Fitch Reviews JKA Smith: Examining Smith’s Ecclesiology

Fitch Reviews JKA Smith: Examining Smith’s Ecclesiology January 13, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-01-05 at 7.15.20 PMJAK Smith’s ‘You are What You Love’ (Part 3): A Closer Look At The Ecclesiology Behind ‘You Are What You Love’

In You Are What You Love, James K. A. Smith deconstructs the realities of the way humans are formed, the nature of love and desire and the ruins of the individualism, consumerism and self-expressivism in American life. He makes the case for a renewed intentionality when it comes to formation and the Christian life. He lays the groundwork for how to live faithful Christian lives in the new post Christendom cultures of the west. It’s a stellar contribution and should be a classic for years to come.

But there are two issues in this book that haunt the book that I began to hint at in the previous part of this review. I want to expand on them now.

The Book’s Overconfidence in the Sunday Morning Liturgies

First, does Smith place too big a burden on Sunday worship to do the work of forming a Christian for living in the world? There’s an astounding confidence in this book that Christians will leave church after Sunday worship with sufficient formation to resist the powers and forces at work in society that Smith outlines in the first few chapters of his book. Jamie exposes the problems of self-expressive worship in American Protestantism which serve only to reinforce the worst of formation in society. But then he goes the opposite direction and makes the worship liturgies on Sunday so central to Christian formation that one wonders whether it can deliver for Christians living life the rest of the week. Can we learn, see, imagine, understand and grow enough for an hour and a half on Sunday to possibly shape us to respond to the multiple counter formations we face daily in our work, at the bank, in our families, before our televisions and computers?

Smith purports that the (upper case) ‘L’ liturgies will feed into the (lower case) “l” liturgies of the rest of the week. The liturgies of the home (for instance) will grow out of the Sunday liturgies as well as draw us into the liturgies of the congregation (114). He seems to imply that we who are Christians, via our formation in worship, will know and understand the teleologies in the spheres we are called to inhabit of the rest of lives: including especially family/home life, education and work life. We will then be able to be good family people, educators and workers in the world. And when it comes to impacting the world, there seems to be an expectation (or confidence) that as soon as Christians do these things before the world out of being formed in worship, the world will see the created beauty in our living, and they will want to join us also in doing these things unto the glory of God. I suggest there is a gap here in Smith’s account of formation. Maybe there is more to come on this in Smith’s third book in his trilogy, but I suggest for now, the book assumes too much in these regards. How many of us have seen that what happens on Sunday (even in liturgical churches) rarely translates into Monday through Saturday?

I have observed this confidence before. It is noticeable, I suggest, often from within a Kuyperian understanding of church/world and creation. Kuyper, the founder of the Dutch Reformed church, famously argued that we live as Christians is various spheres of creation such as family, education, business, the arts, government and of course the church. Each sphere has its own logic as gifted them by God in creation. Each sphere operates in its own integrity in ways purposed by God. This logic, these purposes are imbued in the created order. It should then be obvious to all, save or unsaved, Christian or non-Christian, what is the way of God’s beauty once they see it in action. It is after all built into creation!! It is how we were meant to be.

But it is more and more difficult to have this kind of confidence in the perspicuity of God’s creation. More and more we live (or at least we are aware we live) in a confused world darkened by violence and misplaced desires. The rebellion of God’s creatures has blinded many. There is no longer a Christendom foundation to society (as it once was for Kuyper in Amsterdam). And so, as we send people out into the world shaped by worship via this paradigm, will we not be shaping to assume too much? Will we be shaping people into an arrogant posture in the world that puts their sightlines above people as we encounter them struggling to lead families, lead businesses, organize education? Will this over confidence in worship shape a posture that forecloses actually engaging people, listening and offering space to see something new?

Think with me for a minute about family, education or work (the three spheres Jamie deals with in his book) as we live in these spheres daily. In the case of family, when encountering the confusions of gender and sexualities of our day, how does the formation of worship open up space for engaging those confusions? I agree with Jamie that worship should deconstruct us and orient us as Christians in ways that sorts these issues out in our lives. But how do we engage others who don’t have that formation? In my own book, Faithful Presence, I suggest the practices of the Sunday gathering (I call it the close circle) shape us to do the same things we do on Sundays in our neighborhoods as well and the places we live during the week. What we do on Sunday – the practices of tending to Christ’s presence (Eucharist), reconciliation, and when appropriate, the proclaiming of good news that God is working in Christ to heal, restore, forgive, reconcile – trains us to do the same things in the spaces of our everyday lives. We open spaces with non-Christians to unwind the violence of the world and tend to what God is doing in their lives. This is so important in the broken families and confused sexualities of our day.

In the case of education, how does a Christian teacher, formed via worship on Sunday, enter the world of public education and counter the forces of narcissism, brokenness, violence and antagonisms of the public schools? Jamie talks about the formation of good teachers and the good formation extending into the classroom. But all of this seems nigh impossible unless we’re talking about forming a parochial school? How then does this formation lead to engagement in the world? I advocate (in Faithful Presence) for a way of being present in the schools that makes space for His presence, reconciliation, new economy and gospel. In the case of vocation, how does the Christian business person enter the world of capitalism and not become absorbed into its ideologies, of greed, value, ultimate importance success? Too often I’ve seen Christian businesspeople succumb to capitalism, the way of money and greed, and become an enclave for capitalistic success for Jesus, despite the Christian business luncheons etc. Indeed, what doesn’t seem possible in the imagination of Smith’s account of vocation, is that there might be a need to reframe the economy entirely. There might be times in our culture when we might need to opt out of the economic system entirely and start new ways of flourishing in work for His kingdom.

And so, the fear with You Are What You Love is it shapes a people to go into the world with a posture of “I know what should be” and “If you don’t see it like I do, well you’re just blind to creation’s glory.” There is a danger, ironically, that this way of thinking church creates an enclave unable to engage the world. Calvin College’s Mark Mulder wrote a great book in 2015 entitled Shades of White Flight: Evangelical Congregations and Urban Departure in which he details how Dutch Reformed congregations in Southside Chicago engaged their culture by creating schools and businesses that became insulated unto themselves. When the surrounding neighborhoods turned threatening to them, this enabled them to just get up and leave and plant themselves somewhere new. This to me is the irony and the conundrum of Neo-Calvinist ways of thinking about formation and encounter with the world and the idea of spheres of creation. There’s an inherent insularity in the bravado to engage all of culture for the Common good based in their confidence they know what God intends in creation. (See this article by a NeoCalvinist for more evidence in this regard).

The Church Sends Individuals? Or The church sends the church?

This all leads me to my second (and related) issue for the book: Does Smith’s book shape a church that sends individuals out into the world, or does it shape a people to live an entire way of life among the world. Do we gather on Sunday, according to Smith, a.) as the church and then go out as individuals to witness what God is doing? or b.) do we gather on Sunday as part of a whole way of life we live together in our neighborhoods, at work etc. that witnesses to God’s Kingdom coming in Christ Jesus? I consider this to be a crucial ecclesiological question. For as I’ve said elsewhere, to be a church of option a.) sends individuals to be absorbed too easily into the world’s powers. Option b.), on the other hand, shapes a people to resist what must be resisted and engage what God is already doing, as a holistic witness to the Kingdom and an invitation to the world to join in. In a way, the central question for me about Jamie Smith’s book You Are What You Love is: “is the ’you’ singular or plural? Is the church a training ground for individuals to be sent out … or a people as a way of life… who live in but not of the world always intersecting peacefully challenging and encouraging the world towards the revolution God is doing in the world to bring in His Kingdom.

I admit this is a nuance that must be carefully discerned. The accusation of being a church that meets in Sunday and sends individuals out into the world to be devoured could be (possibly) hurled on my own ecclesiology in Faithful Presence. But I would argue “no.” Indeed, as I put it in that book, the church must be lived in all three circles: the close circle of the Sunday gathering etc., the dotted circle of neighborhood church-life relationships, and the half circle of presence among lost and hurting people/systems of the world. The liturgies (disciplines) as I describe them must be lived out in all three circles.

Back in the late eighties, Univ. of Chicago ethicist James Gustafson criticized Stanley Hauerwas notoriously for not recognizing that we live in a pluralist society. He argued no one lives within only one narrative anymore. Indeed, the modern subject lives within multiple narratives at any one time. Gustafson labeled Hauerwas a “tribalistic sectarian fidiest,” of which he has never let him forget. In that article Gustafson argued ‘Christians are never just members of the church but must rightly live in the world.” Therefore, the church, he said, could not be what it was for Hauerwas, the singular shaping narrative that shapes Christians with the virtues necessary to live in the world. (“The Sectarian Temptation: Reflections on Theology, the Church and the University,” James Gustafson Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America 40/1985 83-94.)

The response of Hauerwas to Gustafson, which I will summarize in one sentence, was not to argue for placing the church alongside other spheres or communities by which we must be in constant dialogue or mutuality with. Hauerwas instead argued for making the church more central and singular as the place of formation in and over and through all these other activities. Church in essence becomes am entire politic by which we test each engagement as to whether we can live faithfully in business, and if so by how much or whether indeed we must withdraw altogether. Such a politic must be sufficiently open to all other communities as the means of shaping its own integrity and growth.

I suggest there’s a little bit of Gustafson’s problem at work in Smith’s You are What You Love. It sees the church as one sphere of God’s work alongside the other spheres, family, education, work (and most Kuyperians also include the arts, and government). The implicit model is that the church serves to shape and form individuals into the other spheres to where they are sent to call those spheres to their created intent as instituted by God. But Kuyper’s’ spheres is hardly what we face today. They are not formed in Christian ways only to be called back to their created glory. Instead, as Gustafson helps us see, these other spheres are not under the Christian narrative. As Smith, himself makes clear in his first two chapters, there is already another light at work, another narrative guiding those spheres. But whereas Gustafson argues that Christians must therefore be in dialogue on equal footing with the world. I suggest, with Stanley Hauerwas, Christians only know the Lordship of Christ as a people, from whence they enter the world piece by piece discerning what is of God and what is not. The church therefore cannot be a group that meets only on Sundays and then sends out individuals into the other spheres confidently to know the beauty and glory of God. Rather they must live a whole way of life as a community of people in dialogue with the world. It is a slight difference, some may say, but it makes all the difference in terms of our posture of engagement in the world.


Like I said above, in Faithful Presence, I argue that the practices of church as a gathered people (what I call the close circle) shape us to continue the same things in the world, in a way where we become servants, discerning and tending to the presence of Christ at work in the world. In this way, the very things we do (Eucharist, reconciliation, being with the poor etc.) as a people together on Sunday, shape us to be that people in the world, our neighborhoods, our work. As opposed to the posture of arrogance, we become the means to open up space to engage the world, to offer a place for the unwinding of the antagonisms, struggles, violence, and misdirected loves that drive the world elsewhere. Whereas Smith’s worship shapes individuals to go into the spheres of creation and show the rest of the world the way to creation’s common good, I suggest we need a practice of Christian life lived together in and among the world as a whole way of life, that shapes us to tend to his presence already at work there, open space for his work, witness to his work and invite the world into the forgiveness, reconciliation and renewal of all things that He is doing in the world. The movement is the same as Jamie Smith’s: from worship to presence in the world. But I argue for a dynamic in the world based on Christ’s promise to be present, to make present Christ’s reign, wherever people gather “in his name’ in the world through these practices (I call them disciplines in the book).

What do you think? You who’ve read Smith? Does his book put too great a load on worship to form a people into living/impacting the world? Does his emphasis on worship create a church that sends individuals out susceptible to being absorbed into the world, or worse, to carry an arrogant posture that disengages the world?


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