You Are What You Love - A Review (Part 1)

Image of You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit
by James K. A. Smith
Brazos Press 2016
Kindle Edition 225

Three themes dominate James Smith’s You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. (1) Our loves are like unconscious dispositions we have towards the things and events around us and they reveal our identity. (2) The habituation of godly virtues forms our inner self-our soul. So while gaining knowledge of God and His Word is vital to discipleship, the gaining of virtues—the forming of the soul—is the core of discipleship. (3) The primary way of gaining virtues (of forming the soul) is liturgy in the church.

Chapter 1 explores love and worship. Which is more indicative of our identity? What we love, or what we think? Smith argues that what we love defines our identity. We as humans love something. “You can’t not love.”1 Our loves dictate our choices. Smith compares our loves to our compass, a default orientation of the soul.

Virtues are the habituated, internalized inclinations of the soul “to be compassionate, forgiving, and so forth.”2 “As Aristotle put it, when you’ve acquired a moral habit, it becomes second nature.”3 “Those habits that become ‘second’ nature operate in the same way: they become so woven into who you are that they are as natural for you as breathing and blinking. You don’t have to think about or choose to do these things: they come naturally.”4 “In fact, if I have to deliberate about being compassionate, it’s a sure sign I lack the virtue!”5

There are two aspects of virtue acquisition. 1) Imitation, 2) Practice. Though we talk about second nature, the dispositions learned this way “are not natural.”6 Proper love takes practice, and that practice must be proper in order to learn love that is proper—correctly oriented, like a compass.

We learn to love, then, not primarily by acquiring information about what we should love but rather through practices that form the habits of how we love. These sorts of practices are “pedagogies” of desire, not because they are like lectures that inform us, but because they are rituals that form and direct our affections.7

All this builds us into who we are becoming.

In other words, this contest of cultural practices is a competition for your heart—the center of the human person designed for God, as Augustine reminded us. More precisely, at stake in the formation of your loves is your religious and spiritual identity, which is manifested not only in what you think or what you believe but in what you do—and what those practices do to you.8

All this builds into us what we subsequently worship (what we desire, what we love). “The great Reformer Martin Luther once said, ‘Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your god.’”9 This possibility of “alluring idols,” which are the “affective projections” and the “fruit of disordered wants,” means that we must consider both illicit and proper practices, both of which Smith treats with the term “liturgies.”

In Chapter 2, Smith explores the illicit desires of our soul and their source in our lives.

He refers to a 1980 Russian film, The Stalker, it which the characters journey to The Room, which is able to give the one who enters their deepest desire. Smith uses The Room to ask the reader,

[As] a Christian, to tell me what you really want, what you most deeply long for, what you ultimately love—well, of course you know the right answer. You know what you ought to say. And what you state could be entirely genuine and authentic, a true expression of your intellectual conviction. But would you want to step into the Room? Are you confident that what you think you love aligns with your innermost longings? … This is one of the lessons of the Zone: sometimes a man doesn’t want to do what a man thinks he wants to do.10

Smith then turns to the source of our illicit loves.

[W]e are immersed over time in practices and rituals—what we’ve called ‘liturgies’—that affectively and viscerally train our desires. So, just as our habits themselves are unconscious—operating under the hood—it is also the case that the process of habituation can be unconscious and covert.11

Thus begins a discussion of the unconscious formation of our souls by the world around us and by every choice we make, and that how the majority of our choices are the product of the soul and its unconscious workings. Because our unconscious influences us this way and is itself unconsciously influenced, Smith is intensely critical of the role of thinking in discipleship.

If we assume that human beings are thinking things who are always “on,” who think through every action and make a conscious decision before ever doing anything, then discipleship will focus on changing how we think. Our primary goal will be informing the intellect so that it can direct our behavior. “I think, therefore I am” translates into a philosophy of action that assumes, “I deliberate, then I do.” The problem is, this is a very stunted view of human persons that generates a simplistic understanding of action and a reductionistic approach to discipleship. It is an approach that unwittingly overestimates the influence of thinking and conscious deliberation and thus tends to overlook and underestimate the power and force of all kinds of unconscious or subconscious processes that orient our being-in-the-world. In short, it underestimates the power of habit. The truth is that, for the most part, we make our way in the world by means of under-the-radar intuition and attunement, a kind of know-how that we carry in our bones.12

It is in this sense that “character is destiny”: your character is the web of dispositions you’ve acquired (virtues and vices) that work as automaticities, disposing you to act in certain ways.13

And in Smith’s lingo, we acquire these dispositions through “Liturgies.” “If you think of love-shaping practices as “liturgies,” this means you could be worshiping other gods without even knowing it.”14 They are “formative practices that do something to you, unconsciously but effectively tuning your heart to the songs of Babylon rather than the songs of Zion (Ps. 137).”15 “That’s why you might not love what you think; you might not love what that snowball of thinking on the tip of the iceberg tells you that you love.”16 The “snowball” is a reference to a study Smith cites which claims that only about 5 percent of what we do each day is due to deliberate thoughtful choices.

“‘Liturgy,’ as I’m using the word, is a shorthand term for those rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for.”17 All of the influences, habits, choices—in short, everything in which we are immersed—“bend the needle of our hearts” and form our loves. And those loves, in turn, largely direct our lives. The remainder of this chapter explores what those influences—those rival liturgies—are. It is quite excellent and challenging.

Chapter 3 is a discussion and defense of Historic Worship.

The church—the body of Christ—is the place where God invites us to renew our loves, reorient our desires, and retrain our appetites. Indeed, isn’t the church where we are nourished by the Word, where we “eat the Word” and receive the bread of life? The church is that household where the Spirit feeds us what we need and where, by his grace, we become a people who desire him above all else.18

God is active in our worship.19 Liturgy, then is properly God’s action first, in which we participate.

On this basis, Smith criticizes modern worship:20

  • It is too centered on man’s actions.
  • It assumes that worship is expressive.
  • It overemphasizes sincerity, which leads to a penchant for novelty.
  • It is too familiar, using contemporary “containers for an eternal message.”21

Smith argues that those containers are not neutral, but rather are “already oriented to a certain telos, a tacit vision of the good life.” They implicitly teach “that Jesus is one more commodity available to make me happy.” He does clarify later that he is not talking about organs and choirs versus guitars and drums, but the discussion is confusing on that point.

For instance, he says, “while we may be singing songs about Jesus, the very shape or form of the worship ‘experience’ in fact reinforces the gospel of consumerism and the unwitting encounter with Jesus as simply one more commodity.”22

Most readers take “shape and form” to refer to style of the music and worship service. But in Chapter 4 Smith goes on to say that what he’s after is a much more careful understanding of the meaning, and thus message of worship. In doing so, he says, we will find that historical (old, liturgical) worship has much to offer.

Before turning to this in chapter 4, Smith makes a quick argument that repetition is good and necessary to formation.

Virtue formation takes practice, and there is no practice that isn’t repetitive. We willingly embrace repetition as a good in all kinds of other sectors of our life—to hone our golf swing, our piano prowess, and our mathematical abilities, for example. If the sovereign Lord has created us as creatures of habit, why should we think repetition is inimical to our spiritual growth?23

Chapter 4 is an explanation of the Narrative Arc of Formative Christian Worship.

Smith resumes the argument that worship forms us. It forms our character. This point is made in this quote from N.T. Wright:

This transformation will mean that we do indeed “keep the rules”—though not out of a sense of externally imposed “duty,” but out of character that has been formed within us. And it will mean that we do indeed ‘follow our hearts’ and live ‘authentically’—but only when, with that transformed character fully operative (like an airline pilot with a lifetime’s experience), the hard work up front bears fruit in spontaneous decisions and actions that reflect what has been formed deep within.24

Christian worship must capture and stimulate our imagination.

In the rest of the book, Smith explores liturgies in the home (chapter 5), soul-care and development in children (chapter 6), and soul-building in the workplace and the rest of life (chapter 7).

There is much to commend in this book. Smith pushes the reader to self-examine and provides insight into how to do that that is both fresh and old. There is also much to criticize, and while the Christian reader can gain much from his book, there is also much that needs to be seen for what it is in terms of historical and practical theology. These criticisms will be the subject of future posts.

Notes

1 Smith, James K. A. (2016-03-29). You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (p. 17). Baker Publishing Group. P. 12

2 P. 16

3 P. 17

4 P. 17

5 P. 17

6 P. 19

7 P. 21

8 P. 22 (underline mine)

9 P. 23

10 P. 29 (This disturbing reference and its use to bolster Smith’s idea of one’s identity being what he loves will be discussed critically in Part 2.)

11 P. 32

12 P. 32-3 (Smith’s treatment of the mind and the emotions will be discussed in Part 2.)

13 P. 36

14 P. 37

15 P. 37

16 P. 37

17 P. 46

18 P. 65

19 P. 71ff

20 P. 74ff

21 P. 76

22 P. 79

23 P. 80

24 P. 87

Dan Miller Bio


Dan Miller is an ophthalmologist in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He is a husband, father, and part-time student.

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There are 8 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

I can see some problems, but I appreciate his recognition that what we do changes us. There's a very strong--and naive--thread in evangelicalsm (and fundamentalism, too) that Christian growth can only be furthered from the inside out. But the dynamic is complex because what we do changes us inside also... which then comes out.

Jesus says sin comes from the heart, but He does not deny that the heart is, in turn, affected by our choices and surroundings.

In a perhaps overly sophisticated way, this author seems to be pushing back toward putting some value on good habits--an almost universally neglected component of disciplemaking these days.

Dan Miller's picture

I found this book fascinating. I am hopeful that some SI readers will buy it and add to the discussion.

I'm working on answers to what I see as huge problems in this book. But I encourage you all to buy it and read it before you're prejudiced by me...

TylerR's picture

I follow your first two summary points about the theme of the book. I'm perplexed about the last:

(3) The primary way of gaining virtues (of forming the soul) is liturgy in the church.

What does this mean? What does it look like? What is he talking about? You elaborated a bit when you wrote:

Liturgy,’ as I’m using the word, is a shorthand term for those rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for.”17 All of the influences, habits, choices—in short, everything in which we are immersed—“bend the needle of our hearts” and form our loves. And those loves, in turn, largely direct our lives.

I think the author chose a bad term to use here. Isn't there a better way to get across the same point than to use the word "liturgy?" Looking forward to hearing more.

Tyler Robbins is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Dan Miller's picture

TylerR wrote:
... I'm perplexed about the last:

(3) The primary way of gaining virtues (of forming the soul) is liturgy in the church.

What does this mean? What does it look like? What is he talking about? You elaborated a bit when you wrote:

Liturgy,’ as I’m using the word, is a shorthand term for those rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for.”17 All of the influences, habits, choices—in short, everything in which we are immersed—“bend the needle of our hearts” and form our loves. And those loves, in turn, largely direct our lives.

I think the author chose a bad term to use here. Isn't there a better way to get across the same point than to use the word "liturgy?" Looking forward to hearing more.

I wish I could affirm that Smith uses "liturgy" in an unusual way in that anything in our lives that has a sense of ritual forms the soul one way or the other. 

In part, I have to affirm it, especially in the early chapters dealing with the negative aspects of soul formation. 

But in chapter 4, he argues for the primacy of church-service-liturgy in discipleship. He defends it on the basis of the liturgical message (which he says can be themed out and written with new and changing verbiage), the poetic nature of historical liturgies, and the way using old historical liturgies connect us with the church through centuries. He defends against charges of vain repetition by arguing that repetition is necessary for habit. 

TylerR's picture

Sounds . . . interesting. Kind of different. He thinks liturgy, in the traditional sense, is an answer to building Godly habits and virtues?  

Tyler Robbins is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Paul Henebury's picture

I want to thank Dan for his review of this generally excellent book by a fine Christian thinker.  The book has challenged me to ask important questions about my habits and the participatory role of God in worship.  He also has real insight into contemporary culture and its deliberate use of habit-formation. 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Bert Perry's picture

As a (former) member of a somewhat liturgical church, the United Methodists, I can say from experience that the liturgy can be either deadening or life-giving, depending on how it's done.   

The bad first; when people simply mumble through the Old Testament, New Testament, and Gospel readings, done in the worst possible translation.  At my church, it was the "Good News", which is (IMO) a nice way of taking out a great part of the meaning of the text while using style that made it basically unreadable.  I remember getting disgusted with it even back in high school, well before coming to Christ.  The church order also was not helped by the short homily that rarely dealt with the Scripture.

The worse; when the above is combined with sacramentalism, the whole service (in the words of an ELCA friend of mine) building up to the sacrifice of the Eucharist.  Thankfully I've not seen this often.

The good; when I go to my grandmother's evangelical UMC church (yeah, the guy snuck in), I am consistently blessed by those readings done in a decent translation by people who believe what they're reading.  I even like things like the Gloria Patri and the doxology.  

The warning about "vain repetitions" is well taken, but perhaps in exegeting that phrase we ought to consider that it is not mere repetition that is the problem, but rather vain or meaningless, ineffectual repetitions.   If, say, we are transformed in part by the use of the Apostle's Creed, the Gloria Patri, and such, can we really describe these repetitions as vain?

Perhaps a topic for another forum, but worth contemplating.

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