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

Mere Fidelity: The Spirituality of Time

Mere FidelityThis week Alastair, Matt, and I get into the issue of time and how it affects our spiritual life. I’m not gonna lie, this one was pretty fun. We jump into everything from Augustine, to the musical nature of keeping time, the various spiritual dimensions to our awareness of time and eternity, and we manage to avoid speaking about A-Theory and B-Theory, which I’m sure everyone will thank us for.

I hope you enjoy this one. And if you do, feel free to share it.

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Soli Deo Gloria

My Three Study Bibles

study bible“Of making many books, there is no end.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12)

To read this, you’d think the Teacher was perusing a recent publishing catalogue, skimming through the “study Bible” section. Each year it seems that another one, or two, or ten are printed by the same publishing house, aimed at an ever narrower slice of the Evangelical consumer base. First, it’s the “Patriots” Bible. Then, it’s the Eco-study Bible. Or the Student’s Study Bible. Or the Red-headed, Left-handed, Immigrant’s Study Bible. And the standard-issue, ESV Study Bible for New Calvinists looking to up their game. The longer (and more cognizant) I’ve been around the Evangelical world, the easier it’s been to become cynical about the whole industry and the concept as a whole.

But then I remember my own study Bibles and I have to tap the breaks on my cynicism ever so slightly. You see, I’ve had three study Bibles in my time, each quite crucial in my spiritual and intellectual development.

First, when I was a sophomore in high school, I started a break-time Bible study with my friend. Initially, we just began to meet at one of the tables to read the Psalms together and pray. Then, more and more people began to join us, so we had to move inside to a classroom to read. Pretty soon, I got the idea to actually start reading a bit and saying something about what we read. Novel idea, I know. That’s when I asked my parents for a study Bible–because as many sermons as I heard, when I got to Romans and Paul started dropping “circumcision” all over the place, I knew I was out of my league.

So my parents got me the NIV Life Application Study Bible. Of course, being a life application Bible, it wasn’t very in-depth on doctrine or massive exegetical insights. All the same, for a high schooler looking to learn enough to share some insights with 10 other high schoolers at break, it was eye-opening. I knew the Bible was the Word of God, but who knew so much of it could speak to my daily issues? In any case, that was my Bible all through the rest of high school and served me well.

Then, came college. Without going into a lot of details, college started out as a dry time for me. Even though I was still in church, I was frustrated at God for some goods I thought he had failed to deliver even though he never promised them. Which is typical. In any case, around Christmas, I knew something had to change, so I started going to a new church and asked my parents for the straight NIV Study Bible that focused more on historical and intertextual notes. And they came through and bought it for me. And I started reading it every day. I’d pray, read the text, and the notes and even began looking up the cross-references. I’d make my own illegible, incorrect notes as well. And things started to come alive for me.

Of course, there were a variety of factors involved at the time including the new church, an iPod (no joke), and a Bible study with some caring dudes. All the same, when my life caught fire again, along with a call to ministry, one of the things it involved was a mass consumption of Scripture. I basically tore through that study Bible. Thankfully, at the time, I was hungry for the Bible as the Bible, so I wasn’t just skipping to the study note section (which is all too easy to do for some). All the same, I learned so much just by reading the text and all the helpful explanatory notes.

I’m older now, a bit more theologically-experienced, and I get the dangers of printing text alongside the text. But seriously, when I was younger, with no access to a theological library, or commentaries, or articles the way I was later in seminary, at church, and now back in seminary, those notes were an entry-way into a new exegetical world. And so, by the end of college, my second study Bible was tore up. I had to shelve it because of how jacked up it had gotten from overuse and carrying it around everywhere.

Finally, when I hit my MA, I got a third kind of study Bible. As it was more of an academic degree, I had to purchase an SBL approved NRSV one. So I snagged myself a HarperCollins Study Bible—which I preferred to the New Oxford Annotated one—and I got to work. This was a different experience, of course. There was almost no life application. Nor was an overly-“theological” approach to commentary the norm. All the same, it proved a trusty entry-way as well, into a more historical and academic approach to the text (with some of the common, boilerplate, historical-critical assumptions) that I would have to master if I was going to get through the degree. So I put some mileage on that one, as well.

Why go into all this? Well, for one thing it’s nostalgic for me to remember. Second, I suppose it’s to remind myself that a number of the things that it’s easy for me to get cynical about the more I press on in my faith (simple, Evangelicalish things that are easily distorted and vulgarized through marketing), had some positive purpose for people. And they probably still do. Taste-wise nor in theological temperament, I don’t connect to some of the worship anthems I used to, but there are a great many of them that are theologically sound and spiritually-salutary songs that I’d be wrong to scorn or write off.

For that reason, I can imagine another young man headed to the ministry deriving great insight from his first study Bible. Or the mom and dad without time to take a class in advanced hermeneutics, still looking to grow in their knowledge of Scripture in order to instruct their children in the Word of life. Or the small group, Bible study leader. Or the missionary without a book budget who needs a teaching aid through the Old Testament contextual issues. And so on.

So, I suppose, for all their possible flaws, I’m saying I loved my study Bibles and I’d caution against the sort of easy scorn those of us with a stack of commentaries on our shelves might be tempted towards. Though there are real dangers to be avoided and some egregious marketing practices to be condemned, there is real, spiritual value in a good study Bible.

Soli Deo Gloria

God is a Spiritual Being. But What Does that Even Mean?

sinai

Israel never saw God’s form at Sinai, only smoke, fire, and lightning.

Q-4: What is God?

A: God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.

-Westminster Shorter Catechism

I don’t think most of us give thought to the fact that God is a Spirit (John 4:24). I know I hadn’t much until I was forced to think through some of the metaphysics of spiritual beings in my class on medieval philosophy in college (Angels, Humans, and Evil, I think it was called). In any case, we discussed the differences between angels and humans (at least according to Aquinas) and one of the main ones was that angels are pure spirits, intelligences with no bodies. So what does it mean for God to be spiritual?

Thomas Watson, in his sermon commenting on this question in Body of Practical Divinity states:

By a spirit I mean, God is an immaterial substance, of a pure, subtile, unmixed essence, not compounded of body and soul, without all extension of parts.

God being spirit means that God is not material, not bodily, not made up of parts you can pull apart and put back together. Sounds simple enough.

Angels and Souls are Spiritual, though, too? Some Clarifications

Still, if this is what it means for God to be spiritual, then that raises the question that occurred to me in college. If God is an immaterial substance, and angels are immaterial substances, what distinguishes them? Is God just bigger? Do they run into each others? What’s the difference? Watson, again, anticipates the question:

The angels are spirits. We must distinguish spirits. The angels are created, God is a Spirit uncreated. The angels are finite, and capable of being annihilated; the same power which made them is able to reduce them to their first nothing; but God is an infinite Spirit. The angels are confined spirits, they cannot be duobus locis simul, but are confined to a place; but God is an immense Spirit, and in all places at once. The angels, though spirits, are but ministering spirits (Heb 1:14). Though they are spirits, they are servants. God is a super-excellent Spirit, the Father of spirits (Heb 12:2).

So, apparently, there are a few. First, and most important is that God is Creator and angels are created. For that reason, God infinite, without boundaries or limits to his power, location, or anything else. Angels are still created beings, finite in knowledge, power, and yes, even location. They are upheld in their existence by God at every moment and could wink out of existence should he decide to remove his hand. In Christian theology, you always have to reckon with the Creator/creature distinction. Mess with that, and just about everything else falls out of place.

Okay, well, what about human souls? Sure, humans are soul + body, but what if I’m feeling extra dualist today and I want to play up the spirituality of the soul? What distinguishes human spirits from God’s Spirit, especially since humans are God’s Image. Apparently heretics like Osiander and Servetus actually thought the soul was the essence of God communicated to human beings. Watson says that’s silly. We’re made in his “image and likeness.” God’s essence is incommunicable, but “When it is said the soul is a spirit, it means that God has made it intelligible, and stamped upon it his likeness, not his essence.”

But what about this whole “partakers of the divine nature” business in 2 Peter 1:4? Well, here Watson gives a standard Reformed response:

We are made partakers of the divine nature, not by identity or union with the divine essence, but by a transformation into the divine likeness.

Okay, that’s clear enough so far. But say I know my Old Testament pretty well. Do you know how often we read about people seeing God walking around, using his hands, sitting on a throne, and all kinds of corporeal, physical stuff? Well, yes, I do. And so does Watson. In response to that charge made by a party named the “Anthropomorphites” who believe that God has a physical body, he gives their exegesis and hermeneutics a little tune-up.

First, he lays out the clearer statements of Scripture about the nature of bodies and spirits according to Jesus and the rest of Scripture:

It is contrary to the nature of a spirit to have a corporeal substance. ‘Handle me, and see me: for a spirit has not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.’ (Luke 24:49)…Now that God is a Spirit, and is not capable of bodily shape or substance, is clear, for a body is visible, but God is invisible; therefore he is a Spirit. ‘Whom no man has seen, nor can see’ (I Tim 6:16.), not by an eye of sense. A body is terminated, can be but in one place at once, but God is everywhere, in all places at once; therefore he is a Spirit (Psa 139:9, 8.). God’s centre is everywhere, and his circumference is nowhere. A body being compounded of integral parts may be dissolved; quicquid divisibile est corruptibile: but the Godhead is not capable of dissolution, he can have no end from whom all things have their beginning. So that it clearly appears that God is a Spirit, which adds to the perfection of his nature.

If this is true, then what are we to do with the language of Scripture?

Bodily members are ascribed to God, not properly, but metaphorically, and in a borrowed sense. By the right hand of the Lord is meant his power; by the eyes of the Lord is meant his wisdom.

This is an example of allowing Scripture to clarify Scripture, using the direct statements on the nature of bodies and so forth, to then set the parameters for how we read other texts. On this reading, Scripture gives a clear directive to read these passages as communicating truth, but figuratively, not literally. Again, that seems simple enough.

But Why Does it Matter?

Okay, with all that said, who cares? Why is the “spirituality” of God an important point to understand? It doesn’t immediately seem to be emphasized in Scripture, even if it seems to be taught. Of what use is it for us to know and dwell on this reality?

Well, for starters, that’s one of those things that makes the Incarnation all that more amazing. The God who is immaterial, unbounded, and so forth, deigns, in Christ, to assume or add to himself a body, which is not natural to him. That’s just part of the glory of the Gospel–God becomes what is not God in order to reconcile us to himself.

But Watson presses beyond this to draw out a number of implications I can only briefly touch on.

First, Watson says that if God is spiritual, that means he’s impassible–not capable of being harmed, overcome, or anything human foes might think to do to him. What are you going to do? Chuck a spear at him? His essence is beyond all harm. That is grounds for worship and comfort.

Second, if God is Spirit, then Watson thinks that should put image-worship or veneration to bed. God is Spirit and no likeness of him can be made suitable to his perfection.

 ‘To whom then will ye liken God, or what likeness will ye compare unto him?’ (Isa 40:18)How can you paint the Deity? Can we make an image of that which we never saw? Ye saw no similitude. God is a Spirit.

How are we to worship and conceive of him, then? Here Watson gives a Christologically-focused answer:

We must conceive of him spiritually. In his attributes; his holiness, justice, and goodness, which are the beams by which his divine nature shines forth. We must conceive of him as he is in Christ. ‘Christ is the image of the invisible God’ (Col 1:15). Set the eyes of your faith on Christ as God-man. In Christ we see some sparklings of the divine glory; in him there is the exact resemblance of all his Father’s excellencies. The wisdom, love, and holiness of God the Father, shine forth in Christ.‘He that has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14:4).

Third, “If God be a Spirit, it shows us, that the more spiritual we grow, the more we grow like to God.” To turn your eyes to God and your desires to the heavens away from mere earthly concerns is to grow in the likeness of God.

Fourth, God’s being a Spirit means that our worship ought to spiritual too. For Watson that means a number of things. (1) Worship is without ceremonies, as the OT ceremonies have been abrogated, so why return to the shadows with man-made replacements? (2) It is to worship him with faith in the blood of the Messiah, with zeal, with prayer, with true consecration, without the vain pretenses of outward shows.

Fifth, this should move us to ask for the Spirit that we may become more spiritual:

The essence of God is incommunicable; but not the motions, the presence and influences of his Spirit. When the sun shines in a room, not the body of the sun is there, but the light, heat, and influence of the sun.

Sixth, Watson reminds us that if God is Spiritual, shouldn’t we expect his blessings to be spiritual?

This may comfort a Christian in all his labours and sufferings; he lays out himself for God, and has little or no reward here; but remember, God, who is a Spirit, will give spiritual rewards, a sight of his face in heaven, white robes, a weight of glory. Be not then weary of God’s service; think of the spiritual reward, a crown of glory which fadeth not away

We neglect the spiritual nature of God to our own detriment. We miss out on part of the glory of Jesus in the gospel, the nature of true worship, and so much more.

Watson’s meditations remind us, once again, that everything about God is worthy of worship. Nothing we learn about Father, Son, and Spirit can fail to contribute to our love of God or his glory if we think it through with care and prayer.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Mere Fidelity: The Spirituality of Work

This week on Mere Fidelity, Alastair and I chatted with Nancy Nordensen about her new book Finding Livelihood. We talked about work, its purpose, questions of passion and calling, and walking with the Lord through the everyday realities most of us will face at our jobs. I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation and I pray you will as well.

 Soli Deo Gloria

“Does God Care if Your Favorite Football Team Wins?” and Other Theological Concerns

footballTheology is everywhere; even football players venture on theological territory. Witness Packers QB Aaron Rodgers’ response to a fan question after the Packers’ recent loss:

I always find it a little off-putting when athletes, actors and anybody says, “This is what God wanted,” or “I want to thank God for helping us win today,” anything along those lines when a game or award is won. I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the gist. Personally, with all the chaos in the world, I’m not sure God really cares about the outcome of a game or an awards show. What do you think of statements such as these? You’ve obviously got your faith. Does what happens on Sunday impact your relationship with God or your faith at all?

Rodgers’ response:

I agree with her. I don’t think God cares a whole lot about the outcome. He cares about the people involved, but I don’t think he’s a big football fan.

Of course, the puckish reply is, “Well, he did just lose.” At a deeper level, though, it’s fascinating to consider how sports reveals our theology of God’s will, providence, pleasure, and even the problem of evil. How we answer the question, “Does God care a whole lot about the outcome of football games?” reveals much about how we understand God’s love, sovereignty, and care for the world.

I don’t want to pick on Aaron Rodgers because, let’s be honest, he wasn’t trying to write a theological treatise on the subject. Also, he’s a professional football player, not a trained theologian. Still, I think it would be useful to think through in just what senses we might say that God does, or does not, care about who wins a football game.

You can read the rest of my analysis at Christ and Pop Culture.

Soli Deo Gloria

Faith Speaking Understanding by Kevin Vanhoozer (TGC Review)

Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014. 298 pp. $22.42.

“The drama is in the dogma,” Dorothy Sayers once said. It seems no evangelical theologian has more enthusiastically taken to heart her statement than Kevin Vanhoozer, research professor of theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School outside Chicago.

Building on the foundation laid by H. U. Von Balthasar in his multi-volume series Theodrama, over the past 12 years Vanhoozer has put forward and developed his own “theatrical” approach to doctrine and theology.

Project Continues

Beginning with The Drama of Doctrine (Christianity Today’s 2006 book of the year in theology), Vanhoozer argued that the category of “drama” is well suited to conceptualizing a theology that takes its cues from the gospel. Doctrine, on this model, is the stage direction that enables disciples to participate rightly in the drama of the gospel. Doctrine does this by rightly identifying the dramatis personae (God, Christ, Israel, and so on), the shape of God’s (theos) actions (drao = to act, drama) that come before (creation, election, Jesus, church, consummation), and in that light, our role in local community performances as the company of the church on the stage of the world.

Vanhoozer followed that up a few years later in his groundbreaking Remythologizing Theology (2010), putting his theory into practice by engaging in some 500 pages of theology proper. Essentially it was a call for theology to reorient itself to speaking of God’s being on the basis of his dramatic doings revealed in Scripture.

Despite their wide acclaim, however, the size, complexity, and price tag of these works has prevented many pastors outside the academy from been exposed to Vanhoozer’s work. This is a shame because—and I know this is a bold statement—these are two of the most important works of evangelical theology written over the past 15 years. The Drama of Doctrine saved my theology of revelation and Scripture in the emergent years, and Remythologizing Theology did the same for my doctrine of God. If I could force every seminary student to closely read and digest those two books, the church would be saved a lot of theological grief.

Enter Vanhoozer’s newest work, Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine. Let me put it this way: if Drama of Doctrine and Remythologizing Theology had a child, it would be Faith Speaking Understanding. Though intended as briefer, less intimidating introduction to and practical application of his theodramatic theology for pastors and serious students, it isn’t a mere rehash of the last two works. As Vanhoozer explains, Faith Speaking Understanding is “an upstart sibling with a swagger of its own, namely a full-fledged proposal for the role of theology in the church’s task of making disciples” (xv)

Please go read the rest of my review over at TGC and then go buy the book. It’s that good. 

Soli Deo Gloria