David Fitch Reviews JKA Smith: Challenging Desire’s Assumptions

David Fitch Reviews JKA Smith: Challenging Desire’s Assumptions January 9, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-01-05 at 7.15.20 PMBy David Fitch, professor at Northern Seminary

JAK Smith’s ‘You are What You Love’ (Part 1): Challenging the Everyday Assumptions About Desire

James K. A. Smith published a fabulous book earlier this year titled You Are What You Love. It is fabulous because he summarizes the important stuff in the first 2 books of his trilogy (Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom) in a way that is accessible, inviting and interesting. It exposits the challenges of the Christian life for the complexities of modern life. It maps a way for Christians to live in the world in a way the average college student can understand. It is a stunningly good piece of writing.

The book begins with the question “What do you want?” Smith says this is the first, last and most fundamental question of Christian discipleship.” (1) (I find it interesting that Slavoj Zizek basically says the same thing from quite a different angle via his famous ‘Che vuoi?’). What do you desire? Smith then unwinds the complex nature of the shaping of desire in the human being. How is desire shaped and how does it acquire an orientation? He assumes that transformation of human desire is possible but argues profusely that such transformation cannot come from getting our thinking right first and then our thinking telling our bodies to do what is right. There is no such thing as thinking our way to holiness.

Such an examination of desire, and its formation, is much needed for our times. The accounts of desire that drive our culture usually play on desire as purely biological and/or self-expressive. It’s part of the crass Romanticism that still dominates US culture. This goes on despite an abundant literature on the way the two-fold machine of American economy and culture produce images, roles, sexualization, that shapes desire in its subjects. This literature goes largely unnoticed in America’s captivity to romanticist ways of understanding the self. And so, desire and its formation goes largely unexamined in the American psyche but also, I would argue, in the protestant church. Smith’s book serves as a wakeup call to these kinds of churches. Through Smith, the fundamentalist learns you cannot didact your way to right desire and the liberal Romanticist learns that simply encouraging your self to follow your own innate desires without examination will lead you to become subjects of the “desire empire” of the United States of America.

To lead us into this discussion, Smith plays off Augustine’s opening line of his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Smith asks us to take note of how Augustine makes a design claim: we are made by and for the creator. Augustine then locates the center of our human orientation in the heart, i.e. our longings and desires for the creator. According to Augustine, we will only find “rest’ when our loves are rightly ordered to God and His purposes. This then gets to the heart of Smith’s message of the book: “Discipleship is a rehabilitation of your loves.” (19) Discipleship is a rehabilitation of our desires.

We Become What We Worship

The core of this discipleship is summarized rather boldly in the sentence “we become what we worship because we worship what we love” (23). Discipleship, for Smith, is the participation in habit forming practices that shape our imaginations (and thereby our desires) towards God and His purposes in the world.

To see why this makes sense you have to gain an understanding of how the human being is shaped into desire. Smith recounts the common experience of driving home while thinking or obsessing about something else only to find that we have arrived at our destination and not remembering anything about the drive that got us here. Similar to that episode, humans do most of the work of living our lives subconsciously. We don’t think and then do. Most of our lives are lived doing what we’ve already gotten used to doing. This is vintage Smith, explaining the idea of his so-well-described homo liturgicus in his Desiring the Kingdom. Humans are liturgical animals. We are formed as bodily creatures by habits and the things we learn and do everyday that become part of who we are.

The problem for us Christians is that there are rival liturgies everywhere training us to desire and do things out of habit (23). Jamie describes for us the shopping mall as a liturgy (just as he does in Desiring the Kingdom) reminding us how the liturgies of consumerism, shopping, advertising shape us into ways that work against/bend our desires in other directions from our love as ordered towards God. He uses the ‘room scene’ in the movie Stalker to cast doubt on the idea that we really do know what we want and where those wants came from (28-29). He uses another classic piece of cinema (American Beauty) to illustrate how ‘following our passions,’ in the common everyday (mega church) lingo of our day, can lead to catastrophic fantasies exposed as lies and misperceptions (32). He does all this to deconstruct the assumption that we really do know where our desires come from and that they are natural to us. Instead, he argues that Christian discipleship requires us to be attentive to the formations we are immersed in (38). This is in some ways such a simple message. But it is delivered in profound ways by Smith that demand we pay attention.

All this leads to Jamie’s call for Christians to take a “liturgical audit” of our lives (53). Let us examine our lives for the formations that are shaping daily our desires, our emotions, our feelings, our identities, indeed everything we live by and accept as given. I cannot think of a book that does this work better and more accessibly than this one.

Where Did This Romanticism Come From?

The world seems to agree with Jamie Smith when he says “we are what we desire” (or what we love). There is a wide cultural ethos in America that affirms that we come by our desires naturally and our desires are who we really are. Follow your passions!! Remove the rules, the institutional restrictions, people telling us what to do, puritanism and old fashioned Christian Victorian sexuality and our desires can be freed to be fruitful and flourish and fulfilled. It is a strangely American mix of pure Romanticism with a touch of modern scientism (that sees the world as determined by biological drives to be fulfilled) that forms the backdrop behind modern American understanding of self (I do not see Europe as romanticist in this way as U.S.).

Jamie Smith’s book deconstructs much (but not all) of this. He helps us see that all is not what it seems. Appealing to David Foster Wallace’s famous Kenyon College commencement speech, Jamie Smith helps us see the water we are swimming in and that we are not aware of because, of course, we are breathing it in everyday.

But here’s where I wish for more. How did this happen? How did this version of American self expressivism become so powerful in N America that it is the air we breathe? It seems, in order to lead the average millennial (and boomer) to take a closer look at their desire formation, we need to see where their current construct comes from and why does it fails so bad to shape a robust life? We need to reveal how the current society’s culture leaves us adrift when it comes to the formation of desire. We need churches that disrupt our culture’s formations in a way that open space to be shaped into the Kingdom. Yet I find compelling the question: why is this naïve romanticism so resident in the incubators of mainstream evangelical church? I don’t expect Jamie to do this work in this book. But I see this issue as the source of so many struggles in our churches and their inability to engage with culture constructively. I believe we need a resource to unwind the modern sources of the self (in Charles Taylor’s terms) in a way that helps church leaders disrupt the overwhelming powerful formations we are all caught up in America. Smith seems well armed to do such a project, but perhaps this must wait for another time.

What do you think? How did American self expressivism become so powerful in N American protestant churches? How has this weakened or helped the protestant church?

Next post: Smith’s discipleship- A closer look.


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