Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Theology of the Trench Coat

"All healthy men, ancient and modern, know there is a certain fury in sex that we cannot afford to inflame, and that a certain mystery and awe must ever surround it if we are to remain sane.” - G K Chesterton

Below I have copied a transcribed portion of an interview with Christopher West, who, after a bit of a sabbatical, is apparently back with a vengeance.

My friends, read what West says below and tell me (even if you know nothing of the Theology of the Body) if this sounds right to you. Tell me if you smell something a little funny. Tell me if this doesn't remind you of a kind of "grooming behavior". I'm not saying West is "grooming", but I am saying that if the wrong kinds of folks buy into this kind of language and what seems to be an apology for sexual license, they can use it for "grooming".

Let me say that I agree with the general points he's making: sex is good, the body is good, and the marital act is good. It's wrong to be a libertine and it's wrong to be a prude.

But Song of Songs is not about sex. Michelangelo's artwork is not about naked bodies. Pornography has no baby in that bathwater.

Fr. Benedict Groeschel once told a story about a religious brother and a religious sister (a "monk" and a "nun" in shorthand speech) who were living together in one house as - according to them - "brother and sister", sharing their mutual "love of neighbor" with one another, and thereby expressing their "spirituality" platonically while cohabitating.

"Now, you may buy that load of hooey," Fr. Groeschel observed, "but I'm from New Jersey and I know better."

So let me talk to you as if we were both from New Jersey.

Christopher West for all the world sounds like he's preaching an elaborate come-on line. "God is all about love, baby, and He made our bodies so we should not be ashamed of them. It's a warm night, let's go skinny dipping. Can I read to you from the Song of Songs? It's all about the girl's breasts. Don't be shocked. There's nothing better than an orgasm, and only people who don't love God like you and I do are afraid of expressing our love through orgasms. I can look at you and love you and I can say you turn me on. I can say that because I see God in you. Do you see God in me? If you don't you're a prude. And if you're a prude you're displeasing God! Let me pour you some more wine."

And God help us if we buy this load of hooey.


Quotes from Christopher West in an audio interview with Kris McGregor of Discerning Hearts - with comments by me in red a la Fr. Z.:

[14:41] "And this goes right back, Kris, to what Jesus spoke about in His teaching, when He said there are wheat and weeds that grow together. And we need to learn how to discern that. It's not just that there are weeds in the world and there is wheat in the Church. No. There are weeds in the Church, and there is wheat in the world. Careful: there are wheat and weeds in the Church and there are wheat and weeds in the world - this is probably what West means, but his syntax is ambiguous here - which I suspect reveals an agenda. And we need to be discerning, we need to recognize that all sin is, is a twisting of something good. ... All the devil can do is take what God created, all of which is very good, and twist it, distort it, and mock it. And in the new evangelization, we have to be willing to look for the good that is present even behind what is evil. ..."

Right, so far as it goes. But such an argument can easily be used to make a case for evil.

[16:00] "The way we overcome evil is not just by taking that evil and throwing it out the window, so to speak. Why? Because there's always a baby in that bathwater. There's always something good behind the evil that we have to reclaim, that we have to take back. On this topic, we could look at pornography, for example. Pornography is a great evil. It is destroying marriages, it is destroying families, it is wreaking havoc in our culture. And yet, we must not overreact. There is something good behind it. What is good behind it? The human body in its nakedness. Behold, it is very good!"

Sounds great, but I'm from New Jersey - and so are we all.

Yes, the human body is very good, but speaking as a normal man, I can not "behold" the naked body without there being lustful consequences - and I speak for all of us.

What bothers me here is the pastoral need for this. In a culture saturated with pornography, in a culture that sexually abuses children and pushes pornography onto them, in a culture where (as West accurately points out) pornography is destroying lives and marriages, what possible reason can there be for singing the praises of the good at the heart of pornography?

And West is very wrong, pastorally speaking and practically speaking, in saying that we must not jettison evil simply because there's a good somewhere in the evil. Down this road lies rationalization of sin and slavery to sin.

The sad fact is every time I desire to sin, I begin by rationalizing it in this way. "Well, it's not ALL BAD." And everyone I know who lives a life devoted to sin rationalizes it in this way. "I may be a child molester, but children are good and so why should I avoid being around children simply because I tend to sin? I'm simply seeking the good!"

Watch out. This man is selling us not only bunk, but he's packaging it in a way that will do untold harm.

"'What is evil is not the human body', John Paul II says. What is evil is the lust in our hearts that makes us look upon the human body as merely an object, or a thing."

And what is evil is not cocaine or heroin or meth. What is evil is our desire for the high they give us and the domination our desire for this high gets over us once we begin to use them.

[At this point, West goes on at length about how Michelangelo's nudes were all about the glories of sexuality. I won't quote this bit of sophomoric art criticism at length, but he gets things very wrong here, and even twists John Paul's words on the subject.]

"Now, of course, we're in a broken world. We can't return to the Garden of Eden. We left our innocence behind. But John Paul II is proclaiming with boldness that the death and resurrection of Jesus really can give us eyes to see the body in a holy and sacred way."

This is a terrible dis-service to Bl. John Paul and to his teachings. Our eyes - once fully redeemed - will eventually have this capacity, but West here is "immanentizing the eschaton" as a friend of mine puts it. In other words, he's feeding us a load of hooey. Think about what he's implying, that somehow true Christians have, or should have, the capacity to look at naked bodies without lust, giving nothing but glory to God.

Mr. West, if the teen-aged and college girls in your typical audiences were sitting before you naked, would you be able to "behold" the goodness of their bodies? Would their nakedness be a good thing for your marriage or a bad thing for your marriage?

Or should I ask your wife?

[22:35] "The Church had to intervene and say, no, no, no. We do not worship icons, but nor do we destroy them. We must learn to see the icon as a window into the divine mystery. And in the world today, Kris, I think we're facing the same kind of tension. The world is idolatrously worshipping sex. But on the other extreme, you have Christians who are guilty of a kind of iconoclasm. They're rejecting the body and rejecting sexuality, and are just fearful of it.

Agreed. But, really, Mr. West, how many of the high school and college students in your audiences need to be lectured that they should not be fearful of sex?

[36:42] "Kris, I say in my book that it's a very sobering thought to recognize that the sole goal of the pornographic vision of the body, the sole goal behind it, the enemy behind it, his goal is this: to blind us to the true glory of God revealed in our bodies, and thus keep us from the wedding feast of the Lamb. That's his goal. If he can blind us to the true splendor of our bodies, if he can blind us to the true glory of God revealed through our sexuality, it will very effectively prevent us from understanding who we really are as men and women, and what we're ultimately called to.

No, the goal is simply to get us addicted to sex and perversion, to get us to objectify each other, and to destroy the sacrament of marriage and ruin love. If the wedding feast of the Lamb is tarnished by this, it's tarnished because sex addicts begin to see sex in everything.

Including Scripture.

"That's what the Song of Songs is all about. The Song of Songs is smack dab in the middle of the Bible for a reason. ..."

This is simply a literary misreading, a theological misreading, and a great blunder to boot.

The Song of Songs has nothing to do with salvation via sex, and almost nothing to do with sex period. Anyone who would read the "naughty bits" in that book and see them as validating West's worldview that sex and the naked body are essential to our salvation is not a balanced person.

[39:18] "And the whole purpose of sexuality, the whole purpose of marriage, the whole purpose of the union of husband and wife in that intimate embrace, is to give us here on earth an icon that's meant to point us to heaven. ... Why is our culture worshiping sex? Because we've lost sight of our ultimate union with God. And when we lose sight of our ultimate union with God, the icon becomes an idol. How should we respond as Christians? Not by burning the icon. That's a heresy called iconoclasm. Rather, what we really need to burn, what needs to be set on fire, is our hearts. ..."

Now on the surface there's nothing wrong with this. West even rises to a kind of inspired rhetoric in this last paragraph.

What bothers me is the lack of balance in all of this, what bothers me is what's between the lines, what bothers me is the impression that this man is preaching liberation from impurity by means of indulging the very things that incite impurity.

He calls for us to set our hearts on fire.

Well, what bothers me is the kind of fire - the kind of burning - Christopher West endorses.


A final note. West is making the case for the normalization of pornography. He's making the case that pornography is an icon that leads us to Christ. He's saying Debbie Does Dallas is the same sort of thing as a statue of Our Lady.

He may not be saying this literally, but that's where his argument leads, and that's where I believe he's taking us - more or less deliberately. (He has, after all, publicly stated that one of his heroes is pornography king Hugh Hefner).

It's good to know that Archbishop Chaput has removed himself from the board of Christopher West's lay apostolate. Perhaps the other bishops will man up and start speaking out about the dangers that are dripping from West's worldview.

[I have since written several follow-up posts to this, which you can read by clicking here.]


Anonymous said...

Yes, I believe you are right in your analysis. I have suspected the same things. The man has gone off the rails, hijacking Bl. JPII's true TOTB.


Anonymous said...

Just as the Nightline interview incorrectly conveyed West's comments, (He never said Hugh Hefner was his hero.) please don't read more into that interview than what is there.

I just read West's new book At the Heart of the Gospel: Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization. The issues at stake here are complex and cannot be adequately addressed in this comment post. If you are serious about these matters, and I believe you are, I invite you to read the book.

“The light of the Gospel, which is a clear but at times painful light, can illumine human sexuality to its very depth in order to transform it and bring it to its full beauty. Here lies the great strength of Blessed John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. In this peaceful and positive response to critics, Christopher West proves once again that he is a faithful and inspiring interpreter and communicator of this great pope’s teaching, a teaching so urgently needed for an effective proclamation of the Gospel.” —Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna; General Editor, Catechism of the Catholic Church; and Grand Chancellor, International Theological Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family

I'd like to think that Cardinal Schönborn wouldn't endorse "hooey."


Milwauke, WI

Anonymous said...

Great story by Fr. Groeschel.

"Christopher West is a pioneer in reaching today’s culture with the Gospel." - Father Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R.

Wade St. Onge said...

"I'd like to think Cardinal Schonborn wouldn't endorse 'hooey'" (David).

I'd like to believe a Prince of the Church wouldn't endorse "hooey" either. But unfortunately this one does. Cardinal Schonborn endorses Medjugorje - in fact he "scheduled" an apparition for precisely 6:40pm the evening he had Ivan as a guest at his cathedral.

If you want to read why West's theology is problematic, please visit my blog.

Wade St. Onge said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wade St. Onge said...

The third Anonymous proves how all great theologians can be extremely wise at times and miss the boat at others.

Ink said...

I must admit, I'm disappointed in him. I also really hope none of the other ToB defenders (such as the Everts, my favourites) go that route.

Tom Leith said...

Mrs. von Hildebrand told us about West's errors and proclivities some years ago.

And Kevin, you stole the GKC quote I was going to use for the Credo post on human trafficking in St. Louis.

Anonymous said...


I'll get my Theology of the Body from Fr. Thomas Loya, thankyouverymuch.

Dr. Eric

P.S. Kevin, his parish is in suburban Chicago if you ever want to check it out. He is a Byzantine Catholic priest.

Wade St. Onge said...

Just a warning: if you click on the link given by Dr. Eric, you will be exposed to semi-pornographic images.

Fr. Thomas Loya was critiqued on my blog as well.

P.S. Nice seeing you, Mr. Leith - long time, no hear.

Debbie said...

I am a first-time reader of your blog. While I don't agree with much of anything of West's understanding of Song of Songs, from the contents of this post, I am not sure if I agree with yours either. I will be reading more of your posts in hopes that I am wrong about your assessment. Song of Songs *is* about sex. It is *not* about the Marriage Act on the whole. But it is nearly entirely about the complementarity of the sexes more fully imaging God. That includes you in your masculinity as a complement to me in my femininity. I did not get that as your understanding from this one limited post. As we are both fans of the amazing, (and humble) Alice von Hildebrand, and Bl. John Paul, I hope that I have found in you a kindred spirit, and not an adversary. I look forward to reading more of your work.

Debbie said...

I even proofed and I still have an error in my comment. My sentence in the middle should read, "more fully imaging God's love."

I am reading more of your work since my last post. I think I do see where you are. I think I interpreted your shorthand incorrectly.

Anonymous said...

I'm completely 'agnostic' towards this affair, i have West's book "Theology of The Body for Beginners" and i'm still tutoring myself slowly on The Catholic Church's teaching regarding matters of sexuality. If there's a red flag in that book Kevin i'd be glad to receive it, even though i haven't come across any dangers in the 1st few pages.

However here is my comment on pornography; i'm still gonna turn my eyes away from any pornographic pic that might be out on the street, for the simple reason that my sister or my brother's integrity is being brought down to non-existent and is being displayed as an object to gawk at. It's a medium that has drifted men and women from being strong spouses and parents tearing their own families apart, and young teens from being future strong men - the majority that is. It is a disappointment and a heartache when you find out & know that a patriarch in your family whom you've looked up to from childhood is now seeing pornographic sites and videos just to be pleased and feel pleased or it makes them feel manly. (I pity those who not once value the time given to spend time with their kids to be exemplary pillars to them and have taken them for granted).

To every man and woman out there who have by chance come across this blog and is reading this comment and know that they are looking at these things - STOP FOOLING YOURSELVES ANYMORE! You're not maintaining integrity and self-respect. In a world where everyone can't even look at a stranger in the eye and see their brother or their sister in Christ because images of the mind flashes before them, we ALL need to look in everyone's soul in their eyes and see the beauty of a human being: their potentials, their gifts, their talents, their soul reflecting the One who created them and knew and loved from the start; their ability to love a person cos he is a human being named ___ or she's a human being named ___ - and to be looked at and loved in the same way. Here's a thought - LOVE LIKE GOD DOES!! No limit, no exceptions, no long-lasting grudges, even if you know that that person's gonna hurt you,(Only God knows how many times He goes through THAT) no glances of a stranger. (if necessary also no bad interpretations of His Word PLEASE cos sadly i've come across such people taking His Word and distorting it in a perverse manner). I only pray that by a miracle you'd later become like that saint who went so far as to go to brothels and converted the hearts of prostitutes and thanks to him many of them became holy mothers. So the next time you're looking at a site or video, look into their EYES, FIND their SOULS, SEE their WORTH just as God does for them AND for you.

And eh . . . sorry for taking up space Kevin. Hope the message makes sense though. Keep up the good work.


Kevin O'Brien said...

My friend Tom Richard comments over on Facebook ...

This quote from the man is utter hogwash:

"Pornography is a great evil. It is destroying marriages, it is destroying families, it is wreaking havoc in our culture. And yet, we must not overreact. There is something good behind it. What is ...good behind it? The human body in its nakedness. "

You can't separate the presentation from the intent. The intent of porn is clearly not to present the human body in is nakedness, but to objectify it as desirable of manipulation. That is evil in its totality. You're not throwing out the baby with the bathwater when you eliminate porn, you're saving the baby!

Kevin O'Brien said...

And, Debbie, thanks for your kind comments. I hope we are in fact kindred spirits, especially on this issue.

Regarding "Song of Songs". What I have to say applies to not just "lectio divina", or the prayerful reading of Scripture, but to literary criticism in general.

It is unfair to take a "reductive" approach to any complex work of art. "Song of Songs" is indeed about male / female complimentarity, but it is about much more than just that. Is that element in there? Yes, it is, but that's not the entire point of the book; that element serves a much larger and more complex and mysterious point in the book.

It is even less accurate to say that "Song" is about sex because it contains elaborate praises of the human body and has an erotic element. Is the book about "sex"? Yes, but it is no more about sex than "Hamlet" is about murder, or than "King Lear" is about jealousy. In all of these works of literature, the themes are expansive and point to something beyond themselves.

It is important to note that all of these aspects of "Song of Songs" - the complementarity of the sexes, erotic love, as well as the themes of marriage, of loss, of nature, of expectation - all of these aspects of the book serve its main theme, which is the spousal love of God for His people, which is more fully revealed in the New Testament as Christ's love for His Church.

That is the main theme of the book, and all of the variety and mood and excitement and even the eroticism serves that main theme and works toward expressing that main theme.

But West is as reductionist in his literary criticism as he is in his theology.

I hope you do in fact read my follow-up posts to this one, where I go into more detail on all of this.

Anonymous said...

Kevin, is this an actual quote from Christopher, or just your interpretation of what he is saying? If it is directly from him, please source it for me:

"God is all about love, baby, and He made our bodies so we should not be ashamed of them. It's a warm night, let's go skinny dipping. Can I read to you from the Song of Songs? It's all about the girl's breasts. Don't be shocked. There's nothing better than an orgasm, and only people who don't love God like you and I do are afraid of expressing our love through orgasms. I can look at you and love you and I can say you turn me on. I can say that because I see God in you. Do you see God in me? If you don't you're a prude. And if you're a prude you're displeasing God! Let me pour you some more wine."

Deacon Jim Russell said...

Kevin--may I have your permission to offer a respectful comment here, as I think I can shed some light on West's approach to the ToB and why there is much confusion regarding the meaning of the few statements you've held up to scrutiny in these recent posts....

Deacon Jim Russell

Deacon Jim Russell said...

Hi, Kevin--

As I'm trying to proceed with all charity, I will likewise presume your good will and your permission to make a comment on your scrutiny of Christopher West's quoted statements.

I would suggest that you are not fully understanding how the comments you've cited from West actually fit into the bigger picture of the ToB as understood by West. The essential issue at hand is whether West correctly (or incorrectly) assumes that grace is itself a real remedy for concupiscence and that it's *possible* for our reception of grace to "fetter" concupiscence and permit us to master it. And whether God Himself gives each soul sufficient grace to accomplish this.

As a theological view, West's point is properly Thomistic--Aquinas says as much. In context, West is attempting to convey that we all have the *potential* to embrace the grace that masters the concupiscence within. Such control is possible for each soul who responds to God's grace.

Iow, concupiscence is far from the Protestant view of "depravity"--concupiscence *can* be remedied by grace.

There is still room for some prudential differences of view regarding how effectively West has packaged this message in the past, but there can be no doubt that, in context, his theology is completely in keeping with both ToB and Aquinas. The real question is whether he has been either too aggressive or too optimistic regarding how readily most of us are able to embrace a mastery of concupiscence, but, again, in context, he's right, and in context with the fullness of his written (and other) work, he's appropriately cautious.

That's how I see it, and I hope this is helpful.

God bless

Deacon Jim R

Kevin O'Brien said...

Anonymous, that is not a quote from Christopher West. It's my parody of Christopher West.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Deacon Jim,

Fire away!

Glad to have you back. I'm sure we'll both try our best to keep it civil if we disagree.

I will add one thing first - it's obvious to me that this is not a dispute about something de fide. In other words, West and his approach are open to interpretation. I know many good Catholics who think West is fine and dandy. I don't.

The problem is that much of my reading of West is reading between the lines, so if one person says, "I don't see why you're objecting," it's hard to point it out, as it's obvious to me, and I'm surprised it's not obvious to everyone.

Except he is getting closer and closer to stating bluntly what he has said in a round about way - that Christians may indulge in lustful activities because our motives have been redeemed, or in the hopes that our motives will thereby be redeemed. He is, I think, making an elaborate apology for lust, and his theological mistake is "immanentizing the eschaton", by which I mean he's saying the justified are already sanctified, the baptized have been utterly redeemed already, and their redemption includes the removal of concupiscence. This is his theological error, and it runs through everything he says, though it shows up more in his interviews than in his formal writings.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Deacon Jim, I see you went ahead and left a comment. I'll read it now and respond.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Deacon Jim,

Though it seems part of your comment was cut off, I think we both essentially agree on West's theological stance on concupiscence.

But what does a sane man do if he's a sinner being sanctified by grace? What do the saints do? Do they put themselves in near occasions of sin, or in situations that are materially evil in order to test their concupiscence? No. And as far as St. Thomas Aquinas goes, what did he do when the prostitute came into his cell? Did he say, "Well, I'll chat with her and attempt to master my concupiscence?" No, he chased her out with a torch.

I really think West is laying the groundwork to assert that a man may look at pornography if that man feels he has mastered his concupiscence and if he intends to turn his lust of the flesh into a desire for God. This is madness.

I really think this is fueling West's entire approach, the rationalization of lust.

Read my other posts on this matter where I go into greater detail.

Deacon Jim Russell said...

Hi, Kevin--thanks for your reply.

I would agree that West's style of delivery and possible over-optimism is worth scrutiny, but I want to point out that your perception that West "is laying a groundwork to assert" that it's somehow good to look at pornography tacitly acknowledges the important fact on which we also seem to agree: Christopher West has not yet, in fact, made any such assertion.

My thought would be that, unless and until Christopher West actually *does* cross the line and actually makes the assertion you are envisioning, he remains entitled to his good name and reputation, and is entitled to our giving him the benefit of the doubt that the assertions he currently makes are actually intended to point people *away* from use of pornography and toward greater sanctity.

As of now, when taken as a whole, West's body of work remains coherent and within the bounds of Catholic orthodoxy.

The sticking point is in regard to how much emphasis West intends to give to the "mature purity" concept that, for many, will be unattainable.

Don't know if you've yet read Dawn Eden's critique of West (her Master's Thesis) relative to the "hermeneutic of continuity"--it was a good synthesis, and I'm reading through it again.

Godspeed, and be well,

Jim R

Anonymous said...

With respect, Kevin, I think it is more reasonable to interpret West as making basically this argument.

He sounds like he's basically making the Chestertonian observation that the man who knock on the door of a brothel is looking for God in all the wrong places.

Mark Shea

Kevin O'Brien said...

On the contrary, Mark, he's saying "The man who knocks on the door of the brothel is looking for God and he who knocks will be answered."

Dawn Eden said...

Just for the record, Chesterton never said that the man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God. Dale Ahlquist (in his chesterton.org column "The Quotemeister") looked it up and found it was not in any of Chesterton's work. It came from a Bruce Marshall novel.

gsk said...

I'm troubled that some seem to think that just because the body is beautiful, that we're entitled to enjoy its beauty. If we're indulging ourselves, we would look to the airbrushed images at the checkout stand; if we're really looking to give praise, we might consider the bodies in the gutter that Mother Teresa found. They're just as noble. Tanned skin and great proportions don't make the icon more perfect, so perhaps seeking God in the obese and the elderly would be a good way to be sure of the purity of our intentions.

Oh, and that underscores the reason for veiling all bodies -- just so we don't get distracted.