You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of HabitBy James K. A. Smith (Baker, 2016).

James Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, a prolific writer on matters hermeneutical, promised us a trilogy several years ago. Only two have seen the light of print so far. But here is a more popular version of the second volume of the trilogy that itself has been reviewed in these pages.

Smith rightly counters the modern understanding that humans are fundamentally “thinking things,” minds that just happen to be enclosed and trucked around in extraneous, temporary bodies. Learning and discipleship then end up being “primarily a matter of depositing ideas and beliefs into mind-containers” (3). But action is not a sort of withdrawal” from a depository of knowledge; in fact, behavior is not “always the outcome of conscious, deliberate, rational reflection that ends with a choice. … In all of this, we ignore the overwhelming power of habit,” that happens under the radar, if you will (3–4). Smith, of course, does not disagree that the role of the mind is biblically affirmed (2 Cor 10:5; Rom 12:2; Ps 1:2). But it is the monopoly of the mind—a widespread racket!—that he tries to dismantle. Paul’s prayer in Phil 1:9–11, Smith avers, “hints at a very different conviction: ‘You are what you love’”; fundamentally, humans are “erotic creatures” (6–7, 9). Therefore, the goal for life transformation is to direct that eros towards the appropriate telos. Smith articulates his theme cogently: discipleship is “to want what God wants, to desire what God desires, to hunger and thirst after God and crave a world where he is all in all—a vision encapsulated by the shorthand ‘the kingdom of God’”: the telos (2). Unfortunately, we are given no indication where this vision of the kingdom comes from (it is from Scripture, of course, that pericope by pericope propounds a world in front of the text). In any case, according to Smith, this vision of the divine kingdom ought to captivate our imaginations and motivate our desires, cultivating in us virtues, habits, internal dispositions, and character (16). Initially, such habits are inculcated by instruction and modeling—“more like practicing scales on the piano than learning music theory.” But the ultimate goal is the internalization of the sense of the good, creating “the kind of people who do this without the ‘stick’ of rules compelling them to do so”: the development of the Aristotelian “second nature,” “like inscribing something into the very fiber of your being” (17, 18).

Smith calls these love-shaping habits “liturgies,” convinced that “the practices of Christian worship train our love … habituating us as citizens of the kingdom of God.” For Smith, such habituation and development of loves happen subconsciously as “liturgies” are engaged in; so “worship is the heart of discipleship,” the means by which loves are molded and shaped (22–23, 25, 32, 65). Now, I will not deny the importance of worship, but without Scripture, this ship is completely adrift. You don’t want a “deployment of the language Scriptures” (84) in liturgy and lections and prayers, you want an exposition of the Scripture; you don’t want rites and rituals of worship written on your brain, you want the rites and rituals of Scripture application to seize your life. Ironically, Smith speaks often of inscribing habits into character, into the fiber of one’s being, into the unconscious (17, 18, 36, 65), and of practices conscripting our bodily habits (65). For all this emphasis on the root of the word “scripture,” we are not told of any primary role of Scripture in habit formation, life transformation, or character development.

Smith borrows from the views of psychologists, including works of pop-psychology, the conclusions of which are not universally accepted in academia. That is not to say they have no worth, but one must be careful before consuming these studies whole. He also relies considerably on the work of Yale researcher John Bargh, who, unfortunately, has had some bad press in the scientific literature for the irreproducibility of some of his work. That being said, I do believe in the fundamental postulates of what Smith is propounding.

While this is a refreshing approach to biblical ethics, particularly for us preachers who major in application for our congregations, Smith, sadly, has nothing to say about preaching and application. It is preaching that fires our desires for the divine kingdom as portrayed in Scripture, pericope by pericope. And application is the means by which habituation is begun, inclining us towards those loves, such that the habits inculcated become life dispositions that, in turn, become Christlike character in us. That is how we become more like the One we love.

Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society 17.2 (2017): 60–61

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