Book Review: ‘You Are What You Love’ by James K. Smith

Think of the last time you argued with a friend about how to solve a complex social problem. I’m willing to bet that at some point in the conversation, one of you emphasized how important it is to educate the public about xyz so that people know how best to act. After all, we make the best decisions when we have the right facts, the right mindset about something. That’s why education is so valuable: it (presumably) supplies us with both.

In his book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, philosopher James K. Smith argues that when we fixate on knowledge and education as the ultimate answer to human problems, we are implicitly buying into an understanding of human beings as primarily “thinking things”—a view which can be attributed in large part to Rene Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” philosophy. But this model of human behavior is woefully incomplete. How often do you think one thing and do another? How often do you see other people contradict their own stated convictions and intentions? We cannot merely think or reason our way to a better world.

So Smith asks a question to get us to look at reality in a different way: What if we are not primarily thinking creatures, but creatures of habit? What if we are not driven mainly by what we know, but by what we love

Cover of You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, by James K. Smith. Source: Calvin College.

Drawing from ancient Greek and Christian philosophy, Smith’s central thesis is that all of us love certain things very much, and that we are “covertly conscripted” to fulfill those loves not just in conscious but countless unconscious ways. We all strive toward what philosophers call a telos—a goal, a vision of the good life—and we are so captivated by it that we rarely stop to think through the alternatives. The center of the human person is not the head but the heart, says Smith: we love some thing ultimate and that love pulls us in particular directions.

Here’s the catch: our loves often operate “under the hood,” forming habits in us without our realizing it. While we can exercise our free will to learn new habits and un-learn old ones, we frequently absorb and acquire habits in subconscious, unintentional ways. Stereotypes are of course a poignant example of this, but Smith also analyzes the architecture and messaging of a shopping mall to reinforce the point. Malls work by capturing our imagination with soaring structures and flashy images of a life fulfilled by acquiring possessions, good looks, and good-looking friends. They send implicit messages about what we lack and what we need, while hiding the deleterious effects of disposal, consumption, and self-absorption.

It’s not just malls that do this to us. Smith forcefully argues that we are all immersed in cultural practices that orient us towards particular visions of the good life, and those visions are not always good for us. Social media, for example, captivates us with promises of connection, status, and validation. The gym I attend uses pictures, interior design, music, and slogans to draw people in with visions of healthy living, beauty, and sex appeal. Graduate schools nudge students towards a more or less liberal worldview and lingua franca that you have to speak if you want to get tenure. Smith wants us to wake up to what desires are being trained in us when we go about our day-to-day activities—what he calls our “liturgies,” or “rituals loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for” (46). Christians in particular (Smith’s target audience) need to assess whether the liturgies we engage in run counter to the ends of God.

How do we do this? We can start with a “liturgical audit” of how we spend our time each day, much like St. Ignatius’ “daily examen.” But conscious reflection, while necessary, is insufficient. As Smith shows over and over, thinking through our problems is vital, but ultimately any insights we gain should be catalysts for new practices that will reform our hunger for God. We must immerse ourselves in liturgies that tell us a better story about our identity and purpose so as to counter the rival narratives of our culture (61). And the primary place we do that is the church.

Smith uses two key metaphors for the church at this point. First, church is a feast, a place where we feed our hungers by gathering together, singing songs, praying, eating meals together, and so on. Think of the “bread of life” analogy for God that runs throughout scripture.

But church is more than that, too. It is a gymnasium, a training ground for re-training our loves and our habits so that they are properly ordered and directed to the right ends. This from Smith:

Our sanctification—the process of becoming holy and Christ-like—is more like a Weight Watchers program than listening to a book on tape. If sanctification is tantamount to closing the gap between what I know and what I do […], it means changing what I want. And that requires submitting ourselves to disciplines and regimens that reach down into our deepest habits. The Spirit of God meets us in that space—in that gap—not with lightning bolts of magic but with the concrete practices of the body of Christ that conscript our bodily habits. If we think of sanctification as learning to “put on” or “clothe” ourselves with Christ (Rom. 13:14; Col. 3:14), this is intimately bound up with becoming incorporated into his body, the corpus Christi. (65)

But joining a church does not necessarily mean we will form the spiritual habits that are best for us. Some churches reduce worship to singing, and define discipleship as the mere act of filling one’s minds with knowledge. Other churches get too hung up on an extraordinary, experiential encounter with God. But worship isn’t just about us singing songs; it is not just about having extraordinary encounters. It is not even primarily about either of those things. Worship, says Smith, is much broader than that: God uses ordinary practices—corporate prayer, preaching, communion, offering, benediction, etc.—to form us and disciple us. Smith quotes Craig Dykstra: “The life of Christian faith is the practice of many practices.” To which Smith adds: “not because this is something we accomplish, but because these practices are the ‘habitations of the spirit’.”

This is a vital idea to grasp. I grew up Catholic, but my parents left the Catholic Church and moved on to a Pentecostal church because the local parishes were too legalistic: an outsized emphasis was placed on practice, repetition, and liturgy. And this indeed is how many evangelical Christians regard anything that suggests “liturgy.” Liturgy is hollow. Routine. Something you do without thinking. A works-based way of life, not one rooted in grace.

But Smith shows that the Protestant Reformers did not respond to the distortions of Catholic ritual by being “antiliturgical” but by being “properly liturgical.” That is, the Reformers believed that the rituals of their time ended up placing all the emphasis on human action, not on God’s action. The solution was not to abandon the rituals of the church altogether, but to put them back on the right track. So the Reformers defined worship (or rather returned to its intended meaning) as the place where God acts and we respond. That doesn’t mean worship involves passive participation on our part. On the contrary, the Reformers thought that “various parts of the liturgy, and the liturgy as a whole, are to be seen as ‘an interaction between God and the congregation.’ Liturgy is action; and the actions are not just human actions and not just divine actions but an ‘an interaction between God and his people, in which the congregation self-consciously participates'” (74). Thus Smith argues that historic liturgy is not inherently legalistic or man-made, but a gift that facilitates our formation by virtue of its repetitive, grace-filled, spirit-laden, interactive nature.

Ironically, for all their suspicion of liturgy, contemporary evangelicals often commit the same error as the Catholic distortion of liturgy. When I started going to a Pentecostal church, the emphasis in worship was on “being sincere” because that was how you guarded against rote repetition. Well, and what’s wrong with that? Just this: When you focus so much on the importance of sincerity, you can start to think that you are the primary actor in the worship—that you are coming to express something to God, not the other way around. You can start to view rituals and practices as fundamentally bad, and that what really matters is the message that gets loaded into one’s head—thereby overlooking the crucial role of the body and emotions in one’s spiritual formation. And if all that matters is a sincere heart and the message that is preached, then the inclination is to believe that the environment in which you worship doesn’t matter. In fact, you can be inclined to favor more familiar environments, such as holding a church service in a movie theater, a space in the mall, a school auditorium, or a coffee shop (or you can at least think that there’s no danger in that). The problem is that such contemporary forms and environments carry their own telos of what it means to be human.

“The liturgy of the mall,” says Smith, “is a heart-level education in consumerism that construes everything as a commodity available to make me happy. When I encounter ‘Jesus’ in such a liturgy, rather than encountering the living Lord of history, I am implicitly being taught that Jesus is one more commodity available to make me happy.”

That’s haunting stuff, and the solution is to do what the Reformers did: not to reject ancient historical forms of worship, but to embrace the properly ordered ones that enact worship as a top-down encounter with God—to see church as a place where God works in and through repetitive rituals to form us and shape us to be more like Christ. More from Smith:

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, you’re 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 a good in all kinds of other sectors of our life…. If the sovereign Lord has created us as creatures of habit, why should we think repetition is inimical to our spiritual growth?” (80)

Smith spends the rest of his book working out the implications of his argument for church, home life, discipleship, and work. In work, for example, we make what we love. How do we ensure that what we make aligns with God’s vision for human peace and flourishing on earth? In the home too, the question arises: what traditions and practices and rhythms do we bring into our homes that train and habituate our loves towards God instead of rival idols such as money, success, popularity, moralism, or self-elevation?

All this left a deep impression on me. I have read strong arguments for the beauty of liturgy in the works of N.T. Wright, but those were in the context of subjects like the resurrection and the earthly ministry of Jesus. Smith brings a beautiful theology of liturgy to the center of his book, and offers a compelling case for it that I have never really heard before, at least not in such depth. I took ample notes, re-reading certain passages over and over, and folding every three pages. By the end of the book I was pondering how to translate Smith’s thesis into practice. I’ve since begun several new rituals at home aimed at forming spiritual habits in me and my kids:

  • Saying grace before every meal and making the sign of the cross.
  • Adding more religious art in the home. We hung a crucifix downstairs and an angelic wood-carving upstairs. (I’d like to do more in this area, and have some ideas for verses and paintings we could get.)
  • Sticking with a family bedtime routine that ends with prayer. Specifically with my daughter I read three books, close with a story from our storybook bible, and then say evening prayers that involve kneeling and folding our hands.
  • Lighting a special candle at dinner once a month to commemorate the date of our son’s child dedication service.

Again: the point is not that these practices save a person. The point is not that you’re not a Christian unless you engage in a very specific list of routines. The point is that rituals are tangible ways to order our loves in the right direction. That’s what Smith’s book is about.

There is much more I want to say about it. It’s dense in some places, because Smith’s argument is layered and sophisticated. He does not argue that Anglican or Presbyterian liturgy is better than Catholic liturgy. He does not say that meeting together to hold a church service is wrong. He gives a more general theological framework for evaluating the liturgy of your church, speaking to the narrative arc of grace that is essential to maintain, but which can take a variety of shapes. He commends innovation in evangelism but rejects attempts to “reinvent” the church’s historic forms of worship. He stresses that the early Christian church maintained key components of its Jewish heritage while incorporating new Christ-centered practices to resist the narratives of the surrounding ancient Greco-Roman culture, which was overtly idolatrous and very much in opposition to the ethics of Christ’s kingdom movement. He comments on the central function of style in enabling God’s truth to sink more deeply into one’s heart.

This is one of those books I wish that I had read years ago while I was in college and graduate school, and debating with close friends about the purpose of church. If you decide you’re interested in getting it, I suggest ordering it from a local indie bookstore that I love, Hearts and Minds Books. It just might catalyze new habits in your heart.