Recently, I had the opportunity to read James K.A. Smith’s new book You are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Beginning with the words of Jesus in Jn 1:38 (“what do you want”), Smith’s thesis is built on the claim that humans are driven by their loves more than by what they know or even claim to believe. Put another way, we are what we love (p. 7). Building off Augustine’s famous introduction in Confessions (“our hearts are restless [God] until they find their rest in you”), Smith adds that “Jesus’ command to follow him is a command to align our loves and longings with his” (p. 2). Again, authentic discipleship is demonstrated through what we love and cherish.
Smith offers a deep well of wisdom in this book about God the Creator as well as human flourishing. I was particularly moved by his insights on worship. We are immersed in a broken world that promises a “good life” (material, erotic) and it’s easy to be accustomed to the world’s promises and rhythms —what Smith calls “secular liturgies” (p. 38). Because of this, he adds “we need to regularly calibrate our hearts, turning them to be directed toward the creator” (p. 20). He continues: “Christian worship . . . 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. This is why worship is the heart of discipleship” (p. 25). This is why regular connection with other believers in corporate worship is essential.
Two things struck me about Smith’s teaching on worship. First, true worship is God-centered and actually God-led. He writes: “God is both the subject and object of our worship . . . the Triune God is both the audience and agent of worship: worship is to and for God, and God is active in worship in the Word and the Sacraments (p. 70). So “worship isn’t just something we do; it is where God does something to us” (p. 77). Citing Hughes Oliphant Old, he concludes, “The worship of the church is a matter of divine activity rather than human creativity” (p. 72).
Second, in light of this God-centeredness, Smith challenges a one-sided view in worship in which believers function as the performers. He writes, “When we tacitly assume that we are the primary actors in worship, then we also assume that worship is basically an expressive endeavor” (p. 74). This leads us to continually strive for innovation so that our worship experience remains “fresh.” He continues: “Novelty is how we try to maintain the fresh sincerity of worship that is fundamentally understood as expressive (p. 75).” Pointing to a related problem, he adds, “too often we look for the Spirit in the extraordinary when God has promised to be present in the ordinary” (p. 67).
Smith offers a final, helpful admonition: “In order to foster a Christian imagination, we don’t need to invent, we need to remember (p. 181). From this, he advocates historic Christian worship practices—a liturgy that includes a call to worship, confession, hearing the Scriptures, communing with the Lord at his table, and then being sent from worship on mission (pp. 96-99). He wants the church to remember its inherited worship traditions and forms in light of the temptation to constantly recreate itself. Perhaps “there can be a certain virtue to ‘going through the motions’” (p. 152).