A Review of “You Are What You Love” by James K.A. Smith

JKASThe idea of James K.A. Smith’s book You Are What You Love, is as old as the Old Testament. The Psalmist, many centuries ago, declared that despite having features such as hands, mouths, eyes, and ears, the false gods of other nations were impotent and inactive. Then he boldly stated:

Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them. (Psa. 115:8)

This same theme is littered across the Bible (cf. Ps. 135:18; Isa.44:9). Smith observes the shaping and influencing power of worship, both in the Scriptures and in life. This book will transform the way you think about your personal discipleship…and hopeful the way you practice it too.

Smith calls it “thinking-thingism,” the particular approach to discipleship that views our growth as solely contingent upon information transference. Your view of discipleship, says Smith, carries with it a set of assumptions about your view of human nature. For much of the contemporary church, human beings are thinking-things, “brains on a stick.” So, to cultivate godliness we need to implant new ideas, sometimes in new ways, into the mind. The problem with this approach, however, is that it undermines the power of habit.

Habit has seen a bit of a resurgence in focus as of late. Much is being written on the subject and said about its shaping influence on us as human beings. Kent Dunnington talks about it in relation to addiction (Addiction and Virtue); Charles Duhigg wrote an entire volume on the subject (The Power of Habit); and Smith, as well, has written elsewhere on the subject. The repetitive and seemingly subconscious nature of habits reveal just how powerful they are. They shape us and direct us often without our even realizing it. They also reveal what you love, because we make what we love part of the routine of our life.

Smith explores this quite brilliantly as he examines shopping malls. We shop for a variety of reasons, but in each case there is an element in which our shopping reveals what we love, and the shopping itself further shapes and ingrains that love into us. The mall, he says, is a sort of worship center that invites us into believing certain doctrines about people, about the good life, and about salvation. It is part of what Smith calls a “cultural liturgy.” We don’t realize it, we don’t consciously view going to the mall as an act of worship, but Smith makes a clear case for this connection. What we do reveals what we love, but it is also shaping what we love. At the mall we are further inundated with ideas and desires. The regular habit, then, of going to the mall (when bored, when lonely, when needy) cultivates desires.

In response to this temptation and bent of human existence, Smith offers us the reminder that Christian worship cultivates godly desires in us. We are what we love, and habituation of these loves makes them stick, makes them grow. “If you are what you love, and love is a habit, then discipleship is a rehabituation of your loves.” We need this rehabituation and Smith gives us tremendous help in it.

The book’s seven chapters help focus our attention on the different aspects of our life: church, home, education, and work. In each case Smith helps us to see how the habits of Christian worship redefine and reorient these contexts towards the Kingdom of God. His use of the terms “worship” and “liturgy” are especially helpful because of their expansive nature. We have narrowed such terminology to refer simply to music, but Smith wants us to see that worship is about life. That is a welcome adjustment to the contemporary literature.

Smith’s previous work Desiring the Kingdom, of which this is an adaptation of sorts, was mind-blowing for me. You Are What You Love has done the same thing, on the same subject, but with surprising freshness. His chapter on “Liturgies of the Home,” was especially inspiring and convicting. He writes in an accessible manner, and does more than just give information. He inspires and captivates the imagination. He is a masterful story-teller and inspiring philosopher. I commend this book to all: parents, teachers, pastors, and disciple-makers. You will “love” this book, and as such you will be served well by it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s