You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit
(James K. A. Smith)
This small gem of a book is a needed tonic in discussions about discipleship. Discipleship is a buzz-word in evangelical circles right now with a plethora of titles I will not even attempt to list here. But what is compelling about James K. A.Smith’s angle is his focus on our hearts and not our heads. Drawing on Augustine in contrast to Descartes, he reminds us that we are primarily lovers and worshipers, not just thinkers. According to Smith these loves will ultimately play themselves out in habits which will shape us and mold us in certain directions. These habits he calls liturgies.
We can’t escape liturgy according to Smith. We all worship something in some way, whether we are Christian or not. One of the most fascinating areas of the book is his exploration of secular liturgies that call out to us. Think shopping malls teaming with those looking for the newest in fashion, or wild-eyed fans in a sports stadium. There you will find liturgies inviting all to worship false idols. But believers too can be wooed by these false temples. To counter this, Smith argues that we need Christian liturgy that grabs our imaginations and hearts. Calling worship the “imagination station that incubates our loves and longings so that our cultural endeavors are indexed toward God and his kingdom”, he guides us to think about the missing link in so many discipleship programs and schemes: worship. It is here, in worship, that we are re-storied into God’s story.
But don’t think Smith is just some old fuddy-duddy who doesn’t like modern music. What he really focuses on is form, not style. For him, “Christian worship is the heart of discipleship just to the extent that it is a repertoire of practices shaped by the biblical story.” For Smith the best worship is one that follows the grand arc of the Biblical story and forms us through the repetition of poetic and imaginative cadences (think The Book of Common Prayer). It is such worship that makes the drama of redemption sticky and caught, not just taught.
Drawing on traditional forms of worship from the church through the centuries filtered by Reformed theology, Smith reminds us that worship is not bottom up, but top down. Worship is initiated by God as we are called by God into worship, not by our desire to express ourselves. Through the gathering, listening, communing, and sending of the body of Christ we are reformed, and re-storied in order to “inhabit the sanctuary of God’s creation as living, breathing images of God.”
Having laid out his vision for biblical reforming worship Smith goes on to explore in other chapters liturgies of the home and vocation. These are short essays in and of themselves, but make for intriguing reading pushing and pulling us to think about the meaning of family, home, and work, and what are we actually doing regardless of what we think we are doing.
Why I like this book is that it challenges us to examine our hearts while offering balance to flow charts, schedules, and pyramid schemes that imply that discipleship is merely a task we master and pass on to others, without really examining the place of communal worship, art, and imagination in the life of the disciple. Don’t get me wrong, we need to memorize scripture, tell others about Jesus, and fulfill the great commission, but we also need to think about the issues that Smith raises as well. In the end, we are lovers, and what we love will profoundly shape who we are, and who we worship.
In a collegiate context I can see this book as a great small group read, gift for a worship team, or a graduating senior. A senior pastor or worship leader would also benefit from thinking how to frame the preaching of the word with the reinforcement of liturgy. Small groups would have a creative time mapping secular liturgies on the campus, whether humanism’s sacred cows, sports fanatics’ stadium temple, or the acolytes who constantly chase any new fashion or entertainment craze. Most of all, however, it will make all who read it pause, and ask, what are the habits (liturgies) that are most profound in their lives..
For those who are intrigued by this book by Smith, you may also enjoy his trilogy (it is still in progress with only two books out) that explores worship, discipleship, and cultural liturgies in Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, and Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation.