you are what you love

This book shifted me. Maybe I should say that in theory, it is shifting me - but whether anything happens in practice, time will tell. Lets start with a few appetizers:

'We are oriented by our longings, directed by our desires' (11).

'You are what you love because you live toward what you want' (13).

'Our primary orientation to the world is visceral, not cerebral' (33).

James K. A. Smith's You Are What You Love is very Pauline (Phil 1.9-11): 'It is not that I know in order to love, but rather: I love in order to know ... The place to start is by attending to our loves' (7).

Here are some of the shifts for me...
1. At a personal level, I need to recalibrate the way I see my journey into holiness. It is not just mustering up disciplines, it is about orienting my loves and wants, aiming them at God. 'Our sanctification is more like a Weight Watchers program than listening to a book on a tape. If sanctification is tantamount to closing the gap between what I know and what I do, it means changing what I want' (65).

As I am writing this post, I have one eye, and a lot emotion and imagination, attuned to cricinfo as I track with Kane Williamson towards another Test century. To be honest, I am being a bit obsessive about it. It is too big 'a want'. A relatively innocuous desire like this can do its damage. 'If love is both habit and hunger, then our tastes and cravings for what's ultimate will be changed in the same way' (64) - by feeding hungers and nurturing habits. 'Not all sins are decisions' (54):
... our sins aren't just discrete, wrong actions and bad decisions; they reflect vices. And overcoming them requires more than just knowledge; it requires rehabituation, a re-formation of our loves (54).
2. I need to change the way I understand (and teach) 'worldview'. Some years ago I noted the change between the first (1988) and second (2004) editions of James Sire's landmark The Universe Next Door in which he moves from a solely intellectual description of 'worldview' to one that is more inclusive of the affections. Smith is moving along this same trajectory. If we think human beings are 'brains-on-a-stick', then we will fail to see surrounding cultural practices as liturgies, 'as habit-forming, love-shaping rituals that get hold of our hearts and aim our loves' (38). These cultural liturgies are 'rival modes of worship .... that affectively and viscerally train our desires' (23, 32). Worldview is a matter of the affections and the imagination, not just the intellect. Pastors need 'to be ethnographers, helping their congregations name and 'exegete' their local liturgies' (54).

This is a poem that is quoted twice in the book (11, 91)
The case study Smith uses as an illustration must be one of the most discussed aspects of the book. It is brilliant. He takes the reader to the shopping mall and the way consumerism acts as a 'cultural liturgy' that takes over our hearts, shapes our behaviour and stains the way we encounter God (40-55). He considers the 'shopping mall through a liturgical lens' (55) and asks, in this experience, 'What are the things you do that do something to you?' - because 'the mall is 'a formative space, covertly shaping our loves and longings' (55). A bit like Calvin who spoke of our hearts as 'idol factories'...
[NB: the author speaks about consumerism here:].

This took me back thirty years. Fresh out of seminary and heading off to be a pastor and my father said something to me which struck me as odd at the time: 'Don't forget to engage with peoples' feelings because that is what drives their behaviour - not so much their thoughts.' I think he was right.

[A similar case study could be built around the immersion by a generation of Christian young adults in Friends, followed by Big Bang Theory. Twenty years of soaking it up. These cultural liturgies have so formed their loves and habits regarding relationships and sexuality that the counter-liturgy in the Story comes across to them as implausible and impossible. It is very, very sad. We are what we soak in...].

3. At one point Smith asks, 'What if education weren't first and foremost about what we know but about what we love?' (155). Now, that would cause a shift! He talks about shaping students in the same way as we shape our children: 'the faculty in loco parentis ('in place of parents')' (158). Just as the pastor's love is the same brand of love as the parent (1 Thess 2), maybe so also the teacher's love? By the end of a course I often feel that way... He talks about the spiritual practices which faculty can embrace (and shouldn't we add administrative staff as well?) in order to cultivate this direction. A bit of Bonhoeffer's Life Together surfaces. But maybe unlike it is with children, do we need to rethink the place of compulsion in the formation of students? I remained unconvinced about the value of making things compulsory with adult learners... In a lovely touch, Smith writes about the transformative impact on a class that buying a coffee-maker had, of arriving early to welcome his class with freshly brewed coffee - as 'a kind of incense for early-morning learning' (163).

4. There is one area where I find the author encourages me not to shift. This obsession we have with 'remaking the church in order to 'speak to' contemporary culture' (75). It is misguided. Later, 'we cannot hope to restore the world if we are constantly reinventing the church' (178). Such people think that it is the church's out-of-dateness that is its biggest problem. Smith sees it differently. In fact he is quite subversive. 'In order to foster a Christian imagination we don't need to invent; we need to remember' (181). It is an immersion in the Story that is needed, not an immersion in the latest trends. We are restored by being 're-storied'. Using the earlier example, rather than making church more like a mall in order to fit into the cultural flow (because if we do this, this does something to us!), we need to invest in the 'counter-liturgies'. It is going against the cultural flow, in an intriguing way, that is the key.

This approach is then taken to four combustible areas: worship, youth ministry, weddings and the home.

With worship (57-81), Smith advocates a move away from it being solely an expressive activity, something we are doing, and on towards it becoming more of a formative activity, something that is being done to us. 'Worship is not primarily a venue for innovative creativity but a place for discerning reception and faithful repetition' (78). In the following chapter (83-110) he gives some ideas on how this can be done - and even offers advice on how to persist in a church context where this is not happening (99-103). He makes a special plea for including confession in worship (103-110). Stop being so fussed about what might appear to be irrelevant or too churchy for the possible unbeliever in your midst and get on with being faithful to biblical worship. How can we expect God to be at work among us if we are not worshipping as he us wants to do? My money is on the unbeliever being drawn closer by watching authentic confession more often than we think - and, if not, that is no reason to stop doing confession.
[NB: the author speaks about worship here:].

With youth ministry (143-154), Smith reminds us that 'effective Christian formation of young people might look like a failure for a time' (146). How true. The lack of patience and the need for measurements of (numerical) success plagues youth ministry. 'We have effectively communicated to young people that sincerely following Jesus is synonymous with being 'fired up' for Jesus, with being excited for Jesus, as if discipleship were synonymous with fostering an exuberant, perky, cheerful disposition...' (146-147). Subversively, he makes a case for the love of tradition among young people and that instead of looking for the next big thing in youth ministry, 'we should be looking behind us' (151) - way behind us because 'the future of the church is ancient' (7).
[NB: the author speaks on youth ministry here:].

With weddings (118-126), Smith worries about the liturgies of narcissism that afflict the event. The 'spectacle of the wedding' is the focus: 'It is why we spend more time fixated on the spectacular flash of the wedding event than on the long slog of sustaining a marriage' (120). I've become disillusioned by Christian wedding ceremonies. Basically, I won't take them anymore ... unless there is a commitment to them being both a serious sacrament and the launch of a missional partnership.

With the home (126-136), these are my favourite pages. Smith ain't gonna buy any 'idolatry of family' ideas. He actually prefers the word 'household' ... 'because I don't want to fall into a narrow picture that assumes we are all parents. God calls some of us to singleness (1 Cor 7.8), and not all of us live in parent-child homes' (203). Good man. I love the way he calls us 'to situate our households in the wider household of God' (133). Amen to that one. We should be concerned about
the ethos of our households - the unspoken 'vibe' carried in our daily rituals. Every household has a 'hum', and that hum has a tune that is attuned to some end, some telos. We need to tune our homes, and thus our hearts, to sing his grace (127).
Smith includes some moving stories from his own household. For example: (1) On the 'formative power of the family supper table', I've read the story on pages 132-133 aloud a few times and wept every time; and (2) On the value of family traditions and memory-making, I love the story about taking his kids to a cathedral in France (150-151).
[NB: the author speaks about life in the household here:].

James K. A. Smith is a relatively new discovery for me as an author. Slowly, I plan to make my way through his books, with one other reviewed here. I like to read by author, rather than by topic - and slowly expand my list of favourites authors and read what they write. This guy is on that list.

BTW, he has a delightful eye for illustrations. Very much the principle I teach - that the best illustrations are about seeing the spiritually significant in the utterly ordinary. CS Lewis in Mere Christianity reigns supreme on this one. But likening the Augustinian quote about 'hearts being restless' with a beachball in a pool is seriously impressive (14). So also is the way a visit to a grocery store leads to a recognition that we don't 'think our way to new tastes' (59-64). I love the way he lingers with Balthasar's observation of the similarities between the way a mother is with a baby and the way God is with us (111-113).

nice chatting


PS: two (less than) 2 minute videos - and there are a set of ten on youtube...


Fred said…
Thanks for this review Paul. Smith was a great discovery for me too. His Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom (first publish titles of a promised trilogy)are superb.
Fred said…
P.S. And his Letters to a Young Calvinist made me smile. He must have been stalking me 20 years back, because he describes me back then oh so well :-)
damianv said…
Wow, this book looks excellent - and just what I need to read right now. Thanks for the write-up and the heads up, Paul! Love to you and Barby.
Paul said…
Yes, Damian - you'll find the book valuable. Think it is the most significant book I've read since To Change the World. But watch the ten 1-2min videos from Brazo Press that are on you-tube before you read the book (I've linked about 5 of them in the post) ... I did this with Barby yesterday. Watch them in order, as one automatically flows into the next one. Takes 15min. A great introduction to the book... Best wishes. Paul
Paul said…
Yes, Freddie - I think you were one of the first ones to mention Smith's trilogy to me. Interesting for you to watch #10 (the final one) in the sequence of 1-2min videos on youtube that Brazos Press produced to help promote the book. This is the link:
In it he talks about those earlier books. It seems that they did not achieve what he had hoped - which led to him writing You Are What You Love.

The little Calvinist book is great fun - I love the way he persistently avoids talking about what everyone wants him to talk about (predestination etc) in favour of painting the bigger - and very attractive, I think - vision of what the big C is all about. It is almost mischievous. Speaking of the big C ... It takes me back to a post I wrote years ago on how it was my perception - after 30 years with NZ Baptists - that they would prefer to snuggle up to Catholics than Calvinists. That is worth thinking about...

Go well, my friend

ShireenCh said…
Thanks for this fantastic review. I've just discovered this author in my recent travels and got his books in Asia. It's on my pile of to read books in the coming months!
Paul said…
Thanks, Shireen - blessings to you!

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