“Do your kids ever complain about going to church every week?” my friend asks.

She and her husband were raised in small countryside churches in the south of France, and while they were never zealous for the faith, they dutifully attended mass on Christmas and Easter until recent years. My friends accept the seeming inevitability of spiritual lapse. Sunday worship, hardly exhilarating in its own right, stands to compete with birthday parties, competitive sports, and the luxury of sleeping late.

Remarkably, our five children don’t complain. This isn’t to say that our 13-year-old son doesn’t occasionally look bored during the sermon. It isn’t to deny that our twin eight-year-old boys wiggle distractedly during prayer, asking in loud whispers, “When is this going to be over?” On any given Sunday, our children may be more or less engaged in the 90-minute liturgy that moves us from a call to worship to a final benediction, but they do come willingly.

Everyone is a worshiper, and every habit is a liturgy. This is the central premise of James K. A. Smith’s research in the last several years, whose work David Brooks highlighted in his recent New York Times column, “Putting Grit in Its Place.” Brooks laments that our educational system, with its emphasis on grade-point average, forges “grit”—the mindless perseverance for extrinsic reward. But grit can only get us so far. Citing Smith’s research, Brooks reminds readers that what really motivates human beings is desire. Our lives are oriented by our vision of the good life.

Smith’s research has been important not only for my work as a writer, but also as a parent. He argues against the Enlightenment ...

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