A Feature Review of
You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit
James K.A. Smith
Most of us have heard the aphorisms since childhood from parents, pastors or other well-intentioned people concerned for our welfare and trying to ensure we find a productive, healthy place in the world:
“You are what you eat.” (So be sure to eat that broccoli!)
“You are what you think.” (So be careful what books you read and songs you listen to!)
“You are what you speak.” (So be certain to control your tongue and if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all!”)
Or if you grew up around a fan of the music of Frank Zappa, you might have heard: “You are what you is!” (“And that’s all it ‘tis.”)
Calvin College professor of philosophy James K.A. Smith begs to differ just a bit with our parents about eating, our pastors about thinking, our teachers about speaking, and even the inimitable Zappa about whatever esoteric truth he was articulating in his 1981 recording that still garners a cult following more than three decades later.
In his provocative, cohesive and highly-readable new work You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, Smith takes a different route informed by the Augustinian notion that we are shaped most by what we love.
Smith, the author of several other significant books including Desiring the Kingdom (Baker Academic, 2009), challenges Christians to see the ways in which we have read Scripture (and, thus, understood discipleship) through Cartesian eyes – “seeing the world through Descartes’s ‘I think, therefore I am’ lens” – and, thereby, confirming our belief that we humans are primarily driven by our intellect, by the acquisition of and by the response to knowledge.
“What if, instead of starting from the assumption that human beings are thinking things, we started with the conviction that human beings are first and foremost lovers? What if you are defined not by what you know but by what you desire? What if the center and seat of the human person is found not in the heady regions of the intellect but in the gut-level regions of the heart? How would that change our approach to discipleship and Christian formation?,” Smith asks his readers.
You Are What You Love provides the author’s answers to his own questions.
Smith suggests that “liturgies” are the means in which our hearts are calibrated, tutored, shaped, formed; the ways in which our loves are “habituated.” Such liturgies can be secular (chapter two beautifully explores this) or distinctly Christian (the remainder of the text is focused here). Throughout the book he applies the idea of Christian liturgies in a sweeping set of contexts likely to be very familiar to his readers, including:
- Youth Ministry
In the chapter on worship, Smith writes:
“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. Worship is the heart of discipleship because it is the gymnasium in which God retrains our hearts.”
In the portion of the book on the liturgies of home, he asks: “But what does it look like to parent lovers? What does it look like to curate a household as a formative space to direct our desires? How can a home be a place to (re) calibrate our hearts?” He suggests that parents need to be concerned about the rituals, the hum and the vibe of their homes that are “attuned to some end, some telos.”
In the chapter on vocation, Smith implores us to “be careful what you worship; it will shape what you want, and therefore what you make and how you work.”
As he addresses the education of people at all age ranges in the chapter on “learning by heart,” Smith says that “if we appreciate that human beings are liturgical animals, we will see young people with new eyes – as the ritual creatures they are, hungry for rites that give them rhythms and rhymes they can live into.”
From another writer, such a diverse set of contexts could prove to be a book’s undoing, leading to an unfocused and hard-to-follow manuscript and a sense that large portions are really not intended for him because he’s not in youth ministry; not for her because she’s not an educator; not for us if we’re not a parent.
Such is not the case with You Are What You Love.
It’s a book with an admirable unity and cohesiveness and an important deliverable – exhorting us, guiding us, causing us to thoughtfully grapple with theological and philosophical questions we’d often rather avoid tending to. Smith asks us to live a wholly integrated life borne out of a heart re-calibrated by Christian virtues.
“If you are passionate about seeking justice, renewing culture, and taking up your vocation to unfurl all of creation’s potential,” Smith writes, “you need to invest in the formation of your imagination. You need to curate your heart. You need to worship well. Because you are what you love.”
We are what we love. Not what we eat, read or speak!
“And you worship what you love. And you might not love what you think,” Smith writes in the book’s introduction. “Which raises an important question.”
Throughout the 210 pages of his well-written and wise text, Smith dares to explore that question, “What do you want?” What is it that we desire most? It is, Smith believes, the “first, last, and most fundamental question of Christian discipleship.”
Rare is the book written by an academic who quotes such a diverse set of sources – scripture, Augustine, Hans Urs von Balthasar, John Updike and Winnie the Pooh – in its epigraphs. Unique is the professor who sustains an argument with the clarity, power and beauty of a prize-winning short story, genuinely knowing how to reach a general readership while maintaining academic rigor. Rarer still is the book written by a person trained in philosophy who uses an organizing principle – in this case, that we men and women are not “thinking thing-isms” but, rather, “lovers” – so masterfully and convincingly that he causes readers to recalibrate the compass of their hearts and consider the focus of their liturgies – both sacred and secular – so deeply.
For more than three decades as a Christian, I have been steeped in discipleship as what Smith calls a “didactic endeavor,” an intellectual exercise in gaining more and more knowledge. And yet, with the Apostle Paul (Romans 7:19) I often find myself asking, “Why do I not do the good I want to do, and do the things I do not want to do?”
Smith’s You Are What You Love provides a significant signpost on the journey toward answering that question as it calls us to allow our hearts to be formed by liturgies, practices, and imitations oriented to the kingdom of God.
“The God who is love reorders our loves, bending our deepest desires back toward himself, so that we might rightly love our neighbors for his sake,” Smith writes in the book’s benediction. “The Spirit rehabituates our loves not merely for the sake of renovation but so that we can love even our enemies. This is what we were made for: to love what God loves.”
Jeff Crosby is the associate publisher and director of sales and marketing at InterVarsity Press in Downers Grove, Illinois. He is the editor and compiler of Days of Grace through the Year, a collection of meditations drawn from the writing of Lewis B. Smedes. He and his wife, Cindy, reside in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.