You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit
James K.A. Smith
Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016
James Smith’s most recent book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, is a more popular version of his books Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom. It removes some of the more academic conversations and distills his thesis into a two introductory chapters. But the book is not just a redo; there are new metaphors, new illustrations and he applies his thesis to the spheres of Christian worship, the home, youth ministry, and work.
On a personal note, I find Smith’s work very stimulating and always discover my mind firing in all sorts of directions. So although I might have some minor misgivings, I consider myself a supporter and recommender of his work.
If you follow Descartes, I follow Augustine (and Smith).
We Are Lovers
His argument is the title of the book. We are more fundamentally lovers than we are thinkers. We love in order to know, not know in order to love. These desires, these loves are manifested in daily life and habits. The way to train our desires is through ritual, through habit.
If you have followed the conversations of Smith’s books then you are aware that Smith is probably tired of responding to the same stale criticisms, or from people who don’t read him very carefully. One of the critiques that seems to come up a lot is that he proposes false distinctions.
But from a more positive vantage point, he is arguing that there is a priority or an order that we actually have backwards. It is not that we are not thinkers, but that we are first lovers. It is not that worship is not bottom-up, but it is first top-down. Earlier works provide more nuance in the footnotes.
I still personally wonder if the picture he paints is actually too neat. Maybe the process of theological anthropology is too complex to break down into humans primarily being this or that. Because isn’t the intellect a part of the body’s and heart’s process of desiring?
I really enjoyed the chapter on worship/liturgy. His paradigm of God meeting us in worship and forming us coheres with a certain sacramental bent I have been on recently. Still two apprehensions came up when I read it. First, although there may have been more effort on the forming role of the Word it still seemed assumed. An Augustinian resourcement of the explicit centrality of the Word is needed.
Second, while it is true that God meets us in worship the emphasis in the NT seems to equally focus on the “bottom up” and “horizontal” dimension of worship. In Ephesians 5:19 it explicitly speaks of two objects in worship: one another and the Lord. I don’t think Smith is wrong here, but it is interesting what Eph 5:19 explicitly says.
The final thing that is worth bringing up is that when I think about applying some of his theories my mind fills up with awkward rituals that I have seen in churches or other institutions. This could be because we have lost the sense of how to perform rituals, but one wonders about certain institutions doing ritualistic acts and performing them so poorly that the effect is actually opposite of what Smith desires. It is not the strangeness or otherworldly nature of it that I am opposed to, but poor or less than thoughtful enactment of it. This does not take away from his thesis, for abuse does not cancel out use, but it is something to take into consideration.
I personally appreciated his reflection the home and youth ministry. Smith’s writing is always engaging and thoughtful. Although some of this is repackaged material, it is a helpful summary and has some new applications in different spheres.
This may turn out to be the best introduction to Smith’s work.
About Patrick Schreiner
Patrick Schreiner is Assistant Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary. He completed his Master of Divinity and Doctor of Philosophy at The Southern Baptist Seminary. In addition to his pastoral ministry experience, Patrick also enjoys writing. You can follow Patrick's journey and his thinking online at his blog, Ad Fontes. You can also follow him on Twitter.