Book Review: James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love
[Editor’s Note: This post was written by Dr. Andrew Bramsen. Dr. Bramsen is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Bethel University, where he specializes in comparative politics, political theory, and African politics and Islam. He’ll be co-leading our reading group on James K.A. Smith’s You are What You Love this fall.]
James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit
What do you want? Smith begins with this question, suggesting that what we think we love and what we actually love are often two different things. The post-Enlightenment tendency for western Christians has been to treat people as “brains-on-a-stick,” primarily driven by what we think (3). Smith argues instead that human experience and historic Christian practice demonstrate that our loves—not our thoughts—show what we want. Thus effective discipleship requires practices that shape our loves, not teachings that reform our thoughts, and the central practice in this formation is rightly oriented Christian worship.
Smith uses the term “liturgies” to talk about these “formative, love-shaping rituals” (22) and argues that false worship results primarily from bad liturgies, not bad theology. Self-focused consumerist liturgies exemplified by the mall, the wedding industry, stadium events, internet use, and the smartphone culture are part of the problem. But for Smith it goes deeper, because so-called Christian worship often conforms to and reinforces these narcissistic societal liturgies. The solution is a return to historic Christian worship “oriented by the biblical story and suffused with the Spirit,” which offers “a counterformative practice that can undo the habituations of rival, secular liturgies” (79). To participate in true worship, we must join:
the unfolding drama of the God who acts… to play the role of God’s image bearers who care for and cultivate God’s creation, to the praise of his glory… This is not playacting or pretending: it is the role we were born to play. In becoming these characters, we become ourselves (88).
To achieve this end for which we were created, we need virtue-forming habits so we “desire what God desires” (85). Christian worship does this not by giving answers, but by inviting us to participate in the story, thereby grabbing our imagination and beginning to reorder our loves.
For worship to do this work of discipleship, it must be oriented around the biblical story in which God gathers and forgives us, gives us his word, invites us to commune with him and then sends us out into the world to serve. When churches exchange this historic form of worship for something that instead caters to a consumerist mindset, offers an inspirational pep talk, or seeks to make people feel comfortable, they essentially take a liturgy whose purpose is to promote worship of something other than God and pretend that they can make it function contrary to its nature.
Smith draws on Charles Taylor to argue that such liturgies lead to a “disenchanted” and “excarnate” Christianity. Taylor uses these terms to describe an unintended consequence of the Protestant Reformation, namely that focusing on individual reading (sola scriptura) and understanding (sola fide) turns us into “brains-on-a-stick” and reduces the role of the divine. However, God created this world to be an enchanted place where he could interact with mankind, and—after the fall—God himself became incarnate to redeem us. Smith applies Taylor’s critique to the continuing tendency to avoid the physical side of worship (partaking of the Eucharist, water baptism, kneeling, etc.) for an excarnate “heady” approach which looks more like a self-help program than something enchanted by the presence of God. This is problematic, because only when our worship is “re-enchanted” and “incarnational” in these physical, embodied ways can we truly participate in God’s story—and only his story can transform our loves and thus transform us.
The argument Smith makes in this book is timely. It builds on Christian reflections from Augustine’s Confessions to Robert Webber’s ancient-future series to Smith’s own Desiring the Kingdom, but resonates with the contemporary world in a new way. Smith’s account of how our practices too often misshape our loves is powerful as he walks us through the particular appeals of consumerism, society’s glorification of weddings over marriage, and the problematic priority we give to digital devices. Each of these liturgies promotes a focus on ourselves and our desires and steers us away from the far greater story we were created to participate in. We live in an age that promotes continual updates and improvements for their own sake, creating a vicious cycle in which we always want—but can never really attain—the latest and greatest thing. In the midst of this frenetic world, Smith highlights the value of receiving historic Christian practices as enduring gifts that help us rightly order our loves, just as they have for Christians down through time, and he shows how this deep continuity remains a radical call to discipleship.
While there is a certain irony in a book telling us that what we need is not more information, throughout the book Smith focuses our attention on a series of practical examples that show how the liturgies we engage in shape the course of our lives. His compelling argument challenges us to turn from his book both to carefully reconsider how the way we live shapes what we love and to recognize as we do so the limits of our own knowledge and our need for the enduring wisdom of the church. This book is a significant contribution to that wisdom.