You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K. A. Smith
A book review by Mari Carlson
The title for this book provides its outline. First, Mr. Smith debunks identity myths in which we’ve been immersed since around Descartes’ pronouncement: “I think, therefore I am.” We’ve been reduced to “brains-on-a-stick,” says the author. He argues that a return to an older, more biblical understanding of who we are would bring us back to wholeness. We are lovers, the Scriptures tell us. Next, Smith describes what we love. “We are not just static containers for ideas; we are dynamic creatures directed toward some end.” Telos draws us lovers as whole selves, our whole life long. How we grope toward love, acting out of our deepest-seated desires, brings us to the last, and main, theme of his book: love as a habit.
Smith uses “liturgy” to mean habit-forming rituals or cultural practices that shape who we are and what we love. Both secular and church liturgies can be equally spiritually powerful. To practice the habit of loving God entails recognizing the secular liturgies that purport to be a way to love. Counter-formation, bathing in the life-giving rituals of Sunday Liturgy and all the every-day liturgies in between — at home, in school, at work, in our lives — undoes the work of deleterious liturgies and gives us, our love, the best chance to flourish. Mr. Smith ends the book with means for “learning by heart” and “bending our desires back toward himself” who loved us first. Smith’s method for “reading ‘secular’ liturgies” was one of the most helpful parts of this book for me. “You could think of this [method] as a macro version of the Daily Examen, a spiritual practice inherited from St. Ignatius of Loyola.” Using the example of the mall, “the temple,” Smith asks: what message does the mall send to consumers? What is the form of the message? Studying the architecture and layout of the mall he finds clues to its message: that consumers need what the mall provides us. Shopping will save us. If we’re not careful, we could learn to love this god instead of The God.
I considered liturgies in my own life. For several years I was member of a Swedish fiddling group called a “spelmanslag.” We rehearsed every Thursday in the basement of the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis and performed several times a year at dances and cultural events. Unlike orchestras, in which I also take part, Swedish fiddlers, for the most part, don’t use sheet music. In fact, one of the leaders of the spelmanslag didn’t know the notes he played by letter name; only by sound. We learned tunes by ear. We learned not only the notes but the “svikt,” the swing, by imitating the leader of the group, playing the tune over and over and breaking it down. We spent a lot of time on polskas, the most characteristic of the Swedish tunes. In 3/4 time, the second beat of a polska is elusive, an “up beat” that doesn’t fall strictly on beat 2, but often “floats” between beats 1 and 3. We listened while stepping out the 1-3, 1-3 polska rhythm. We sang the melody. We played the melody. Our leader conjured for us images of Swedish dances in mountain settings we were to keep in mind as we played. We were to let the images “inform” us. Written music and teacherly insight might have helped us understand how to play a polska through bowings and other articulation markings; but, no, authenticity, in keeping with tradition, meant no written music and no “intellectualizing.” We were told some of us “got it” and others didn’t. Names weren’t named. I couldn’t tell which “side” I was on. In the end, this gnostic approach, along with other politics, drove me out of the group. I played with the Danes instead. They had sheet music thereby avoiding defining the group by elusive “special” knowledge. What was this liturgy telling me about who I am? How did it tell me? It told me I’m “ekte,” authentic, if I can play a polska. And I know I can play it if someone with authority tells me I “get it.” Sure, I trusted the credentials of the authority; he played with the “rikspelmenn,” the Big Boys of the Swedish fiddling world. They all had the secret knowledge. But could I leave my identity, my worth as a player, in their hands? No, I couldn’t. Because I saw where that led. It led to in-groups and out-groups and competition. It didn’t lead to better playing, nor better teaching, only hoping we’d become one of the chosen few who “got it.” It led to reduction, not elevation, of ourselves and our art.
Reflecting on my “secular liturgy” experience as Smith does helped me understand the point he makes over the second half of the book: love is a habit, a habit that becomes us, suits us, as God’s loved ones. If what a liturgy offers us is satisfaction, an end, a thing, then it’s not love. If it’s not something we can do, and do over and over and over, with help when we fail, with room for holy hunger, then it’s not worth doing. Smith cites both contemporary Christian worship and the modern wedding industry as “secular liturgies” that are not seated in love because they are ends in themselves. For fear it won’t be palatable otherwise, Contemporary Christian worship (think megachurch) presents the gospel in a entertaining, comfortable setting. Blown away by loud music, screens, mountain-top “events” and an emotion-filled sermon, worshippers are left wanting more of that, not the gospel itself. Modern weddings, too, are ends in themselves. Marriage isn’t the goal; the pictures posted on facebook of the momentous occasion are. Contrast these end-gaining liturgies with the liturgy of stone-cutting, that work of by-gone ages. As told by educational theorist Etienne Wenger, two stone-cutters are asked what they’re doing. One answers that he’s “’cutting this stone in a perfectly square shape.’ The other responds, ‘I am building a cathedral.’” What is our doing for? We can tell love-forming liturgies from deleterious ones by whether or not they take our story up into the Story, whether they are liturgies-after-the-Liturgy, or not. Is our nuclear family for ourselves, or are we part of a clan? Do our routines revolve around football season or the schedules of all family members, including God the Father? Is our education “first and foremost about what we know [or] about what we love?” Is worship an escape from the week or does worship “pull our labor toward his kingdom”?
Smith’s book left me with more questions than answers. And, to me, that’s a sign of a good book! I wanted to know how to become characterized by my desire to love and learn. How can I take part more fully in the Liturgy through micro instances of liturgy? Smith provides a list for further reading in the back, mostly on the subject of worship. But I would add to his list, books on developing practice and habit. As Smith can attest, the secular world, namely, neuroscience has much to offer worshippers about the development of habit. Make it Stick: the Science of Successful Learning, by Peter Brown; Mindset by Carol Dweck, Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman; How We Learn, by Benedict Carey; and How You Stand, How you Move, How You Live, by Missy Vineyard. Smith spends the bulk of his book illuminating how we love, how we learn to love, as a practice and a habit. He uses “love” more as a verb than a noun because love shapes us, and experiencing God’s love in our worship, forms how we, in turn, love. Perhaps, if I could change anything about the book, it would be the title. Instead of We are What we Love , “We Are How We Love” better suits Smith’s argument.