Dr. James K.A. Smith, “You Are What You Love: Worship at the Heart of Discipleship”

James K.A. Smith is on a quest to help us rediscover something the ancient Christian Church understood. There is a very real connection between what we really want or love and who we are (see Matthew 6:21). Three of Smith’s recent books (Desiring the Kingdom (2009), Imagining the Kingdom (2013), and his newest book, You Are What You Love (2016) deal with what he calls “secular liturgies,” the practices and habits in culture that—similar to historical worship liturgies—work to form us as persons. Smith is professor of philosophy (Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview) at Calvin College, and has published articles in Christianity Today, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Reformed Worship, among other notable periodicals. In March of last year, he spoke at Berry College giving a stunning presentation I would highly recommend watching, “You Are What You Love: Worship at the Heart of Discipleship.” Smith’s presentation encourages a more historical approach to discipleship than what we have seen in the evangelical church in recent decades. I see this as a welcome corrective. Here I will briefly outline key aspects of his presentation and include direct quotations.

Our worldview is what defines us, right?   Smith begins his talk exposing a significant hole in what has defaulted as the defining substance of evangelical discipleship the last several decades—worldview. He explains that today’s Protestants today typically look to their beliefs as that which most essentially defines them as persons. There are problems with this, Smith says, one of which is that we may fall into a simplistic rationalism, thinking that simply “right information” is enough. Smith is not saying that our beliefs and our worldview are not important. What he is saying is we are more than this because we are more than containers of information. There is a difference between our worldview (what we think) and what we really “want. . . long for. . . crave. . . desire.” Thus the biblical language of the heart has much to do with who we really are. Smith offers the gap between what we know and how we live as proof of the inadequacy of the belief-equals-being mentality.

“We are what we love”:  Smith explains that we are essentially beings that love. Thus it is “what . . . you want” that provides the most telling description of who you are. Humans are intentional beings, and “the most fundamental mode in which we aim at something . . . is love.” The gap mentioned above plays out here. The effects of sin and the fall result in love not “turned off” but rather wrongly aimed. Smith’s teaching recalls Augustine’s understanding of the affections—that our loves must be rightly ordered [thus rightly aimed]. In The Confessions Augustine addresses God with these words, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Smith teaches that whether or not our loves actually represent Christian or unhealthy secular ends, they form our practices, and these practices form habits. What you love is a product of cultural formation of habits that train your affections. This process trains us on a level “that sometimes almost intentionally bypasses the intellect.” Therefore, Smith says—

More hangs in the balance regarding our cultural immersion than we may understand:  Cultural practices are not neutral or benign. These may work upon us according to their ends at a subconscious level. Smith gives the stinging example of the mall, a place that his son jokingly refers to as “the temple.” In all reality though, according to Smith, this is a prime place to observe secular liturgies at work. He explains that when he talked to an architectural historian at UVA, he explained to him that there are “intentional historic echoes between malls and medieval cathedrals.” When you enter, you cannot see the outside world anymore, so time has the effect of standing still. Malls even have their own liturgical colors (decorations changing according to season), and saints lining the walls (manikins sporting the latest style). Rather than informing our minds, consumerism prompts our imaginations or longings, “and once it captures your imagination, it captures your loves—which means its got you.” All of this is to form in us the vision that the mall management wants us to have of “the good life”—their version of “flourishing.” Of course this has huge implications upon worship—we are shaped by what we worship or love. I would add here that Matthew 6:21 makes this clear: “Wherever your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Conclusion—“You are what you love, but you might not love what you think”:  So regarding cultural habits, customs, or conventions we should ask, as Smith suggests, “What does this institution want me to become? . . . What does it want me to love?” Thinking through the answer to this question in regard to various aspects of our society will then enlighten our understanding regarding cultural, not to mention Christian, formation. Worldview is important but not enough. Actions and habits as an outgrowth of our loves are key to who we really are. I’m enthusiastic about these rich insights informing us of the deep connections between worship and discipleship. There is one critique I would make of Smith’s presentation. As Scott Aniol points out in his review of Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom, in the Berry College video Smith does not clearly distinguish between the ancient Church’s understanding of the passions and the affections. To learn about this distinction, I would point you to C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man or David De Bruyn’s The Conservative Church.

Following are links to an interview with James Smith and some thoughtful reviews of Smith’s books on the topic of worship:

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Brazos, 2016): https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/2016/04/05/you-are-what-you-love-a-conversation-with-james-k-a-smith/

Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Baker Academic, 2013): http://artistictheologian.com/journal/at-volume-2-2013/gospel-shaped-worship-a-review-of-recent-literature/ Follow this link and scroll for Scott Aniol’s review of Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works.


Desiring the Kingdom: Worldview, Worship, and Culture (Baker Academic, 2009): http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/august/28.55.html


Source:  Smith, David K.A. “You Are What You Love: Worship at the Heart of Discipleship.” You Tube , video file, 103:36. Accessed December 19, 2016. Available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L4QXTR_Toa8. This video was made at Berry College.


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