You are what you love 6: fearful youth ministry?

9781587433801In chapter 6 of his passionate book You Are What You Love, Jamie Smith takes his argument (we are what we love) and asks some very relevant questions about how Christians tend to do education – right across schools, youth groups, Sunday School, youth ministries etc

How can we form and educate young people so that they know the gospel in their bones?

What if education weren’t first and foremost about what we know but what we love?

He’s inviting readers to see young people (and all of us) as ‘ritual creatures’ – hungry for rites that give them rhythms of life to live by.

His passion here is education as moral formation – forming not just informing. An engaged, embodied type of learning that catches imaginations, hearts and minds and lodges deep within.

This is the longest chapter in the book and most of it is a fairly devastating critique of a lot of contemporary American youth ministry (and it is very American here).

Smith is scathing of the formulaic alternative youth ministry services, detached from the rest of the church in a cool hangout loft, upbeat band, triumphant praise songs, introspective closed-eye meditation sections, fronted by comedic hip leaders and teachers with a vaguely moralistic or therapeutic message.

All of this, says Smith, is in the (desperate) attempt to make Christianity not seem boring and that following Jesus can be fun. The culture is an enforced

“unrelenting scripted happiness, trying hard to be a place people want to be.”

The wrappings of the latest technology, use of film, Christianised music around a vaguely biblical content are in effect trying to get people to swallow Christianity in a palatable wrapping .. like a medicine.

The whole programme, he argues, is “run on fear” (144). Of fear that children will grow up and leave the church out of boredom.

This turn in modern youth ministry, he argues, was based on two disastrous decisions.

1. To stratify the body of Christ into generational segments. It moved youth ministry into effectively a parachurch setting even within the church. Such a shift denied the catholicity and unity of the body of Christ as described in Ephesians 4:4-6. It has fostered destructive habits as the youth segment meets by itself detached from the richness and diversity of the wider body.

2. Contemporary youth ministry has become almost entirely expressivist. It actually reflects a pragmatic last ditch effort to keep members of the evangelical club. It has ceded formation to secular liturgies (146). It reflects a dichotomy: a formulaic emotive experience followed by a short message that in effect demonstrates a lack of confidence in the gospel and Bible to form people. It is still entrapped in a Cartesian framework of assuming formation happens via depositing of the message in people’s brains. The preliminaries are just to get people there to listen briefly to the message.

This is back to Taylor’s ‘excarnation’

Underneath such ‘liturgies’ is in effect a secular vision of the good life. Desires are not being formed for God and his kingdom, but are framed around  consumerist rituals and self-concern. These are liturgies of narcissism and egoism.

This is a form of Christian ministry that has given up on incarnation in liturgy and spiritual disciplines. Discipleship in much American youth ministry equals “being fired up for Jesus” (146). Where the ideal disciple is by definition an extrovert.

“As if discipleship were synonymous with fostering an exuberant, perky, cheerful, hurray-for-jesus disposition” 147

Did I mention he is scathing?

His bugbear here is that such undimensional ministry excludes and misinforms and disenchants – anyone who does not fit in cannot be a proper disciple.

I’d add that this sort of cultural conformity (to upbeat relentless optimism) is particularly American. It reminds me of one of the many great lines by Dumbledore in Harry Potter where talking to Uncle Vernon he says

“I would assume that you were going to offer me refreshment, but the evidence so far suggests that that would be optimistic to the point of foolishness.” 

And from here Smith goes to liturgy and Book of Common prayer. I’ll come back to that in another post.

Good point to pause and ask ..

Does this picture of youth ministry sound familiar to you? Do you agree that a lot of youth ministry can be run by fear? That it has, in effect, sold its soul to the world in an attempt to be relevant? And actually does not work in forming disciples?

Comments, as ever, welcome.





The uncomfortable particularity of biblical love

I’m doing some reading and writing on love and have been reflecting on the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-5

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

I don’t know about you, but pretty well no-one that I know or have talked to is against the idea of love.  I mean who wants to be seen as a cynical old curmudgeon or a psycho like Billy Bob Thornton’s violent predator Lorne Malvo in the series Fargo?

But push a wee bit further and questions start to emerge:

What is love?

Who or what is it that we are loving? (love always has a focus, we have to love something)

What is the outcome or consequences of our love? How is love made visible in practice?

How have ideas of love developed and changed in history?

What are the dominant popular notions of love in our contemporary western culture?

Are all religions essentially about love? Are they simply different expressions of a universal human impulse to love?

This post isn’t going to answer any of those questions! It is going to link to that last one though.

Here’s a fact about love in the Old Testament – and the Bible in general.

If love always has to have a focus, in the Shema, Israel’s love is directed at a very particular person – YHWH – not an ill defined divine reality or some sort of faceless god.

A religious pluralism that suggests that an abstract form of love lies at the core of all (or most) religions,  reduces love to a de-personalised philosophical idea.

This is very far cry from the Shema. Love for God in the Bible is love for a very specific Lord who has revealed himself in history, has chosen Israel as his people, given them the Law and the Land, and is redeeming the world through the continuing story of that nation and its Messiah.

I came across this quote by Chris Wright

.. the sharp precision of the Shema cannot be evaporated into a philosophical abstraction or relegated to a penultimate level of truth. Its majestic declaration of a monotheism defined by the history-laden, character-rich, covenant-related, dynamic personhood of “Yahweh our God”, shows that the abstract and definitionally undefinable “being” of religious pluralism is really a monism without meaning or message.[1]

[1] Chris Wright, Deuteronomy, New International Biblical Commentary. p.98


You are what you love 5 : ‘Guard your Heart’ (how Christian baptism and marriage are subversive)

9781587433801In chapter 5 ‘Guard your heart’ of his provocative book You Are What You Love, Jamie Smith moves the focus to how to build in ‘habits of love’ into our home lives (‘liturgies of home’)

To recap: God is love; we are made in his image; we are only able to love because God first loved us; we are lovers before we are thinkers; our loves are much more the core of our being – they order and orientate our lives; but our love needs training and directing, especially in a culture of ever demanding competition for our loves.

I wondered earlier if Smith was putting too much weight on Christian liturgy reforming our loves … in this chapter he deals head on with that sort of criticism by proposing that household liturgies are vital in recalibrating our hearts.  And, he proposes, as they work well ‘household liturgies’ will “propel us back into the Liturgy of the body of Christ.”

What’s he mean by ‘household liturgies’? In brief, Christian practices that can give shape to how we order our home. He discusses two practices – baptism and marriage.

Baptism: a sign and seal of God’s loving initiative and grace; bringing us into the household (people) of God. A people where all boundaries are broken of social class, money, bloodlines etc. It signals a new social reality.

Baptism and families – Smith is Reformed and works at Calvin College. Here he takes the paedobaptist approach of how the congregation promise to love, pray, instruct and encourage the baby being baptised. The church has a solemn responsibility to be a family community.

So the ‘Christian  family’ is drastically relativised – it ‘belongs’ within – and exists for – the wider community of the church. The real sin of family life today, says Smith, is

“the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God.” (116)

Does this sound a bit weird to you? Perhaps it does, but I am with him 100%. The modern family is the ideal, the marketer’s target, the route to happiness and fulfilment, the self-sufficient unit of consumption, the core of the American dream of independence. It is to be alone, the means by which to inculcate values and produce good citizens ….

But a Christian view of the family releases a lot of that unrealistic burden – it takes a loving community to raise a child. So, says Smith, one of the biggest decisions Christian parents can take around faith formation is being part of a Church that lives by the gospel narrative.

A personal note here from a parent who has just become an empty nester … we have a profound sense of gratitude to the community of our local church which has been, and is, a wonderful community in which our children were raised.

Similarly with Christian marriage: it needs to speak of a radically subversive story to that of our consumer culture. The rising stats of marriage are not somehow a sign that marriage is being more deeply valued. Quite the opposite. The modern wedding industry speaks of narcissistic self-obsession. In the USA it generates c $50 billion annually. [Here in Ireland I read recently that the average cost of a wedding is   €25,000, including the honeymoon].

I’d better avoid starting a sentence here with “In my day ..” .. Smith himself has a nice ability to pen withering prose .. the boom in the marriage industry is matched by the boom in the divorce industry.

Our interest is in the spectacle of the wedding – the event in which we get to be center stage, display our love, and invite others into our romance in a way they’ll never forget … weddings are caught up in the dynamics of “mutual display”: what’s important is being seen. It’s why we spend more time fixate on the spectacular flash of the wedding event than on the long slog of sustaining a marriage.

But the implicit mythology of Wedding Inc. also reflects how we approach marriage. Indeed, the myths we load into weddings almost doom marriages to fail. Weddings are centered on the romantic ‘coupling’ of two star-crossed lovers, as if marriage were an extended exercise of staring deep into one another’s eyes – with benefits. But even then, a spouse is one who sees me, will meet my needs, will fulfil my wants, will “complete me”. Even our romantic coupling becomes a form of self-love. (120)

He refers to Banksy’s image of the modern married couple

banksyIn contrast, a properly theological view of marriage is as locating human love within God’s love; existing for him and for others – marriage as mission, marriage as witness together to God’s kingdom; marriage as a calling and vocation that involves self-giving and sacrifice.

And therefore, Christian marriages need to be recalibrated and redirected back to their calling and purpose – and this happens within the community of believers of which they are a part, and withi which the couple serve – sharing their love with others.

I like to think of  a healthy Christian marriage as ‘porous’ … allowing and welcoming others in. Not impermeable, shutting others out in a selfish hermetic community.

In the last few pages of this chapter Smith then sketches his ideas and experiences of inculcating these values within family life. He asks

What does it look like to parent lovers? What does it look like to curate a household as a formative space to direct our desires? How can a home be a place to (re)calibrat our hearts? (127)

  • Love
  • worship
  • music
  • imagination
  • Christian calendar: family rituals linked to the cycle of the Christian year
  • Fasting
  • Serving others together
  • Enacted symbolism
  • Prayer
  • Eating together
  • Thankfulness
  • Creativity – a Sabbath slow down from hyper-consumerism and technology

Obviously all of this is contextual to each family. But the point is that ‘heart formation’ is far deeper than a surface bit of religion now and then ….

All of this is to build connections to the ‘liturgy of the home’ with the liturgy of the church in which the home belongs. Without this sort of integration there will be a lack of authenticity … and ‘doing a bit of church’ on a Sunday is mere nominalism unless it is embedded in daily life liturgies that flow from the gospel story that we claim to believe ….

Comments, as ever, welcome

You are what you love 4 : Anti-seeker-service Christianity

9781587433801Chapter 4 of Jamie Smith’s You are What you Love focuses is ‘The Narrative Arc of Formative Christian Worship’

The argument should be familiar by now: Christian worship is about re-calibrating hearts. We don’t do that with information but with reforming desire through embodied liturgy shaped by the biblical story line that inscribes that story into our hearts.

He wants the Scriptures to ‘seep into us’ through the intentional, communal rituals of worship (84)

There is unique imagination-forming power in the communal, repeated, and poetic cadences of historic Christian worship

The goal is for God’s word to be the orienting centre of our imagination and desires – working on a subconscious level, engaging the body as well as the mind.

A biblical vision for humanity is discovering what it is to be truly human – to engage in the process of becoming like Christ, the perfect image of God. This happens from the inside-out, via the Spirit whose work and objective it is to restore the image. This renewal involves a change of character – a character of wisdom and love and maturity.

But this renewed character has a bigger context – to take up  our role as a character within God’s bigger narrative. This is our telos, our purpose – to become like Jesus. This is what it means to be fully human.

It is this gospel plot that we have constantly to recalibrate our lives around. Christian worship should be about capturing our imagination because we are aesthetic creatures

Our hearts are like stringed instruments that are plucked by story, poetry, metaphor, images. We tap our existential feet to the rhythm of imaginative drums. (91)

We need worship to captivate us. Inspire us. Setting a vision of what could be – what will be. Regular Christian worship locates us in this grand story. The aim is for this story to become so engrained that it becomes the way we think, and feel, and act in the world.

This storied worship has 4 chapters:

GATHERING: a call to worship. We are being called into God’s holy presence, not the other way around. We are being called to confession of sins week after week. To recognise constantly how our desires become disordered and twisted.

Without weekly confession what is Christian worship?  What messages are being communicated if our need of forgiveness and need of reforming our desires and lives is not central to our meetings?

LISTENING: we gather to hear God, not ourselves. To hear the gospel, to hear his Word. To hear how to live.

COMMUNING: we meet with God and with each other in worship. We come to eat the Lord’s Supper together – to commune with Him and with his body the church. This is profoundly counter cultural – here is no hierarchy, no division, no social or political or economic boundaries.

SENDING: In worship we meet with the Triune God, are re-formed in Christ, counseled by his Word, and nourished by  bread of life. We are then sent out into the world to look after God’s creation and to make disciples of all nations. To invite others to find their true  purpose and identity in becoming fully human in Christ Jesus.

It is this training in narrative that is at the heart of worship says Smith.

He addresses some questions here – look for this narrative in your church’s worship. Try to be part of the solution to improve things. If absolutely necessary and as a last resort it might be you go worship elsewhere. Why? Because “the future of orthodox, faithful, roust Christianity hinges on the renewal of worship.” (101)

What Smith is writing here is anti-seeker-service Christianity. It’s an appeal for ‘full-on’ embodied, sacramental, sacred, reverent, ‘culturally-other’ Christian worship. Willow Creek this is most definitely not.

But it’s also an appeal against the sort of background I come from – a branch of Protestant Reformed Christianity that, following the logic of the Reformer’s suspicion of Catholic fusion of grace and nature, developed into a ‘disenchantment’ with the world; a caution about the full implications of the Word become flesh; God mediated in human form; that “creation itself is charged with the Spirit’s presence” (101).

This led within Presbyterianism to (in my opinion) a sort of rationalist theology embodied in starkly simple worship; a dominating focus on the mind –  ‘right doctrine’ and the Word preached; all within a rigid formality and relationally cold context. (This is broad brush historical deveopment, not a descripion of every local Presbyterian church! Where things are improving, I think it is by overcoming these hurdles)

Smith quotes Charles Taylor in calling this ‘excarnation’ – the opposite to incarnation.

And here’s a controversial and interesting prediction from Smith below – what do you think? Is he right? Do we need to ‘go back to the future’ when it comes to our churches and the structure of our worship? Or is he being naive and idealistic about what Christian worship can achieve in terms of being paradoxially ‘attractive’ by being counter-cultural?

And does this impact physically as well? For example in our local context we are thinking about a new church building, which would be our first, so we have a ‘blank slate’ . I imagine for Smith the choice of design is of major importance since a building speaks of a ‘liturgy’ in and of itself. What sort of choice would you go for? A ‘culturally relevant’ church building or an ‘ancient’ and ‘culturally-other’ traditionally historic one? How much does local context shape that choice? (Smith is writing in an American one).

I expect it will be forms of reenchanted Christianity that actually have a future. Protestant excarnation has basically ceded its business to others: if you are looking for a message, an inspirational idea, some top-up fuel for your intellectual receptacle – well, there are entire cultural industries happy to provide that. Why would you need the church? You can watch Ellen or Oprah or a TED talk.

But what might stop people short – what might truly haunt them – will be encounters with religious communities who have punched skylights in our brass heavens. It will be “ancient” Christian communities – drawing on the wells of historic, “incarnate” Christian worship with its smells and bells and all its Gothic peculiarity, embodying a spirituality that carries whiffs of transcendence – that will be strange and therefore all the more enticing … Because when the thin gruel of do-it-yourself spirituality turns out to be isolating, lonely, and unable to endure crises, the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd might find itself surprisingly open to something entirely different. (102)


You are what you love 3 (or how to develop your love life): Jesufied worship?

9781587433801In chapter 3 of Jamie Smith’s creative and thought-provoking book is called ‘The Spirit meets you where you are: historic worship for a postmodern age’.

The argument so far: we are what we love; our hearts need constant recalibrating and redirecting; we live in a culture of competing loves or ‘secular liturgies’; we need to train our hearts to keep them rightly directed at a certain telos – the kingdom of God. We can do this by counter-liturgies, embodied communal practices.

In the words of the boss ‘Everyone’s got a hungry heart’. springsteenThe question is what our hearts are hungry for. The Bible is full of this sort of imagery. Take Is 55:1-2

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
    come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
    and delight yourselves in rich food.

Jesus uses similar language in the Beatitudes

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”.

And in John 6:35

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

But we can’t, says Smith, necessarily think our ways to new appetites. What we currently desire has been acquired over time and has been habituated by routines and customs.

Changing desires takes practice. Counterformative practice. (61) Smith tells the story of his slow intellectual assent to the need to eat and exercise more healthily. But it was only with discipline, with others, with enforced new practices, that slowly his desires changed.

Old habits die hard. Change means submitting ourselves to practices that confront and change our most engrained habits.

Our sanctification – the process of becoming holy and Christlike – is more like a Weight Watchers program than listening to a book on tape (65)

Leaving aside the question of who on earth listens to a book on tape any more (!) Smith shifts to give some practical suggestions for spiritual change of appetites. And I really like the focus here because he links to the Spirit of God. He calls this ‘Habituations of the Spirit’.  Liturgical practices that the Spirit can use to retrain our loves. But Smith want to emphasise this is no lone process but happens best within the worship of the church.

He anticipates objections here. Liturgy is a bad word for many Protestants.  Worship is seen as little more than singing. But the response says Smith is to be properly liturgical. The point of liturgy is to create a space for the Spirit to meet with his people. Worship is about God, his activity and our response.

Liturgy gives form to our response to God’s love and grace. In classic Reformed language, Smith argues that even our response is made possible by God’s Spirit.

He’s critical of much contemporary evangelical worship which reduces participants to passive spectators, where humans are the only actors. This is worship as expressivism – we express ourselves and we are at the centre making worship happen. This sort of worship also usually happens in a context that is designed to make us feel comfortable and at home. So the church looks like a mall or a coffee shop.

But, says Smith, this misses how these forms are not somehow neutral – they are embedded in secular liturgies of consumption, desire for more, with me at the centre. And such human expressivism cannot grasp what liturgy is about – it seems to be insincere pre-planned and tantamount to earning God’s favour. The problem here says Smith is that they cannot see how they have put ‘us’ at the heart of worship rather than God.

He calls a lot of modern worship services little more that “Jesufied versions of secular liturgies.” The focus on experience reinforces the gospel of consumerism and makes Jesus one more commodity. Amen to that.

Traditional liturgical practices are not just old, they are rooted in a different understanding of worship. God is at the centre, we encounter him. It is top down rather than bottom up. Smith calls this the gymnasium where God retrains our hearts (77)

What he is saying here is that the form or worship matters. This is not about ‘style’ – this is not a discussion about ‘traditional’ versus ‘contemporary’ worship. Smith’s point is that historic liturgical worship, forged over centuries, has a depth, biblical shape and content that helps to form its participants. It connects us to the church catholic and reinforces oneness and unity.

This can all be summed up as expressivist ‘showing’ versus humble ‘submitting’.

He concludes

“The liturgy of Christian worship is the litany of love we pray over and over again, given to us by the Spirit precisely in order to cultivate the love he sheds abroad in our hearts.” (81)

I wonder what you make of this?

Where are you in terms of worship as primarily human expression ‘up’ to God, or humble submission around God’s revelation of himself ‘down’ to us?

Does the idea of a ‘Jesufied’ secular liturgy ring true to you about a lot of Christian worship services?

Is this an age thing? I am more and more with Smith. At times I imagine that I could happily be an Anglican. The older I get the more and more I love and appreciate the consistency, depth and richness of historic liturgy. And the more and more I find it difficult to cope with the unpredictable evangelical lottery of contemporary worship songs and services.

Having said all that, I’m not convinced as yet that even well practiced liturgy has the capacity to reform us in the way that Smith seems to be suggesting. There are a lot of dead churches who have been practicing a lot of good liturgy for a long time …

Comments welcome. 








A good choice that doesn’t matter very much

He’s been a companion for decades, so it feels like news of when something good happens to a friend – congrats on the Nobel gong Bob!

Not of course that he probably cares less (?) or that it needs the artificial exercise of a prize to somehow affirm true greatness🙂

His catalogue is so rich there is always more to discover and fall in love with – my current one is the epic song ‘Tempest’ about the sinking of the Titanic from the 2012 Album of the same name (his 35th). For some reason I just love playing it for the last 14 minutes or so of a road trip … turned into a little ritual.



You are what you love 2 (or how to develop your love life)

9781587433801Chapter 2 of James K A Smith’s book is ‘You might not love what you think’

If the first question of discipleship is ‘What do you love?’, a possible problem arises: ‘Do you actually love what you think you love?’

He tells the story of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker  – where characters are given the terrifying choice of entering the Room where their deepest desires will be revealed. What if their conscious choice is not what they are given? The lesson being explored is whether what we think actually aligns with what we want. What we really desire is revealed in our daily life and habits not necessarily in what we say or think we love.

And Smith also goes to Sam Mendes’ American Beauty where Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham (why are all Lester’s ‘losers’? – see Fargo) pursues ‘freedom’ – including in the form of Angela, the teenage friend of his daughter. Without ruining the plot, at a critical moment, Lester finds out that he doesn’t actually want what he thought he wanted.

In essence, Smith is arguing that a holistic approach to discipleship needs to appreciate how we are formed by all sorts of unconscious influences, desires and habits that “orientate our being-in-the-world.” (33). He refers to modern psychology that suggests that 95% of what we do in the world is unconscious habit (‘second nature’), only 5% is the result of deliberate choices.

He argues that ‘virtues’ are on the unconscious register – these are acquired habits that dispose to act in certain ways (36). Good character isn’t accidental – it is a web of accumulated dispositions. These can be acquired intentionally by upbringing, training and practice, but also unintentionally.


Smith says we engage in formative routines and habits all that time but rarely recognize what is going on – indeed we are surrounded and immersed in environments (‘liturgies’) that have their own formative power to train our loves.

So, he argues, we learn to love rival kingdoms because we are participating in rival liturgies. Just assuming that ‘we are what we think’ is reductionistic and naïve – it misses the reality of who we are and how we love.

So Smith is writing as a sort of ‘wake up call’ – to see things as they really are. The rest of the chapter is about how to read these secular liturgies. He unpacks the spirituality of the shopping mall – an intensely religious centre at the heart of everyday life.

(I get my students to do an assignment around visiting a big shopping centre and analyzing the beliefs and practices at work. It seems utterly normal and benign, yet is full of ‘theology’ and ‘liturgy’ and the attracting power of ‘loves’).


Interior of İstinye Park shopping center in the İstinye quarter of Istanbul, Turkey with 291 stores, 85,250 sqm of retail area, and four levels of underground parking. Sep 8, 2012.

Back to Smith: in brief what is going on in the mall?

  • It is not trying to engage our thinking, but it is not neutral
  • It is interested in what we love – it is aimed at our hearts. Nice line – “Victoria’s secret is that she’s actually after your heart.” (41)
  • Architecture (see back to this post on ‘Brandscapes’):
    • familiar and homogenous – we feel at home whatever city or even country we are in (the picture above in Turkey could be virtually anywhere)
    • large atriums and foyers welcome the faithful pilgrims; funneling them into the worship centre
    • High vaulted ceilings, open to the sky, bright lights, calming music draw people into a space cut off from the outside world – he makes a nice point about how the walls hide the surrounding moat of cars and distractions of the outside world. You are brought into a sanctuary, retreat and escape. (42)
    • You are ushered into a sort of timeless zone, comfortable peaceful space with its own rhythm.
    • The space has its own calendar of remembrances and festivals – one morphing into the other during the year: a ceaseless litany of holidays and special days (with new ones being created regularly) in order to draw in more pilgrims.
    • The structure parallels the great Medieval Cathedrals with side chapels for devotion
    • Rich iconography lines the walls and windows – manniquins inviting us to imitate them – ideals of perfection representing the good life.
    • This is all packaged in themes of compelling beauty – inviting us to participate in this life that can be ours.
    • Inside the ‘chapels’, us ‘seekers’ are welcomed unconditionally as we look for something that will give us joy, satisfaction and pleasure
    • The consummation of our worship is a transaction of exchange and communion – we leave with something ‘concrete’, more tangible than feelings

“Released by the priest with a benediction, we make our way out of the chapel in a kind of denouement, not necessarily with the intention of leaving (our awareness of time has been muted), but rather to continue contemplation and be invited into another chapel. Who could resist the tangible realities of the good life so abundantly and invitingly offered?” (45).

We are not intellectually reasoning ‘this stuff will make me happy’ because, if we did think about it much, we would quickly know that no it won’t. But by endless repetition I’m ‘covertly conscripted’ / my loves have been automated / I have been formed by secular liturgies that are loaded with meaning.

And Smith says similar ‘liturgical’ unpacking can be done of all sorts of everyday rituals

  • A stadium as a temple of nationalism and militarism
  • Smartphones – in terms of content we look at and the rituals that tie us umbilicially to them – we see how they are loaded with an egocentric vision of life where I am the centre of the universe.

So what is the ‘ultimate story’ (or I would say gospel) of consumerism in the mall?

[much of what he says here about the ‘good news’ of consumerism is not new (see posts on consumerism here and especially those on William Cavanaugh) – but it is helpfully and creatively put together with the idea of liturgy

1. I’m broken, therefore I shop.

Consumerism pretends to offer a picture of unbridled endless optimism. Far from it – underneath the message is you are imperfect (‘sinner’) who needs fixing. These visions of happiness, friendship, sexiness, contentment and joy (the good life) – are not yours. You know it and so do we. You need redemption and we can provide it.

2. I shop with others.

While consumerism is associated with individualism and self-interest, it also, says Smith, is a social phenomenon – but one that fosters competition not community; objectification rather than other-regarding love. We compare ourselves to others as measured against mall’s perfect image of what we ‘should’ be.

3. I shop (and shop and shop) and therefore I am.

The market’s liturgy is an invitation to redemption – to a solution to our brokenness. Shopping as therapy and healing, a path to joy and overcoming sadness and ourselves – whether body shape, looks, clothes, cool technology. But, as Smith reminds us, the ‘secret’ of bright shiny happy consumerism is that nothing it offers is meant to last. The thrill dissipates fast – and we are back in the cycle of the next fix. A pattern not only of aquisition but of relentless consumption. The ‘unseen’ side of the story is all the discarded ‘good’s that are now useless. Consumerism reduces things to nothingness. Nothing has lasting value. In the process we are being trained to overinvest in things than cannot deliver, while at the same time wastefully devaluing things that become tomorrow’s rubbish.

4. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

By this Smith means the dark side of consumerism. The mall deliberately insulates the pilgrims from the inconvenient truths about their worship. Behind the perfect shiny mythic façade is a way of life that is unsustainable globally, as well as being built on the backs of the poor in the majority world. The image is as if the goods on sale have magically arrived from nowhere and been made by no-one. The mall cuts all connections between consumer and the person who actually made the thing in question. Issues of ethics and fair treatment of workers are airbrushed out of existence. The dream is an unending and ‘costless’ provision of absolutetly anything we desire. This is the American way after all. The vast waste and environmental cost is hidden away out of sight. Don’t ask, don’t tell, just consume – be happy.

None of this ‘gospel’ is announced or explained in written form. It is ‘caught rather than taught’. Because we like to think we are thinking beings, we imagine sin and temptation as a rational choice that we will have time and space to decide upon.  Rather, says Smith, we have disordered loves and poorly shaped habits. We need –re-formation in our lives.

Smith suggests a couple of ways to approach this:

We need to reimagine temptation and sin – not just as rational intentional choices – but often sin is the result of vices – badly ordered habits and practices.

To begin to reorder our love lives, we first need to become aware of the daily liturgies in our lives. He mentions the Ignatian Daily Examen :

  • Find time to pause for reflection on the rituals and rhythms of your life
  • What are the things that do something to you?

What vision of the good life is carried in those liturgies?

What story if embedded in those cultural practices?

What kind of person do they want you to become?

To what kingdom are they orientated?

What does this cultural liturgy want you to love?

And as we become more attuned to the presence and power of these liturgies, we then can begin to consider engaging in counter-liturgies within Christian worship … as a powerful way to be reformed in our loves and imaginations.

 Any examples of a daily liturgy in your life come to mind?

You are what you love (or How to Develop Your Love Life)


This is a book I’ve been looking forward to reading. I’m trying to do some work on love in the Bible and later this year I’ll be teaching a course on Faith and Contemporary Culture that spends quite a bit of time thinking about what we love, what Augustine teaches on love, and how it all works out in a consumer culture that is relentlessly after our hearts as it bombards us with things to desire & love (and therefore buy).

What do you think? Maybe more students would take the class if I called it ‘How to Develop your Love Life’?

Anyway, these are exactly the sort of themes that Jamie Smith is exploring in You are what you love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. I’m going to work through the book.

Here I’m summarising – feel welcome to comment. How persuasive do you find his proposal? Are we primarily lovers before we are thinkers?

In the opening chapter he asks questions like these

What is discipleship?

How does spiritual growth and transformation happen?

What has the church got to do with either?

More fundamentally, who are you? What are human beings?

His answers are different to standard replies of how learning and discipleship work. Drawing from his Desiring the Kingdom, You Are What You Love is a manifesto for rethinking our thinking from modern paradigms that don’t work.

Modern enlightenment rationalism tells us you are what you think. It imagines us as primarily intellects. Discipleship is depositing the right information in our brains and assuming learning and change will happen. This tends to have an anthropology that we are little more than ‘brains on a stick’. Descartes “I think therefore I am” taken to its logical end …

But, says Smith, this is neither true to what we are nor does it tend to work very well as a model for Christian discipleship.

Rather, we are lovers before we are thinkers. “You are what you love” means that we are what we worship and we worship what we love. We are what we desire and want. We are creatures of the heart more than the head. (Prov 4.23)

“So discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing.” (2)

Jesus is not lecturer-in-chief teaching students with text-heavy powerpoint slides. This is a ‘banking’ model of learning. As if action happens via a ‘withdrawal’ from this bank of information. This imagines our actions as the outcome of pure rational intentional and planned abstract choice …! Sanctification by information transfer. (4) As if character change happens by filling our intellectual wells with biblical knowledge.

For Smith we are not just ‘thinking things’. What if the problem is NOT just our lack of knowledge?

He’s not saying thinking is bad for you – heck this book represents a lot of hard thinking. He is arguing that thinking is very limited in and of itself.

What we also need to recognise who we are – we are not ‘just’ thinkers, we are far more shaped and defined by what we desire, by what we want, by what we love. The centre of human personhood is not so much the abstract intellect, but ‘the gut-regions of the heart’.

Augustine got this many centuries ago.

“You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you”.

Three things to note:

  1. We are made by God, for relationship with him. To be fully human we need to find ourselves in relationship to the One by whom, and for whom we are created.
  2. We are made for something. We are made for a particular purpose, an end, a telos. We are teleological creatures.
  3. The heart is the centre of our longings and desires – not a modern sentimental, soppy idea of the heart, but the core of our most fundamental longings “a visceral subconscious orientation to the world” (8). We are made to love.

This is no intellectual puzzle to master, but more a craving, hungering, thirsting for meaning and purpose and identity.

The heart is the chamber of our love – and it is our love which orientate our lives and point us towards some end or purpose. It is this which we are committed to and shape our lives around.

chSo it is not a question of whether we will love, it is much more a question of what we love. We can’t NOT love. We can’t not be committed to something. We can’t not be on a journey to somewhere. We can’t not desire some kingdom.

Now here’s the key thing – much of this operates at a subconscious level. It is often unarticulated. We are creatures of imagination and story – we are captivated and motivated by a vision of the good life – whatever that good life is for each one of us.

Habit and Virtue

In Colossians 3:12-14 Paul says ‘put on love’ over the other virtues

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

If virtues are good moral habits – an internal disposition that works itself out in practice – then to become virtuous is to internalize the law so that it is followed as a matter of habit, a sort of second nature that works without thinking as result of the person we are. In this sense Paul talks about fulfilling the law in love … it is part of who you are as a person.

How to acquire such virtues? Not through thinking says Smith (17). Virtue is acquired affectively. Law is easier to follow since it is outward and measureable. Rather:

  • Through imitation: Paul in 1 Cor 11.1, follow me as I follow Christ. Phil 3:17 – follow my example.
  • Through routines, habits, being enacted over and over again. Since virtues are not natural, they need to be embedded in discipline.

If love is a virtue, then love is a habit that can be practiced and improved and developed.

So how to re-calibrate the heart and point it in the right direction? (19)

Discipleship, says Smith, is a re-habituation of your loves. A reformation of your love life. Here’s a definition of discipleship you don’t hear very often:

“The learning that is fundamental to Christian formation is affective and erotic, a matter of ‘aiming’ our loves, of orientating our desire to God and what God desires for his creation.” (19)

If the heart is like an erotic (eros here as desire, not sexual) compass – an aiming device – then how aim it in the right direction? We need to recognize that our desires are learned and if love is a habit, then through imitation and practice our hearts can be recalibrated. Not necessarily through learning new information, but through practices that form the habits of how we love.

For our desires and longings certainly need to be re-directed. They are already pointing somewhere. We are trained every day to love something – we live in a world that is in competition for our heart.

Smith uses “liturgies” here for these secular cultural practices since love is really a matter of worship. Calvin called the heart an idol factory. Luther “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is your god.” (23). Our idols are not intellectual ideas – they tend to be affective desires. We all worship something.

Smith goes back to Colossians 315-17. How are our love lives to be reformed and re-directed? This is where the church comes in – desires are reformed within a worshipping community.

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

The ‘virtue’ of love is ‘put on’ by letting the word of Christ dwell in us, by teaching and admonishing one another, by corporate practices  …

Christian worship (not just singing songs) is counter-cultural to secular liturgies that attempt (and succeed) in capturing our hearts and imaginations. We cannot counter their power by abstract information – we can reform our habits of love. “Learning to love takes practice.” (25)

And this sets up how later he will return to how re-learning to love is a corporate exercise, not a lone spiritual pilgrimage.

But before that, he shifts attention in the next chapter to consider those secular liturgies that are competing for our love and commitment.


Here’s an excellent article on architecture, consumerism and branding (OK I’m a bit biased given the author) in Architecture Ireland, the Journal of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland


Consuming the physical environment © Ciara Mitchel

This blog has been known to talk about consumerism now and then ..

What’s fascinating about this piece is how it opens up how architecture is evolving in relationship to contemporary consumerism in the development of ‘brandscapes’

The impact of the market on the built environment is ubiquitous – so much so we do not even notice how pervasively the physical landscape is shaped by corporate identities. To a point where streets become ‘managed experiences’ and ‘brands’ to market the city …

The book listed in the article by Anna Klingmann is a creative and compelling read:

(2007) Brandscapes: Architecture in the Experience Economy, Cambridge: The MIT Press.


‘Think on these things’ – watch this video, not Trump’s

The latest revelations of Trump’s abuse of power and subsequent abuse of women are not exactly shocking – what you see is what you get. And while possibly sounding sanctimonious, listening to that video leaves you feeling grubby for participating in the conversation.

Our pastor Keith McCrory today was preaching on Matthew 5:27-30

27-28 “You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’ But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices—they also corrupt.

29-30 “Let’s not pretend this is easier than it really is. If you want to live a morally pure life, here’s what you have to do: You have to blind your right eye the moment you catch it in a lustful leer. You have to choose to live one-eyed or else be dumped on a moral trash pile. And you have to chop off your right hand the moment you notice it raised threateningly. Better a bloody stump than your entire being discarded for good in the dump.

He linked to Paul in Philippians 4:8

Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.

His point was that in a hyper-sexualised technological culture, we need to make good choices on what to put in our brains.

So, on that theme, don’t risk degrading yourself by watching Trump’s video, spend 18 minutes or so watching this one. In the first you will only encounter the spirit of the world; in the the second you will encounter the Spirit of God.

My wife and I watched it the other day. After spendng 18 minutes in this man’s company (and his wife’s) we felt refreshed, hopeful and joyful. For we were in the presence of love, respect, humility, kindness, gentleness and yes beauty – both the physical place and the people.

The video is directed by Greg Fromholz who lives in Dublin and was made by Tiny Ark a Dublin company which make beautiful films. The Bible quotes above are from The Message.