James K.A. Smith, “You Are What You Love”

Originally published on CULTURESHOCK.

Since the publication of his 2009 Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith has been developing his anthropology of the human being as lover. That the first part of that book was subtitled “We Are What We Love”–almost exactly the title of his latest book–shows the continued focus of his work.

With You Are What You Love, Smith combines insights from Desiring the Kingdom, Teaching and Christian Practices, and Imagining the Kingdom in a comprehensive work. The book is filled with thought-provoking gems that challenge the reader to ponder upon.

What We Want

In chapter 1, Smith lays the foundation for the rest of the book. He defines worship as an attentive expression towards what we love, and discipleship as the curation of our hearts for that love (2).

In its truest sense, eros signals a desire and attraction that is a good feature of our creaturehood. . . . To be human is to have a heart. You can’t not love. So the question isn’t whether you will love something as ultimate; the question is what you will love as ultimate. And you are what you love. . . . To be human is to be animated and oriented by some vision of the good life, some picture of what we think counts as “flourishing.” And we want that. We crave it. We desire it. (10-11)

Smith’s analysis of this human craving for flourishment is something we can easily relate to. In line with Nicholas Wolterstorff’s concept of human flourishing as ultimate shalom, Smith identifies our desire for greatness and ties it to a concept of kardia, love that is more than just an emotive concept. He will later use “gut” as translation for kardia (Gr. for heart) to indicate the deeper dimension than a mere emotive one. At the same time, love is also not as much a thinking choice as Christianity often makes it seem, but rather “a baseline inclination, a default orientation that generates the choices we make” (16).

Hereafter, Smith is at his best because even though it seems like he is displaying a deterministic approach, wherein humans are slaves of that “baseline inclination”, he goes on to explain how habits–and he sees virtues and love as habits–are formed: through practice and imitation (18).

Liturgies of Love

In the second chapter, Smith elaborates on secular liturgies, or non-Christian practices of love. He uses the example of the shopping mall with its “creeds” and rituals to point out how the love for consumerism is practised and imitated. He further ties this exegesis to the Apostle John’s one of the Roman Empire in the Book of Revelation; urging that as Christians we need to have a critical reading of our culture (39).

The exegesis of contemporary culture and formation, and the call for a Christian counterformation, results in Smith highlighting several counterformative domains in the subsequent chapters. The third chapter encourages to seek historic worship as a place for the Church to oppose the current consumerism and relearn new love:

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. (65)

In this approach, and contrary to a lot of the Evangelical thinking, liturgy is not an evil thing. It is the practice, or even better: the practising, of becoming more like Christ. Much more than the Sunday gathering being informative, the Eucharist is about becoming part of the Christian story through reenactment, a topic further elaborated upon in the fourth chapter. The goal is not just to cognitively understand the Gospel, but to understand it with your “gut” (83). Instead of memorising Scripture, we should imagine the over-arching story and our parts in it.

Every liturgy . . . is oriented towards a telos–an implicit vision of flourishing that is loaded into its rituals. Those formed by such liturgies then become the kind of people who pursue and desire that end. . . . The biblical vision of creation’s shalom is “heavenly,” but it envisions a heavenly order that becomes a reality on earth (Rev. 21:1-2). This is a telos we learn in prayer: “your kindom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). This is not an escapist vision but a reparative one: God is not going to destroy all things but will renew all things. (86)

Worship and liturgy should help recreate that telos in us if it has been faulted by other desires. More than sharing information about the Triune God, Christian worship should make us want to meet with him, and long for his kingdom to come. Traditionally, the Church has done that through gathering, listening, communing and sending. Smith displays a lot of trust in a structured ritual. He does this based on his observations that human beings like structure: it creates a safe-haven wherein one can just be oneself.

In chapter five and by example, Smith shows how the rituals of baptism and marriage, can play a part in this Christian story. In chapter six he critically assesses how many churches have approached youth work as entirely the opposite of what he’s arguing. In an attempt in making Christianity hip and cool, churches have given in to the very desires we should be critical towards. Smith is worried that our choices for worship have been driving by “fear [that youth] will leave the church and leave the faith” (144). He then argues that (Christian) education has made the same mistake in focusing too much what we know and not on what we love (155) and gives examples of what a more kardia-oriented approach would look like in tertiary education (162).

Finally, Smith concludes with a chapter on vocation as an expression of love. I would argue that this is one of the most challenging chapters. Provocatively, Smith argues that Christianity’s mission to (help) renew creation in line with the culture mandate on one hand, and Evangelicalism’s drive to constantly innovate how we do church on the other hand are …

competing trajectories. For we cannot hope to restore the world if we are constantly reinventing church. . . . Christian liturgical tradition should be seen as a resource to foster cultural innovation. . . . In order to foster a Christian imagination, we don’t need to invent; we need to remember. (178-181)

Basically, instead of focusing so much on constantly reinventing the church, we should allow historical liturgy and worship to inspire us to innovate culture. The long line of history is filled with examples of how Christians took their faith outside the church and changed culture for the good.

The Mirror of Tradition

With You Are What You Want Smith provides contemporary Christianity with a confronting mirror. It is a mirror that shows us we have let ourselves be too preoccupied with Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” adagio and the Enlightenment movement, focusing too much on knowledge. In doing this, we have failed to understand human beings as primarily desiring.

With eloquence and a fluent pen, Smith encourages us to rediscover the peace structured rituals that are framed in tradition offer us. Worship that has a clear narrative should be repeated weekly, not because of the ritual in it, but because of the framework for cultural criticism and innovation it offers. For example, standing in the tradition of care for the poor will help the economist to rethink economic structures.

While You Are What You Love is a must-read, there are also a few shortcomings to the book. Smith for example very speedily argues for a covenant approach to baptism wherein infant baptism is not a problem. This will, of course, upset many Evangelical traditions. He could have spent more time either on elaborating on this choice, or being more graceful to different interpretations of baptism.

The same goes for his view on contemporary worship music. He hints that it is not problematic if the music itself is more modern, but his focus on hymns seems to contradict this. He does not address what would be good opportunities to write new songs; even though all hymns have been new songs at some point. Even though he dives into the over-arching structure of the Christian narrative as framework, all of his examples seem to argue for a traditional fulfilment of that narrative. While I agree on the narrative part, several contemporary artists have creatively given voice to this narrative without necessarily writing a hymn. As said, Smith does leave room for this approach as well, but it would have been nice if his examples were more varied on this aspect as well.

The Real 201

While some of Smith’s examples might too shocking for many Evangelicals, I would suggest that they are a sidenote on his overall thesis: humans are first of all loving beings, and Christianity should not treat them as “brains-on-a-stick” by only focusing on knowledge.

Smith calls Desiring the Kingdom the 201 version of You Are What You Love (192), but I disagree with him. That approach seems to suggest that Desiring the Kingdom is more developed and more in-depth. However, while the theoretical model that is introduced in You Are What You Love is discussed more in-depth, especially in its relationship to existing worldviews, this seems to be a more “thinking” approach to model developing.

That, however, is exactly what Smith is trying to get away from with his anthropology. So while Desiring the Kingdom gives an excellent theoretical framework, You Are What You Love succeeds much better at giving practical examples and making a kardia argument. This type of argument was more absent in Desiring the Kingdom. While being very inspiring and thought-provoking, Smith didn’t succeed at making Desiring the Kingdomkardia-provoking” as much as he does with You Are What You Love. In several cases, he uses the same examples, but they seem to have matured in the past 7 years. The stories and examples are more personal and, because of that, also more appealing.

You Are What You Love is a book I hope a lot of Evangelical Christians will read. I grew up in a very cognitive Christianity; and Smith gives rich and practical insights on how to engage with the type of beings humans really are: primarily the loving kind. He does not leave it at a mere analysis of humanity though, Smith provides practical approaches to a cultural and religious formation, and re-formation wherein desires are (re-)directed and shaped to their ultimate purpose: the love of and for God we were created with.

James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Baker, 2016)


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: