You Are What You Love – A Review (Part 2b)

Image of You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K. A. Smith (April 01,2016)
by
Baker Publishing Group (April 01,2016) 1657
Hardcover

You Are What You Love seeks to place before the reader his own self, revealed by the actions that spring from his own loves. Smith will teach us that our identity is based who we are in our souls — the way our souls have been formed to love what God loves and hate what God hates. While Smith doesn’t refer to this as “justification,” he explicitly stands on the shoulders of Aquinas and Aristotle. So, as Smith develops his view of the formation of our soul, he deals in the doctrine of justification. Therefore, this paper rests on Part 2a, which examines justification. I encourage readers to digest that before reading on.

The Room

Smith illustrates his view of identity with the 1979 movie, The Stalker. It is a tool to get us thinking about our desires. The Stalker is a piece of “dystopian science fiction”1 and produces a “discomforting epiphany”(p.27). The Stalker is a guide who takes two men through the Zone, which “has the eerie feel of a postapocalyptic oasis, a scene where some prior devastation has left ruins.” They seek The Room, which is “a big, abandoned, derelict, dark damp room with what look like the remains of an enormous chemistry set floating in the puddle in the middle, as if the Zone resulted from an ill-conceived experiment that went horribly wrong.” The men seek The Room because when entered, it will give the seeker the deepest desire of his heart.

Eventually we ask, What would the Room say is my deepest desire? What if your greatest desire was placed before you, ready for you to embrace in a wonderful and horrible ecstasy of pleasure and guilt? Perhaps the specifics of this is something you have already spend time imagining. Perhaps you’ve never imagined it in the form you would most desire. And perhaps you’ve never imagined it. You have to wonder: What would entering that room tell me about myself?

Smith says, “If I ask you, 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 … 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? Do you really know what you want? 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.’”

Is the Room a good tool for us to use to contemplate ourselves?

First, consider: Is the Room truthful? It is presented in the film and in Smith’s hands as truthful. The Stalker tells of a man who was so moved by receiving his innermost desire that he soon committed suicide. Only a thing received by a man as a great desire of his could do this. If I went into the room and received a lifetime supply of bananas, I would walk away disappointed; the Room is just a hoax.

Second, consider: Is the Room virtuous or vicious? The Stalker suggests that the Zone is sentient. So is it good or evil? Does it take a side? Are there even “sides” in this film? Herein lies the main objection I have with the Room. I watched this movie and while I won’t give too much away, the Room is anxiety provoking. It subtly warns us: your deepest desire is dangerous. It produces despair and the only solution is to turn one’s back on his own desires — to not enter the Room.

The Room is a tool for thought. The real underlying question is: Since Smith uses the Room as a tool to encourage us to think in a particular way about our identity, is Smith’s line of thought virtuous or vicious? This recalls the question: Who am I? Identity is a core idea in Smith’s book. As the title says, “You Are What You Love.

Identity

We are sinners. We have sinful desires which lead to sinful choices. And yet, in Christ, we are children of God. Saints — holy people. We are perfect in Christ. There are thus two statements that must be made about who we are: Saint. Sinner. These are contradictory; we can’t reconcile them by saying we’re 50% sinful and 50% perfect. And as though Jesus only half cleanses us.

Because of our union with Christ and our adoption as children of God, He calls us perfect, and for us there is no condemnation. This perfect identity isn’t seen now, it is hid with Christ in God (Colossians 3). We are imperfect and He tells us (convicts us) of our sin. “Saint” and “Sinner” are both our true identities.

What would the Room reveal? There are two answers based on our two identities. It might say, “When you enter the room, you will find a beautiful woman, eager to love you and serve your desires.” And someone might dread that this would present a temptation that he could not resist. Therefore, to enter the room would mean pain for his wife and destruction for himself. To another, it might say, “What you desire: Your husband dead.” Or painful vengeance on the one who hurt your child. That is more than a little malevolent. In this way the Room is The Accuser found in Zechariah 3 and Revelation 12:10.

And it echoes our conscience. For the unbeliever, without hope of a given, perfect identity, the accuser and the conscience speak with the same voice. Whether the Stalker or Inspector Javert, there is no escape from the conscience, except to turn one’s back on one’s own self. This is the appeal and horror of The Stalker. It whispers to every one of us, You know you desire something horrible. And that whisper resonates loudly in our consciences. It was exactly that resonance that plagued the young monk Martin Luther.

Like the young Luther, Smith bases identity in performance: “[O]ur action — our doing — bubbles up from our loves, which … are habits we’ve acquired through the practices we’re immersed in” (p. 29). On reading this section of Smith’s book, one is encouraged to think of his identity as defined by his own desires, which in turn are revealed in his own choices.

The view of identity Smith presents here is the side of “sinner.” “Simultaneously perfect” is nowhere in sight. The revelation of our greatest desire is something to be feared because the formation of our souls isn’t done. The message is that we must discover how to form our souls and fix our loves so as to better pass the test of The Room.

When God speaks about His children, He rejoices over us in Christ. He calls us saints. The room we should enter, that by faith we’re already in, in which God speaks to us, is not in a malevolent Zone that accuses us. If I enter the room God has for me, I find Jesus and my wife and son and the opportunity to rejoice in serving others. Such are the things that I, as a child of God, truly desire.

Now, it is true that I might observe that I don’t live that way. So there is a sense in which it isn’t true; I am not perfect. I don’t always love my wife as God says I do. But by faith I know that it is true about me and when I live by it, I believe I will find that I love it. And when I don’t love it, I’ll cling by faith to the idea that it is still who I am. I hear from God what my greatest desires are: To do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. So I’ll keep trying to live set my mind on living by my perfect identity. I’ll keep forming my soul into a loving soul — not to make myself into a perfect person, but because that perfect identity is already mine in Christ.

Do not take this as a complete contradiction of Smith’s work — or even a contradiction, for that matter. That would miss the point. It is not that I point to our perfect identity and Smith points to our imperfect one. I call the reader to understand and embrace the truth of both. We are both perfect and at the same time sinners. So we must face our sin and the illicit loves that lie beneath. We must consider how we got those loves, how we might get new loves, and how we’re teaching our children to love.

We should read Smith’s book. It has much to teach about the formation — the sanctification — of our soul. So while Smith’s book neglects the imputed perfect aspect of our identity, it is a deep and effective treatment of our identity as sinners and our need for the renewing of our minds and hearts.

Notes

1 http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-tarkovsky-stalker-s…

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 6 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

Much appreciate this thoughtful look at what is clearly a thoughtful book. A couple of points though:

Dan wrote:
 We are sinners. We have sinful desires which lead to sinful choices. And yet, in Christ, we are children of God. Saints -- holy people. We are perfect in Christ. There are thus two statements that must be made about who we are: Saint. Sinner. These are contradictory; we can’t reconcile them by saying we’re 50% sinful and 50% perfect. And as though Jesus only half cleanses us.

Because of our union with Christ and our adoption as children of God, He calls us perfect, and for us there is no condemnation. This perfect identity isn’t seen now, it is hid with Christ in God (Colossians 3). We are imperfect and He tells us (convicts us) of our sin. “Saint” and “Sinner” are both our true identities.

There is a better way to look at this. "Sinner" is a description of nature/condition; "Saint" is a description of identity. We have only one identity in Christ. Our nature is slowing catching up with our identity. The main reason this is a better way to look at it is that it avoids confusion about justification and sanctification. Smith--being confused on this point--speaks of two identities. This is incorrect.

The truth is: one identity, one gradually changing nature.

Dan: "That would miss the point. It is not that I point to our perfect identity and Smith points to our imperfect one." No, I think you actually do. Smith is simply incorrect about identity, in that he confuses condition/character with legal standing/identity. Justification is forensic. Sanctification is experiential.

I don't doubt the book has value, especially as a counter to passive-sanctification attitudes. Smith seems serious about devotion and sacrifice. And that's a strong rebuke to our times. But if the do-nothing sanctificationists won't take advice from fellow Baptists or fellow Reformed, I doubt they're going to take it from an author who's understanding of justification derives from Aquinas (much less, Aristotle).

Dan Miller's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
...

Dan: "That would miss the point. It is not that I point to our perfect identity and Smith points to our imperfect one." No, I think you actually do. Smith is simply incorrect about identity, in that he confuses condition/character with legal standing/identity. Justification is forensic. Sanctification is experiential. ...

Aaron, the first thing that you and I would need to discuss is: What is Identity? Meaning, What is it that we are referring to when we ask about identity.

The term Identity is tough to define because it is used in many different ways.

Could we define "Identity" as "who you are"? maybe... consider...

Who is that? "Aaron."

"Aaron" is a perfectly reasonable answer. You name is part of our common understanding of how to answer "Who is...?" But is your name Who You Are? Not really. You could change your name without changing who you are. 

Who is that? "He's the publisher of SharperIron."

Again, this is a response that we would all consider within the domain of proper answers to "Who is that?" And now we're getting a little more into who you are - at least what you do.

Who is that? "He's a really nice guy."

(Still in the domain of answers to "Who...?") Now we're talking about a habitual aspect of your persona. 

Who is that? "He's a KJO-Only alcohol-abstaining pulpit pounding preacher." (not talking about Aaron here)

The point is that when we think of how to answer a real question of identity, we think in terms of a person's habits, abilities, preferences, loves, hates, etc.

-----

Aaron is saying that our Justification-Identity is a different sense of who-we-are than our Sanctification-Identity. And I agree. And he says so much so that Sanctification shouldn't really be called Identity. And to 

I would encourage you at this point to read You Are What You Love. Smith's point is that the things you love (and hate) are a core part of who you are. He would say, "[O]ur actions, our doing— bubbles up from our loves, which, as we’ve observed, are habits we’ve acquired through the practices we’re immersed in."

Think of it this way: Say you're in charge of bookkeeping at the store you and couple other guys own. It comes time for end of year inventory and you and a team of employees work on it. Thinking you're done, you send everyone home. Most everyone leaves and then your 23-year old assistant says, "Hey, we didn't count the [whatevers]." You say, "Great, and everybody just left." She says," There aren't that many. Let's just get it done." 45 minutes later, you're thankful to her for helping you finish. You sigh in exhaustion and she looks you in the eye, starts unbuttoning her shirt and says, "Tired, huh? I can make you feel better right now." The point: you can decide in that moment how you will respond. BUT, you CANNOT decide in that moment how tempted you are. 

One man in that situation has kept his eyes pure and pursues his wife. Is he tempted? Sure, but in that moment, he also feels sorry for this girl - what has happened to her that she thinks that she should offer herself to her boss? Has she been abused? For this man, she reminds him powerfully of his daughter, who he would be horrified to find had come to the point this young lady has. He runs without thinking.

Another man is a porn-head. He has hidden his porn habit from his wife, who he finds, frankly, unattractive. In this moment his secretary reminds him of the girls in his porn, who are little more than objects for his pleasure. 

So one can ask, "How tempting is this situation for a man?" The answer is, it depends on who he is. And that is what Smith is getting at. 

Ed Vasicek's picture

I still embrace the (seemingly antiquated) view of two natures (inclinations), and the idea that the sinful nature cannot be improved.  If I walk in the Spirit, I will not fulfill the desires of the flesh.  The desires of the flesh never go away, IMO, until we are in glory.  The flesh doesn't improve, but we improve as we habituate to the Spirit.

Such a "room" could tap into either nature without our volition.  The conflict within us would probably blow up the room.

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Aaron Blumer's picture

Where precise and clear language is

(a)  possible, (b) desirable for weighty reasons, and (c) has a well established history, why would we choose vague and confusing language? In the case of our identity as believers, all three conditions apply and point to speaking of our identity as singular and not influenced by our works. The doctrines of imputation and union with Christ alone require this -- especially in the context of justification by faith.

In Smith's case, he is being precise, because his view of justification is Roman Catholic. To him, our identity is in the process of formation. Protestants understand that our identity is complete the moment we believe. What remains is the formation of our character/nature.

All of the reasoning of Romans 6 is based on this, among other passages. 

As for the room... 

As Ed has suggested, volition is key. Isn't our true deepest desire the one we would choose? I don't think most people I know would choose something truly horrible, as we normally think of "horrible." But, for unbelievers, it would be something "in Adam" as well as something in a personal context of God-rejection. Rarely would it be some kind of atrocity! 

Dan Miller's picture

Ed Vasicek wrote:
I still embrace the (seemingly antiquated) view of two natures (inclinations), and the idea that the sinful nature cannot be improved.  If I walk in the Spirit, I will not fulfill the desires of the flesh.  The desires of the flesh never go away, IMO, until we are in glory.  The flesh doesn't improve, but we improve as we habituate to the Spirit.

Ed, the two-natures idea of Paul has always ended up sounding a bit id-superego to me. And that is bothersome, because it renders the human condition qualitatively the same for believers and unbelievers. And that's why an ethical-soul-formation system as explained by Aristotle works for Aquinas. 

This is why I am leaning instead towards this idea that our spiritual nature is hidden and our old nature is our loves and performance (which is mixed good and bad).

Aaron Blumer wrote:

Where precise and clear language is

(a)  possible, (b) desirable for weighty reasons, and (c) has a well established history, why would we choose vague and confusing language? In the case of our identity as believers, all three conditions apply and point to speaking of our identity as singular and not influenced by our works. The doctrines of imputation and union with Christ alone require this -- especially in the context of justification by faith.

In Smith's case, he is being precise, because his view of justification is Roman Catholic. To him, our identity is in the process of formation. Protestants understand that our identity is complete the moment we believe. What remains is the formation of our character/nature.

All of the reasoning of Romans 6 is based on this, among other passages.

Yeah... So I'm in agreement with:

- Good to be precise.

- Smith is essentially Roman Catholic (at least Thomist in his view of justification).

Where I think we differ is what to do with the word "identity." Aaron insists that we have ONE identity and that it is holy in Christ. But "identity" isn't a Biblical word. Because of that, I tend to think of it as whatever we look to when we ask, "Who am I?" 

In the parable of the prodigal son, both brothers based their identity on their performance. Stay-Home brother considered himself a proper son because of his good behavior. Prodigal brother considered himself a servant because of his poor behavior. Both were wrong about the basis for their identity. 

But it's not just the prodigal son brothers. Self-righteousness is rampant in Christian circles.

I do think that part of the reason why is that we haven't precisely thought through the meaning and relationship of our two natures. 

Dan Miller's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
...

As for the room... 

As Ed has suggested, volition is key. Isn't our true deepest desire the one we would choose? I don't think most people I know would choose something truly horrible, as we normally think of "horrible." But, for unbelievers, it would be something "in Adam" as well as something in a personal context of God-rejection. Rarely would it be some kind of atrocity! 

As for The Room. SPOILER ALERT: If you're going to watch the movie The Stalker, don't read on...

In the movie, what you eventually come to realize, is that for everyone who enters the room and gets what they desire, the result is despair and suicide. It depicts, in my view, the human conscience, accusing unopposed. It's like a secular worldview that accepts total depravity (but since it's secular, there is no gospel - just the realization that you're evil). People say things to themselves like, "If I won the lottery, I would be happy. I would help my friends, etc." But lottery winners are uniformly unhappy. The message of the movie it that your desires are evil and a simple life where you are not able to reach them is better. Best not to enter the room. Your desires are evil, so if you get them, you will hate them and yourself. 

The point of my discussion of Smith's use of The Stalker and The Room, is to ask, given this perspective of total depravity, what does adding the gospel do? 

For Smith (and Thomists), it is that we should do the [necessary things] to form our soul into a soul that is dominated by good desires. Then The Room won't doom us because we have been formed into souls that desire good. In Aquinas's view, we have therefore been made just (justified). Smith never says that last part.

For me, we always have confidence in the room based on our imputed, perfect, earned-by-Jesus, identity (nature). But we also have a partially re-formed old nature. And we have to agree that if we entered The Room (or won the lottery), we would likely prove to be desirers of bad things. 

Here are the outstanding questions dealing with Smith's work:

  1. Is my soul "formed" at least in terms of sanctification improving my desires?
  2. If those are the desires of me, are they part of my "identity" or "nature" or [what]? (Semantic question, but one that seems important to Aaron.) 
  3. What is the relationship between my progressively sanctified desires and my perfect identity?
  4. What is Smith's prescription for forming the soul? Is it a good prescription?  

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