I have been influenced by James KA Smith over the past several years more than almost any other author. In the last three years I have read five books and a number of shorter articles, not to mention watching at least a dozen lectures. And I do not think I am alone. I was in a private Facebook theology discussion yesterday when in 110 comments, Smith was referenced at least 8 times with no less than four of his books directly mentioned or hinted at.
There is a reason Smith is becoming influential. He is speaking to several issues that are important and prominent. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit is the latest attempt both to deal with the issues and the first book to really attempt to speak to a lay audience about them.
There are three real points being made in the book. First, we are not solely intellectual beings. God created us with intellects and brains, but also emotions and unconscious bias. We are not, to use his common phrase, “Brains on a stick.” We are fully human, and we are intended to be that way by God. That may not seem like a big deal, but much of Christian culture has understood us to be Brains on a Stick. Our evangelism, discipleship and spiritual growth are often primarily oriented toward the intellect. There is also the anti-intellectual parts of Christianity. But they are in many ways just as oriented toward the Brain on a Stick idea, just using the insight in a different method.
The second point is that because we are not brains on a stick, we need to take into account the various ways that we are influenced and shaped. Jamie Smith uses the term ‘liturgies’ to describe the shaping activities that are all around us. Going to the mall is a consumerist liturgy. The bright airy buildings give us comfort and place. Our five senses are being engaged by Cinnabon and the skylights and the comfortable seating areas. We are being shaped by the feeding of our desires and absorbing our place in the world as consumer. Sports have a different liturgy. We feel a participant in something greater than ourself, we have the us vs them mentality encouraged.
Smith uses Liturgy to talk about the subtitle of the book, how any repetitive activity shapes us over time. As Christians, we want to be shaped to become Lovers of God so that we will become more like God and love the things that God loves. So Smith defends the concept of habit as spiritual formation. This includes, but is not limited to understanding our weekly Sunday morning worship and ‘quiet times’.
You Are What You Love has an extended discussion of how these liturgies work in families, with children and education, and for adults through vocation. The illustration of these three chapters at the end moves the book from theoretical to illustrative, giving the reader a framework to see both habit and culture in new ways.
I have been convinced over time that worship should not be primarily about hearing a 45 minute informational message that encourages us to work harder or gives us more information, which we then are expected to put to use at home on our own. For Smith, our church worship should be focused on a sacramental re-orienting of loves to God. That re-orienting through sacramental worship is not a once a week fill up that gives us what we need until we come back again the next week to top off the tank. But the re-orientation should be the grounding in a communal re-orientation that continues throughout the week among that same community.
If you want to get a taste of the book, this chapel message at Biola hits the main themes of the book. (Or this series of ten 1 to 2 minutes videos about ideas in the book.)
For me, the main questions that I have for Smith are two. One, if the ideas of this book are true (and I think they are) then why have the historic liturgical churches which retained the sacramental understanding of worship, not always retained the orthodox understanding of Christianity? My guess is that Smith would say that the loss of orthodox understanding of Christianity for these non-orthodox liturgical churches corresponded with the loss of the communal worship throughout the week.
The second question is what does this mean for the low church evangelical world that has a liturgy, but does not explicitly understand that liturgy as liturgy. The mega-church world does not fit well into Smith’s understanding of spiritual formation.