You Are What You Love (James K. A. Smith) -- Review

YOU ARE WHAT YOU LOVE:  The Spiritual Power of Habit. By James K. A. Smith. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016. Xii + 210 pages.

                “You are what you love.” That is, you will become that which you desire. You may want to be something different from your desires, but you can’t think your way to change. Without being in any way anti-intellectual, Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith suggests that to be transformed one must develop habits. To give an example. Although I know that I need to lose weight—something my doctor reminds me of and which my joints can attest—my desire for food and failure to engage in sufficient exercise means that I carry more weight than I probably should.

                So, how do we form habits that can spiritually form our lives. That is, how can we find a new love? If you’re like me, you live in a context that values being a consumer of goods. We are more likely to be formed by our culture than to form the culture. Smith offers this book as a guide to the development of “a spirituality for culture-makers, showing (I hope) why discipleship needs to be centered in and fueled by our immersion in the body of Christ” (p. xi). The key to the kind of discipleship that will form us in this way is worship. Christian discipleship, Smith argues is rooted in the way we answer the question of what do we want. Worship puts us in a position to find the answer to the question, but as one discovers in reading the book, not all forms of worship are equal when it comes to this work. Too often we fall into one of two camps. Either we focus on the mind with rationalist forms of worship and education or we give ourselves to what he calls an “expressivist” version, where we do all the acting and fail to put ourselves in a position where God can act on us. Thus, he suggests that we purse forms of worship that build in us habits of the heart.

                In this book Smith focuses his attention on reconnecting with ancient worship traditions, believing that they have the greatest potential to form us in a way that can overcome the secular liturgies that too often form our identity. Following people like Robert Webber, Smith isn't too keen on many modern attempts to redefine and reinvent worship. Following Augustine who argued that we as humans are restless until we rest in God, Smith wants us to put ourselves in a position where we can move toward our telos in God.  We are often given to idolatry, but Smith argues that these forms of idolatry are less theological and more liturgical. They have less to do with the mind and more to do with the heart, which needs recalibrating. That’s the basic premise of the book.

                Smith divides the book into seven chapters. He begins by laying out the premise that we are what we love, and that worship is central to human existence. Having articulated this premise, he offers us a guide to reading secular liturgies. These are the often unconscious habits that guide daily life. Because these secular (and often unrecognized) liturgies have great power over us (they're often ubiquitous), they need to be unmasked. Thus, the need for apocalypse. Smith writes of the apocalyptic -- it "tries to get us to see the world on a slant, and thus see through the spin" (p. 39). In this chapter Smith takes us into the most powerful of modern temples (centers of worship) -- the mall, a place of worship that not only invites us in but usually sends us home with something tangible. Thinking of my shopping experiences in this matter is quite illuminating.

                Having unveiled the power of the secular liturgies, he invites us to consider the power of historic worship to provide a place where we can meet the Spirit (or be met by the Spirit). He's not speaking here of "traditional" versus "contemporary" worship, but instead (as Robert Webber had done earlier) invited us to consider the power of ancient patterns of worship that create habits. Here he invites us to consider the importance of the church as a community of training -- a gymnasium. Worship here should be active/participatory. But this does not mean it should be expressivist -- that is, it's not us who takes the first step, it is God. Often contemporary forms are all about being relevant, but not about forming habits of the heart. 

                In chapter 4 he explores the "narrative arc” of Christian worship. Smith isn’t focused only on the elements that make up worship, though he does think that there are important elements of Christian worship that are quite valuable, including confessions of sin and the practice of the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist. The important point here is understanding how the form of worship takes into the overall narrative of the Christian story. Historic worship, Smith believes "rehearses the story of redemption in the very form of worship."  Thus reciting the creed, gathering at the Table, singing hymns, offering prayers of confession all help with us. I should note that my own very rationalist tradition kept the Table and the hymns, but ditched the confession and the creeds! 

                In the fifth chapter, he seeks to bring these liturgical practices to the home. It is in the home that the heart is awakened to God and to faith. He suggests that it is in the home that love is awakened and that God is often first encountered in this environment, and thus we need to give greater attention to the liturgies that form the home. I should not here that I had some differences with Smith. For one, he and I differ on theologies of baptism (he favors infant baptism, I favor believer baptism), and it seems to me that he has differing vision of family roles. Nonetheless the point is well taken—faith in the home is important to habit-forming discipleship. Smith then explores the role of youth ministry in the church, and he expresses his concern that churches design youth ministry out of fear that the youth will see it as boring and leave. Thus, we turn to entertainment models. He suggests that such models fail to form habits. It also suggests to youth that being a disciple is all about being the extrovert for Jesus! He offers a vision of youth ministry that I would second, but which may be difficult to return. He calls for youth ministry to be sanctuary centered. He writes that a "congregation committed to the faith formation of young people is one that invites them from an early age to be true worshipers, enfolding and involving them in the congregation's common practice of worship" (p. 152).

                In the final chapter, he speaks to our vocations. Centered in worship, which forms in us habits of faithful discipleship, we enter the world. Our calling, nurtured in worship, is to image God, unfold creation's potential, and occupy creation. This last may sound odd, but what he means is that we are called to be a faithful presence in the world. In our lives we witness to the coming of the kingdom into the world. With this in mind he returns to his concern for historic worship forms. He suggests that rather than turn our energies for innovation to reinventing the church, we can cultivate our imaginations in ways that will allow us to engage in the work of restoring the world. He writes that "innovation for justice and shalom requires that we be regularly immersed in the story of God reconciling all things to himself" (p. 179).

                I found the book to be fascinating. At times Smith's more conservative theology and vision caused me to pause, the overall arc of the book seems to be correct. There is much about the traditional church that might need to be set aside, but there is also much present in liturgical forms of worship that reach back to the ancient church that can help form us into more intentional followers of Jesus. While I value the life of the mind, I do know that knowledge isn't enough to form me into a true disciples of Jesus. Attending week in and week out to word and sacrament, however, reinforce our place in the larger scheme of God's realm. 

                This book is rooted in two previous, more academic tomes, neither of which I have read. This is the distillation of those earlier books. While there might be much to learn from the larger framework offered by those texts, I think there is enough here to get us started on important conversations about the role of the church as the body of Christ in forming us into true disciples of Jesus. Smith doesn’t attack the idea of being spiritual without being religious. He understands the challenges posed by the institutional church (at least I believe he does), but he also understands the power of community and of history (and as a historian that speaks to me!).  Take and read, you will be challenged and maybe formed anew!  


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