you are what you love (1)

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Some reflections on chapter 1 of “You Are What You Love” by James K.A. Smith:

It seems like Smith’s basic starting point here is that we have been deeply shaped, without realising it, by the idea that to be human is primarily to be a “thinking thing” – Descartes gets the blame (“I think, therefore I am”).

In Christian culture this idea is reflected in our common assumption that “right thinking” (i.e. right theology or understanding of the Bible) will lead automatically to good character and right living. We know from experience that this simply isn’t true. This observation really rings true for me.

As a little spin-off thought – the same assumption (that right thinking will lead to right living) seems to also be the basis of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) which is pretty hot right now. Some of you with training in psychotherapy etc may have some thoughts on this…?

Smith argues that we need to recover the biblical understanding that the centre of our humanity is the “heart” (or even the “guts”). By heart we don’t just mean the centre of emotions, but of deeper-rooted desires and longings. The heart is the place from which our lives are directed and orientated towards some kind of “vision” or telos. The most important thing about us is not what we think or believe – but what we love, what we want.

So the goal in all Christian discipleship is not simply to impart knowledge and information about God and the Bible – but nothing less than the re-orientation of our desires, the re-calibration of our loves.

Smith observes in passing that some parts of our Christian culture have somehow managed to be both anti-intellectual and focused on cognitive beliefs and right thinking rather than the heart. I recognise this as true of the evangelical circles I’ve mostly spent time in. Our sermons and Bible studies focus on correct doctrine and right thinking. But we also resist deep thinking about anything too complex, controversial, or confusing.

To stir the pot a little – it seems to me that the vibrant growth of some of the charismatic churches recently may be partly because they have rejected a purely cognitive form of faith, and recovered an emphasis on experience and emotion and the heart. But perhaps we also need some more deep thinking about our emotions and experiences? What I crave is a bringing together of head and heart in a C.S. Lewis kind of way. W.H Auden said that “Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.” Maybe the same is true of great theology – we need to think deeply about all the complexity and ambiguity and messiness of the heart?

Smith also wants us to consider this – that what we love is expressed by, and also shaped and formed by, habits and practices.

This is part of what drew me to read this book. I’ve been thinking a lot over the past year about some of my own habits, especially in relation to technology, media, social media, etc. And I’ve been becoming more aware (and alarmed!) by how these daily habits are a kind of “liturgy” which is forming and shaping me. The book that really shook me up on this stuff is called “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr – exploring how the internet is changing the way we think, actually shaping our brains.

I reach for my devices to check email, Facebook, news, sports news – many times every day. It’s compulsive and habitual, woven into the fabric of my days. But I’m aware that it mostly doesn’t shape me in positive ways, but makes me anxious, angry, distracted, overwhelmed by just too much stuff to process (both trivial, frothy stuff and Big Serious Stuff).

To quote my current favourite song by Romantica – “It’s getting harder to hear my heart these days, harder to hear my heart – there’s so much culture in the way.” (You can listen to the song here).

I’m becoming aware of the need for a radical, intentional change in my daily habits. I’m hoping this book and conversation will help.

On the positive side – Smith suggests we need strong habits of worship in order to cultivate virtue – good character, well-oriented loves. So we can become the kind of people who will choose the good instinctively, since our instincts have been re-calibrated. This is not about trying to make ourselves good by obeying rules – law-keeping focuses on external behaviour, but this is about the re-orientation of our hearts and desires.

I’m aware I have some theological questions around this – I have believed (and taught) that we are changed and transformed by grace and by the Spirit – and not primarily by our best efforts. How does this fit with Smith’s emphasis on habits and practices, on intentionally choosing to do those things that will shape us and make us good? I don’t feel they are necessarily in contradiction – I hope not, since I’m drawn to both! But I may need your help to untangle my confused thoughts.

That’s enough from me. The floor is open…

11 Responses to “you are what you love (1)”

  1. Hi! I was drawn to the title of the book and the chance to be part of this conversation as I, too, am aware of a need for intentional change in my daily habits… And I am always so optimistic about that in January! Then, the book wasn’t what I was expecting – for a book that starts with the suggestion that we are not primarily “thinking things” – I felt like chapter 1 required ALOT of thinking! However, by the time I had read through it a couple of times, I had lots underlined in purple pen that I found helpful and that, as you say above, rings true.

    I love his inclusion of the AA slogan “Your best thinking got you here” and his idea that we don’t need less than knowledge; we need more. I wonder how many of us find ourselves in the middle of our 30s (or 40s, or 60s…) in some kind of a tangle in an area of our lives (and especially faith) that our best thinking got us to? Last year I started seeing a Spiritual Director and am benefiting from the slow deep process that is in real contrast to the thinking that can wear me out on the church pew (and is also a real contrast to CBT, which I have done twice!). It’s a place to think deeply “about all the complexity and ambiguity and messiness of the heart”.

    Perhaps my favourite line of chapter 1 was this: “discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing.”

  2. JJ F.

    Hey! I don’t know if you remember me, but I met you during the summer of 2000 in Dublin. It’s was probably the best and most powerful summer of my life. Anyway, I’m not able to read the book with you, although I would love to, but I’m going to be following along and listening to the discussion. What you have written so far really resonates with what I feel like God is doing me now. I feel like He is waking me up to longing and desire of which I think I had stuffed down a long time ago in a self-protective kind of way. If you are ever in southern Spain, let me know. It would be great to see you!

  3. jaybercrow

    Thanks for your thoughts Sharon. You are right that for a book about the heart, it requires some serious thinking! But I think your second paragraph highlights why we need that – we need better thinking about the heart. Deeper and slower thinking, as you say. I also love that final quotation. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst…”

    And J.J. – of course we remember you! We have such good memories of those Encounter days and of spending time with you in Greystones. Delighted to have you listening in, and feel free to share your thoughts even if you haven’t read the book. Hope life in Spain is good – we’d love it if our paths crossed again some day.

  4. David

    Thank you, JM, for launching this book project!
    I’m grateful for you pointing me towards James KA Smith, whom I had never encountered before.
    He is a fascinating individual who has lived in radically different neighbourhoods of Christendom.
    Smith started his studies as Emmaus Bible College, one of the few institutional bastions of the Open Brethren movement. He spent some time at a Catholic college and ended up at Villanova with the doyen of deconstructionism, John Caputo. Then he makes the jump to a professorship at Calvin College in Michigan, one of most intellectually ambitious Christian liberal arts colleges.
    He appears to have fellowshipped widely along the way, too, spending time with the Assemblies of God and now worshipping with a congregation of the Dutch Calvinist Christian Reformed Church in North America.
    I’m intrigued by his politics. I see from his Twitter feed he is pretty horrified by Trump, and he was a prominent voice in the Radical Orthodoxy movement (a stream which watered the Red Tories who influenced the Conservatives’ notions of the Big Society). He is editor-in-chief of Comment, the magazine of the Cardus think tank, which is “dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture”.
    Smith is a winsome writer, especially on his blog Fors Clavigera (his entry On Fatherless Days is well worth reading and very moving, and makes it clear that he is not criticising modernity from the perspective of someone who has had an easy and privileged life). Fors Clavigera was also the title of the 19th century open letters written by John Ruskin to the “workmen and labourers of Great Britain”, which gives us yet another hint that he wants to communicate far beyond the academy.
    He is clearly someone who believes in ideas but, as is so evident in this book, he does not see individual and social change coming primarily though arguments about theories or the provision of new information. Rightly – and I reckon his immersion in Radical Orthodoxy (RO) and postmodernism will have informed this – he sees behaviour changing through immersion in communities which are faithful to ancient disciplines and practices which in turn cultivate loves, virtues and habits.
    Postmodernists and the RO crew have been very critical of tendencies which have come out of the Enlightenment, particularly the vulnerability to self-centred individualism and intellectual self-confidence, and this is reflected in Smith’s chapter one challenging of Descartes and his complaint that “we have been taught to assume human beings are fundamentally thinking things” or “brains on a stick”. Outside theology, psychologists will find little argument with his observation that we are driven by hungers and wants we may never have articulated to ourselves, a “love” that is “a kind of subconscious desire that operates without our thinking about it”.
    I did wonder if he was setting up something of an unnecessary binary opposition here between care for the mind and the heart, but he acknowledges that “Scripture enjoins us to take every thought captive” and to “be transformed by the renewing of our minds”. I’m not sure that his critique of an advertisement for a Bible memory programme advertisement that claimed “you are what you think” quite hit its target; the Christians whose lives are utterly charged with love who have enriched my life are men and women who are soaked in Scripture which the Spirit has used to nourish their hearts and minds. Indeed, it is as if Scripture is living information. I remember an English literature professor who had spent his life wrestling with the legacy of his evangelical childhood comparing the words of the Bible to a bacillus that it’s impossible to get out of your system.
    Smith is spot on when he says that “discipleship is a rehabituation of your loves” and it is especially interesting that he has come to believe that the “practices of Christian worship train our love”. Here is someone who has experienced the strengths and the weaknesses of at least four great traditions within the Christian family and his prescription for our “counterformation” is a new emphasis on worship.
    This is Smith’s big challenge to our time. It’s not enough to read the right books, download good talks and have the occasional coffee with like-minded friends: “discipleship needs to be centred in and fuelled by our immersion in the body of Christ”.

  5. canal ways

    yo…yeah, the thinking thing got me…er…thinking! Part of the reason I wanted to read this book was that I feel I’ve been neglecting reading good Christian books, stuff that will get me thinking and inspire me to get back on track. But’s it part of the problem that it’s often some kind of intellectual exercise that I think will sort out my Christian walk. You can see in even in reaction to worship songs from the sorts of circles I ran around in. There had to be meaty theology to chew over and reflect on. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing but there is definitely a Spirit thing missing with the Presbyterian Church. The trinity has always been Father, Son and Holy Bible…even the way we do small group stuff makes it seem like a tutorial in university or school. Questions and then we work out the answers. Even saying words or phrases like ‘I feel…’ gets my inner head tutting that feelings are something to be avoided when it comes to talking about God.

  6. Some more reflections…

  7. Hey JM,

    Sorry For being late to the party! Let’s pretend I’m being fashionably late rather than having just realised today that you started the series…
    I found a lot of reverberations in what James K.A Smith was saying and where I’ve found myself in my spiritual journey. Especially in terms of moving beyond a Cartesian paradigm to how we approach faith, church, discipleship, etc. (I know, I know, I’m in danger of thinking too much!) But I don’t believe the danger has been thinking too much, but rather thinking too narrowly (in terms of all that makes us human: conscious, unconscious, emotions and all) and too unimaginatively!
    For me, Theology and studying have never been about training in “right thinking” and learning to come to the right conclusions. It’s always been about giving me the material and the tools to imagine better: better possibilities, a better tomorrow, a better telos!
    And dwelling in the imagination of the telos I think is what we sometimes lack. To quote Brueggemann: “The imagination must come before the implementation.” And to imagine better, we need to hand over to the artist. I haven’t read ahead, but I’ll be interested in what Smith has to say about telos and re-orientating our desires in the following chapters.
    We recently did a LightShed event last December on the theme of Faith here in Edinburgh which touched a lot on some of the themes of the first chapter. So I’ll link a few things we did:
    One of the songs we played was We Believe?, by the Liturgists which just challenges us on the tension of what we say we believe and the actuality of our practices and actions.
    Here’s the link:
    And finally, I wrote a very rough spoken piece about faith and yearning for the event:

    Looking forward to reading more!


  8. Debbie

    This is a timely piece for me as I have felt the need and indeed longing for ‘re-calibration’, as Smith describes, for what feels like a very long time. Perhaps my longings and desires have been out of kilter by only a few degrees but I think the story of the ‘Monroe’ illustrates beautifully how disastrous those few degrees can be. My response to that feeling of misoreintation has been to try harder to think better, use my intellect to change my understanding, but it has not satisfied or corrected my course. I’m eager to see the ‘how’ of where Smiths arguments takes us and if it genuinely can paint a picture of a becoming virtuous that doesn’t feel like chasing myself with a big stick.

  9. jaybercrow

    Thanks for all the comments so far. It seems this book may be scratching where some of us are itching, at least in naming some of our frustrations and questions. Let’s hope it leads us somewhere good!

    Thanks to David W for doing the research and providing us all with a biographical skethc of the author. Very helpful! I’m also interested in your push-back about the Bible memorising programme. My assumption was that Smith was not questioning the value of such practices, but the narrow focus on “thinking” in the advertising slogan. It’s interesting that the practice of memorisation is also often called “learning by heart.” See also Deuteronomy 6:6 – “these commandments are to be on your hearts.” As you say, both head and heart are involved, and we are “nourished” in ways deeper than mere information download. We recently discussed Deuteronomy 6 in home group and we also noticed the physicality of the practices that are encouraged – write them on your doorposts, tie them on your hands, bind them on your heads, etc. And the relational dimension – talk about these things together. So maybe talking about “head and heart” isn’t enough – we need head and heart and body and community to all be involved in the learning process?

    I really like Ryan’s observation that our problem is not thinking too much, but thinking too narrowly and too unimaginatively. Ryan and Sharon have given us two great examples of thinking imaginatively about some of these things, using poetry and story-telling. Hopefully the rest of us can be inspired by their example. Who wants to write a song?!

  10. Sam

    I’m enjoying getting stuck into this too and like most of you realising I need some recalibration!
    I resonate with much of what he says about how we learn not being primarily by thinking ( and I have the same questions as you do JM about CBT). It seems to me that the crisis in discipleship we are seeing in many places may partly be due to us not appreciating the wholeness of the person and how we learn. I’ve heard ministers recently describe how discipleship takes place on a Sunday morning and almost fell off my chair…
    I do agree with David that it feels like he is setting up a little bit of a straw man. He also repeats himself a lot!
    I was also intrigued by the references to imagination and what I would call vision. For a long time I have longed to hear more people describing what the kingdom of god looks like where they are or should look like as opposed to the complaints we all, particularly myself make. Frustration is a part of vision but it seems we really need more vision – more painting pictures of what the kingdom of god looks like. I think we need a lot of help with this imagining as it feels to me like we see less and less of it in our churches.
    I’m looking forward to more and the conversations…

  11. PJ

    Hello JM!

    I’m enjoying reading through all the thoughts people have already posted. Apologies for coming to the party so late. But I’m finally back up to speed and will hopefully be able to keep up with the discussions as they’re posted (not over a month late!).

    Here’s my reflections on chapter 1:

    The above can be stuffed into a nutshell as this: I’m looking forward to the challenge to broaden my lived-out definition of worship as a “counterformative” process.


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