You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit.
By James K A Smith
Reviewed by Darren Cronshaw

(Grand Rapids, MI: BrazosPress, 2016, ISBN 978-1-4934-0366-0. $20)

With thinking about education shaped by modernity, it is natural to think that we teach by transferring knowledge. James K A Smith teaches as Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College and writes some of the most helpful material I have read on worship, formation, teaching practices and ministry in a post-secular era. He suggests that people truly learn and implement things in their lives not from mere information transfer or confession of belief, but by adopting new habits or practices that recalibrate what we love. We are not merely thinking beings but characterized by what we love: “Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves. He isn’t content to simply deposit new ideas into your mind; he is after nothing less than your wants, your loves, your longings.” (Kindle locn.100)

When we understand the spiritual power of habit, there are obvious implications for education, especially for character and virtue. Learning virtue is not about memorizing content but more about imitation and practice – more like practicing piano scales than studying music theory. Growing disciples of Jesus, therefore, happens best as people adopt habits, practices and liturgies that re-form their affections and desires.

There are also implications for worship. Smith reclaims the importance of historic approaches to worship – including the call to worship, prayer of confession, celebration of sacraments, powerfully poetic and storied liturgy and sending the people of God into their Monday through Saturday week and discipleship project that worship nourishes them for. He actually warns against novelty and innovation in worship, arguing that imaginative power for a postmodern world will more likely come from reclaiming ancient forms of worship and reconnecting with the biblical story. Thus he presents a high view of worship, arguing worship is the crucible of discipleship, or the “imagination station” that steers our loves toward God’s kingdom.

Smith also offers advice for parents to integrate liturgies in the home, for teachers aiming to form students they meet in classrooms, and for leaders of children’s and youth ministry (including not to ignore spiritual practices for fear of “boring” young people).

He also explains how “secular” liturgies misdirect or miscalibrate our longings. To be human is to worship – the choice is what we worship. However, this is more often subconscious or chosen for us by the societal forms that surround us. Smith masterfully exegetes the shopping mall, university and wedding and shows how they direct our loves and ideals towards consumerism, autonomy and self-concern. He encourages adopting a “liturgical examen” to consider what routines shape us and to what ends.

You Are What You Love expands on Smith’s passion for formative practices in worship and education. It is highly recommended reading for pastors, worship leaders, teachers and parents. Ultimately it offers valuable insights for any Christian serious about understanding how habits form, disform or reform them and why we need Kingdom-focused rituals.

This review was originally published in ‘Journal of Contemporary Ministry Number 3 (2017), 137-138, accessible at http://www.journalofcontemporaryministry.com

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