"You Are What You Love" by James K. A. Smith. A Review

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit
James K. A. Smith
Brazos Press
Baker Publishing Group
6030 East Fulton Road
Ada, MI 49301
ISBN: 9781587433801; $19.99; March 2016
Reviewed by Rev. Dr. Michael Philliber for Deus Misereatur

The ancient essayist astutely quipped, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4.23). That truism surfaces in story form and didactic instruction throughout Scripture, and is substantiated when raising our children, supervising employees or shepherding parishioners: what has your heart rules your life. This is the central emphasis in the newly published 224 hardback, “You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit” by James K. A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, accomplished author and editor. This short work appears to be a compression and reworking of his larger “Desiring the Kingdom” to make it more accessible for busy pastors and disciples.

The heart of “You Are What You Love” from which flow the springs and chapters is the importance of discipleship. For Smith, discipleship has far less to do with the cognitive, and more with the God-storied, Gospel-shaped affections and perceptions where our loves and longings are aligned with Christ’s. Discipleship is “to want what God wants, to desire what God desires, to hunger and thirst after God and crave a world where he is all in all” (2); it is a “rehabituation of your loves” (19). And this rehabituation comes through the character-inscribing “rhythms and routines and rituals, enacted over and over again” that embed a heart-disposition that leans into God’s reign (Ibid.). These rhythms, routines and rituals come in habit-forming, love-molding liturgies.

The greater flow of the book expounds the importance of traditional Christian liturgy, and explores rival liturgies in the marketplace, some youth ministries, vocational environments, wedding arrangements, etc. Smith’s perceptive investigation of these secular liturgies is quite insightful and handy for thinking through the ways our affections and hearts are being molded to love lesser things, alternative views of the good life, and opposing kingdoms. According to Smith, through these everyday rituals and practices “I’m covertly conscripted into a way of life because I have been formed by cultural practices that are nothing less than secular liturgies. My loves have been automated by rituals I didn’t even realize were liturgies” (45).

Yet the weight of “You Are What You Love” delves into the importance of Christian liturgy in re-accustoming our loves and longings in the right direction. The church “is the place where God invites us to renew our loves, reorient our desires, and retrain our appetites” because the church is “that household where the Spirit feeds us what we need” and we graciously become a “people who desire him above all else” (65). Therefore, the church’s liturgies are highly essential for discipleship, because “Christian worship is the feast where we acquire new hungers – for God and for what God desires – and are then sent into his creation to act accordingly” (Ibid.). This premise leads the author to make a significant case for well-rehearsed and historical liturgies, rather than the new and novel. In challenging the hankering for the innovative, Smith stresses that we “keep looking for God in the new, as if grace were always bound up with “the next best thing,” but Jesus encouraged us to look for God in a simple, regular meal” (67).

But the author recognizes this emphasis on Christian liturgy as a primary practice of heart-shaping, disciple-making, will evoke surprise and skepticism due to many readers’ experiences. Smith spends time divulging how many churches have re-vamped their liturgies into passive entertainment, or an expressivist endeavor. The corrective is to reclaim the gift of worship and the recognition that the main agent in worship is God himself. In classic form, worship “works from the top down….we don’t just come to show God our devotion and give him praise; we are called to worship because in this encounter God (re)makes and molds us top-down. Worship is the arena in which God recalibrates our hearts, reforms our desires, and rehabituates our loves. Worship isn’t just something we do; it is where God does something to us” (77). In being reclaimed by historic Christian liturgy, we find that worship “that restores us is worship that restories us” 95). It draws us back into God’s story, week after week, re-grounding and re-immersing us into God’s world reclamation project.

“You Are What You Love” is a treatise about the heart, to help disciples learn to guard their hearts. It is insightful, instructive, investigative and inducing. This work is ideal for an elder board to read together as they think through – or rethink altogether – the why and way of Christian worship and their task of the care of the souls given to their charge. Pastors and parishioners alike would benefit greatly from probing the leaves of this manuscript. Also, church planters, missionaries, and church revitalizers will find their time spent reading this material well worth it. This is a must-read for anyone serious about church, worship, and disciple-making.

Thanks to Brazos Press for providing, upon my request, the free copy of “You Are What You Love” used for this review. The assessments are mine given without restrictions or requirements (as per Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255).


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