Review: You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of HabitYou Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You are what you love, not what you think, Smith says. What you think is, rather, a fruit of what you love. So far so good. If I may say so, I felt like Smith was summarizing my dissertation (though with fewer Scripture proofs) at this point in his argument (largely the first chapter).

But then he went in a direction I’ve been watching him go in for some years and have not yet quite known what to do with, his idea of “cultural liturgies.” I’m attracted to this idea, precisely because my own conversion away from “thinking-thingism” has left me with a practical problem: if my heart and not my intellect is the ultimate key to my transformation into the image of Christ, then how, day by day, do I go about changing my heart? My answer had been that I can’t change my heart; only Jesus can, through the New Covenant. And Smith doesn’t deny this. But he moves over into sanctification and suggests that there is a spiritual power in habit which God means to be heart-shaping. This seems undoubtedly true on the cultural level. As Smith shows, the mall is full of “cultural liturgies” which shape those who enter it. (It was quite funny to hear the story of Smith’s teenage son saying, “Dad, can you take me to the temple?” He knew his dad: he meant the mall.) And Smith adduces other examples, though not as many as I had hoped for. But on the individual level? Is this what a missing key of evangelical church practice?

I think Smith is at his best when critiquing:

Instead of asking contemporary seekers and Christians to inhabit old, stodgy, positively medieval practices that are foreign and strange, we retool worship by adopting contemporary practices that can be easily entered precisely because they are so familiar. Rather than the daunting, spooky ambience of the Gothic cathedral, we invite people to worship in the ethos of the coffee shop, the concert, or the mall. Confident in the form/content distinction, we believe we can distill the gospel content and embed it in these new forms, since the various practices are effectively neutral: just temporal containers for an eternal message. We distill “Jesus” out of the inherited, ancient forms of historic worship (which we’ll discard as “traditional”) in order to freshly present Jesus in forms that are both fresh and familiar: come meet Jesus in the sanctified experience of a coffee shop; come hear the gospel in a place that should feel familiar since we’ve modeled it after the mall. The problem, of course, is that these “forms” are not just neutral containers or discardable conduits for a message. As we’ve seen already, what are embraced as merely fresh forms are, in fact, practices that are already oriented to a certain telos, a tacit vision of the good life. Indeed, I’ve tried to show that these cultural practices are liturgies in their own right precisely because they are oriented to a telos and are bent on shaping my loves and longings. The forms themselves are pedagogies of desire that teach me to construe and relate to the world in a loaded way. So when I distill the gospel message and embed it in the form of the mall, while I might think I am finding a fresh way for people to encounter Christ, in fact the very form of the practice is already loaded with a way of construing the world. The liturgy of the mall is a heart-level education in consumerism that construes everything as a commodity available to make me happy. When I encounter “Jesus” in such a liturgy, rather than encountering the living Lord of history, I am implicitly being taught that Jesus is one more commodity available to make me happy. And while I might eagerly want to add him to my shelf of stuff, we shouldn’t confuse this appropriation with discipleship.

I’m still not ready, however, to sign on to his liturgical program for sanctification. He’s a philosopher; I believe him when he says he doesn’t intend to diminish the importance of thinking or of the heavily cognitive work of Bible study. But the Bible didn’t play a strong role in his book, I’d say, only a supportive one. And maybe it’s my dyed-in-the-wool evangelical Protestantism, but I just believe too strongly in the importance of the preached word. I’ve seen it work. The churches which have been more self-conscious about liturgy do attract me to some degree, but not, finally, if they end up diminishing that preached word. In my admittedly limited experience, that’s what I’ve seen. I feel like I need more help from Smith to know what all this looks like before I can adopt some of the practices he commends. I’m going to give four stars because I’m hopeful. I’ve dug a bit into his other works, of which this is apparently a popularization.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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