Liturgy, Love, and . . . You Lost Me: A Book Review of James K. A. Smith’s Book, ‘You Are What You Love’

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You Are What You Love Review

As a continuation of my Ambassador Series, I present this book review of James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love.

Liturgy of liturgies! All is liturgy. You Are What You Love is an exploration in what it would look like to frame the Christian discipleship process in liturgical terms. Shortly into the book, Dr. James K. A. Smith (Jamie, as he’s commonly known) lets you into the secret that he wants to expand the meaning of the word “liturgy:”

It’s a bit of an old, churchy word, but I want to both revive and expand it because it crystallizes a final aspect of this model of the human person: to say “you are what you love” is synonymous with saying “you are what you worship.” (pg. 22-23)

Essentially, Jamie is arguing that the term “liturgy” should be understood more like the way many Evangelicals use the term “worldview.” But the term “worldview” carries a presupposition in his mind that doesn’t do his liturgical views justice. So, he instead prizes Charles Taylor’s term, “social imaginary,” which he believes communicates the more active, and imaginative nature, of his formative liturgies. Being a ‘worldview guy’, I’m probably bias, but he uses the same language in describing his view of liturgies, and “social imaginaries” that I have used to describe what a worldview is. And that’s fine…to a degree. In lies the complexity of this book. It’s heavily biased towards Christian traditions that frame their communal worship experiences in liturgical terms. There is no doubt that this book is an apologetic for liturgical ecclesiastical traditions. No sooner does he finish spelling out the dangers found in the every-day practices of “secular liturgies,” that he moves quickly into the proposition that a traditional liturgical worship service is the best mechanism for discipleship for the Body of Christ. But the best and worst parts of this book are woven in among talk of Sunday morning, and it’s not always easy to discern where Sunday morning ends and holistic advice on life begins. I’ll do my best to give you enough to wet your appetite, but also enough to show you my opinion on the best use for this book.

Let me just say first that I ATE THIS BOOK UP! Although it was meant to be a more accessible version of Desiring the Kingdom, it’s still not one for the average Evangelical parishioner. He weaves in enough Augustine, Aquinas, Wolterstorff, and Kuyper to keep an undergrad mind spinning, and the graduate mind retorting. To a degree, that’s me. I had convulsions of thought while reading this book. One second I would be “AMENing” and then the next I’d be throwing the book on the floor, yelling, “I’M NOT A PART OF YOUR SYSTEM!” I have at least 5 separate blog posts that I need to write in response to Jamie’s proposals, just to regain a sense of sanity! Here are a few of those unsettling notions to which I responded so repulsively:

1. Virtues: He makes a case early on, and rightly so, that virtues need to be formed in human beings, and that liturgies are what forms them. OK, depending on what you mean by liturgies. I’m tracking with him on that. What didn’t sit well with me was when he claimed that virtues weren’t virtues in our lives until they become “second nature.” He says, “You will be kind and compassionate and forgiving because it’s inscribed in your very character. You don’t have to think about it; it’s who you are. (In fact, if I have to deliberate about whether to be compassionate, it’s a sure sign I lack the virtue!)” WHAT?! That was my reaction. The notion that I don’t’ have courage if I think about the dangers and personal risk of rushing towards a machine gun nest during war is baffling to me. In my experience and understanding, being one who trained for battle, is that the virtue of courage is what it is because of the deliberation. When I consider stories of virtues in the Bible, I hear Jesus wrestling with the will of his Father in the garden, and Paul wrestling with the expectations he has for the Corinthians. An excellent hitter in baseball still doesn’t swing according to “second nature” when he sees the ball coming. He has to weigh the circumstances and make a hard decision. Sometimes he lets a perfectly good pitch pass him by, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a good hitter.

2. Liturgies: The whole thought provoking point of this book is to point to the formative power of repetitive actualizations of our loves. Jamie criticizes the unconscious consumption of “secular liturgies,” but seems to answer them with, “go to church on Sunday.” To be fair, he hints at the less than exotic approach when he says, “I don’t have a radical thesis to offer about discipleship. . . . To the contrary, my argument is the very opposite of novel; it’s ancient: the church’s worship is the heart of discipleship” (pg. 68). And of course, in some counter-cultural way, to point to the ancient is to point to something new and sexy. And yet, I felt like he wasn’t pointing to something “ancient” enough! I kept wanting to hear him say that we need to memorize scriptures throughout each day, and “teach them to your sons, talking of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you rise up” (Deut. 11:19). I wanted to see references to the daily gatherings in the book of Acts or the reference to the form of Christian gathering Paul outlines in 1 Corinthians 14. Instead, what Jamie praises as truly formative for our children is a liturgical version of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe:

In the corner is a space that invites the children to “play church,” but with guidance into its significance and meaning. In durable wood you’ll see tiny reproductions of sacred sites from the sanctuary: a pulpit with the Bible upon it; a baptismal font with the cross emblazoned on it; a candle and a cross like the one children see processed at the beginning of worship; a banner that signals the color of the current liturgical season. At another station are the mundane yet magical elements they see at Communion. These child-sized versions of the church’s elements of worship are themselves imbued with an incarnational pedagogy: meeting children where they are in ways that answer their piqued curiosities, letting them handle and touch and ask about he rhythms of the people of God into which they are being enfolded. (pg. 141)

Again, this doesn’t go far enough. Rhythms enacted one day a week are rarely powerful enough to form children. The rhythms that are truly powerful are the rhythms imaged on weekday mornings and weekday evenings, and the rhythms imaged in the hard places and the beautiful places of everyday challenges and joys. It’s not until the last chapter that he really even mentions positive spiritual formative practices for weekdays. He calls them “vocational liturgies,” as if our obedience and daily sacrifice (whether in a church building or a factory) doesn’t qualify as truly formative worship, or at least not on the same level as the worship service on Sunday. I shouldn’t have to remind the readers what Paul says our “spiritual act of worship” consists of (Romans 12:1-2).

3. Work of the Word and Spirit: Liturgy actually means work of the people, and there was a HEAVY emphasis in this book placed on the powerful patterns of our individual and communal lives. But what I didn’t read much about is the work of the Spirit. When touching on the development of Christ-like virtues, I didn’t read anything about how the very entry of the Spirit into one’s life at conversion can immediately change the orientations of our loves. I’ve seen that in many people’s lives. I’ve seen people with very little virtue, and tons of vice, walk out of a confrontation with the Gospel as a different person. My father believed on the Gospel in his mid 20’s. One minute he was a heavy drinker who wanted to rule his own life, and the next he was a man sold to Christ who would not take another drink of alcohol in over 30 years. It wasn’t his slow acquisition of temperance that changed his love of alcohol; it was the immediate abiding presence and power of the Spirit! Of course not all of our stories go the way of my father, but the immediate life changing presence of the Spirit should have been a foundational point of this book in my opinion.

In the same way the book is short on talk of the Spirit, it’s also short on talk of the power of the Word of God. Jamie has a strong dislike for the idea that just thinking on scriptures could somehow change us (I certainly resonate with his concerns); he says that view builds the false image that humans are “thinking things.” He rails against Descartes and builds a case against Bible believing Christians who are bent on simply adhering to the right doctrine. I share his concerns, but I’m also fully aware that the liturgical worship models he resonates with have not been enough to protect millions of Mainline Protestants from eating up pop-culture ethics and pagan sexuality. The reading, and daily memorization, of the Word of God is a truly powerful liturgy because it is the work of the Spirit among humanity. I would have liked to have seen more discussion in Jamie’s book on this truth. See what I mean about being able to write a whole blog post on every subject?!

I realize that someone reading my criticisms above could walk away thinking that this book is not worth their time; that is not the case. Granted, I’m responding to Jamie’s book as a professor from a conservative Christian college, and as a minister of a Baptist tradition. I hear hints of Postmillennialism in Jamie’s propositions, and get the sense that his thinking would work far better in a system that did not hold to a literal Adam and Eve (primarily because I didn’t read much about The Fall and its affects on the human heart). All that said, this book has got me thinking more than any book I’ve read in a while. I can’t simply dismiss the contents of this book. I LOVE many things he says in this book, and have already started using some of his points in my classes and presentations. I wouldn’t assign this work for a traditional Sunday School class, but I would carefully walk through it with young adults and adults who want to go deeper in their understanding of how we are to function and grow as ambassadors of Christ. Here are some things I love:

1. Critique of Consumption: I love how he pops the top off of American culture and peers, pokes, and prods around in the flawed thinking of the gospel of consumption. He is ABSOLUTELY accurate in recognizing that there are “secular liturgies” that frame the way we view God and point us towards loves that don’t point us toward Him: “More precisely, at stake in the formation of your loves is your religious and spiritual identity, which is manifested not only in what you think or what you believe but in what you do—and what those practices do to you” (pg. 22). This is spot-on! That’s exactly what I’ve been pounding home in our worldview seminars for the past four years I’ve been at Bryan College. I love how Jamie addresses the fact that we’ve got to address the formative nature of our habits!

2. Worship: Even though I disagree with Jamie on some key ecclesiological elements, he’s exactly right in pointing out the reality that not all worship experiences are created equal. Among other elements of Evangelical worship culture, Jamie takes shots at praise and worship songs, and with good reason:

I simply invite us to recognize that the very form of our songs, in their grammatical structure, can implicitly say—and hence teach us—something about who we think is active in worship. And when our songs attribute the action of worship to us (“Here I am to worship, here I am to bow down…”), then worship is understood as fundamentally an expression of human will, a Pelagian endeavor of self-assertion. (pg. 74)

Again, I’ve resonated with this critique of church singsong time since the late 90’s, and it’s refreshing to have a scholar of Jamie’s popular accessibility calling people to reframe they way the look at worship.

3. The Power of the Unconscious: I cannot say enough about the importance of this major point. Jamie understands, quite clearly, that our environments and practices shape our lives and loves. He spends some worthwhile time talking about how our unconscious orientations can produce an end to our own story that we didn’t see coming. We can set out to create one thing, and find mid-process that we are creating something far more meaningful or debased, simply because we are not attentive to the nurturing of our unconscious desires. Jamie understands that the best way to train the unconscious is through worship. I agree! He relevantly points out that our worship creates imaginative space for the Spirit to work in guiding our role in culture making. We have to be guided by the good if we are going to create goods.

This review is by no means substantial enough to address all the good and challenging content of You Are What You Love. Like I’ve already said, this book will push on your gut, and cause you to evaluate why you think, believe, and act the way you do. We have some major ecclesiological differences, but I know that Jamie’s heart is to drive the Body of Christ back to its Savior, and this book definitely works toward that end. I’m thankful for his continued ministry, and look forward to next challenge he presents me with.

Other Links for You Are What You Love:

Hearts and Minds Books

The Gospel Coalition’s Justin Taylor interviews James K. A. Smith

James K. A. Smith will be speaking at the Q Conference in Denver this week

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