Review: You Are What You Love


You Are What You LoveJames K. A. Smith. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016.

Summary: Smith contends that our hearts and the ways we live our lives are shaped by what we love and worship, and that “liturgies” historically have shaped the loves of our hearts and the ways of our lives.

So often, in Christian circles, it is thought that if we can instruct Christians in right doctrine and help them apply this rightly in their lives, they will live Christianly. James K. A. Smith would not deny the importance of right doctrine but would argue that it is the shaping of our hearts, our loves, desires, and what we worship, that is crucial in translating right belief into our practices. Several years ago, Smith framed out in great depth this argument in Desiring the Kingdom (reviewed here). Many have asked for a more distilled version of this material, which he provides in this new work.

Smith begins by observing that we are not simply thinking things but rather people shaped by the habits of our hearts. Re-shaping our lives means recognizing the existing habits of the heart, often more culturally than convictionally-shaped, and re-orienting our hearts by re-orienting the focus of our worship. He believes this fundamentally happens through “liturgies” that re-shape the loves of our heart along the lines of loving the Triune God and loving our neighbors.

The problem he sees in much of contemporary church practice is its thin, expressive form. In an effort to turn away from liturgical formalism, it has rejected the proper uses of liturgy. Instead, he would contend as follows:

     “If worship is formative, not merely expressive, then we need to be conscious and intentional about the form of worship that is forming us. This has one more important implication: When you unhook worship from mere expression, it also completely retools your understanding of repetition. If you think of worship as a bottom-up, expressive endeavor, repetition will seem insincere and inauthentic. But when you see worship as an invitation to a top-down encounter in which God is refashioning your deepest habits, then repetition looks very different: it’s how God rehabituates us. In a formational paradigm, repetition isn’t insincere, because you are not showing, you’re submitting. This is crucial because there is no formation without repetition. Virtue formation takes practice, and there is no practice that isn’t repetitive. We willingly embrace repetition as good in all kinds of other sectors of 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” (p. 80).

Smith then explores how Christian worship is meant to “re-story” our lives in a narrative arc of gathering, listening, communing, and sending. In the final three chapters he writes about liturgies at home and at work, and most tellingly, of the shaping of the hearts of our young. He decries the “next big thing” of much of youth ministry and contends for communal practices of eating, praying, singing, thinking and reading together across generations in both families and educational settings.

Even this distillation of Smith’s work is worth savoring and reading slowly. It is an important work for any charged with leading the formational and liturgical life of churches, as it is for those engaged in the formational work of education, and those who care about the translation of Christian believe into Christian practice in the workplace. It recognizes that we are far more shaped by our heart-habits, whether it is praying the hours, or regularly checking our phones, than simply by what we formally believe. Far too often we are those, who, like the author, read Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan’s challenges to healthier agriculture and eating while sitting in a fast-food restaurant. Just as weight loss programs help us develop better liturgies toward food, Smith contends that the work of the church is to lead us in liturgies that shape our hearts around our beliefs in ways that God works to transform our lives.

I’ll leave you with three questions this provokes for me:

  1. If an outsider were to observe the lives of our congregation or group for a week, what would they conclude we love?
  2. What “liturgies” inside or outside our community seem most formative in shaping these “habits of heart?”
  3. What “liturgies” might we embrace to begin to be formed along the lines of what we believe?


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher . I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: 16 Strivings for God

16 Strivings for God

16 Strivings for God, Steven Reiss. Macon: Mercer University Press, 2015.

Summary: A new psychology of religious experience that argues that religions enjoy such a wide embrace because they offer repeated opportunities to satisfy sixteen basic motivations or “strivings” common to all human beings.

St. Augustine of Hippo in The Confessions wrote, “Thou has made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Steven Reiss, a psychologist whose most recent work has been in the area of motivation, argues that this striving, restless heart, expressed in a multi-faceted variety of ways, is the basis for the continuing appeal of religion and indeed that any major religion worth its salt appeals to all of sixteen strivings or motivations.

This contention is rooted in Reiss’s  work in motivation theory. Through a series of large scale surveys, Reiss and his associates discovered sixteen basic desires that he would argue are common to all human beings. Individuals have their own pattern of strong and weak desires, the interplay of which is important for self-understanding. The Reiss Motivation Profile® is a standardized assessment and is best understood with the assistance of a qualified coach.

In this book, he brings that research to bear in proposing a new psychology of religious experience based not on a single factor such as those of Tylor, Fraser, Freud, James, or others, but a multiple set of factors unique to each person that also may be predictive of the features in a religion which will most resonate with that person. People embrace religion on the basis of their particular pattern of strivings.

Reiss, while touching on teachings of all the major religions at various points, seems most familiar with Judeo-Christianity. He contends in one chapter that the Judeo-Christian idea of God reflects the ultimate expression of thirteen of the sixteen strivings (excluding romance, eating, and saving, although I might see ways to include even these!). What I most appreciated about Reiss is that he does not see this, unlike Feuerbach or Freud, as a support for atheism. He leaves the theological question of God’s existence open, but observes that, “If our concept of God did not express our deepest desires and needs, he would be meaningless to us” (p. 57).

Reiss then applies these ideas to discussions of what motivates asceticism and mysticism. He proposes an ascetic profile in which persons have strong desires for honor, and low desire for eating, social contact, family, romance, status, and tranquility. He would characterize the mystic as gentle, humble, visionary, unambitious, and aesthetic.

The longest chapter, chapter 7 explores the contradictions of human nature and how both strong and weak desires of each of the sixteen strivings are addressed in religious experience. Here again, he focuses most on the Judeo-Christian tradition, including numerous quotes from the Christian scriptures. In so doing, he demonstrates the explanatory power of his theory of religious experience.

I do find his argument persuasive overall, although I also wonder about the falsifiability of his theory. His thesis resonates well with the argument Jamie Smith has made recently in Desiring the Kingdom, that we are “desiring agents”, that we are what we love. Reiss touches on how we may sometimes be drawn to aspects of a religion that address a desire that one perceives too weak or strong (for example, the practices of fasting that may address gluttony). Yet Reiss also sees motivational patterns as relatively immutable. One of the contentions of Christian formational practices is that our encounters with God through practices and liturgies may “re-order” desires that are inordinately weak or strong. These two ideas seem in tension and I would be curious how Reiss would address this.

My sense in reading this book was one of listening to a sympathetic observer giving his observations of the faith in which I dwell. It is interesting to consider why particular things about the Christian faith, such as bringing together the love of God and the life of the mind, that are so much a part of my life and I think are intrinsic to faith also may be reflective of the particular mix of desires and motivations that make me who I am. It seems this can serve as a tool for understanding why others differ from us and yet identify with the same faith and might be a helpful tool for understanding across our differences within our religious communities.


Review: Divine Sex

divine sexDivine Sex, Jonathan Grant. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015.

Summary: Jonathan Grant argues that a powerful “social imaginary” shapes sexual expression even within the Christian community and only communities that live and articulate a “thick” alternative vision can hope to have a formative influence on the lives of Christian disciples.

Often, when I talk with various people in leadership in the Christian community about issues related to sexuality, there is a sense of not knowing what “hit us” and not necessarily liking the result nor knowing how to address it. What I think this important book by Jonathan Grant does is parse out the cultural revolution that has occurred that forms the sexual desires of all of us, and articulates a path forward for the church that goes much farther than the negative messages of “what not to do, when not to do it, and who not to do it with” that has often summarized teaching around sexuality within the church.

Grant draws heavily on the ideas of Charles Taylor and James K. A. Smith. He argues that there is a secular “social imaginary”, a vision of reality, that fundamentally shapes our sexual attitudes, whether we are Christians or not. In particular, and he draws on Smith here, we are desiring creatures, and this social imaginary shapes both what we desire and how we think those desires may be fulfilled. He develops a cultural analysis of this social imaginary in the first part of the book. Its leading characteristic is an expressive individualism committed to radical authenticity in relationships. With regard to sexuality, there is both the longing to find one’s “soul mate” and yet preserve one’s own sense of autonomous individuality. It results in  a ‘definitely maybe’ culture where people long for intimacy but struggle with commitment.

He explores the surprising reality that increasing numbers are deciding to “go solo”, living alone, while either engaging in a series of casual relationships, or substituting cyber-porn for real relationships. This leads to a focus on the consumeristic aspect of modern sexuality, where media has created a feminine (and perhaps masculine) ideal, and where, through online dating, there is this myth of infinite choice, where one is always wondering if there is someone more perfect than the one you are with. He chillingly chronicles the rise of cyber-pornography and how it rewires the brain and renders its users less capable of engaging in real relationships that fail to conform to video fantasies. All this leads to a hyper-sexualized self, where, as one person interviewed put it, “sex has no mystery.”

The second half of the book begins to look at what the author thinks the church must do, drawing on his own parish experience. He believes in the development of a Christian social imaginary, a compelling vision of sexuality within the life of a Christian disciple. It is a vision that is eschatological, understanding ourselves as the betrothed of Christ preparing for our union as the Church with him. This situates sexual desire within the framework of being a sign of something so much larger and really good for which we were made. It is a vision that is metaphysical, recognizing that it is as male and female we image God. We do not complete each other, and so singleness can be honored and fulfilling, but the marriage union does image something of the Creator. It is a vision that is formational and missional. It emphasizes faithfulness and service of fulfillment and the autonomous self. All of this focuses around shaping our desire for God, recognizing that our longing for intimacy is met most deeply in God and all other intimacies point us toward, and are meant to reflect that intimacy.

So much of this can happen only in a community that is living out the story of a gospel that calls us into redeemed relationships marked by commitment, service, and self-giving love. Desire is shaped by examples, as friends, singles, and couples, model a new way of living and desiring that spans generations. He concludes with thoughts about various formational practices of such a community including embodied worship, that celebrates our physicality and churches that are courting communities, not in the sense of the singles “meat market” but as a place where men and women can serve and work together and have the chance to explore who the other is in the context of a supportive community.

The book is an elegantly written and thoughtful cultural analysis that avoids the easy nostrums of so many books while putting forth a rich vision of sexuality as both gift of God and harbinger of so much more. He speaks into a culture that has made sexualty little more than a pleasure function, even while so many who have been caught up in the secular social imaginary find themselves asking, “is that all there is?” Grant points the way to a different vision that would suggest that indeed there is so much more.

Recently, this book was named one of Christianity Today’s Books of the Year in the category of Christian Living/Discipleship.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”