Reading This Book Will Not Change Your Life: Review of “You Are What You Love”

you are what you loveMy title’s kind of tongue-in-cheek, but it cuts to the heart of James K.A. Smith’s thesis in his new book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Over a number of works, especially his Cultural Liturgies series (Desiring the Kingdom, Imagining the Kingdom), Smith has argued that modern, Western Christians (especially Evangelicals) have been held captive by a false picture of the human person as “thinking thing.”

On this view, you are what you think and there’s something of a simple correlation between what you believe and the way you live. Discipleship, then, is mostly a matter of proper spiritual data input.

But we’re not just thinking things. No, following Augustine (and the Scriptures), Smith argues that we’re worshipers. We’re desirers. We’re lovers who are shaped by those things we love most.

The hitch is that our deepest loves aren’t necessarily those things we consciously think we want most, but those drives that reside within us at an almost unconscious level. And they show up in our habits, our basic patterns of life.

If that’s the case, then, discipleship is not mostly a matter of data input, or simply reading the right book, but about the long, arduous path of having your desires transformed through the power of habit. Yes, our loves show up in our habits, but it’s also the case that our habits and practices give testimony to and shape our loves.

And so, we are constantly being shaped in one way or another by the various practices (liturgies) we’re engaged in, whether it’s checking our smart phones, visiting the local mall, eating fast food, or consuming varieties of ideologically-loaded pop cultural artifacts.

For this reason, the transformation of desire isn’t simply going to happen by rearranging some of our beliefs, but by adopting the sorts of practices that shape our loves to conform to the Kingdom of God. These liturgies train our hearts, sort of like batting practice trains our arms or training wheels our stabilizer muscles, in the way they should go.

Now, for those who have read Smith’s other works, much of this will be familiar. It’s an Augustinian call to virtue ethics. Indeed, it might seem so familiar that you’re wondering why Smith wrote the book. I’ll say that this work is different from the Cultural Liturgy series in a number of ways.

First, you’re not really wading through any of the French, continental philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, or the social theory of Pierre Bordeau. It’s full of all the wit, the basic insights, made in a more direct, concise fashion. For that reason alone, the work is far more accessible and user-friendly than the earlier iterations.

Second, Smith’s fleshing things out more practically on the ground than he does in the earlier works. I think this is what I loved most about the work. Smith’s vision of the habits that form us is worked out in some fairly pedestrian realities like church, marriage, educating your children, and your everyday vocation. This aspect makes it more immediately useful for both pastors and laity who might be intimidated to wade into the earlier works.

Third, because of that fleshing out, Smith does make plenty of new points. Some on the theoretical end, but the applied practice gets far more attention in this work in a number of helpful ways. Plus, there’s a load of new examples and fascinating little bits of cultural analysis (which are usually the most fun parts of Smith’s works, to be honest). I laughed multiple times throughout the work, tweeted out several segments, and flagged a number of pages as helpful preaching illustrations.

I think the most personally impacting section for me at this phase in my life was the bit on the liturgies of the home and the way a marriage is a formed through the various, liturgical practices we craft our life through. I’m in a Ph.D. program. I spend the vast majority of my day as a “thinking thing.” And as much as I think I’ve grown in theoretical knowledge and insight, the reality is that my choice to eat at the table with McKenna instead of in front of the TV shape is probably more important for shaping my understanding of the little kingdom God has given us in the world. How are the countless, daily rhythms we have adopted preparing us for life in the kingdom to come? Or for a life of discipleship and fidelity now?

Now, on a critical note, I must admit that as sympathetic as I am towards Smith’s advocating for more traditional, liturgical (in a modest, Reformed sense) worship, I did wonder if the critiques of contemporary worship services and styles was applied a bit too thickly. Or again, whether the critique of current youth groups obsessed with relevance at the expense of substance was representative of the healthy youth groups I’ve seen and the earnest youth pastors running them.

Also, Smith does open himself up to critique in that he’s over-exaggerated the power of habit and downplayed the properly cognitive dimension to the Spirit’s work of transformation through the preached Word and so forth. Now, while I can see it, I’m not sure Smith’s actually guilty of it. Especially if we take the work less as a total program or theology of sanctification (which I’m not sure Smith intends), than as a corrective of the lopsided one with which we’ve been operating. Taken in that sense, Smith’s work is a vital and timely work, full of much-need wisdom for the church, both gathered and scattered abroad in our homes and workplaces.

I suppose I’ll wrap up this brief review with a simple commendation: if you’ve already engaged Smith’s work as I have, I think you’ll find plenty that’s worth your time. If you’ve never read Smith’s work, this is probably the best place to start.

As I said in the title, reading this book won’t change your life. But it will point you to the practices that, graced by the Spirit, just might do the trick.

Soli Deo Gloria

Four Themes for Pastor Theologians at the CPT Conference 2015

pastor theologianThis week I had the privilege of attending The Center for Pastor Theologians’ first annual conference in Oak Park. I’ve been excited about it for some time, not simply because of the buzz around the subject right now, but also because of the space I inhabit in my own studies, having recently (temporarily?) left my position in the local church. Now, I unfortunately could only make one of the days, but thankfully, it was the largest bulk of the time. That said, what I did catch was on point. Todd Wilson and Gerald Hiestand know how to put a conference together.

First off, Calvary Memorial felt like it was designed to host this sort of event. I mean, really, when I say it’s beautiful, I’m not just blowing smoke. Second, the size of the conference was really nice. I’m terrible with numbers, but it seemed like maybe two hundred or so people were, which is great for meeting, chatting, and feeling like you’re not being herded around like a bunch of cattle. I had the pleasure of meeting a number pastors and students working through some of issues I’ve been chewing on. Beyond that, the line-up was great. Not only the plenaries–which I’ll get to–but the breakout sessions, which featured speakers who could have easily been plenary speakers. If I had some spare cash and any extra time to read, the exhibitor section would have been tempting as well, with their sizable discount on books. All that to say, I look forward to coming back next year.

Oh, and one more thing: I think the thing that surprised me the most was the worship. For one thing, I was surprised at how good it was. The worship team had a tightly ordered, historic, yet contemporary liturgical order with each plenary session that actually ministered to some burdens in my soul. And that’s the second thing: I expected to be challenged and stimulated intellectually, there, but I was blessed to be comforted spiritually. But shouldn’t spiritual benefit be one of the impacts of a theological conference?

The Speakers

Now, as I mentioned, I only made it for the Tuesday portion, but that included the plenaries by Peter Leithart, James K.A. Smith, and Kevin Vanhoozer. While I was sad to miss Wilson and Hiestand’s pieces and the panel discussion, I was far from feeling robbed. All three were in fine form. Leithart discussed the Pastor as Biblical theologian, Smith, the Pastor as Political theologian, and Vanhoozer, the Pastor as Public theologian. Here’s what was funny: while all of the talks were distinct, content-rich, and focused on different aspects of the pastor’s theological work, there were some very clear–though, I think, unplanned–commonalities and themes. What I’d like to do is highlight four of them, summarizing and drawing on the different talks to do so.

Local. The first theme that clearly stood out was their focus on the local setting of the pastor. Leithart explicitly grounded his reflections around the activities of of the preacher in the “parish” ministry of study, pulpit, and table, as he sees one of the challenges of the pastor as biblical theologian is to develop new methods since much biblical scholarship that’s arisen in the academy is simply unusable by the church. As Vanhoozer joked, “Location! Location! Location!” is not only a principle of real estate, but of the reality of gospel-theologizing. Local pastors are theologians who are to know the specific locales–geographical, cultural, and spiritual–of the people (the public) to whom they are ministering. Smith even spoke of pastors as cultural ethnographers who are keen observers of their people and their environments, observing and reflecting on the cultural liturgies that shape the polis that exerts spiritual formative influence on their people.

Apocalyptic. Connected with this is the pastor as “apocalyptic” theologian. I believe the term was Smith’s, but it easily could apply to all three, though especially Leithart who framed his reflections around a close reading Revelation 17. In any case, local pastor-theologians are to be keen cultural observers, in part, in order to “unveil” and unmask the unreality of the prominent paradigms of the good life shaping our people without their understanding. Smith spoke of the “purging of the Christian imagination” that is partly the work of the pastor theologian who exegetes the festivals and practices of Empire. A theological sociologist, of sorts. Vanhoozer also stressed the formative power of culture, returning to some the themes from his work Everyday TheologyPart of ministering the reality of what is “in Christ” to the public of your people, means exposing the lies of the principalities and powers at work in the everyday rituals and narratives that hold our imaginations captive to the bestial practices of Empire.

Canonical. Of course, unsurprisingly, all three stressed the ministry of the Word as forming a canonical consciousness. Vanhoozer noted that the sermon is the “quintessential theological act”, which pastor-theologians practice in order to communicate the excellence of Christ and shape the congregation into who they already are in Christ. Leithart also stressed the ministry of the Word, suggesting that for the Word to have this effect, sermons must begin to take the shape of deep Bible studies, which illumine the narratival, typological, and theological depth of the texts, in order for our people to begin to inhabit the world of the Gospel. Hearing his phenomenal handling of Revelation 17 and the various theological, cultural, and political implications in his presentation, it’s hard to disagree. Looking to the practice of St. Augustine, Smith emphasized the preaching of the Word as well, but also pointed to Augustine’s theological work in his letters to the general Boniface, in which he gave biblical counsel in order to shape Boniface’s vocational self-understanding. The theological ministry of the Word expands beyond the pulpit for the pastor of a sent people living in a secular age.

Liturgical. Finally, all three, unsurprisingly if you know their work, emphasized the liturgy and especially ministering the sacraments as key theological activities of pastor theologians, both for shaping their theologizing and their people. Vanhoozer says the Lord’s Supper is the “summa and apologia” of the gospel; it is a “verbal, visual, and visceral” summary of the good news. As such, it is a powerfully formative liturgical practice for shaping the theological imagination of the polis of the church. The Table and the Pulpit go together in the work of the pastor theologian.

Of course, I’m still barely scratching the surface of these talks, especially since abstracting commonalities like this obscures the unique arguments of Leithart, Smith, and Vanhoozer. For that reason, I’d encourage you to go check out these talks and those of Hiestand and Wilson on the CPT Vimeo channel, which will be posted up by next Monday. I know I’ll be checking in to catch up on the sections I missed myself. In the meantime, they’ve got some helpful videos already up.

To sum up, the conference was a

Soli Deo Gloria

‘Catching Sleep’ & Catching the Spirit (Or, a Note on the Phenomenology of The Spiritual Disciplines)

I’ve found a number of dangers when it comes to introducing my students to the spiritual disciplines, or the regular rhythms of the Christian life like prayer, Scripture-reading, and commitment to regular corporate worship. Aside from giving them the false impression that I’m good at them, the chief difficulty I find is explaining their importance while avoiding a sort of magical ex opere operato idea that encourages discouragement when nothing happens as you first attempt to adopt them in your own life.

sleepTo do this I’ve sort described them as ways of putting yourself in a position to communicate (commune) with God. In the same way that it’s silly to expect hear from your friend if you’ve got your phone turned off, it’s silly to expect to hear from God if you never actually open your Bible, try to pray, or go to church with regularity. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll “hear”, in the sense of having some subjective experience, from him each time.  Yet still, if its going to happen, it’s more likely to happen in one of these ways.

James K.A. Smith uses an analogy from philosopher Maurice Mearleu-Ponty in his Phenomenology of Perception (PP), that I found quite illuminating on this point:

In the context of discussing this mode of intentionality between intellect and instinct, and a kind of action that is neither voluntary nor involuntary, Merleau-Ponty points to an intriguing analogy: sleep. I cannot “choose” to fall asleep.  The best I can do is choose to put myself in a posture and rhythms that welcomes sleep. “I lie down in bed, on my left side, with my knees drawn up. I close my eyes and breathe slowly, putting my plans out of my mind. But the power of my will or consciousness stops there” (PP 189). I want to go to sleep, and I’ve chosen to climb into bed–but in another sense sleep is not something under my control or at my beckoned call. “I call up the visitation of sleep by imitating the breathing and posture of the sleeper…There is a moment when sleep ‘comes’,’ settling on this imitation of itself which I have been offering to it, and I succeed in becoming what I was trying to be.” (PP 189-90, emphasis added). Sleep is a gift to be received, not a decision to be made. And yet it is a gift that requires a posture of reception–a kind of active welcome.

Then Smith asks the money question:

What if being filled with the Spirit had the same dynamic? What if Christian practices are what Craig Dykstra calls “habitations of the Spirit” precisely because they posture us to be filled and sanctified? What if we need to first adopt a bodily posture in order to become what we are trying to be?

Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, pg. 65

Much in the same way that we can’t force ourselves to fall asleep but can only adopt postures that welcome it, so in the same way, we cannot force God to attend to us, speak to us, make his presence known, and so forth. And yet, and yet, we can adopt practices and postures in prayer, Scripture, and corporate worship (alongside of the other classic disciplines such as silence, solitude, etc.) that indicate a welcome, an openness to the Spirit of God to work in our lives.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Quick Thought On Talking to Young (Or New) Calvinists

letters to a young calvinistFor a number of reasons, lately I’ve been thinking about how to talk to young Reformed types. Well, maybe more how to talk to young Reformed types online. For one thing, I wrote a little piece a few weeks ago on a related subject that attracted interesting attention from some older Reformed types, as well as the questions of eager younger Reformed types looking to learn. I also just read James K.A. Smith’s little book Letters to a Young Calvinist this weekend. And finally, over the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen a number of articles, both positive and negative, talking about the impact, the focus, and the pedigree of the movement. Being under 30, having come to the Reformed tradition only lately, and contributing to the Gospel Coalition fairly regularly, I suppose this puts me, if not in middle of, then at least in a neighborhood adjacent to, the mix.

In the middle of it all, one thing that kind of emerged for me is that some of us need to work on how we talk to each other within the fold. So, for instance, looking at conversations around the New Calvinism, some of the more caustic commentary around it seems to be coming not from Arminians, or Post-Evangelicals, or Wesleyans, but, well, the “Old Calvinism” that you might think would be a little more pleased about things.

Now, though I’m new to the whole thing, I’ll admit I kind of get it. As someone who came in more by way of Vanhoozer, Plantinga, Horton, Billings, and Calvin himself than some of the “New Calvinist” lights, I have to say was a bit nonplussed when I saw the notion of covenant, or a renewed appreciation for Calvin’s sacramental theology, weren’t included in a recent prominent list of theological features of the New Calvinism. Covenant made sense to me long before election did, and is certainly as central to classic Reformed theology as election is. Actually, you might say covenant is a more distinctly Reformed category than election is. What’s more, Calvin’s views of the sacraments were part of what led to me favoring the Reformed tradition over others in my earlier studies, and have certainly played a major role in shaping Reformed piety through the centuries.

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that much of the criticism coming from, well, Old (or maybe just older) Calvinists has an air of “Get it right the first time, or just shut-up, son.” Now, maybe I’m just a biased young-un’, but I can’t imagine this is a very helpful approach to take. It’s not that a lot of the younger Reformed, or just Calvinist-leaning types, I know don’t want to learn from other, older, more seasoned voices in the neighborhood. I think they do–I know I certainly do. It’s just that I’ve found critical condescension, nor aggressive boundary-keeping, isn’t as effective of a motivator towards theological reconsideration as some might think.

Instead, I would commend Smith’s general approach as a model to Reformed types across the spectrum. Admittedly, Smith himself is known for being…curmudgeonly at times, and even has some shots at the New Calvinism in the book as well. Still, his overall tack is one of gracious invitation. (As a side-note, it’s actually just a great intro Reformed theology, especially of the Dutch variety, for some of us young Reformed types to read.) One of the strengths of the work is demonstrating that decrying deficiencies is less enticing than warmly commending the glories of what you have found to be a richer vein within the broader Christian tradition. Instead of quickly jumping down the throat of the novice (someone with a lot of enthusiasm and plenty to learn) for every early mistake, Smith takes a more fatherly, or even brotherly approach to it.

Kevin DeYoung’s early engagement with Jefferson Bethke’s “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus” video comes to mind as wonderful example of this. In it, you see DeYoung affirming the good he saw in the younger man’s efforts, correcting what he deemed to be errors, and in general inviting Bethke and his fans to a seeing things in a more biblical light. And to Bethke’s credit, and I think, the credit of DeYoung’s approach, he responded to the invitation with humility and grace.

So, all that to say, for older Reformed types talking to younger ones, or Old Calvinists talking to New Calvinists, or “Calvinists” you don’t really think count, honey tends to work better than vinegar.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Few Looks At Crouch’s “Playing God”

playing godAndy Crouch, executive editor at Christianity Today and author of Culture Making, just released his new book on power called Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. I haven’t read it yet, but apparently his thesis is that we’ve been given some shallow thinking on the topic lately, so Crouch wants us to re-examine our views of God’s gift of power in light of our creation in the Image of God and the redemption of that Image in Christ. Personally, I coudn’t agree more. Ever since reading James Davison Hunter’s critique of the Religious Right, Left, and Neo-Anabaptist rhetoric of power in To Change the World, I find myself constantly chafing at the inadequate ways we’ve been trained to conceive and exercise it as Christians.

While I haven’t read Crouch’s book yet, I have found some stimulating reviews floating around the web worth checking out.

First, Justin Taylor interviews Crouch over at the Between Two Worlds blog:

Taylor: The concept of flourishing is crucial for your book. What does it mean to flourish, and why is power such a key means and threat for the promotion of human flourishing?

Crouch: I think of flourishing as fullness of being—the “life, and that abundantly” that Jesus spoke of. Flourishing refers to what you find when all the latent potential and possibility within any created thing or person are fully expressed. In both Culture Making and Playing God I talk about the transition from nature to culture as a move from “good” to “very good.” Eggs are good, but omelets are very good. Wheat is good, but bread is very good. Grapes are good, but wine is very good. Et cetera. And the Bible has a third category, which is glory, which I would define as the magnificence of true being, a kind of ultimate flourishing. It is significant that the New Jerusalem will be full both of the glory of God—the magnificence of God’s true being fully known, experienced, and worshipped—and “the glory and honor of the nations”—which I take to mean the fruits of human culture brought to their deepest and fullest expression.

The interesting thing is that flourishing never happens by accident. Intentionality is always involved. And for most parts of creation, intelligent, attentive cultivation is required for things to flourish. If wine is one “very good,” flourishing expression of the grape, well, you don’t get wine if you just let it ferment on its own—you get vinegar, or worse. Wine only comes with tremendous skill, patience, and indeed creativity.

And this is why power is so intimately connected to flourishing—flourishing requires the exercise of true power, power that is bent on creating the best environment for someone or something to thrive. And while human flourishing is of paramount importance, the witness of Scripture seems to be that we human beings are here not just for our own flourishing, but for the flourishing of the whole created order. I think this is why Paul says the creation is “groaning for the revealing of the sons of God”—that phrase “sons of God” (which of course includes redeemed image bearers both male and female) is meant to signal true authority and dominion. If the true “sons of God” were to be revealed, the creation would flourish in ways we only dimly glimpse now.

James K.A. Smith forwards the discussion in his review over at Comment, especially when he  notes the ‘different story’ Crouch is telling about power:

Crouch reads cultural phenomena in order to discern the spirit that animates them, the worldview that undergirds them. “The premise of the Western,” for example, “as with the Nietzschean strain in literature from Lord of the Flies to The Hunger Games, is that when you strip away the trappings of civilization, you will find raw, primal conflict, bodies in competition to occupy all space.” In the face of this, Crouch asks the most fundamental question: “What is the deepest truth about the world? Is the deepest truth a struggle for mastery and domination? Or is the deepest truth collaboration, cooperation, and ultimately love?”  His reply is no less foundational: “I want to argue,” he emphasizes, “that Nietzsche’s ‘idea’ can be countered, point by point, with a very different vision of ultimate reality.”

This tack is just right: it goes to the root to recognize that how we conceive power comes down to fundamentally different mythologies, different faith-stances. What you think about power is always and ultimately rooted in some confession. In this sense, Crouch’s critique and counter-narration unwittingly replays—in much more accessible prose—precisely John Milbank’s critique of Nietzsche in his landmark book, Theology and Social Theory (especially chapter 10). A Christian understanding of power begins from a fundamentally different confessional standpoint. We refuse the myth that collapses power into violence and domination. We affirm a fundamentally different story in which power is a creative gift, and when we exercise that power rightly, we image God and love our neighbour.

Finally, towards the end of his review over at the Gospel Coalition,  John Starke addresses what Crouch’s ‘good news’ about power has to do with our view of institutions:

But I thought institutions frustrated creativity and cultivation. Isn’t that what we’re led to think? Crouch recognizes institutions can make that mistake. He also recognizes institutions can cultivate a culture of injustice and oppression. But institutions provide, he contends, roles (think “father” in the institution of the family), arenas (think “galleries” for art), and rules (think “regulations” for day traders on Wall Street) where image bearers can flourish as fathers, artists, and bankers. The power of institutions is to distribute power for comprehensive flourishing, not merely private thriving.

The most helpful and intriguing part of Crouch’s book is his formula for what makes institutions that leave behind cultural significance. They must have four ingredients (artifacts, arenas, rules, and goals) and three generations (e.g., Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). This is a helpful guide as he then turns to churches and church leaders who have “poured their energies into creating forms of church life that serve just a single generation.” Crouch sees institutions as something of a remedy for churches and other organizations to flourish across space and time, to be a blessing to our children’s children.

I don’t know about you, but it looks like I’ve got another book to read.

Soli Deo Gloria