Jamie Smith’s “You Are What You Love” in Ten Sentences
Condensing good books into short articles is always an act of bastardisation, but nevertheless, and because I want people to read it and get the benefit of it, here’s a summary. I’ve taken ten key sentences from the book, so you can begin to get a feel for what Smith is trying to do (even though, given that they are removed from their context, they are liable to misunderstanding). They are all worth thinking about:
“What if, instead of starting from the assumption that human beings are thinking things, we started from the conviction that human beings are first and foremost lovers?” Christian discipleship frequently starts off on the wrong foot here, as we preach and educate and train and do youth work and even parent according to the wrong model: we assume that people change through learning different things, whereas actually they grow through loving different things. And those loves are not formed mainly through new information, but through new habits.
It’s easy to see this as true of highly intellectualist Christian traditions (conservative Reformed churches, say), but less easy to see it as true of a charismatic, experientialist tradition like mine. Nevertheless: “Many modes of Christian piety and discipleship that are suspicious of formal theology and higher education are nonetheless ‘intellectualist’ in how they approach discipleship and Christian formation, narrowly focused on filling our intellectual wells with biblical knowledge, convinced that we can think our way to holiness.” Indeed.
“If you are what you love and if love is a virtue, then love is a habit.” Developing new loves is like driving a car or playing the piano or swinging a golf club: it requires so much practice, so much habituation, that you end up doing it without thinking about it. (The same is true of sinful desires, by the way; in perhaps the book’s best sentence, Smith comments, “Not all sins are decisions.” That’s worth reflecting on.) And that sort of habitual behaviour can only be achieved through praxis and repetition; being told about it simply doesn’t cut the mustard.
“Christian worship, we should recognise, is essentially a counterformation to those rival liturgies we are often immersed in, cultural practices that covertly capture our loves and longings, miscalibrating them, orienting us to rival versions of the good life.” Repeated activities like working, shopping, eating and the like are not just things we do; they are things that do something to us, teaching us to love, pointing us to what our lives could (and should) be, and training us to think of the world in a particular way. Christian worship is the same. It is not just something we do, but also something that is done to us. This is vital for the formation of Christian character.
“You might not love what you think.” If, as in a particular Russian movie Smith describes, you were to walk into a room in which your deepest desire would become a reality, would you actually want it to? Or would you be like Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, getting what you want only to discover at the last minute that it isn’t actually what you really wanted. What if your deepest love was not what you hoped it was, but actually something darker or more selfish or more carnal? (He illustrates this with an amusing example: “I was reading Wendell Berry in the food court at Costco.”) And following on from that: how can we train ourselves to desire what we want to desire?
“As lovers—as desiring creatures and liturgical animals—our primary orientation to the world is visceral, not cerebral.” Our desires are more like golf swings and changing gear and breathing and playing scales, than they are like solving equations or reading books. Which has huge implications for discipleship.
“Pastors need to be ethnographers, helping their congregations name and ‘exegete’ their local liturgies.” Smith gives the now-famous example of a shopping mall, as close to a modern equivalent of a medieval cathedral as you could find: a vaulted ceiling lifting the eyes skywards, a central meeting area, side chapels (shops) to browse with different features, multisensory worship through music, lighting, food, drink, aromas and the like, icons (mannequins) pointing to an idealised version of the good life, altars (tills) where transactions in order to achieve the good life are carried out, right through to the benediction (have a nice day, or equivalent). Our job as pastors, he points out, is to show people what these things are saying, and especially doing, to the people we serve.
“The practices of prayer and song, preaching and offering, baptism and communion, are the canoes and boats and helicopters that God graciously sends our way.” If you know the parable of the drowning man on the riverboat, praying for help and rejecting the common means of grace, you’ll know what he’s saying here. (Smith overlaps with Michael Horton’s excellent book Ordinary here.)
“Instead of the bottom-up emphasis on worship as our experience of devotion and praise, historic Christian worship is rooted in the conviction that God is the primary actor or agent in the worship encounter.” So worship is at least as much, if not more, about God’s gift to us, as it is about our response to him. That should be reflected in our songs, prayers and actions, and in the historic church tradition, it often is. In the charismatic one, not so much.
The second half of the book is almost entirely the application of the first half into various other spheres of the Christian life, most notably marriage, the home, parenting, education and the workplace. Of the many wise insights about everyday liturgy and discipleship in these chapters, the most challenging (for me) was his excursus on youth work, perhaps best summarised with this: “We have created youth ministry that confuses extroversion with faithfulness.” I’ll probably post a more extended quotation here shortly, to show what he’s on about—but in the meantime, it’s worth pondering the extent to which youth work reflects an entertainment/excitement/extroversion culture, rather than one of faithful discipleship.
That’s just ten sentences from a book that is full of wisdom and insight, many of which do not come in mere sentences. (I think of Charles Taylor’s concept of excarnation as applied to worship, and Smith’s cheeky challenge to do a Google image search on the word “worship” for evidence of it. I did. He’s right.) I still have some big questions about certain aspects of Smith’s book—whether he has thrown out some contextualisation babies with the consumerist bathwater, why liturgically chaotic Chinese house churches produce more robust Christian character than liturgically exemplary Anglophone ones, and whether, in largely passing over the charismatic dimension of church life, he has omitted something central to biblical worship—but then I’m writing my own book about some of this stuff, so I probably would, wouldn’t I? In short, You Are What You Love is well worth reading, and my guess is that the less likely you would normally be to read a book like this, the more you would benefit from it. Highly recommended.