Reflections on Summer Reading
I hope you had a safe and fun-filled Labor Day! I enjoyed the beautiful weather at Longwood Gardens enjoying the sunshine, flowers, and fauna.
With the unofficial close to summer, it’s time to write about my favorite summer reads! I have fallen behind on my monthly reading round-up blog posts —forgive me readers! (all 5 of you!) You can check out my April and May highlights, and below I’ll wrap-up my summer favorites in one post. Rather than review each of these books separately, I want to pull together the threads within them. I hope it’s helpful and edifying!
You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. Smith
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
“Habit formation is the process by which a behavior becomes progressively more automatic through repetition.”
I found Atomic Habits to be extremely practical and helpful with ideas and strategies for becoming a creature of good habits. Clear’s thesis is that tiny, consistent—“atomic-size”—habits aggregate to big life changes. His four laws of behavior change are a helpful framework to form healthy habits: make it obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying (these can be inverted for breaking bad habits).
One concept I particularly liked was the relationship between habits and identity. Clear describes it simply: “Your habits shape your identity.” An example would be if one assumes the identity of a healthy person, it is easier to make healthy choices; of course, coupled with various other practices to establish healthy eating and exercising habits. But the way we think about ourselves does have a significant role in the way we act and order our lives.
Aside from reading the book, Clear provides many helpful resources on his website, and I’ve also been enjoying his twice weekly email newsletter. My critique comes from what I felt was missing. Habits are absolutely important. Healthy eating, living, exercising, reading, writing, etc. I for one, have been trying to increase and improve my writing this year and thinking through setting myself up for success with good habits is something important to me. But as helpful as Clear’s material is, it also felt a bit robotic and formulaic. Is there more to life than good habits?
I think yes.
A life of good habits with a lack of purpose is a life devoid of meaning.
Which is why I loved and highly recommend James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You Love.
Smith cuts to the core of the human heart, writing that our actions, behaviors, or “habits” flow from our longings and desires. We were made to worship and desire God, but our heart’s desires become disordered because of sin. Smith draws on the words of early Church fathers to describe this:
“You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Augustine opens with a design claim, a conviction about what human beings are made for. This is significant for a couple of reasons. First, it recognizes that human beings are made by and for the Creator who is known in Jesus Christ. In other words, to be truly and fully human, we need to “find” ourselves in relationship to the One who made us and for whom we are made. The gospel is the way we learn to be human. As Irenaeus once put it, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
To put it simply, I am what I love. My habits – my lifestyle – flow from what I long for and love. Smith later invokes the Church reformers to illustrate this “worship”:
To say “you are what you love” is synonymous with saying “you are what you worship.” The great Reformer Martin Luther once said, “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your god.” We become what we worship because what we worship is what we love. As we’ve seen, it’s not a question of whether you worship but what you worship—which is why John Calvin refers to the human heart as an “idol factory.” We can’t not worship because we can’t not love something as ultimate.
Smith goes on to expose the idols of our age within secular culture and the church. And he poignantly shows how the sacramental gifts of the church should rightly form us.
“To be human is to be a liturgical animal, a creature whose loves are shaped by our worship…Christian worship, we should recognize, is essentially a counterformation to those rival liturgies we are often immersed in, cultural practices that covertly capture our loves and longings, miscalibrating them, orienting us to rival versions of the good life. This is why worship is the heart of discipleship.”
This book was convicting, but also beautiful and freeing. The habit-forming gifts of the church are a special grace from the Lord to mold and shape our hearts, so that we can truly become the creatures with a purpose we were meant to be.
In thinking about one’s habits and purpose in life, one can’t help but reflect upon what life might look like when we come to the end of our time here on earth. Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead, does just that. I’ve had this book on my “to-read” list for a while, and found it to be an enjoyable and leisurely read this summer.
Gilead records the stream-of-consciousness journal entries of a country preacher in his last days. Reverend John Ames writes to his young son about a myriad of topics, from family history, amusing life anecdotes, and especially his memories as a pastor.
Robinson’s writing is both conversational and lyrical. One of my favorite examples:
The moon looks wonderful in this warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning. Light within light. It seems like a metaphor for something. So much does. Ralph Waldo Emerson is excellent on this point. It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence. Or it seems like poetry within language. Perhaps wisdom within experience. Or marriage within friendship and love. I’ll try to remember to use this.
His letters reflect on the intricacies of the human soul, the purpose of life, and his wrestling with deep theological questions. One thing shines through: he loved and served his family, his wife, his son, his parishioners, and his town, well.
What Gilead lacks in plot, it makes up for in droves with beautiful language, character study, and thoughtfulness. It is a reflection of a life well lived, and the desire to pass on a legacy to the next generation. It stood in stark contrast to me with Atomic Habits. As valuable as those psychological insights are, habits without purpose, and a purpose disconnected from the Creator, is meaningless.
I highly recommend all of these titles! And perhaps I will get back into the “habit” of a monthly review, rather than quarterly. Enjoy and may your September be filled with good books and good habits 😊.