Smith Engages the Hebrew Heart, Part 2

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 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Anyone who works in Washington DC quickly learns that when something is broken, it is seldom an accident; someone typically benefits from the brokenness. In the case of the Hebrew heart found everywhere in the New Testament, it naturally leads one to take a holistic view of life and ministry. If thinking, emotions, action, and character formation are all intimately tied to one another, discipleship requires personal mentoring over years that cannot be reduced to a seasonal program or delegated to strangers. Church programs are event-driven or tackle one issue independent of the others without the holistic integration required for discipleship.[1]

The Future is Always Present

In his book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, James K. A. Smith offers an interesting ethical insight—an instrument (or person) is good when it is used with its purpose in view. He asks how one would evaluate a flute used to roast marshmallows over a fire—we would never say that a flute used this way was a bad flute. Why? The measure of a flute is how it is used to play music, not roast marshmallows. Smith observes:

“…virtue is bound up with a sense of excellence: a virtue is a disposition that inclines us to achieve the good for which we are made.”(89)

Because of original sin, we are not inclined to love virtues and to practice them. Being created in the image of God implies that are on a mission in worship to develop the virtues through ritual and sacrament that match God’s intent for our lives (88).

This sense of worship explains why Revelation draws many illusions from the creation accounts in Genesis and paints many pictures of worship in heaven. Our collective objective as Christians is to live into our vision of heaven (our eschatology) where we reflect and commune with the God that we worship. Our end (ultimate story) is always in view and it informs how we should live and worship.

How are we to live into our collective future if we love the wrong things today?

Sacred and Secular Liturgies

Smith spends a lot of time discussing liturgies. He writes:

“Liturgy, as I’m using the word, is a shorthand term for those rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for.”(46)

The Apostle’s Creed is, for example, both a ritual and a story that explains who Jesus is, who we are and what we are for. Repeating the creed until you can recite it in your sleep implies that it has become a ritual and a part of your identity.

Holy music goes a step further to bury it in your heart. Having work with Alzheimer’s patients, I can tell you that songs like the Doxology are the last thing you forget before getting lost in the mist—I have seen patients lost, unable to speak, brought back to themselves when you sing such songs with them. This is what Smith means by a sacred ritual.

The problem is that our society has its own liturgies. He spends a great deal of effort, for example, analyzing and dissecting the liturgies of the shopping mall. When you are upset, do you go to chapel and pray (think of the film Home Alone[2]) or do you call a friend and go shopping? Why shop? The liturgy of the mall suggests that individual find empowerment in purchasing things that they probably don’t need. The problem with this secular liturgy is that inherent in purchasing things to make us feel good about ourselves is we are broken, need things to fulfill ourselves, and don’t measure up to others with more stuff. Worse, the feel-good benefit quickly wears off because it is a lie (47-53).

Clearly a lot more could be said about this book. Part one of this review gives an overview of Smith’s work.


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.


[1]Discipleship is much more doable in a rural, small village setting where everyone knows everyone else and families spend large amounts of time together. In the Gospels, we see this sort of mentoring (a kind of pastoral care) in the stories of Jesus with the woman at the well (John 4) and his visit with Nicodemus (John 3) and in Paul’s pastoral letters. In today’s urban setting, lots more intentionality is required to achieve the same result and often only active youth volunteers in the church receive this sort of attention. Not surprisingly, such youth frequently enter mission work or attend seminary.

[2] In the story, church is where eight-year old, Kevin McCallister meets Old Man Marley and finds out that he is not scary, but a nice man. The two become friends and help each other resolve their problems.

Smith Engages the Hebrew Heart, Part 2

Also see:

Smith Engages the Hebrew Heart, Part 1 

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:, Publisher site:


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