James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016. 224 pgs.
If James K.A. Smith’s recently released book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit is correct in its general thrust, then reading this accessible, insightful and well-informed book will decidedly not change your life. Let me explain.
You Are What You Love is Smith’s ‘user-friendly’ presentation of a thesis he has been arguing over the last few years in more academically inclined books (if you’re interested see here and here). Central to this larger project of Smith’s is an attempt to expand how contemporary Christians understand what it means to be human and how this effects our discipleship. In short, Smith wants to re-situate our head with our heart, our thinking with our desiring, and our rationality with our imagination. Smith believes that all too often the church has bought into an Enlightenment picture of the human person as primarily a ‘thinking thing,’ and with this reduced picture of the human person in hand, models of discipleship have also been reduced to mere data input: learn the right doctrine, read the right books, go to right conference, download the right podcast. All of these are good and helpful things in our discipleship, but if discipleship is only aimed at the filling our heads the broader culture will be more than happy to captivate the heart, woo the imagination and form our desires.
Taking his cues from both St. Augustine and the biblical witness, Smith wants to enlarge our picture of the human person and in so doing questions the discipleship-as-data-input model. Early in the book Smith puts it this way, “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.” Smith gives many pointed examples throughout the book about the limitations of data input discipleship, showing how human action often flows out of deeper places than our rational deliberation (a favorite example of mine was Smith’s retelling of enthusiastically devouring the anti-industrial food writings of Wendell Berry while at the same time devouring a hot-dog in a Costco food court). Smith wants to say that discipleship is a much richer, deeper, and often more time-consuming process of both having our minds renewed but also having our loves transformed and reoriented towards God through the power of grace-filled habits.
This is central to Smith’s project: if humans are more than merely thinking things, and are instead driven by our loves, then discipleship has to include the reorientation of our loves through the creation of habits. Smith is constantly touching down into the seemingly mundane routines that characterizes daily life, showing how they can become opportunities to shape and reorient the things we love. Smith talks about habits of worship, marriage, educating your kids, and going to work. Unlike his previous books that primarily remain on the level of philosophical and theological reflection, this book orbits around day-in and day-out living, making it much less intimidating to wade into than his earlier works.
So if discipleship is not only learning certain things, but actively working to create habits which shape our deepest longings and loves, then reading Smith’s book by itself won’t change your life. At best it might change the way you think — something of high significance! — but if that is all it does, then in a real way Smith has not accomplished what he hopes to through this book. Along with changing the way you think, Smith wants you to face the truth that your habits might reveal that the things you love can often be in contradiction to the things you think you love. The resulting vision for Christian discipleship seeks to create new habits that can re-orient our loves towards God and his Kingdom, so that our thinking and our loving work in unity. This book comes highly recommended.