K is for Kenosis (an alphabet for penitents)

Kenosis is a word used to describe Jesus Christ’s self-emptying—his denouncement of His divine nature in choosing to born human and suffer the shameful death of the cross. Philippians 2: 5-11 describes the kenotic shape of Jesus’ earthly ministry, culminating in His glorification:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus laid aside divine knowledge (Matt 24:36), limitless power, and His divine rights, in order to enter fully into the pain of our humanity and effect our salvation.

If we are to follow Jesus, the same kenotic shape characterizes our own spiritual lives. As Paul says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. . .”. We too are called to lay down rights and privilege. But what does this kenosis look like for us? How do we do it?

Fasting, Lenten fasts our otherwise, is one form of self-emptying. By forgoing the food that sustains us, we become more aware of our relative comfort the rest of the time. We also become more cognizant of suffering as we experience, in a small, controlled ways,  the pain of deprivation.

800px-neudenau-gangolf-kruzifixBut fasting isn’t the only kenotic practice we are invited to by following Jesus. If we are serious about putting on the mind of Christ, we also have to lay down our privileges. For me, this means taking stock of what privileges I am afforded as an educated, white, Protestant, cis-gender male and seeking ways to lay down my privilege and sense of entitlement. As a white male, I could choose to ignore racial discrimination and sexism without the threat of personal recourse.¹  I have never been threatened or bullied for my sexual orientation or gender identity. I don’t have to worry about which bathroom to use (I’m a man, the world is my urinal). My education affords me opportunities other people don’t have.

I was born with rights and privileges, but the kenotic nature of following Jesus means that I look for ways to lay aside these rights and privileges in order to enter more fully into the pain of those around me. My kenotic journey began a dozen years ago when my wife and I went to urban Atlanta to love the poor with Mission Year. We were your typical, paternalistic white, do-gooders that didn’t understand the dynamics of systemic racism and privilege but by rubbing shoulders with friends and neighbors (and good mentors), we learned a few things. I’ve continued my kenosis through seminary and post-seminary. Except for a brief tenure as pastor, I have been in jobs where I’ve felt underemployed and had to wrestle with my internal superiority complex and sense of entitlement. Currently, I wrestle with the nature of privilege while raising a family. I want my kids to have every opportunity and to succeed in life, but really I want my kids to follow Jesus. Worldly success or a taking-up-your-cross-kenosis  has a different telos. 

What does kenosis mean to you? How has it shaped your Spiritual Life?

  1. I often hear the claim of reverse racism or reverse sexism. I don’t think either of those are things, because racism and sexism are both bound up with power dynamics in culture. However, by framing racism and sexism as a spiritual issue in discussing kenosis, I am inviting self-reflection on what privileges each of has (from our race, gender, family of origin, socioeconomic status, eductation level, etc.). The claim of ‘reverse’ anything is a smoke screen designed to help us avoid the hard work of self-examination.

Reading Well for the Sake of Others: a ★★★★★ book review

 C. Christopher Smith is the editor of The Englewood Review of Booksan online and print journal  which  showcasess valuable resources for the people of God. Another site Smith, curates is Thrifty Christian Reader, a website which catalogs quality sale books—mostly Kindle, mostly Christian—which explore culture, theology, sociology, justice, ecology, poetry and literature. His own books also promote the kind of thoughtful Christian engagement he highlights online. Notably, Slow Church (IVP, 2014), which he co-authored with John Pattison, is a prophetic challenge to the way churches are sometimes co-opted by the dominant cult of speed and efficiency. Smith and Pattison point us instead to honor the terroir of place, cultivate community, and ways for the church to be a faithful presence and witness to God’s in-breaking Kingdom.

44491For a church to transform a community it is imperative we learn to read well. Earlier generations of Christians were sometimes called ‘the people of the Book.’ A good part of Smith’s influence has been about helping us to, again, be the people of the Book. In Reading for the Common Good: How Books Can Help Churches and Neighborhoods FlourishSmith points out the crucial place reading (in community) has for shaping our identity and practice of God’s people.

In his introduction, Smith helps us to conceive of church as a ‘learning organization,’ with learning and action as central components of our identity. We can have a significant impact on our communities as we understand our context and discern effective ways to act and then act(16). Learning and acting form a cycle which helps us live out the compassionate way of Jesus for our neighborhoods and communities (18-20). But this sort of reading is a communal, rather than individual activity.

Smith’s first couple of chapters orient us to the practice of reading. Chapter one points us away from our modern, technologically infused reading (where we read a lot but not deeply) towards ‘Slow Reading.’ The ancient practice of lectio divina and preaching which attends to the words of Scripture provides the church with counter-cultural habits of mind. Chapter two illustrates how reading and conversation help shape the social imagination. Smith observes:

The practices of reading and conversation are vital for the process of transforming our social imagination. Part of human experience is imaging how the world should function. The question is what stories are feeding and shaping the imagination? Reading renews and energizes our social imagination. For our churches, reading and embodying Scripture is the foremost source of renewal, but renewal comes from reading reflecting on and discussing a broad range of works in the life and teaching of Jesus (51-52).

The next six chapters explore the way reading shapes our social imagination and paves the way for communities to flourish. Chapter three explores how reading the Bible in communion with other believers helps shape us into “the image of Christ, the Word incarnate” (55). While the Bible remains central, reading other books communally (and in a cruciform way!) is also beneficial for making sense of the world and our place in it (59-61). Chapter four discusses the role of reading in helping communities and individuals understand their vocation. Chapters five and six discuss how churches can read with their neighbors and neighborhoods. Churches can be (or support) libraries which preserve the shared memory of place and provide resources for the community. Churches can also become centers of education which promote literacy and understanding. The telos of this is a greater civic literacy and engagement in the community. Our reading also promotes a better understanding of our neighborhood place in the economic, environmental, educational and civic realms (103-107). Chapter seven discusses how reading connects us to our world, creation and other churches and chapter eight discusses how reading can support our faithful engagement in the realms of politics and economics.

Smith’s final chapter discusses ways to help congregations become reading congregations, with examples from Englewood Christian Church (the faith community that Smith is a part of). The book closes with two reading lists: Recommended Reading for Going Deeper and Englewood Christian Church Reading List. 

Smith is an avid reader and this is a book about how reading well (in community) can help churches and neighborhoods flourish. So this book will make you want to read other books. Lots of them. Smith promotes helpful books throughout and he himself has been shaped by his reading of such luminaries as: Charles Taylor, Alisdair MacIntyre, Wendell Berry, Peter Senge, Marva Dawn, Gerhard Lohfink, Mary Oliver, and more. I think it is impossible to read through this book without discovering new literary treasures (or at least places to dig). My wish list grew exponentially from reading this.

More significantly, this book touches a hunger I have for thoughtful engagement. I have been a part of churches which felt like the theological equivalent of a ‘food desert.’ Sometimes the  reading theology (or biology, philosophy, or whatever) is criticized for being disconnected from ‘real life.’ Smith rejects the binary between academia and activism, thinking well and living well. His chapter on the social imaginary (with a generous nod to Charles Taylor) should be required reading for pastors and leaders. I give this five stars and highly recommend it. ★★★★★

Note: I received a copy from the author in exchange for my honest review.


The Thinking Virtues: a book review

As a Christian, I care about growing in character, but beyond character formation, it is also imperative that we give space for our intellectual formation. Philip Dow, author of the new book from IVP academic, Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Formation, argues that. “Our intellectual character influences our lives just as moral character does,  and with at least as much force. The only difference is that intellectual character is concerned not with  our actions as much as the thinking habits we are developing as we seek to use knowledge (22).”

Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Formation by Philip Dow

In this thought-provoking book, Dow explores the habits which contribute to our mental formation, discusses the fruits of  good thinking habits and offers suggestions for how we can become people of intellectual character. In the appendices Dow shares how intellectual virtue is taught in an educational context (especially at Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi, Kenya where Dow is superintendent). The intended audience for this book is educators and parents, but I think it has significant things to say to all of us.  As a parent I want to teach my kids to think well, but I also want to think well myself!  Dow’s advice will help us as parents and teachers pass on good thinking habits and it will help the rest of us attend to our own mental formation.

In part one of Virtuous Minds, Dow describes the seven habits of the virtuous mind. These include:

  • Intellectual Courage– honest thinking which is willing to make personal sacrifices in pursuit of truth. 
  • Intellectual Carefulness coming to judicious conclusion, attending to details and not taking short cuts.
  • Intellectual Tenacity-a commitment to stretching yourself mentally in striving through mental difficulties.
  • Intellectual Fair-Mindedness- a willingness to give a fair-hearing to other views and competing hypotheses.
  • Intellectual Curiosity- A commitment to lifelong-learning in the service of noble aims (i.e. some curiosity will kill cats, but curiosity which is not motivated out of self-interest can lead to important discoveries and new insights).
  • Intellectual Honesty- Committing to the truth both as an end and as a means (not cutting corners, cheating, engaging in falsehoods).
  • Intellectual Humility- Taking on the status of ‘lifelong-learner’ rather than ‘expert’  and being humble enough to receive correction in your thinking.

Part two explores the fruits of intellectual character formation.  Good thinking habits help you know more and think better. But lest we relegate the benefits of intellectual formation to the cognitive sphere,  learning to think carefully and well about God, the world, your neighbor, current events, social issues, etc., actually enables us to love God and others better. Of course the ‘benefits’ are not the thing itself, and intellectual formation is simply a dogged quest for ‘the truth.’ The benefits come from our commitment to learning and knowing truth.

In part three Dow has an eye for what this looks like in practice. In one chapter he gives suggestions of how we can grow in our intellectual character. In the next, he gives suggestions for parents and educators on how to pass on formational thinking habits.  His personal suggestions come in the form of ‘steps’ toward forming an action plan to develop a virtuous mind. His suggestions for educators and parents come in the form of guiding principles which will aid in passing this information on to others (especially youth and children).

Dow never makes intellectual formation an all-inclusive pursuit. Of course we want to attend to people’s spiritual health, moral formation, social skills, etc. But our intellectual habits will impact these  other areas as well. Dow demonstrates that our intellectual formation (or malformation) does impact other spheres as well.  I found myself underlining a lot in this book.

I especially liked how Dow uses the concept of virtue. In moral philosophy, virtue and character formation happens through habitual practice.  We become virtuous by consistently and habitually engaging in virtuous acts. In this book, Dow names the habits which make us into good thinkers. When I consider each of his seven habits of  ‘intellectually formed thinkers,’ I can see examples of where I think well. I also see where I can grow as a thinker.

The appendices do a phenomenal job of exploring and demonstrating the concept of intellectual character formation within an educational setting. However  part three of the book seems rather basic and I wished it was filled in a little more. I found myself wishing for a more indepth treatment of how this looks (or may look) in practice.  I do not

. I think that that teachers, educators, and Christian Education directors will make good use of this book. Parents will also find this helpful.  I found this book personally edifying and instructive and give it four stars.

Thank you to InterVarsity Academic for providing me copy of this book in exchange for this review.