You Are What You Love, James 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:
- If an outsider were to observe the lives of our congregation or group for a week, what would they conclude we love?
- What “liturgies” inside or outside our community seem most formative in shaping these “habits of heart?”
- 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.