“I now feel that almost everything I have written about liturgy in the past amounts to reinventing the wheel.” So wrote Yale professor Nicholas Wolterstorff after reading, late in his career, a work by Abraham Kuyper on worship.
Such are my own sentiments about James K.A. Smith’s newest book You Are What You Love. This book isn’t new content; it’s a re-working (at a much more accessible and popular level) of the theological ideas Smith put forward in Desiring the Kingdom (2009) and Imagining the Kingdom (2013). For over a decade I’ve been writing, preaching, and speaking about spiritual formation, liturgy, and discipleship – and I now realize I’ve largely been reinventing the wheel. Or maybe, to be slightly more generous, I’ve been intuitively sensing gaps and longings that Smith quite deftly elucidates, clarifies, and synthesizes.
James K.A. Smith is a scholarly academic who writes like a pastor. Like Peter Kreeft or J.I. Packer or Tom Wright, his mind clips along comfortably in the world of high-level academic philosophy, but his soul resonates with the ordinary church member. He possesses a unique skill in bringing these two worlds together. This book is perhaps his most successful attempt yet to land his insights about worship, culture, and spiritual formation in the living room of the average church member.
It’s not often that a book will change your next trip to the mall. This book will. It will also change your next college football game, your next PTA meeting, and your next family meal. I can’t say much more than that without a spoiler alert. But you’ll find a clue to the book’s argument in the subtitle: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Smith wants his readers to see that “liturgy” is not confined to the walls of the church. We are shaped by what we repeatedly do – and the culture around us is seeking to form us every day through “secular liturgies” that seep into our bones and shape our ultimate concerns without us even knowing it. Once our eyes are opened to the formative nature of these practices, we begin to see how idolatry is more caught than taught. And we begin to see more fully what it means for us to live in light of the gospel story. We are not “brains on a stick” who just need to embrace a Christian worldview; we are loving, desiring, worshiping beings who need our loves reoriented.
In a sense, You Are What You Love is an introduction to the Smithian corpus. Most of the insights in this book are worked out in greater detail in one of Smith’s other works. At a very basic level, Smith is seeking to change how the Christian church in America understands its task. You Are What You Love is a populist manifesto toward that end. This book begs to be read and discussed by every Christian and every church leader. It’s probably too much to say that the renewal of the church in America depends on these insights; but it’s certainly true that if we ignore them, renewal will be that much more elusive.
Consider these compelling chapter titles:
- You Are What You Love: To Worship is Human
- You Might Not Love What You Think: Learning to Read “Secular” Liturgies
- The Spirit Meets You Where You Are: Historic Worship for a Postmodern Age
- What Story Are You In? The Narrative Arc of Formative Christian Worship
- Guard Your Heart: The Liturgies of Home
- Teach Your Children Well: Learning by Heart
- You Make What You Want: Vocational Liturgies
If you’re looking for robust criticism of this work, you’ll have to look elsewhere; I resonate too deeply with the book’s premise to focus on its possible flaws. As Smith’s work gains traction and readership among American Christians, I imagine others will build upon the foundation he’s laying (or more accurately, the foundation Augustine laid). The book does leave some gaps; for instance, it fails to consider the formative nature of small-group discipleship. Smith focuses so strongly on the gathered worship of the church that he tends to blunt the importance of gospel-formation in smaller communities within the church. This and other weaknesses are forgivable, however, because this book succeeds so well at its primary purpose: returning us to a discipleship that shapes what we love, not just what we think.