You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, by James K. A. Smith. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016, xii + 210 pages, $19.99.

My few complaints about this book would never challenge its great value. At the outset Smith does evince a somewhat over-realized eschatology when he declares, “This book articulates spirituality for culture-makers” (xi). But its focus is on the culture of the church with worship at its center, as the motivating force of the formation of our chief love. This is paramount.

In highlighting the biblical emphasis on love, Smith at times comes close to eclipsing the place of knowledge. However, given the tendency toward focusing almost exclusively on knowledge of doctrine among the Reformed, Smith’s emphasis has a needed place. “So discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing. . . . To follow Jesus is to become a student of the Rabbi who teaches us how to love” (2). Smith has witty ways of making his case: “ ‘You are what you think’ is a motto that reduces human beings to brains-on-a-stick” (3). He clarifies our concerns about knowledge when he explains, “A follower of Jesus will be a student of the Word ‘one whose delight is in the Law of the LORD’ (Ps. 1:2)” (4). The gist of his message is not that we need less thinking or doctrine but that we need to reckon on the power of habit in our view of human nature and the Christian life. “Our telos is what we want. . . . a vision of the ‘good life’ that we desire” (11).

Furthermore, love is a habit that involves formation through the patterns or liturgies of life that orient and cultivate our desires. This should be the aim of all education. Learning “isn’t just information acquisition; it’s more like inscribing something into the very fiber of your being” (18). “This means that Spirit-led formation of our loves is a recalibration of the heart, a reorientation of our loves by unlearning all the tacit bearings we’ve absorbed from the other cultural practices” (22). Missing in Smith’s analysis of our misdirected loves is the problem of total depravity and original sin. However, he picks up on Calvin’s image of the fallen human heart as an “idol factory” (23). The thesis of this excellent book is summed up at the end of chapter 1: “To be human is to be a liturgical animal, a creature whose loves are shaped by our worship” (23).

Chapter 2 focuses on the secular “liturgies of desire.” These are often contrary to what we think. What we really desire is revealed in the habits of our daily lives (29). These loves often exist subconsciously, as second nature, because we underestimate the power of habit. “If you think of love-shaping practices as ‘liturgies,’ this means that you could be worshiping other gods without even knowing it” (37). We can identify these by being aware of cultural practices as liturgies or rituals of everyday life. Smith goes on to demonstrate how the mall is a religious site that has messages of the “consumer gospel” built into it—and these messages  are after our hearts (41). The analysis is profound. “[T]he mall is a formative space, covertly shaping our loves and longings” (55).

Chapter 3 shows how historic worship is designed to reorder our disordered loves (57). Smith strongly advocates returning to “historic” worship and ecclesiology. “The church—the body of Christ—is the place where God invites us to renew our loves, reorient our desires, and retrain our appetites” (65). So, public worship enculturates us in the life of our new kingdom, participating in the “life of the Triune God” (66, 70). Smith’s advocacy of historic patterns of discipleship is refreshing in a culture that is always craving novelty. In McLuhanesque fashion he understands that cultural forms are not neutral, but are freighted with messages of secularism, so that when they enter the church through worship they fail to challenge our worldly loves (76).

If worship is formative, not merely expressive, then we need to be conscious and intentional about the form of worship that is forming us. . . . If we think of worship as a bottom-up expressive endeavor, repetition will seem insincere and inauthentic. But when we see worship as an invitation to a top-down encounter in which God is refashioning our deepest habits, then repetition looks very different: it’s how God rehabituates us. In a formational paradigm, repetition isn’t insincere, because you’re not showing, you’re submitting. This is crucial because there is no formation without repetition. (80)

While I sometimes tire of what seem to be contemporary clichés like “narrative arc” and “recalibration,” the point Smith is driving at is well worth our perseverance. And his writing skills are, in the main, considerable. So, in chapter 4 worship is depicted as the story of the gospel that captures the hearts of worshipers. This liturgy is designed to win our hearts to the telos or purposes of our God, which are embodied in Christ and his gospel story (90). After a summary of the formative power of elements of the historic liturgy, Smith concludes that “immersing yourself in this Story is how the Spirit is going to change your habits” (99).

Smith’s literary sensibilities enter his argumentation in an engaging way. “Desire-shaping worship isn’t simply didactic; it is poetic. It paints a picture, spins metaphors, tells a story . . . Stories stick” (107). Because the gospel story we encounter in worship is one we are to inhabit throughout the week, chapter 5 deals with the liturgies of the home. In contrast to the “marriage industry,” the ritual of marriage calls us to serve God and others (125). (I wish he did not connect the Lord’s Supper with the marriage ceremony.) While some, including me, will object to the liturgical calendar as an ecclesiastical imposition, Smith’s suggestion for its use seems to be more of an informal aid to family worship (129).

We might say that the sacramental power of Christian worship “enchants” our everyday lives, reminding us that the world we inhabit is not a flattened “nature” but rather a creation charged with the presence and power of the living Spirit. (130)

Chapter 6 focuses on education, asking “What if education weren’t first and foremost about know but about what we love?” In this chapter the section on youth ministry is worth the price of the book. “Youth Ministry for Liturgical Animals” (143–54) accurately depicts much of contemporary youth ministry as moralistic and concerned primarily to avoid boredom (144). Tending to divorce young people from public worship, youth ministry limits the exemplars of their imitation to their own generation. Focusing on exciting, emotive expression limits the message portion of meetings to the “dispensation of information,” leaving young people no different than when they came to the meeting (145). Relevance is purported reason for importing secular liturgies into the church through youth ministry (146).

While I was not impressed with the example of the Taizé community, a French ecumenical monastic group,[1] Smith’s point about them is well taken. What young people “really crave is not liberation from ritual but rather liberating rituals” (150). He makes a superb point about the importance of strangeness in liturgy. Church growth has emphasized relevance and comfort, while worship is intended to offer a weary world something markedly different from the disenchanted world (151). Here Smith’s book would have been improved by reference to the rich treasure of Reformation liturgies at our disposal. Smith concludes this section with three suggestions for formative youth ministry: 1) enfold youth in congregations committed to historic Christian worship; 2) invite youth into “a wider repertoire of Christian disciplines;” 3) replace entertainment with service (152–53). The remainder of the chapter discusses “Schooling the Imagination.” Here, Smith suggests rituals for higher education that seem odd.

The concluding chapter is a weak ending to an otherwise superb book. Smith’s work is suggestive, creative, interesting, and convincing. Officers should read this book and glean the best from its compelling theme.


[1] Taizé worship has no preaching and the Taizé brothers take vows of celibacy. The ecumenical quest to unite Catholics and Protestants mutes theological differences. For these reasons Reformed people cannot affirm the value of this community.

Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, March 2017.

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