers it seeks to provide to those questions.  There is much to be desired in learning more about Mimetic Theory from a theological (and human) perspective. 

My hope in writing this is that Mimetic Theorists avoid one of the main pitfalls some Neo-Calvinists like myself fell into.  Because, quite frankly, it’s not fun to have to clean up a messy theological aftermath like some of us still are.

So, what is that pitfall?  Well, those who rose to prominence in Neo-Calvinism were often the people who had the most depth of knowledge (including education) with a willingness to act boldly, counterculturally and even revolutionary.  None of this is necessarily bad, especially the latter, and it makes sense that we would be drawn to these individuals.  But pause for sec and think about the first characteristic I mentioned; depth of knowledge (including education).

When you think of Mimetic Theory, do words like simple and easy come to mind?  For some of you, the answer is probably yes.  But for the vast majority of people, these ideas are incredibly complex and would require a great deal of time and energy to fully grasp.  So, as the movement expands, those who have more knowledge are naturally going to be elevated in status. 

This was no doubt part of the problem for me with Neo-Calvinism and it wasn’t just an issue at the top; it trickled down.  People in churches, small groups and even on Facebook who could best quote early church leaders and/or complex theological issues (or least parrot the terminology) were treated with higher status.  And what that often meant is that those people were viewed as more holy, more faithful, just more…

Now I am not saying that knowledge and education is bad.  In fact, knowledge of something new, something considered enlightening to the masses can draw people from an unhelpful place to a more helpful place in remarkable ways. But if we are not careful, it can go way too far, way too fast and end up puffing some people up in ways not helpful to them or others. 

When a ‘knowledge is supreme’ attitude reigns in a movement - even if unintentionally - we start to see a lot of people elevated because of a characteristic that even Jesus cautioned us on.

When I started to explore Neo-Calvinism more deeply, my truest desire was to connect more fully with Jesus, my intentions were good.  My guess is the same is true for most Mimetic Theorists, a desire to understand and connect more deeply with Jesus.  But what I failed to see is how complicated the idea of following Jesus was becoming.  His once simple way, although admittingly far from black and white, was being transformed into a Master’s degree level theology that few could relate to.  This even caused me to limit myself to who I was I was willing to learn about Jesus with and from. 

Sometimes, theological movements like this can isolate us within a group of similar thinkers in an unhelpful - even dangerous - way. 

What helped me so profoundly understand this, was a new friendship I had started with a neighbor that began around the time of my Neo-Calvinist detox.  This friend - who had very limited formal education - taught me more about the way of Jesus than probably anyone, including the great John Piper. Oh, and this new friend, happens to be Muslim. He held characteristics that would cause many to exclude his expertise on these matters altogether. 

However, through this friendship I learned what Jesus meant when he said to Love your neighbor and Love your enemy, or at least I understand it infinitely better.  I even started to understand the bible differently.  Meaning, theological concepts started to tie together in ways I had never considered.  Not to mention, I started to see the importance of the teachings of Jesus as a filter for the rest of the book, although I had thought I was doing that all along.  Jesus was in fact becoming the main thing like I had been erroneously stating for so long.  And all of it - in a way - was becoming simpler, easier.

My friendship with a Muslim (refugee) helped dismantle the ‘knowledge is supreme’ mentality that reigned in my life and much of Neo-Calvinism.   

So, to my Mimetic Theorist friends I say this; don’t let this happen in your movement, an imbalanced reward system weighted too heavily on knowledge.  I caution you on this because I believe the ideas and theologies you are sharing are significant and timely.  Your voices are important, so please, please avoid the pitfalls that this recovering Neo-Calvinist once fell into.