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Book Review: Life on the Vine - Philip Kenneson

Kenneson, Philip D. Life on the Vine: Developing the Fruit of the Spirit in Christian Community. InterVarsity Press, 1999.

Starting with a strident analysis of our current cultural context, Kenneson deals with the impediments to and practical steps for cultivating the fruit of the Spirit. Cultivating this fruit is analyzed within the context of the cultural minefield that we must navigate in order to realize a life of grace through God's perspective, not tainted by the quicksand of our Western biases and viewpoints. Kenneson reaches in to explore each fruit of the Spirit, helping give us tools to guide our ship with the North star of grace-driven Christlikeness, not the Western compass of market-driven self-centeredness.

How do we cultivate a life marked by God's love in a culture saturated with self-concern? First, it was helpful to hear Kenneson talk about the centrality of love in the Christian life. "Love ought, therefore, to be the primary disposition of the Christian life" (p. 37). And if it is central, then it is also necessary to know what it looks like and how we can recognize it. Kenneson begins by highlighting several aspects of God's love, namely, that God's love is completely undeserved, is steadfast, is a suffering love, and knows no bounds (p. 38-39). He notes that these serve to "remind us that the defining feature of God's love is its 'other-directedness'" (p.41). This definition is key in beginning to cultivate a life marked by love. But, in order to cultivate this life of love, we must understand also what impedes it. He mentions 3 things that hinder the cultivation of love: "Promoting self-interest; putting a price on everything (and everyone); and contracting relationships" (p. 42-47) But, in our market-driven culture, how do we not just understand the barriers to love, how do we cultivate it? Kenneson addresses this by giving 3 practical steps to cultivating love in our cultural context:

- By "paying attention to others" (p. 47). People are not objects or commodities to be exploited. They are human beings made in the image of God. He mentions that this objectivication is best erradicated in the context of worship. When we truly worship God together we put aside the interest we have in furthering our own agenda or using others as we focus on God.

- By "receiving and giving graciously" (p. 49). God has given to us in abundance. We should therefore have a spirit of giving - the kind of spirit of giving that reaches out in unfettered grace to others.

- By "sustaining stewardship" (p. 50). He reminds us to remind ourselves of what it means to be a steward, not as an excuse to hoard or protect, but to "embody God's presence through creation" (p. 52). In other words, acting on behalf of God with our resources, not seeing them as primarily our own. This brings a great deal of freedom.

How do we cultivate a life marked by gentleness in a culture saturated with aggression, one might ask? In order to cultivate this life of gentleness, we must understand what impedes it. Kenneson mentions 3 things that hinder the cultivation of gentleness: "Fostering aggression and self-promotion" (p. 208). He goes on to say that "the dominant culture worships strength and power," he writes (p. 208). Our society's obsession with violence and aggression only work to undermine the cultivation of gentleness. "Aspiring to positions of power" is another obstacle to cultivating gentleness (p. 210). Ambition, as Sanders also referred to in Spiritual Leadership, can sink many a leaders' ship. Grasping for power can, unfortunately, take on many subtle forms. Therefore we should be wary of its steely forms. Now, Kenneson does suggest ways to cultivate gentleness. One is by "altering our posture through prayer" (p. 212). He mentions 2 reasons for stating this case. One is that we find it "much more difficult to rail against those who have wronged or angered us when we speak of them to God" (p. 212). Secondly, he notes that "we… enter into prayer and God's presence with a profound sense of humility" (p. 212). With those 2 factors at play it becomes very difficult to harbor anger and aggression. Another practice that Kenneson commends in order to cultivate gentleness is "hanging out with those of 'no account'" (p. 214). This is the flip side of not mainting image and status, which severs the ability of aggression. When we associate with those who are not on the "fast track" we put ourselves in a position of humilty, thereby engendering gentleness. This is a novel way to cultivate the meekness of Jesus.

What about this book can we pass on to the next generation's emerging leaders?
First, Kenneson is adept at seeing what cultural narratives, values, and practices work to impede our pursuit of godliness. This ability to look under the hood of our own cultural bias and disect the barriers to Christlikeness is a skill and gift worthy of passing on to tomorrow's leaders. "Those who would follow this crucified Messiah must recognize that following him involves cultivating different sensibilities than those promoted by the dominant culture" (p. 203). For emerging leaders to be able to navigate the cultural reefs of our day means that they must be able to pick up the scent of a cultural trail that will lead to destruction, and paths that lead to despair. Emerging leaders, especially faced with tectonic shifts in Western culture, must be able to cultivate "different sensibilities" that may be in direct conflict with the dominant culture. To be able to see these differences, ackowledge them, and navigate around them is a skill (and heart) worth cultivating in the leaders of the future. Second, emerging leaders need to know how to proactively apply godliness withint the context of their culture. It is not good enough to be able to discern where and how our culture has negativelly influenced our pursuit of Christ, we must also be able to readily apply that pursuit to everyday life. Leaders especially need to have this value and heart.

Kenneson's analysis of Western culture is painfully accurate at places, and seeks to lance the boil of self-centeredness and market-driven exchanges that can denigrate the very image of God that we carry with us. He is quick to point out the quicksand of trusting the prevailing winds of the day, and he points to the high ground of cultivating a lifestyle of giving ourselves away for the Kingdom of God. This is an enriching book that is not only a critique on modern-day values and practices, but also helps point us to a path of deeply cultivating the fruit of the Spirit for God's glory.

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