Smith, James K.A. You Are What You Love. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016. 210 pp.
How do people change? What motivates people to live the way that they do? What is the best way to educate and motivate a human being? These are the kinds of questions James K.A. Smith is asking in his newest book, You Are What You Love. Smith first caught my attention with his 2009 book, Desiring the Kingdom. That powerfully-written book argued that “we need to adopt a paradigm of cultural critique and discernment that thinks even deeper than beliefs or worldviews and takes seriously the central role of formative practices—or what I’ll describe…as liturgies.” You Are What You Love presents the same basic argument of Desiring the Kingdom but does so on a more popular level and presents deeper practical implications for the church. Smith wants to show that “discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing” (2).
You Are What You Love consists of seven chapters. The first two really lay out Smith’s basic argument, and the final five present the implications. Smith wants us to stop thinking about ourselves as primarily thinking things (what he calls “brains on a stick”) and instead see that we are usually driven by our desires. You are not what you think; instead, “you are what you love” (9). We are driven to act, not so much by intellectual reasoning (though that certainly has its place), but by our vision of the good life. Our day-to-day choices are motivated by the often unarticulated goal of what we believe human flourishing is. We live with a sub-conscious gravitational pull in the direction of our hearts deepest longings and ultimate loves (13). How do we change? By forming good moral habits (virtues) in place of the bad ones, which requires imitation and practice (18).
Chapter two then takes this thesis and shows us that we are being shaped by cultural practices in ways that we’ve likely never noticed: “In short, we unconsciously learn to love rival kingdoms because we don’t realize we’re participating in rival liturgies” (37). Examples of such rival liturgies (soul shaping cultural practices) include going to the mall, attending the university, and habitually gluing our eyes to the screens of our smart phones. These practices shape us in ways we often don’t realize, and it often has nothing to do with content. The bodily practices themselves are being driven by a vision of the good life which is often at odds with the gospel.
In chapter three, Smith begins to outline the “counterliturgies” needed to bring God and his kingdom to the center of our desires. The church, for Smith, is “the place where God invites us to renew our loves, reorient our desires, and retrain our appetites” (65). In order for the church to be this type of transforming community, worship must be understood not primarily as “a venue for innovative creativity but a place for discerning reception and faithful repetition” (78). Chapter four highlights the necessity of rehearsing the gospel drama again and again. We are instructed in how to live by the story we find ourselves in the midst of (89). The remainder of the book (chapters five, six, and seven) provides helpful guidance for shaping our loves in the contexts of the home, parenting, and vocation.
I love the thesis of this book. The power of habit often gets overlooked because of our over-intellectualized view of humanity. Smith counters this tendency by drawing attention to the soul shaping power of our bodily habits. I believe that this thesis has earth-shattering implications for discipleship. Let me give one example: I often tell people that in biblical counseling the success of the experience never depends on the meeting with the counselor. In my experience, the success of the counseling experience rises or falls on the homework between meetings and the counselee’s willingness to break sinful patterns and replace them with healthy, gospel-fueled habits. I often tell people, “I can tell you what you need to hear, but I cannot give you the will to change your situation.” We often buy into the lie that to know the truth is the goal. However, as Smith asks us, “Ever had the experience of hearing an incredibly illuminating and informative sermon on a Sunday, waking up Monday morning with new resolve and conviction to be different, and already failing by Tuesday night” (5)? Yes, I have! The process of change occurs when the sermon leads me to break existing patterns and habits that for too long have persisted unquestioned.
My biggest critique of Smith applies equally to both this book and Desiring the Kingdom. When he begins offering his suggestions for counterliturgies, he seems stuck in his own tradition. While I agree that worship, to have this counter-shaping effect, must be repeatedly and dramatically centered on God and not on self-expression, there’s more than one God-centered way to skin the proverbial cat. As a Southern Baptist who has lived in more rural settings, many of Smith’s suggestions simply would not resonate with people from blue-collar contexts whose liturgies are influenced more by Fanny Crosby than The Book of Common Prayer. Smith’s constructive suggestions might work in high-brow urban contexts, but I think we need to do more thinking about counterliturgies for everyone—small town USA included. As a pastor from a tradition that does not follow the official church calendar, my church is certainly liturgical. My children look forward to our own church calendar that rehearses the drama of the gospel week after week. They can’t wait for VBS each summer and to hear reports from summer missionaries in the Fall. They love meeting international students during our annual International Student and Refugee Thanksgiving Meal, and they learn reverence for God each week as we stand to hear God’s Word read before the expository sermon and sing the songs of the gospel with our church family—songs that have been sung in the church for centuries. I could go on and on about our own counterliturgies, but my point is simply that there’s more than one Christ-exalting, kingdom-orienting way to do it.
This book has the potential to reshape the way the church looks at discipleship. Christianity is not learned in a classroom, and our desires are not shaped by textbooks. As long as cultural liturgies go unquestioned, rival kingdoms will have their way with the hearts of God’s people. Christ-centered habits and liturgies need to be practiced to counter this process. Read this book to begin your thinking about how to lead yourself, your family, and your church toward habits that define the good life according to the kingdom of Christ, but do not stop with Smith’s suggestions. Keep searching for new ways to counter the cultural liturgies with gospel liturgies until Christ returns to consummate his kingdom.
Casey McCall, Pastor of Students and Discipleship, Ashland Avenue Baptist Church