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