Review: You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. Smith (Brazos Press, 2016)
By Mari Carlson
The title for this book provides its outline. First, James K.A. Smith debunks identity myths in which we’ve been immersed since Descartes pronounced, “I think, therefore I am.” We’ve been reduced to “brains-on-a-stick,” Smith says. He argues that a return to an older, more biblical understanding of who we are would bring us back to wholeness. We are lovers, the Scriptures tell us.
Next, Smith describes what we love. “We are not just static containers for ideas; we are dynamic creatures directed toward some end.” Telos draws us lovers as whole selves, our whole life long. How we grope toward love, acting out of our deepest-seated desires, brings us to the last, and main, theme of his book: love as a habit. Smith uses liturgy to mean habit-forming rituals or cultural practices that shape who we are and what we love. Secular and church liturgies can be spiritually powerful.
To practice the habit of loving God entails recognizing the secular liturgies that purport to be a way to love. Counter-formation, bathing in the life-giving rituals of Sunday liturgy and all the everyday liturgies in between — at home, in school, at work, in our lives — undoes the work of deleterious liturgies and gives us, and our love, the best chance to flourish. Smith ends the book with means for “learning by heart” and “bending our desires back toward” God, who loved us first.
Smith’s method for “reading ‘secular’ liturgies” is one of the most helpful parts of this book. “You could think of this [method] as a macro version of the Daily Examen, a spiritual practice inherited from St. Ignatius of Loyola,” he writes. For instance, Smith asks, what message does the mall send to consumers? What is the form of the message? Studying the architecture and layout of the mall, he finds clues to its message: that consumers need what the mall provides. Shopping will save us. If we’re not careful, we could learn to love this god instead of the God.
I considered the liturgies in my life. For several years I was member of a Swedish fiddling group called a “spelmanslag” and we learned tunes by ear. We learned not only the notes but the svikt, the swing, by imitating the person playing the tune. We spent a lot of time on polskas, the most characteristic of the Swedish tunes. We listened while stepping out the rhythm.
We sang the melody. We played the melody. Our leader conjured images of Swedish dances in mountain settings that we were to remember as we played. We were to let the images inform us.
We were told some of us got it and others didn’t. I couldn’t tell which side I was on. In the end, this gnostic approach, along with other politics, drove me out of the group. I played with the Danes instead. They had sheet music, and thereby avoiding defining the group by elusive special knowledge.
Reflecting on this “secular liturgy” experience helped me understand the point Smith makes in the second half of the book: love is a habit, a habit that becomes us, suits us, as God’s loved ones. If what a liturgy offers us is satisfaction, an end, a thing, then it’s not love. If it’s not something we can do repeatedly, with help when we fail, with room for holy hunger, then it’s not worth doing.
Smith writes that both contemporary Christian worship and the modern wedding industry are secular liturgies that are not seated in love because they are ends in themselves. For fear it won’t be palatable otherwise, Contemporary Christian worship presents the gospel in an entertaining, comfortable setting. Blown away by loud music, screens, mountaintop “events” and an emotion-filled sermon, worshipers are left wanting more of that rather than the gospel. Modern weddings, too, can become ends in themselves: “As Charles Taylor might put it, in our ‘age of authenticity,’ weddings are caught up in the dynamics of ‘mutual display’: what’s important is being seen.” Educational theorist Etienne Wenger tells of how two stonecutters describe their work: “I am cutting this stone in a perfectly square shape” and “I am building a cathedral.” What is our doing for?
We can tell love-forming liturgies from deleterious ones by whether they take our story up into the Story, whether they are liturgies after the Liturgy. Is our nuclear family for ourselves, or are we part of a clan? Do our routines center on football season or on the schedules of all family members, including God the Father? Is our education “first and foremost about what we know [or] about what we love?” Is worship an escape from the week or does worship “pull our labor toward his kingdom”?
Smith’s book left me with more questions than answers, and that’s a sign of a good book. I wanted to know how to become characterized by my desire to love and learn. How can I take part more fully in the Liturgy through micro instances of liturgy? Smith provides a list for further reading, mostly on the subject of worship. I would add books on developing practice and habit: Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter Brown, Mindset by Carol Dweck, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, How We Learn by Benedict Carey, and How You Stand, How you Move, How You Live by Missy Vineyard.
Smith spends the bulk of his book illuminating how we love, how we learn to love, as a practice and a habit. He uses love more as a verb than a noun because love shapes us, and experiencing God’s love in our worship forms how we, in turn, love.
Mari Carlson is a violin teacher, performer, and book reviewer living in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. She is a graduate of St. Olaf College and the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas.