Interview With James K. A. Smith

A conversation with the author of You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit.

At the recent Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College, a young man asked a question to James K. A. Smith about what sources he would recommend for understanding the shaping power of ancient worship. The Christian philosopher answered by not recommending a list of books but instead telling him to “Go to the communal and ecclesiological”—to try worshiping in a church with traditional liturgy.

According to Jamie (as he goes by in person), we need ancient worship practices to shape our identities in ways that challenge the rituals we’ve experienced in our culture. Both church and cultural rituals are affecting us with differing visions of the good life, informing us, often unconsciously, what we should love or desire.

In his new book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (BrazosPress, 2016), he has summarized his major thoughts from his Cultural Liturgy Series into a smaller, more accessible form. He has also applied his thought to the home, school, and vocation.  The book’s accessible enough that I wish I could make it required reading for the sophomore Spiritual Formation class at my Christian university.

I met with Jamie in his office between his panel discussions at the festival. I’ve abbreviated and edited my questions and his answers for sake of brevity and also due to human error with my recorder. He graciously reviewed this for me before publishing.

1. One of the questions you ask in the book is “Do you ever experience the gap between what you know and what you do?” (p. 5). If I turn the question around and ask, “Why do I experience a gap between what I know and what I do?” what would you answer?

I think the answer is it’s because you’ve underestimated the power of habit. We’re pretty good at thinking–we have to be articulate in our culture with social media. But we underestimate the power of unconscious or preconscious habits that govern our lives.

2. In your book, you define liturgy “as a shorthand for those rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for” (p. 46). Your example for this that may resonate the most for Christians in their twenties and thirties is the mall. Would you describe the mall as a place of liturgy?

The mall isn’t a neutral or benign space. It is religious in the sense that they are trying to shape you with the Story (with a capital S) that proclaims, Stuff will make you happy. There are icons of the good life that line the corridors. There are colors for the seasons as the church has colors for its seasons. They recruit your imaginations so that they make you want a vision of the good life, and it’s not through intellectual dissemination.  Nobody thinks their way into consumerism. Rather, the liturgies of the mall and market co-opt our love by capturing our imagination.

3. You emphasize worship especially as a counter liturgy to the liturgy of the mall. How is worship a counter liturgy?

In ancient not-just-a-sermon worship, you are asked to inhabit the gospel as a Story.  You are rehabituating your loves. You don’t think you’re way into consumerism, so you can’t think your way out of it.  Historic Christian worship forms us on the level of our loves.

4. Many churches, however, have a tendency toward what you call expressivism in worship. Explain what you mean by expressivism.

By expressivism, I mean we have largely reduced worship to what we do. We express our praise upwards to God. That’s part of worship, of course, but not all of it. And when we reduce worship to expression, then we are the only actors and agents in it. If you only think of worship as expressive, the burden is on us. But if you realize God is the primary actor and agent in worship, then you’ll understand why worship is formative.  It works top-down instead of bottom-up.

5. In your book you seem to have a concern with expressive worship as manufacturing authenticity. With an expressive approach, “the most important characteristic of our worship is that it should be sincere” (pp. 74-75), a ramification being that worship has to be “novel” and not repetitive to maintain that feeling of being authentic. Would you tell me more about that?

It’s paralyzing. Worship becomes a performance.  Worship is me showing God something.

But when we understand worship is formative, and that God is the one at work, then sincerity is not the biblical defining feature. Showing up is. I find that liberating. People don’t have to be extroverts for Jesus.

6. You write that “I want to supplement [Dallas] Willard’s emphasis on the individual practice of the spiritual disciplines with what might be a counterintuitive thesis in our ‘millennial’ moment: that the most potent, charged, transformative site of the Spirit’s work is found in the most unlikely of places—the church!” (p. 68). How is that millennial?

I realize that there is no monolithic “millennial” perspective.  I mean it only in the sense that a common storyline is that millennials are suspicious of institutions and less likely to embrace the institutions of the church. My point is that you can’t be a freelance Christian. If you’re going to be formed in the Story of the gospel, you answer a call to worship [which is how historic Christian worship always opens]. Expressivism gives license to worship God anywhere. But if worship is formative, a discipline of submitting to the Spirit, then you have to answer the call. That means answering the call to the body of Christ.

7. In your chapter “Liturgies of the Home,” you write about the liturgy that marriage equals romance. What are some counter liturgies to that?

I see a lot of young people refusing Wedding Industry Inc., having what my wife and I affectionately call “hippy weddings.”  Instead of wasting money on a big “event,” they are focused on beginning a life.

But we also need to push back on our tendency to, well, “focus on the family” and prioritize the myth of the family as an autonomous, nuclear unit. Every family has to situate itself to the family of the church. In my tradition, for example, in the baptismal rite, the entire congregation stand and make a promise to help parent to raise a child. The Christian household is always “open” and dependent on the wider body of Christ.  I think this also has important implications for making sense of singleness in the “household of God.”

8. You have one chapter on education. What would be a liturgy in a school that would need a counter liturgy?

Every school has a repertoire of liturgies. Some of the dominant liturgies treat students as test takers. A counter formative educational liturgy is that the school is interested in students not taking a test but forming a character to become a people. Liturgies are ways of rehearsing the good life.

If you think of education in the home, Christian education is not just equipping students with knowledge. [He tells of his family first experiencing the church year through observing Advent. “We inhabited an alternative time—you’re learning to anticipate the Messiah again.” It makes faith sticky,” he says of Advent observance including the colors of the Advent wreath. ]

9. You wrote in Desiring the Kingdom that evangelicals have overemphasized worldview concepts. In You Are What You Love, you give some domains—church, home, school, and vocation–to practice discernment of succumbing to liturgies of other Stories than the gospel. How does discernment look different from evangelicals’ focus on worldview in the past?

You have to learn to read the practices and not just the messages. The message is a very narrow bandwidth. You could have a robust worldview and yet totally assimilate worldview.

10. How would a person go about discerning these cultural liturgies, doing ethnography, as you’ve suggested?

One way is a liturgical audit of your time. What do I regularly give myself over to? It might not be you who pulls this off. It’s a communal collective endeavor. How can we see what we take for granted? The other person is a gift who helps me to see it.

 

[image: Eugene Manet and His Daughter in the Garden, by Berthe Morisot, 1883. Oil on Canvas. Source: Wikimedia Commons.]

Heather Walker Peterson
Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.

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