Saturday, May 30, 2009

Go West, young man!

Due to a prolonged family illness, I have completely missed the boat on the Christopher West drama unfolding in the Catholic (and non-Catholic) blogosphere. [UPDATE: Christopher West is the sort of public face of the popularization of John Paul II's "Theology of the Body."] But I have been following it. I feel particularly unqualified to comment, in a way, because it has been years since I read anything West. My first encounter with him was a then-unpublished recording of his first shot at the "Naked Without Shame" seminar. I had just accepted a marriage proposal, and then-Scientist-not-Dad and I were driving up the east coast, listening to this really shocking set of CD's. The Easter candle represents the Spirit impregnating the waters. I'll never forget that image. But there were no vulgar metaphors, no bloody placentas, nothing beyond some eschatological speculation that seemed off-color or even approaching heterodox.

That following school year, my women's group at Catholic University listened to the entire set of lectures (it was 9 hours long) over the course of four months. The results were electric. I know West made personal for me what had unti lthen been an impersonal commitment to the Church's teaching on contraception. I knew one girl who had been on birth control pills for "medical reasons," who went home one night and flushed every last pill. Others were inspired by the pope's reflections on celibacy to seriously discern religion life. All of those with whom I've stayed in touch are still deeply committed to the Catholic understanding of the image of God--"male and female he created them," our desire for our origins--"from the beginning it was not so," and to the permanency of marriage--"what God has joined, let no man separate." Such fruits.

The controversy erupted--it began the minute West made it his mission to popularize John Paul II's lectures on the theology of the body--over West's appearance on Dateline. The first thing you should do, out of respect for West, is watch the piece. Then read West's own corrections.


There cannot be anything we Christians find it easier to forget than Christ's maxim, "Whoever is not against us is for us." If we are going to discuss the theology of the body (TOTB) and West's interpretation of it, let it be with charity. West's language may be problematic in places, but please remember that, as Jimmy Akin put it, he's on the "side of the angels."

There are sort of two levels of critique going on against West. The first is a theological argument over whether or not he "gets" John Paul II's theology. Most prominently, David Schindler, dean/provost of the John Paul II Institute at Catholic University, has criticized West's understanding of the effects of original sin on our sexual desires. He thinks West underestimates the scars left by concupiscience, places too much importance on sexual love as an image of God, and that these misunderstandings (as well as several others) lead West to be too free with his language when discussing sex. I'm finding it impossible to really evaluate Schindler's claims, since he cites only personal anecdotes. Not one article or book chapter written by West is ever mentioned--always red flag.

The second level of controversy, then, comes from the first. Does West's sunny view of our sexual desires result in vulgarity? Is explicit sexual language and even "street language," such as "getting laid," ever appropriate for Catholic speakers addressing contemporary audeinces? Alice von Hildebrand said, "NO!" As did James Likoudis. Janet Smith, who I'll link you to further down, is not so quick to pull the trigger:

'I think it is important to keep in mind, as Akin does, who West’s audience is. It is largely the sexually wounded and confused who have been shaped by our promiscuous and licentious culture. People need to think long and hard about the appropriate pedagogy for that group. Yet, as West himself knows, his approach is not for everyone. An analogy that pushes the envelope may be "offensive" to one person and may be just the hook that draws another person in.  West has adopted a style that appeals to a large segment of that population—and even to some who are “pure and innocent.”'

Now, I have never heard Christopher West in person, though most of my friends and acquaintances have. I have never read his best-seller, The Good News About Sex and Marriage. But I have seen lives changed by it--from an 18-year-old girl struggling with the Church's perceived "injustices" to women to a 55-year-old man who repented of his vasectomy. And, with all due respect to academics (heck! I'm one of them!), these people were not about to read either the original lectures given by the pope or any academic articles from the John Paul II Institute's esteemed graduates. 

I also have two witnesses with whose work I am very familiar (I wrote one of my theses on the concept of "nature" in Humanae Vitae) who have endorsed West's work. Neither Janet Smith nor Michael Waldstein give West a blanket "seal of approval"--both call for careful reading, prayerful reflection, and further study--but they at least give the other side of the story. As Smith puts it:

"West has been giving his presentations for over a decade now; he has shown spectacular docility and humility in reworking them in response to criticisms. I suspect that as a result of this recent dust-up West may want to adjust some of his approach (or he may not!), but I also am confident that onlookers will find that many of the criticisms against West are without foundation. Some are erroneous because the critics are not sufficiently acquainted with West’s work.  Others are not sufficiently acquainted with John Paul II’s work. Sometimes differences are not about substance but about emphasis or semantics. When dealing with a subject as fraught with distortions and sensitivities as sexuality there are surely going to be differences between people of good will."

The last point there, "differences between people of good will," is key to keep in mind. I cannot take seriously any claim that West has been either vicious or stupid. Glib, perhaps, but undeniably engaging. I am fairly certain that more people watching that Dateline special, however egregiously ABC or West violated decency, were moved to investigate this "Catholic sex therapy" then to open up the latest issue of Playboy.

I am remembering, too, that C.S. Lewis took endless loads of criticism from his high church friends for speaking "the bluff, common language of bluff, common men." I'm so glad he did. The sexual revolution is not going away quietly into the night; I'd rather men like West were out there using words such as (gasp!) "ovaries," "holy sex," and "getting laid" than not. 


Melanie B said...

Like you, I listened to West (Naked without Shame) while preparing for marriage. I've seen him once in person when he came to give a presentation sponsored by our diocese a couple of years ago and I read Good News about Sex and Marriage last year.

Honestly until this recent controversy blew up the only criticisms I'd heard of his work were very vague by people who didn't explain their objections at all (and refused to provide any details when I asked them to) and thus I felt free to dismiss out of hand. It's been interesting to follow the back and forth.

At first I wondered what the fuss was about and why people couldn't see past the obvious media distortion in the original interview. As I read some posts and an email on a list-serv I'm on, I began to get a better sense of what were reasonable objections, even if I don't agree with all of them. So far I've thought the best responses were Jimmy Akin's and Janet Smith's. I especially thought Akin's point was well-made that sometimes West himself isn't clear on whether he's doing apologetics, evangelization or catechetics. Though to be fair I'm not sure there's always a clear line when so many nominal Catholics are so poorly catechized they may well need basic apologetics to bring them back into the fold. I can see why some more sensitive souls would find some of West's language, images, analogies and metaphors are shocking. One woman I know says she has had difficulty in prayer after attending his talk because of something he said about a crucifix (I'm pretty sure I can guess what it was but she refused to specify.) I'm not at all a visual person so while I can sympathize I myself would never have issues like that. It's interesting how the interview was a touch point igniting such widespread debate.

I think in the long run such open discussion is only for the good. The fact is that while there are many people studying and teaching on the Theology of the Body, few have made such a wide and popular impact as West has. It's not a bad thing to critique his presentation and style so long as acrimony is avoided and charity maintained. It would be nice if he were not alone as a popularizer. I think the Church as a whole would benefit from a wider range of styles and methods so that there would be options that might be better fits for various personalities and sensitivities. West is a pioneer though, blazing a way into what is really new territory so it's not so surprising to me that he's not going to please everyone. I think if anything his major failure is trying to reach too broad an audience and not focusing enough. To be fair, I think he is aware of some of his own limitations. My sister says after he spoke at UD she overheard him telling another student that he's no good at talking to a teen audience. Seems to me that he's probably best at the college track, speaking to students who are really in the midst of the craziness of the modern sex-saturated culture, and that perhaps even the parish/diocesan level such as the venue where I heard him speak isn't so much his real forte because you are going to get a greater cross-section of people there, including some who aren't as steeped in the Sex and the City culture.

Thanks for the good thoughts. and framing of the discussion. I've not had the energy or rally the interest to blog about it at all, even though I've been following the discussions fairly closely.

e2 said...

"Seems to me that he's probably best at the college track, speaking to students who are really in the midst of the craziness of the modern sex-saturated culture, and that perhaps even the parish/diocesan level such as the venue where I heard him speak isn't so much his real forte because you are going to get a greater cross-section of people there, including some who aren't as steeped in the Sex and the City culture. "

Melanie, I'd heartily agree here. It seems that, as Akin said, we have to keep West's audience in mind. And it would indeed help if he himself was a little more focused in his audience. Certainly, it will help when more pioneers join him in this front.

I'd also agree that, with so many poorly catechized Catholics in the pew, the lines between catechetics/apologetics/evangelization are almost entirely blurred at this point. The situation on the ground, as it were, makes the more pointed, technical critiques of West seem totally out of touch with the "Sex in the City" culture to which you refer. Amen!

gsk said...

Beautiful framed, PM. You covered all salient points well.

blog nerd said...

So glad to find your blog--philosopher moms UNITE! LOL.

This was a very good summary of the situation.

Though I appreciate Akin's tone without question, I think actually, Akin is not giving West enough credit--I think West is quite clear on the fact that he is doing all three things: apologetics, evangelization, AND catechetics. His rhetorical strategies seem to demonstrate that, and the demographic he attracts, likewise seems to demonstrate that he is successful.

With the exception of Schindler, who represents the Augustinian objection to West's work, I can't escape the notion that the entire body of criticism against him is just a matter of, well,


Last I checked, "vulgarity" is neither a theological fault nor a sin--though I suppose you could accuse him of poor taste.

It reminds me, however, of certain people saying about a man and his 12 followers some 2000 years ago, that they were inappropriate drunkards, blasphemers, and heretics, and that they hung out with vulgar people like prostitutes and tax collectors.

(I'm not comparing West to Christ--just the tone of the criticisms.)

Anne said...