Making Copies; Imitate or Emulate?


Odors or aromas are apparently closely connected to our brain memory centers. Popcorn may connect us quickly to some sports event. Freshly baked cookies may transport us back to another time and place in our family. One whiff of mimeograph ink and I am sitting at a wooden desk in a school classroom again.

Mimeograph ink? What is the world is that you may be saying. Ah, you are giving away your age—or I am giving away mine.

School children in the 1950s and ’60s knew that mimeograph machines were used to generate virtually all papers they used in class. This included tests, worksheets, and diagrams. A stencil was prepared and then used on a rotating drum to make copies. Mimeograph ink was light blue and dried rather slowly; sometimes the papers I received were still cool due to the drying events. The best part, however, was the aroma. Many children (including me) upon receiving a paper, immediately put the paper up to their nose for a deep breath that was almost intoxicating.

Mimeograph machines concerned making copies. Centuries ago, copies were prepared by scribes doing their best to reproduce print for scrolls and, eventually, books; sometimes they made errors. In 1440 Gutenberg changed the world with his printing press. This enabled people to share knowledge more quickly, widely, and accurately; this included the Bible.

From the mimeograph, advances in printing occurred quickly. One of my high school jobs at the Johnson County Herald introduced me to the linotype machine and its operators. In graduate school I made my first thermofax copy and thought it was magic.

It may not be too much to say we humans are nearly obsessed with being able to produce and copy without error. My computer keyboard contains a “delete” button; this has some advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, it allows correction of errors; on the other hand, it might discourage creation and chance-taking.

Expanding that thought, perhaps too much attention to accuracy in general thwarts growth and opportunity to move a different direction in thought or action. Birds and other animals supply a biological case study.

Seeds produced by plants seldom fall near the plant that produced them. Often, they are part of fruit eaten by animals or they stick to the fur or feathers of the animals. In both cases, when and if the seeds find suitable soil, they are probably now at some distance (perhaps great distance) from where they were produced. In this new locale, there may well be different water supplies, soil compositions, competitors, and predators. Despite new dangers to the seeds, there may be clear opportunities to expand their range and characteristics. Jesus has lots of “seed talk” and that is not an accident. This is a basic ecologic concept and also applies to human learning and growth. 

You might offer a rejoinder, however, by pointing out that scripture teaches that we should pattern ourselves after Jesus and his teachings. Might we suggest, however, that when we are told to “image” ourselves after God or we are made in God’s image, this is not really a copying/imitation approach, but more an emulation event.

This could be too picky, but “emulation” suggests more of a mirror, an echo, a parallel. To emulate implies more doing our own thing with the model in mind. Just as seeds carried to a different environment might sprout into something that is close to the original seed-bearer, it may not really be a copy. It will retain most of the original plant’s characteristics but display them in new and creative ways.

Author Austin Kleon has suggested that it is a “wonderful flaw” of human beings that we are unable to create perfect copies. You and I have seen science fiction illustrations of beings that are, in fact, copies of one another; the stage is set for all manner of weird and dangerous things to occur as that story unfolds.

We all struggle to understand how the Holy Spirit works in God’s followers. Perhaps our lack of perfection is just the correct “soil” for the Spirit. It is into that space that God can distribute the Spirit’s gifts according to his will and spiritual creativity can blossom.

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain


  • Mimeographs were more pleasingly olfactory wise than onion skin copies. Thank you for an excellent article.


  • I love your metaphor of the copying process. (I went through the copier evolution with you.) I especially like Kleon’s phrase “wonderful flaw.” We humans cannot make perfect clones, but we can try to copy and paste Jesus’ examples into our own lives.


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