Friday, June 24, 2016

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


James K A Smith is highly rated as a theologian and philosopher. I've enjoyed his earlier books 'Desiring the Kingdom' and 'How (not) to be secular', the latter an introduction to Charles Taylor's epic A Secular Age, along with his work at Comment magazine that helpfully engages Christian faith with the workplace and wider society.

Smith comes from a pentecostal background but has moved to a more liturgical churchmanship and that's reflected in the tone of the book.

The basic idea is that we're more than just learners, we're lovers. The question is, what do you want? And the disturbing reality for us might be that what we think we want isn't really what we want. We're shaped by our sinful desires and the secular liturgies of our age. For, if we're lovers not just learners, is a starting point, then Smith's next step is to say that we're shaped not just by knowledge but by habit - by the routines and rituals of our days, which makes the music we listen to and the trips to the shopping centre formative - unless we engage with their worldviews, imagination, liturgies and restory ourselves with the gospel.

Smith's examination of the liturgy of the Shopping Mall is repeated here from Desiring the Kingdom, and there are some great interactions with George Lucas, Tsarkovsky's Stalker which includes a kind of reversal of Orwell's Room 101, an great analysis of the film American Beauty, and 'classic' quatable quotes from Antoine de-Saint Expury and David Foster Wallace.

I thoroughly agree we're lovers. My one fear with Smith's thesis is that his focus on habits and liturgy might detract from the centrality of the gospel word as formative for us. The word which is never intended simply for intellectual engagement and learning, but to call hearts to the Christ who first loves us.

I don't think he'd disagree with that. Smith rather speaks into the malaise of modern abandonment of liturgy and devaluing of the very ordinary life of the church in prayer, confession, baptism, communion, and preaching as the ordinary means by which we put on Christ. This is scripturally sound, though the book doesn't really argue the case that way.

Smith retells the story of the man caught in a flood who declines a canoe, boat and helicopter - because God will rescue me... noting that like him we readily ignore the means God has long since provided for our growth. These are good habits that do us good. This is a lesson I've been learning from him and appreciating - and this book pressed that home further for me.

There are helpful chapters on discipling children in the home and in the church which warrant attention and further thought. Gone must be entertainment ministry replaced with participation in the life of the church and the gospel story.

Smith's material on the need to view the worship of the church (the whole gathering not just the singing) as more than just expression of the heart but rather as formation of the heart is brilliantlyl perceptive and challenging. Where many low-church evangelicals fear formal liturgy and it's repeated retelling of the gospel story week by week, Smith champions this as vital for our growth - to train and win our hearts against the stories of our sin and society and for the gospel. I've heard him bang this drum before but he bangs it well and we do well to listen.

It's a book well worth reading, more than once. James K A Smith's You are what you want comes with endorsements from Miroslav Volf, Tim Keller, Alan Jacobs and Cornelius Plantinga among others.

Available in the UK from with bulk buy discounts.

Images - Dave Bish

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