At this point I have to admit something to the people who read this blog something you already know, namely that I’ve been terrible at keeping up with the blog. The good news is that I’ve been slightly less terrible at keeping up with my reading list and I will try to get around to publishing more reviews of my books in the next couple of weeks assuming that my paying job and my church responsibilities don’t keep me away
I mentioned in my reading list that today’s book “You Are What You Love” was on many book of the year lists from people I greatly respect. I wanted to like this book simply based on the fact that the title sounds like something I would say both figuratively and literally (we’ll get to that). Ultimately, I think the book did have some very strong point but I did not like it, had to work like crazy to get through it, and I don’t think it benefitted me or would benefit most anyone in my little mission field much. Even so, I’ll start with the positives
I think the author and I would get along well and see eye to eye on many things, even things he covers in the book. He rightly and forcefully makes the case early and often that the Christian life is a life of “knowing” in a relational sense and not “knowing” in an academic sense. I think the one sentence that basically summarizes the whole book is found on page 127, “You might have bible verses on the wall in every room in your house and yet the unspoken rituals reinforce self-centeredness rather than sacrifice.” Indeed, this idea that how we actually live our lives reveals what we truly love most is part of his core message and a core message of the Bible. Why did Israel turn from God to idols? Ultimately it was because they wanted to. Maybe they thought God was unreliable, or the idols promised something better, or they didn’t want to wait for God. The bottom line was in the moment of that hope transfer from the one true God to an idol they wanted what they believed the idol promised more than what they believed God promised
So he goes on to point out all the ways God asks people to examine their desires and how the life of desire is more central to the souls of people made in God’s image than the life of knowledge acquisition. He blows up the idea you see in many conservative Christian circles “You grow by what you know” and he points out this means that the life spent following Jesus is “more about hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing,” and I think that’s more or less right. He shows very well how that philosophy would play out in practical ways in churches and homes and youth groups. That emphasis and those specific applications can be appreciated by almost anyone who wants to transform life. It is in the unconscious “default setting” of our hearts that ultimately makes most of the choices in life, and thus we need to make conditioning that setting (which he calls telos) a major priority in becoming more like Jesus. These points are very strong in my view.
So why not a positive review and recommendation? I’ll list several reasons:
- It’s important to remember that for books related to ministry in the church, I’m reading them in a totally different context than I did a few years ago. I am serving poor, minority, mostly under-educated people here. Not a single one of them could have gotten 10 pages into this book. It was written by a philosophy professor and it shows. If you’re a middle class, white, college educated, philosophy lover that serves people like yourself, than you’ll like this book way more than I did. It’s not just the concepts that are hard to tackle, there are far too many complicated words for no apparent reason which makes it difficult to read. Take “telos”. Why not just say “default setting” or the word the Bible uses, “heart.” Any term you pick is going to take some explanation, but it would have been nice to read this book without a dictionary. I could have used the word “pattern” instead of liturgy. There are at least a dozen more. The book is just not that accessible.
- I am also underwhelmed at how far he takes this idea of “liturgy.” At one point I asked in my notes why he keeps doing this and then it finally occurred to me that it’s the whole point of his book. He believes that church liturgies – the doing the same things over and over routine seen in some church traditions – are somehow more of an interaction between God and people even though it’s really just the people doing the same things over and over. He equates these church traditions that stand out in our culture as somehow automatic evidence of transcendence. I think he goes way too far with this in a way a Baptist with the same core convictions would not go simply because of a different experience in Sunday gatherings. He is imposing his form of church on his notion of spiritual formation (although he argues he is not doing that).
- Related to this, I am not comfortable with the way he praises liturgical forms of so called “Christian” traditions that do not hold to the core teachings of the faith such as Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodox. I’m not trying to start a fight, I’m only saying those groups do not believe the same things about how to become a Christian, how to grow as a Christian, or how Christian identity is expressed in a local church. It is mind boggling to me that he would promote them as examples.
- Since he sees liturgies as transformational, he then takes the massive leap that if we just start doing a different liturgy we will become changed people. I just don’t think the Bible says that. I think, contrary to his earlier quote which I mostly like, discipleship is primarily about believing. It is about choosing to believe the truth or believe a lie. I would totally agree with Dr. Smith that the truths you believe show up in your practical life patterns, but I don’t believe that changing patterns changes hearts. A man who hates his wife and kids and believes they are the reason for everything bad in his life will avoid them. Having a family dinner every night is not going to change anything but that man’s schedule. Might God use something in that commitment to change the man’s heart? Only if he is operating from faith (what he believes) when he makes the change. That is what the bible says and what it means to walk by faith and not by sight.
- And so my #1 concern with the book is what I see as an over emphasis on what amounts to religious externalism. The author wants us to believe that “rehabituation” is the key to a transformed life. If only people did different things, then their hearts would change. If only they were more committed to “transcendent” ceremonies and liturgies and traditional worship contexts then they’d really look like Jesus. The problem is that idea perfectly describes the Pharisees who Jesus condemned by saying “These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.” All of their liturgy didn’t make them follow Jesus. The Bible just doesn’t seem to indicate that people change like that.
- Even at just under 200 pages the book seemed long to me. I cover half of his concept in a sentence I say all the time to my church family and those who come to counseling: 100% of the people, 100% of the time, chase what they love most. I bet if he worked with Mez McConnell or someone else focused on less highly educated disciples he could get the book down to 120 pages and make it far more accessible at the same time.