Christianity Today Book Award Winner
Martin Institute and Dallas Willard Center Book Award
You are what you love. But you might not love what you think.
In this book, award-winning author James K. A. Smith shows that who and what we worship fundamentally shape our hearts. And while we desire to shape culture, we are not often aware of how culture shapes us. We might not realize the ways our hearts are being taught to love rival gods instead of the One for whom we were made. Smith helps readers recognize the formative power of culture and the transformative possibilities of Christian practices. He explains that worship is the "imagination station" that incubates our loves and longings so that our cultural endeavors are indexed toward God and his kingdom. This is why the church and worshiping in a local community of believers should be the hub and heart of Christian formation and discipleship.
Following the publication of his influential work Desiring the Kingdom, Smith received numerous requests from pastors and leaders for a more accessible version of that book's content. No mere abridgment, this new book draws on years of Smith's popular presentations on the ideas in Desiring the Kingdom to offer a fresh, bottom-up rearticulation. The author creatively uses film, literature, and music illustrations to engage readers and includes new material on marriage, family, youth ministry, and faith and work. He also suggests individual and communal practices for shaping the Christian life.
This review is written to be accessible to general audiences. Author of You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, James K. A. Smith, is a professor of philosophy at Calvin University and the editor-in-chief of the Image journal. At Calvin, he also holds the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He and his wife describe themselves as “committed urban dwellers” and are evidently interested in travel, literature, gardening, and camping (Calvin). Smith’s other work includes a guide to Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and books discussing topics such as postmodernism, relativism, the kingdom of God, and discipleship. In this book, Smith tackles the subject of habit, its integral place in the human experience, and its significance for rightly living the Christian life.
This book is suitable for all Christian audiences seeking to learn more about how to develop what Smith calls the habits of the Spirit, living in the pattern of Christ and growing more deeply in love with God. Smith’s claim is that human beings are most essentially lovers, in contrast to thinkers or doers. This contradicts many modern Westerner’s assumptions about the nature of human beings and is critical in understanding how Christians can be daily formed into the image of Jesus. Smith’s thoughts are relevant to church leaders and laypeople, and Smith argues that liturgies and character-forming practices exist in formal services and mundane experiences alike. This means that Christians must be aware and intentional about their rituals, for they are being shaped by what they do and where they spend their time, whether they are aware of it or not.
This book is separated into seven chapters through which Smith builds his argument for the importance of habits and traditional Christian liturgies. Through chapters one and two Smith confronts the typical assumptions that humans are driven by their beliefs and thoughts. He first establishes that the things that innately drive humans are their longings and desires; it is what people love that moves them to do what they do. Furthermore, this love is not set by a single choice or cognitive inclination, it is subconsciously and gradually built up by repeated practices and behaviors. These routines communicate values, shape ideas and concerns, and determine loves. Humans are surrounded by these habits that Smith calls liturgies, even in something as innocuous as the shopping mall. As Smith progresses through chapters three and four he proposes that the response to these secular habit-forming practices and institutions is a dependence on historic Christian worship practices. Worship that seeks God’s formation of the human life is that which will result in habitations of the Spirit.
Smith continues to explain that worship should be grounded in the Gospel story and work as a part of discipleship. In chapters five, six, and seven, Smith lays out practical areas of life in which Christians can develop liturgies. This includes the home, which involves the church community, marriage, and child-rearing. Smith also addresses youth and children’s ministries in formal church settings and describes ways to implement traditional Christian liturgies and practices into these settings. Lastly, he discusses the importance of rituals and formative worship for adults in areas of their vocation. Smith argues that tradition is the way forward in innovation and advocates for a return to historic practices as a way of restoration in the Church rather than reinvention.
Smith’s commitment to his message is strong in You Are What You Love. His reasoning for his claims is carefully laid out and supported. He takes the time to explain what he means when he says that liturgies exist in the secular world and all sorts of activities and destinations can work to subconsciously form human habits. At times, however, this investigation into problematic aspects of culture and society can be given too much focus. Throughout the book, Smith can become hyper-fixated on a topic that truly does serve as an excellent illustration of his points, but slightly derails the over-all conversation of the book. For example, when Smith shows his readers the hidden messages of the shopping mall, he spends over ten pages pointing out the problematic implications or practices that shopping malls encourage (pages 40-53). In discussing Christian community, Smith takes seven pages to evaluate the modern wedding industry and ceremonial customs (pages 119-125). While these pictures do communicate his intentions regarding the power of hidden liturgies, they also distract from the central argument of the book by causing it to appear as a commentary on consumerism and contemporary culture as a whole.
What Smith has driven home is that all humans are creatures of habit. Humans are also essentially creatures of love. It can be easy to assume that the decisions people make are based chiefly on their thoughts and beliefs, but Smith significantly challenges this. Furthermore, he does not only object to the traditional view of human nature or object to the habits and character that secular liturgies form. Smith moves beyond these issues and suggests a more biblical and constructive way for Christians to live. If Christians are not intentional with how they order their daily routines, their hearts will be shaped by secular values instead of the Christian story and God’s formative work in worship.