"You are what you love" review - Cornerstone Church Kingston
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“You are what you love” review

January 26, 2017

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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”.

book cover

“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).

B: Problems

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:

  • We can’t counter the power of cultural liturgies with didactic information poured into our intellects … through merely informational measures” (p25).
  • “You won’t be liberated from deformation by new information. God doesn’t deliver us [from the effects of rival liturgies] by merely giving us a book [presumably Smith means the Bible (p83-84).
  • “Counterformative Christian worship [i.e. the kind of worship Smith advocates based on historic Christian liturgy] doesn’t just dispense information” (p85). How many Bible-centred, non-liturgical churches do “just dispense information”?
  • “Christian worship [i.e. Smith’s recommended type of historic liturgical worship] doesn’t just teach us how to think; it teaches us how to love, and it does so by inviting us into the biblical story and implanting that story in our bones” (p85). Non-liturgical churches are now characterised as those that only teach people how to think, and not also how to love or to connect with Bible truth.
  • In arguing for liturgies in the home, Smith says, “Our discipleship practices from Monday through Saturday shouldn’t simply focus on Bible knowledge” (p 113).
  • And he seems to misrepresent by caricature the achievement of the Reformation in the restoration of Bible-teaching to the central place in many churches: “The later Reformers emphasized the simple hearing of the Word, the message of the gospel, and the arid simplicity of Christian worship. The result was a process of excarnation – of disembodying the Christian faith, turning it into a heady affair that could be boiled down to a message and grasped with the mind … Christianity reduced to something for brains-on-a-stick. (p101)”

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

  1. Ancient communities, “smells and bells “, Gothic peculiarity, renunciation, rituals…

Having argued that people today find Protestantism merely intellectual and uninspiring, Smith offers this solution:

  • “But what might stop people short – what might truly haunt them – will be encounters with religious communities who have punched skylights in our brass heaven. It will be ‘ancient’ Christian communities – drawing on wells of historic, ‘incarnate’ Christian worship with its smells and bells = [an informal, pejorative idiom denoting a ritualistic style of religious worship, especially that of High Anglicanism or Roman Catholicism – a fact that the author can’t be ignorant of] and all its Gothic peculiarity, embodying a spirituality that carries whiffs of transcendence – that will be strange and therefore all the more enticing … historic Christian worship is not only the heart of discipleship; it might also be the heart of our evangelism” (p102).

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:

  • “The spiritual-but-not-religious crowd might find itself surprisingly open to something entirely different. In ways that they could never have anticipated, some will begin to wonder if “renunciation” isn’t the way to wholeness, if freedom might be found in the gift of constraint, and if the strange rituals of Christian worship are the answer to their most human aspirations” (p102).

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).

  1. Tactile and tangible worship

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.

  • Objects: “At the baptism of a child, the child and her family receive a small clay ornament … This simple ornament is, in a sense, ‘enchanted’ by the context in which it is given: it’s almost as if the sacramental power of baptism washes over onto this ornament … when the child ardently follows and errantly strays, its steady presence [is] a physical reminder of the God who is faithful even when we are faithless (2 Tim.2:13) [by the way, a common misinterpretation of this verse]. In this way, a simple gift becomes an enchanted object that keeps teaching us to hope” (p130-131).

Note how the object is commended as “a reminder of God” and keeps teaching us to hope, rather than the word of God.

  • Images: To illustrate the power of images Smith invents the following story: He starts by describing the statue of the Good Shepherd from St. Georges Episcopal Church, Nashville, USA as “just the sort of image and metaphor that gets lodged in your unconscious as a child, an imaged truth you then carry with you for the rest of your life – into your teens and eventually into your twenties, when you might drift from the faith, neglect these practices [i.e. Sunday rituals and liturgy], and wander off into trouble … Now that you’re here, you’re partly angry and partly embarrassed, so you have avoided the church like the plague. You’re sick and tired of all the self-righteousness of religious people, not to mention the fact that you’ve acquired a slew of intellectual doubts about this whole “Christianity” thing … But what catches you short on some lonely evening of despair isn’t a doctrine that you remember or all those verses you memorized from the book of Romans. What creeps up on you is the inexplicable emergence of this image of the shepherd. With the image comes the story of the shepherd who is willing to leave the ninety-nine goody-two-shoes sheep who’ve done everything right in order to find that one stubborn, recalcitrant lamb … That is an understanding of the gospel that is implanted not through merely didactic information transfer …. the sort of seeped-in conviction that is fostered by the kind of learning space I’ve just described [in St. Georges Episcopal Church, Nashville] (p141-142).

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!

  • Praying with candles: “While in Montmartre, we made our way into Sacre-Coeur Basilica … The space is, to say the least, enchanted. But my memory … pales in comparison with another memory I cherish … when I saw my oldest son, whose faith was quiet and understated, use his only two euros to light a candle in Sacre-Coeur. Here was a way for him to pray that was tangible and visceral – like the Spirit gave him a handle to grab hold of” (p151).

Problem 3. Smith talks about learning the Christian faith in ways that the New Testament doesn’t use

  • “The Scriptures seep into us in a unique way in the intentional, communal rituals of worship”. This is best done by mining “the riches of historic Christian worship, which is rooted in the conviction that the Word is caught more than it is taught” (p84).

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

  • “Christianity can sometimes fall prey to the … tyranny of the contemporary [a fixation with novelty and the thrill of the new]. In the name of ‘relevance,’ we keep updating the faith to appear au courant. The result, however, is the same groundlessness [as that seen outside of church] … The treasures and riches of our “catholic” Christian heritage – the millennia of the Spirit’s faithful leading through history – are neglected and ignored. Instead, we try to reinvent the wheels of faith, and they are often a bit ‘wonky'” (p140).

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:

  • “Baptism isn’t primarily a way for us to show our faith and devotion … It is the sign that God is a covenant-keeping Lord who fulfills his promises even when we don’t. This is why … historically in ‘catholic’ Christianity, believing parents present their children for baptism [so here baptism has been separated from conversion i.e. conviction, repentance and faith in response to hearing God’s word] … Baptism signals our initiation into a people … It is a motley crew: ‘not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth’ (1 Cor. 1:27-28 NRSV) [But Paul here is speaking of converted people who were “called” to this (v 26) by the preaching of Christ crucified, through which the Spirit demonstrated his power by bringing the responsive hearers to faith – as outlined in the very next verses: 1 Cor. 2 v 1-4]. But that is the mark of the city of God, God’s upside-down kingdom [quotes v 27-28] … The citizens of the baptismal city are … chosen and commissioned as God’s image-bearers, God’s princes and princesses who are empowered to be witnesses of a coming kingdom and charged with the renewal of the world. [i.e. it’s possible to be a full member of the people of God without going through a process of conviction and  repentance leading to faith]

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:

  • “Inscribed on one side of the ornament are the words “I am your God,” and on the other side, framed by a rainbow, are the words “You are my child.” … Many parents then hang the ornament in the child’s room for the years to come … The ornament hangs there faithfully during good times and bad, when the child ardently follows and errantly strays, its steady presence a physical reminder of the God who is faithful even when we are faithless (2 Tim 3:13, misinterpreted). In this way, a simple physical gift becomes an enchanted object that keeps teaching us to hope” (p131).

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:

  • “I spend a lot of time on airplanes. The rituals of flight have become second nature for me. When the cabin door closes, I shut down my phone, pick up my New Yorker, and tune out the drone of the crew as they enumerate all the safety procedures” (p 160).

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.

  1. Examples given and commended

None of the following examples are evangelical, and no positive examples of evangelical Christianity are given.

  1. The Daily Examen of St. Ignatius of Loyola (p54) St. Ignatius founded theSociety of Jesus(Jesuits), and was a leader of the Counter Reformation.
  1. Charles Taylor (p101): Roman Catholic professor of philosophy.
  1. Orthodox wedding rite (p 121)
  1. The Building Cathedrals blog (p131): Written by seven Catholic women”
  1. Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels (LA) (p140): Roman Catholic
  1. The primary Sunday School area of St. George’s Episcopal Church, Nashville, USA (p139-143): Home of the statue of the Good Shepherd (see Problem 2b – Images above) and the children’s ministry where children play with reproductions of “sacred sites from the sanctuary” (see Problem 4 above).
  1. Taize (p149): Ecumenical monastic order and community
  1. Conclusion

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
January 2017