For the past few weeks, I have been blogging through James K.A. Smith’s great little book “You Are What You Love” and today I want to focus on one of the most moving chapters for me personally. The big idea behind Smith’s book is from Augustine, that we are what we love, and that we don’t honestly know what we love, we have been so formed by cultural forces (what he calls secular liturgies) that are competing for our hearts, and we have given into them without knowing it.
So what Jesus followers must do is create counter-habits to practice cultivating what we love. Here in the final chapters, Smith is incredibly helpful with practical suggestions on what this looks like for Jesus followers. As a father of four, my wife and I have talked about and plan on implementing several of his suggestions for what he calls the “liturgies of the household.”
We should be attentive to the rhythms and rituals that constitute the background hum of our families and should consider the telos toward which these activities are oriented. The frenetic pace of our lives means we often end up falling into routines without much reflection. We do what we think “good parents” do. And we might think these are just “things that we do” without recognizing that they may also be doing something to us. This …is an invitation to take a kind of liturgical audit of our households, recognizing their power to calibrate our hearts and acknowledging that our domestic rituals might need to be recalibrated as a result of our auditing work.
If you are a parent trying to raise disciples of Jesus this chapter alone is worth the price of the book. In fact, if you’re an American Jesus follower, then it is worth it.
Smith’s great strength is being able to connect classic Christian wisdom with his keen insights as a cultural critic. For example, Smith points out that it shouldn’t be surprising to us that family/marriages are falling apart in today’s world. Because we have made them cultural idols, and our practices have formed us into thinking of marriage and the nuclear family as an ultimate.
We no longer have weddings on Sunday nights at church, these days every wedding is a full-fledged production with the spotlight on how deeply the couple loves each other. Their backs are to the world, and their eyes are only on each other. The audience is there as a spectator to see how wonderful their romance is. But what if we could see the love that is being cultivated underneath this way of approaching romance? In Smith’s words:
Try to look with new eyes at a familiar phenomenon. Look at the “wedding season” through the liturgical lens. What do you see? ’Tis the season to make weekend forays to events that will light up Facebook and swamp Instagram with a deluge of sepia-toned photographs. … The invitations arrived encased in 1950s cigar tins and featured overlapping images of their tattoos on handmade paper, complete with vintage postage stamps for the RSVPs. The wedding reception will be catered by Korean taco food trucks, and the band from the engagement is going to play an encore, only with more mandolins, under candlelit canopies draped with hops as everyone enjoys the groom’s craft beer. The wedding has its own tumblr and, of course, its own hashtag…Doesn’t all of this prove that our society values marriage more than ever? Not so much. In fact, estimates indicate that the revenues of the divorce industry mirror those of the wedding 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. The wedding industry thrives on competition, novelty, and one-upmanship… 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 fulfill my wants, will “complete me.” Even our romantic coupling becomes a form of self-love.
Compare this, Smith argues, to the traditional Christian wedding ceremony, where the minister asks the couple before God and the church, “Do you take her/him of your own free will to be your wife/husband?”
And they respond “I do.”
And that’s it! That’s the only thing the couple says in their own wedding! There’s no chance to sing that solo you wrote just for her, or recite the vows you wrote just for each other, complete with promises never to watch that Netflix special without the other.
Because traditionally, the actor in a Christian wedding wasn’t so much the bride or groom as it was the God who was bringing them together as a parable for the world and a sacrament for the Church.
I know that right now, some of you reading this probably think that this sounds like some kind of heresy, a kind of unforgiveable sin akin to burning a Nicholas Sparks novel, but as someone who has done a hundred weddings, I cannot tell you how much this chapter resonated with me.
I am convinced that romance is an idol in our culture, especially when it comes to how we talk about marriage. And sure, romantic self-expression in important, but when it becomes the ultimate end, it can be crushing, not just to single people in the church (but certainly to them as well) but for every married couple who discovers that this honeymoon period eventually ends, and something deeper is needed.
In addition, what about how Christians are called to parent? Last year, I read a fascinating article in the Atlantic written by a therapist called “ How to Land Your Kids in Therapy” where the author concludes that after years of working with young adults, that the same problems we are seeing in marriage rings true in raising children as well.
As a therapist, he had been trained to look where his patient’s parents had failed to care for him. But he was starting to see a new crop of young adults whose parents did everything for them, they hadn’t neglected them, they had done the opposite, they had oriented their lives around them and their frantic schedules. Their children had become the center of the home, the point of worship, and it was a weight that was too much for them to bear.
Here is how the author puts it:
One day, another question occurred to me: Was it possible these parents had done too much?
Here I was, seeing the flesh-and-blood results of the kind of parenting that my peers and I were trying to practice with our own kids, precisely so that they wouldn’t end up on a therapist’s couch one day. We were running ourselves ragged in a herculean effort to do right by our kids—yet what seemed like grown-up versions of them were sitting in our offices, saying they felt empty, confused, and anxious. Back in graduate school, the clinical focus had always been on how the lack of parental attunement affects the child. It never occurred to any of us to ask, what if the parents are too attuned? What happens to those kids?
I get the pushback to this article, as a parent I love my kids too.
But to be honest, I may love my kids too much.
I love my wife.
I may love my wife too much.
The problem isn’t that I love them, it’s those little words “too much”
I am not saying this as a passive aggressive brag here, I am saying this because this part of the book really convicted me. I don’t want to be that parent that runs out onto the soccer field screaming because my kid isn’t getting to play. I don’t want to be the husband that smothers my wife with my anxious need to be affirmed constantly that I’m the best husband in the world.
But if Smith is right, there’s a good chance that I could become that guy. Because all of life is practicing for something, and it’s possible to be practicing the wrong things and never realize it until you end up at the wrong places.
I can’t write about all of the suggestions Smith has to correct this problem, but suffice it to say, my wife and I have started re-evaluating our calendar and our weekends with the question “What is this training us to love…really?” Because all of life is worship, and all of us are worshiping.
To be good in our relationships is to properly order our lives, and to do that we have to properly order our loves.