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You Are What You Love:

The Spiritual Power of Habit

by James K.A. Smith


Do you think of yourself as a “brain-on-a-stick” or a “thinking-thing”? James K. A. Smith suggests this idea may be the prevailing view of what human creatures are thanks to seventeenth-century philosopher, Rene’ Descartes. In You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Baker Publishing Group, 2016), Smith writes that Descartes’ philosophical proposition, “I think therefore I am,” still influences us today, particularly when considering the way we learn. Smith then poses this question: “What if education [and discipleship] weren’t first and foremost about what we know but about what we love?”

“Jesus,” writes Smith, “is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves. He isn’t content to simply deposit new ideas into your mind; he is after nothing less than your wants, your loves, your longings. His “teaching” doesn’t just touch the calm, cool, collected space of reflection and contemplation; he’s a teacher who invades the heated, passionate regions of the heart.” If Jesus was concerned for his original disciples to grasp that to follow him is a motivated by one’s heart more so than being motivated by one’s intellect, what does that mean for the church today and our methods of making disciples? Are we more inclined to use Jesus’ or Descartes’ approach for faith formation?

You Are What You Love follows the pathway Smith has paved in two previous books, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, and Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works,(2009 and 2013, respectively, by Baker Publishing Group). Smith has drawn from both books’ major themes in this new volume, but You Are What You Love is neither as lengthy nor as academically demanding as the earlier publications. Smith’s inclusion of current cultural scenarios, his self-deprecating humor and clever word-play add energy to You Are What You Love. The reading is very enjoyable and there are plenty of fascinating ideas to contemplate. If you are a note taker, keep a pen and highlighter handy.

Primarily, Smith invites the reader to begin to see that what motivates us to behave in certain ways is love rather than knowledge. Does this represent a dumbing-down of the Christian faith? “To question ‘thinking-thingism’ is not the same as rejecting thinking,” Smith tells us. “To recognize the limits of knowledge is not to embrace ignorance. We don’t need less than knowledge; we need more. We need to recognize the power of habit.”

In addressing the power of habit, Smith reminds the reader that there is a huge gap between knowing that change (formation or re-formation) is needed, and accomplishing this change. Reading books on the subject or taking classes does not mean that the change we look for will occur, and that, Smith says, is because we are more than thinking things. So how, then, do we teach discipleship? What does Christian faith formation look like?

Smith proposes this idea: “What if, instead of starting from the assumption that human beings are thinking things, we started from the conviction that human beings are first and foremost lovers? What if you are defined not by what you know but by what you desire? What if the center and the seat of the human person is found not in the heady regions of the intellect but in the gut-level regions of the heart? How would that change our approach to discipleship and Christian formation?”

What Smith puts forward in You Are What You Love is the suggestion that in Christian formation we need to practice the things that we love. Love takes practice, he says, and there are cultural practices that are competing for our hearts, the center of the human person, which is designed for God. Smith says, “In order to appreciate the spiritual significance of such cultural practices, let’s call these sorts of formative, love-shaping rituals ‘liturgies.’…To be human is to be a liturgical animal, a creature whose loves are shaped by our worship. And worship isn’t optional.” Smith writes that to be human is to worship, but we can’t think our way to right worship.

Having established the idea of liturgies as love-shaping practices, Smith asks us to consider whether any of our liturgies may be directed, unconsciously, to other gods. Are we aware that we may be immersed in rival “secular” liturgies? Is our desire directed God-ward? Smith says that the reason for looking at culture through a liturgical lens is to startle us into an awareness of who and where we are. We need to interpret the liturgies we are steeped in; we need to unmask our cultural practices.

Writes Smith, “I don’t have a radical thesis to offer about discipleship…To the contrary my argument is the very opposite of novel; it’s ancient: the church’s worship is the heart of discipleship. Yes, Christian formation is a life-encompassing, Monday through Saturday, week in and week out project; but it radiates from and is nourished by the worship life of the congregation gathered around Word and Table.”

Smith makes clear that he is not trying to make a case for “traditional worship” versus “contemporary worship,” but writes that, “Only worship that is oriented by the biblical story and suffused with the Spirit will be a counterformative practice that can undo the habituations of rival, secular liturgies.” Noting that he agrees with Robert Webber’s statement that the future of the church is ancient, Smith presents several chapters that outline the narrative arc of formative Christian worship, gives helpful examples of liturgies – love-shaping practices – for the home, for teaching children, and offers ideas for vocational liturgies as well.

Here, from the chapter called “Guard Your Heart,” Smith supplies some guidance for the way families might develop a liturgy of the home:

“Family worship will be formative to the extent that it taps into our imagination, not just our intellect. To do so, such worship needs to traffic in the aesthetic currency of the imagination–story, poetry, music, symbols, and images… Children are ritual animals who absorb the gospel in practices that speak to their imaginations.” Smith encourages music to be a part of family worship and also suggests inviting the family into the rhythms of the liturgical calendar, or the “Christian Year.” Smith writes, “The rhythms of Advent and Christmas, Epiphany and Pentecost, Lent and Easter are a unique way to live into the life of Jesus. The colors of these seasons can become part of the spiritual wallpaper of your home, shaping the ethos of the family. The royal purple of the King, the bright white of Christmastide, and the fire red of Pentecost¬†all create a kind of symbolic universe that invites into a different story.”

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit is a deeply thoughtful book. In this volume, James K. A. Smith has provided useful and creative ideas and practices for faith communities at a time in the Church when discipleship and Christian faith formation seem nebulous at best. In a recent interview for Brazos Press, Smith said, “Becoming a follower of Jesus is more than knowing what Jesus wants you to believe, it is loving what Jesus loves.” That is, I believe, the heart of You Are What You Love.