“"HE WHO follows Me, walks not in darkness,” says the Lord. By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ.” Thus begins The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas A Kempis. On this foundation he builds a series of short chapters divided into “books,” each of which offers practical advice on living the Christian life by imitating Christ. In the first book, Kempis takes as his topic, Thoughts Helpful in the Life of the Soul, which deals in large degree with the attitude of humility before God in this life. Here the reader will find much to build a character of deference before God, as the author turns virtually every subject from one of pride into a word of warning. For instance, of knowledge and learning Kempis says on page 3, “Do not be proud, therefore, because of your learning or skill. Rather, fear because of the talent given you. If you think you know many things and understand them well enough, realize at the same time that there is much you do not know. Hence, do not affect wisdom, but admit your ignorance.” This is a message the modern church could well do to internalize, as it would go far in destroying our penchant for the cult of personality which so pervades our church.The second book is focused on the inner life; while filled with a large dose of mysticism, this section nonetheless contains some gems which the Christian can take to heart. For instance, on page 61, Kempis states, “When Christ was in the world, He was despised by men; in the hour of need He was forsaken by acquaintances and left by friends to the depths of scorn. He was willing to suffer and to be despised; do you dare to complain of anything? He had enemies and defamers; do you want everyone to be your friend, your benefactor?” This is a good reminder to the modern Christian, whose life is likely to be built around social networks and their quick pulse of “like” and “dislike,” that these things are not nearly as important as they might seem. The third and fourth book fill continue the thesis of practical application, discussing Internal Consolation, and finally An Invitation to the Holy Communion. The third book is the longest in the work, covering a diverse set of topics. But what does Kempis mean when he says we must study the life of Christ? To what end, and through what means?Kempis often downplays the importance of knowing the Scriptures; for instance, within just a few paragraphs of beginning he states: ‘What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous life makes him pleasing to God. I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it.” To know Christ, then, is not to have knowledge of Christ, but rather to experience Christ in some way in everyday life.But how is the Christian to experience God? The author appears to answer this question with two primary thrusts —by denying the self in small acts of morality, which will then lead to a direct personal experience of the holy. Kempis says Christians should focus on making themselves holy bit by bit, comparing the Christian life to the world of a soldier in battle. If only Christians will stand in the face of the battle, then God will help them stand stronger day by day. “If we were to uproot only one vice each year, we should soon become perfect.” This same form of pragmatism underlies much of modern American Christianity –but it’s doubtful this form of pragmatism has been a good influence on the course of Christianity in America. This form of pragmatism leads many to think they are saved in a practical way, leading them away from a focus on faith in the realities of God’s promises and character. Through this pragmatic stand against the evils we find in our hearts we should find ourselves experiencing God in a direct and personal way. “Christ will come to you offering His consolation, if you prepare a fit dwelling for Him in your heart, whose beauty and glory, wherein He takes delight, are all from within. His visits with the inward man are frequent, His communion sweet and full of consolation, His peace great, and His intimacy wonderful indeed.”Was Kempis a Christian? While it’s impossible to judge a man based on any writing or external appearance (in fact, Christians are warned against spending time judging others in the writings of the Apostles), it’s interesting to consider what Kempis must have thought about Christ, and whether this implies he had a saving faith or not. He seems place his faith in faith itself, as if faith is its own object, its own end. This view of faith is also not found in the Scriptures —faith in God, God’s character, and God’s promises are the rule every time faith is discussed in the Scriptures, from the life of Abraham to the conversion of Paul.This “faith in faith” particularly comes through in the author’s discussion of the Lord’s Supper, where it produces a focus on the mystical ability of the Christian to “eat the body of Christ,” in a literal sense, as a means of obtaining and holding grace. This view of the Lord’s Supper is clearly outside the bounds of the Scriptures. But all of this doesn’t mean that Kempis isn’t a Christian, though he does appear to have a very low spiritual maturity level.Overall, The Imitation of Christ has a lot to teach the modern Christian, so long as it is taken within its original mystical/pietistic context, and treated as a source of enlightenment, rather than as the total rule of life it was originally written to be.