Smith Engages the Hebrew Heart, Part 1

James K.A. Smith, You Are What You LoveJames K. A. Smith. 2016. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.(Goto part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The wholly confusion that dominates the church today is rooted the Greek dualism that pervades western thought. While Greeks distinguished mind and body, Hebrews did not. The Hebrew mindset saw mind and body as different parts of a unified whole, whose center is the heart (cardia) and decidedly not simply emotions that come and go. Stroking emotions and teaching the head neglect the heart that responds principally to ritual. Neglected hearts see no reason to become disciples or attend church. The church then finds itself full of confused thinkers and traumatized emoters who ridicule and neglect ritual leading to even more neglected hearts. Wholly confusion naturally leads then to holy confusion.


In his book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, James K. A. Smith opens his preface with an enigmatic statement:

“This book articulates a spirituality for culture-makers, showing (I hope) why discipleship needs to be centered in and fueled by our immersion in the body of Christ.”(xi)

The word, spirituality, signals an interest in applied (or practical) theology; the word culture signals a long-term focus moving from the church to society; and the phrase,“immersion in the body of Christ”,signals an interest in worship, particularly the sacramental aspects of worship where God is the principal actor and the rituals date to the first century church.

Work of Christ

For a Christian theologian, unpacking this agenda requires an interpretation of the work of Christ (the metaphysical question) that shows up immediately:

“Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t inform our intellect but forms our very loves…His ‘teaching’ doesn’t just touch the calm, cool, collected space of reflection and contemplation, he is a teacher who invades the heated, passionate regions of the heart. He is the Word who ‘penetrates even dividing the soul and spirit’; he ‘judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart’ (Heb 4:12)” (2)

Hebrew Anthropology

Inherent in this statement is the Hebrew view of anthropology cited above—note the two references to heart. What Greek would talk about “the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”? Drawing attention to this anthropology, Smith asks: “Do you ever experience a gap between what you know and what you do?” (5) If he had the rational mind in view, no such gap would exist but, of course, we all experience this gap.

This line of thought leads Smith to observe: “What if you are defined not by what you know [the mind] but by what you desire?[the heart] (7) If our desires are reflected more in our actions than in our words, then this Hebrew anthropology leads us immediately into an inconvenient discussion of ethics because our hearts are not lily-white clean as our words. It also forces us to discuss how we know what we know (the epistemology question) because our hearts are not so easily persuaded to follow even our own thoughts. Suddenly, much of the New Testament language sounds less churchy and more informed by an alternative world view, one decidedly not Greek and unfamiliar in American culture.


James K. A. Smith[1]teaches philosophy at Calvin College and writes for Comment magazine. His doctorate is from Villanova. He is the author of many books, including Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism:  Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, that I reviewed previously. Smith grew up in Ontario Canada.

Smith writes in seven chapters:

  1. You Are What You Love: To Worship is Human
  2. You Might Not Love What You Think: Learning to Read ‘Secular’ Liturgies
  3. The Spirit Meets You Where You Are: Historic World for a Postmodern Age
  4. What Story are You in? The Narrative Arc of Formative Christian Worship
  5. Guard Your Heart: The Liturgies of Home
  6. Teach Your Children Well: Learning by Heart
  7. You Make What You Want: Vocational Liturgies(ix)

These chapters are preceded by a preface and followed by a benediction, suggested readings, acknowledgments, notes, and an index.

Part one of this review gives an overview of Smith’s work; part two will go into his arguments in more detail.


James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habitis a deeply theological reflection on the formative aspects of Christian ritual and worship. Those familiar with prior work on spirituality and worship will find his analysis compelling and better integrated for a topic often offering divergent pieces and perspectives. Those unfamiliar may find reason to attend a more liturgically-oriented church respectful of the bells and smells. In any case, Smith is an engaging author and his writing is cogent and accessible.


Smith, James K. A.  2006.  Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism:  Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic. (review)


Smith Engages the Hebrew Heart, Part 1

Also see:

Smith Engages the Hebrew Heart, Part 2 

Smith: Speak Postmodern to Postmodern People, Part 1 

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

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