January 26, 2017
This Book has been recommended on various evangelical websites as being in the Top 10 evangelical books to read for 2016. We find it distressing that some evangelical heavyweights could recommend a book that could lead people to pre-reformation religion. Therefore we have written a rather long critique of what we would call – “A dangerous book”.
“You are what you love: The spiritual power of habit”
James K. A. Smith
Brazos Press (Baker Publishing, Grand Rapids, Michigan: 2016)
Note: In quotations from the book in the following document, quote marks are the author’s; comments underlined are ours.
A: The thesis of “You are what you love”
1. “‘You are what you think ‘ is a motto that reduces human beings to brains-on-a-stick” (p3). That’s why we experience a gap between what we know and what we do (p5).
2. Instead, we need to start from the conviction that human beings are first and foremost lovers, defined not by what we know but by what we desire (p7). That is, “you are what you love” (p9).
3. That fits with what Augustine said: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (quoted p7-8). In other words, because of how we’re made, we’re shaped by what we love more than by what we think.
4. One of the things we respond to is a vision of the good life and human flourishing, and we search for ways of achieving that. We’re motivated by pictures that capture our imagination, rather than by abstract ideas or rules and duties (p11).
5. These desires often operate in us without us consciously thinking them through (p15).
6. The problem is that we have learned to love the wrong things; our goals are the wrong versions of the kingdom or the good life; our hearts are like faulty erotic compasses that need to be recalibrated (p 20).
7. Our hungers and our tastes are acquired and can be trained without our realising it from the environment that we’re immersed in, in the same way that an unhealthy diet leads us to become accustomed to food with high sugar content. As with physical appetite, so with existential hungers. And “it turns out you can’t just think your way to new tastes” (p59).
8. This means that “Our idolatries are more liturgical [produced by formative, love-shaping rituals] than theological” (p22). Habitual accustomisation is the problem…
9. … and also the answer in the practices of Christian worship. This is why worship is the heart of discipleship. We can’t counter the power of cultural liturgies with didactic information poured into our intellects … through merely informational measures.” Rather, it’s done through “the formation of our habits of desire” (p25).
Problem 1. Smith implies that Word-based ministry and activities (preaching, teaching, Bible reading, study and memorising) are insufficient means of discipleship
This is often done by caricaturing Word-based ministry as only imparting information, as in the following examples:
These quotations are a taste of what constitutes the constant negative depiction of Word-based Christian ministry in this book that is nowhere countered by any example of heart-stirring, imaginative, Spirit-empowered preaching, teaching or writing used by God to compellingly bring the truth of the Bible into the hearts and lives of hearers and readers. Though the defects that Smith highlights may certainly be found in some churches, it’s distressing to find that the overall impression left by this book is that all Bible-teaching is like this – an impression that we strongly argue constitutes a mischaracterisation of Word-based ministries. It is the experience of countless true followers through the ages and in non-liturgical Bible-teaching churches that their hearts, minds and lives have been transformed and matured in faith by Bible truth that has come to them through biblical preaching, teaching and writing.
Problem 2. Smith’s attraction to religious add-ons to Christianity
Having argued that people today find Protestantism merely intellectual and uninspiring, Smith offers this solution:
The apostle Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 9:19-2 that we are to be as flexible as we can be in the areas of culture and religious traditions in order to become as like the people we’re trying to reach in all things other than the gospel. However, Smith seems to say that we should become completely different from our culture because that is what will attract people to us:
Of course, there may be some who will be attracted out of the world to religious renunciation and restraint, but the question is: does that point them to Christ and the gospel, or merely to religion? Paul has warned us about this sort of religiosity and ascetism: “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Colossians 2:20-23).
Smith advocates sensory worship; he believes that worship that taps into the imagination will be “tactile, tangible, incarnate”. Examples include: using colours for different seasons in the church calendar, fasting in Lent, lighting a special candle on a baptismal anniversary, and “enchanted” objects.
Note how the object is commended as “a reminder of God” and keeps teaching us to hope, rather than the word of God.
Where in the apostles’ teaching to the New Testament church do you see anything like this? How unwise for a theologian to bring us so close to breaking the 2nd commandment! Look at what Smith has done with this story: he has made an image the means of conveying the saving truth of the gospel to a sinner, rather than the word of God. And along the way he has mocked the memorising of God’s word from the book of Romans. After all, why the mention of Romans in particular? Surely this writer knows about the conversion of Martin Luther out of despair through that very New Testament book!
Problem 3. Smith talks about learning the Christian faith in ways that the New Testament doesn’t use
Of course we need examples and lives that we can watch to reinforce and clarify the Bible teaching that we hear; but the New Testament is full of exhortations to listen to and to teach sound doctrine. So Paul tells Timothy to preach the word in and out of season –i.e. whether people want to hear him or not (2 Timothy 4:1-5). He doesn’t tell Timothy to create an environment conducive to allowing God’s word to seep into our consciousness. Meanwhile, Hebrews tells us, “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (Hebrews 2:1).
Problem 4. Smith has a mystical view of gathered Sunday worship (liturgy) and Old Testament language used about church buildings, which is not reflected in the New Testament
Despite his assertion that church buildings don’t hold “a superstitious magic”, he commends the children’s ministry of an episcopal church that involves them handling or playing with “tiny reproductions of sacred sites from the sanctuary” and “the mundane yet magical elements they see at Communion” (p141). He’s not talking about the Old Testament sanctuary – the tabernacle or temple. – as if kids are learning about the tabernacle or temple through models (which might be helpful). Instead, these children play with reproductions of what’s in the main church hall upstairs. Note the Old Testament temple language (underlined), which is used frequently (“sacred sites from the sanctuary”, p143 – referred to approvingly in contrast to “auditorium”.
In a similar vein, he has no qualms about using the Old Testament term “priest” for a church leader: “We need pastors and priests and worship leaders…” (p180). This is a word that the New Testament reserves either for Christ, our great high priest, or for all believers, but never uses about church leaders.
Problem 5. Smith looks to Christian heritage instead of Scripture as a rooted foundation for faith
There are four points we would like to make here:
(1) Smith’s assessment is that ignorance of Christian heritage leads to having to “reinvent the wheels of faith”. Notice what he has done here: two things that should be kept separate have been conflated. On the one hand, our faith is rooted in God’s word, so in content it can’t be updated and no part of it is optional. On the other hand, the history of the church is rich and informative but knowing about it is optional – it is outside of Scripture after all. Christian heritage shouldn’t determine the content of our faith, but only Scripture. So ignorance of Christian heritage doesn’t result in re-inventing the wheels of faith; it’s ignorance of Scripture that does that.
(2) Christianity can also “fall prey to the tyranny” of the past. Christian heritage can also shape, often unhelpfully, how we present the Christian faith to people in our society.
(3) We shouldn’t equate making the gospel accessible to our contemporaries – a right and biblical concern (as highlighted in Section 2a above) – with “updating the faith” itself, as Smith seems to have done here.
(4) Smith seems to regard only Western Christian heritage – in fact, more precisely, only Gothic/medieval Christian heritage – as the answer to our contemporary groundlessness. The examples of Christian heritage in this book are generally Gothic/medieval and certainly all Western. Where does this leave non-western Christians? What does it say to brothers and sisters in China, or Rwanda, or Iran, or North Korea, or Papua New Guinea?
Problem 6. Smith identifies baptism as an individual’s point of entry into God’s kingdom, rather than conversion
A close look at the following quotation illustrates this:
With similar effect, Smith tells an imagined story of a child’s journey of faith, as part of an approving description of his church’s custom of giving a clay ornament to a child and their family at the child’s baptism:
Where to start? There is no mention here of any proclamation of or reliance on Scripture – it’s replaced by baptism and a faithful object that teaches us. None of this conveys the Bible’s doctrine of sin or redemption from sin or conviction of sin or conversion out of sin. The imagined child can be confident that “You are my child” because they’ve been born to believing parents who had them baptised. There’s no sense of any personal accountability for the rejection of God’s word – the implication here of “God who is faithful even when we are faithless” is that the parents and child can be confident that God will forgive and save even as the baptised child is rejecting faith in Christ. At what point in the process outlined by Smith is there a call to repentance and faith, and what evidence is there of any response? Without these, there can be no grounds for any confidence that salvation has been granted.
Problem 7. Smith ultimately contradicts himself
(This might seem a minor point, but it encapsulates the reason why so many committed Bible-based Christians have a problem with a week-in-week-out practice of liturgy.)
The issue is: is ritual formative or just outwardly conformative? In an illustration to support the point that a teacher of virtue first needs to be a virtuous teacher, Smith talks about the instructions given on a plane about putting on your own oxygen mask in an emergency before you help a child with theirs. But the illustration is introduced like this:
It seems that the irony of this is unseen by the author. But this is precisely the suspicion that many evangelical churches have about liturgy – that it becomes “second nature” for those who participate in it regularly, and who ”tune out the drone” of it even as they may believe that they are allowing God’s word to seep into them. Our suspicion is that liturgy often produces a mentality of ticking the religious box without any spill-over effect into Monday to Saturday.
None of the following examples are evangelical, and no positive examples of evangelical Christianity are given.
You will find some insights in James Smith’s book and it is provocative, as some reviews have pointed out. Smith has in his sights a number of failings in contemporary Christian faith and culture that we would do well to be aware of, particularly with regard to the shallowness of what we may be communicating without words in our meetings together, the lack of quality and depth in our modern songs, the cultural compromise that has infiltrated much youth ministry, our ignorance of church history and Christian heritage, the immersive deformative power of our culture in our daily lifestyles, and so on.
However, this book is more than merely insightful and provocative: it is also dangerous. Smith seems to be intent on taking Bible-based Christian faith back to pre-Reformation religiosity. But this only becomes apparent partway through the book, and after some chapters containing helpful points and analyses. Yet a summary of the things he commends and which clearly excite him is illuminating: rituals, liturgy, calendars, ancient communities, Gothic buildings, ‘enchanted’ objects, candles, images, and sacred sites and spaces, and even priests. Of his examples of those who, in his view, have got Christian worship or thinking right none are evangelical (see Section C above).
There is scant reference to Scripture in this book. Colossians 3 v 12-16 is the main passage examined (p 16, 24). Word ministry is caricatured as passing on information (see Section B: Problem 1 above). There is no mention of preaching, though many of the things that Smith seeks – feeling and seeing with our imaginations the truth of God’s word, biblical visions that captivate us – are given to God’s people in prophetic, Spirit-filled Bible preaching. There is no thought given to the fact that liturgy is not mentioned or described in the New Testament.
Obviously Smith ever read Hebrews or Colossians 2 v 20-23 but he gives no sense of the importance of the fact that Old Testament physical, tangible, tactile forms of worship have been superseded in Jesus and the gospel age by the true reality that those physical forms merely foreshadowed. Which is why – other than water used for baptism, and bread and wine used for the Lord’s Supper – there is no mention of objects (candles, images, incense, clothes, architecture) in the context of the New Testament church.
Nor does Smith seem to understand how much religiosity is a product of sinful fallen nature. The fact is, it is appealing to people because it chimes with our desire to justify ourselves and confirm ourselves in self-righteousness, as the Pharisees did.
Unfortunately, we have to conclude that this author seems to have serious deficiencies in his understanding of both Scripture and church history. Worse, he oversteps valid critiques of some aspects of the contemporary Christian scene to caricature evangelicals and even some of the Reformers as simplistic and arid.
This book is calling us away from the primacy of Scripture, Spirit-empowered preaching and teaching, word-based mentoring and discipleship, confidence in the words of God alone to equip us for every good work, and gospel-centred church gatherings from which evangelical Christians seek to exclude all the extravagance, mystification, alienating strangeness, ‘highbrow-ness’, temptation to self-justification, remoteness from everyday life and compartmentalised tick-box mentality of fallen, Scripture-blind religiosity.
It is a matter of concern that “You are what you love” has been commended by not a few evangelical leaders and organisations and/or indirectly promoted without critique.
Yours in the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ,
Pete Woodcock & Tom Sweatman
Cornerstone Church Kingston UK