Life on the Vine by Philip Kenneson – A Proactive Report
Kenneson in Life on the Vine, does more than simply define the fruit of the Spirit, he engages in the art of bilingual theological reflection; enabling us to learn how to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit in a culture that wants to squeeze us into its mold. Kenneson helps us to recognize the grammar of the dominant culture and the grammar of God so that we can better embody the good news in the context of the United States. He wisely uses Raymond Williams working definition of culture – that of shared practices, convictions, institutions and narratives that order and give shape to the lives of a particular group of people – to help us understand the ways in which the dominate culture inhibits the church in bearing the fruit of the Spirit. But he doesn’t stop there. He also becomes a capable guide in helping the community of faith to cultivate love, so that the church might embody the fruit of the spirit and thus be a faithful sign and foretaste of God’s kingdom.
What does it mean to engage in the art of bilingual theological reflection and how can this practice help the church to construct local theologies faithful to Christ? Kenneson states, “Every generation in every culture must take up the hard work of discerning the opportunities for and the obstacles to embodying the gospel faithfully in that place and time.” (Pg. 241) So bilingual theological reflection is the task of engaging in the study of the dominant culture, as well as the study of the gospel in order to best understand how to embody the good news in our local context. Living in Los Angeles as a church planter, and having started a church in East Hollywood and now one in West LA, I have seen the importance of engaging in bilingual theological reflection. While the two neighborhoods have many similarities, (same city, state and country) each have their distinct cultural ethos. One of the ways to engage in the art of bilingual theological reflection and thereby better construct a local theology would be to have the local church consider four primary questions:
1. If God’s reign were to be fully realized in our neighborhood, what would be different?
2. What are the kinds of idols in our neighborhood that need to be unmasked?
3. What aspects of Christ’s rule do people in our neighborhood need to experience or see?
4. What narratives, practices, convictions and institutions might challenge these idols and more faithfully express the kingdom of God?
Thoughtfully asking these questions would provide the local church with much understanding in how to construct a local theology that is faithful to the good news of Christ.
In what practical ways can we as a community of faith create a culture, which is counter to the dominant culture, so that as the people of God we can better embody the fruit of the Spirit and be a light to the world? Because the world is constantly squeezing us into its mold through its narratives, institutions, convictions and practices, as Christ followers we are called to create alternative communities living in our narrative – the sacred text, the institution of the church (which is also organic and living), taking on Jesus’ convictions and practices. Here is one way to look at how the world is trying to squeeze us into its mold, some foundational counter-culture practices that can help us to be a different kind of people.
What was the most common practical suggestion that Kenneson gave for cultivating the fruit of the Spirit in the context of the United States and why? By far the most common advice Kenneson gave for cultivating the fruit of the spirit in the dominant culture of the United States was the practice of corporate worship. This suggestion showed up with each fruit of the spirit starting with cultivating the fruit of love. He says, “If Christians are to cultivate a way of life that resists the commodification of all life, including the commodification of our relationship with God, other people and the rest of creation, then there is perhaps no better place to gain a foothold that in our corporate worship. At its best, worship schools us in the art of paying attention to others, drawing our focus away from ourselves and redirecting it toward God.” (Pg. 48) In cultivating love he talks about importance of communion at worship. In cultivating joy, he talks about rejoicing in worship. In cultivating peace, he talks about public baptism into the body of Christ at public worship. In cultivating patience, he talks about remembering our story through the weekly gatherings, through the Christian calendar and through meeting together on “the eighth day”. In cultivating kindness, he encourages us in our corporate worship to remember the story of God and our dependency on God. In cultivating goodness, he suggests the practice of confession at our worship as well as engaging in public preaching and teaching. In cultivating faithfulness, he calls us to celebrate God’s abiding presence at worship and commit ourselves to a local church. In cultivating gentleness, he suggests we are to pray together. And in cultivating self-control, he mentions that when we worship properly, it “shapes and reorients our desires.” (Pg. 234) For Kenneson, corporate worship, practiced properly, is vital in helping us to cultivate the fruit of the spirit in the midst of a self-absorbed, fragmented and violent culture.
Summary and Synthesis
Kenneson in Life on the Vine, set out to give us an example of how to engage in the art of bilingual theological reflection, and succeeded. He captured the nature of the dominant culture that is shaping those of us who live in the United States and has increased our imagination in how to cultivate and embody the fruit of the Spirit in our context. By helping us understand the complexity of culture and some of its defining elements, he has enabled us to think meaningfully about what it means to cultivate transformational communities, which embody the good news in our local neighborhood. The significance of this particular work will live with me for the rest of my life.
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