Friday, October 11, 2013

Review: Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing by Christopher West




I have never encountered a book that was more stylistically “pitch perfect” to not-necessarily-religious-but-I-don’t-know-for-sure college students.

People who have even a passing knowledge of the Theology of the Body as implemented in the United States know Christopher West: he is easily the most prolific popularizer of the audiences.  What is different about this text is that he is paying prime attention to the first half of the audiences, the theological anthropology, rather than second half, the morality and sacramentality of marriage (where he has directed most of his work).  Fill These Hearts is a welcome addition and a very appealing interpretation of the Theology of the Body’s anthropology.

The purpose rings clear as a bell throughout: “…the simple and, at the same time, lofty goal of this book is to help us aim our desire according to God’s design so we can safely arrive at our eternal destiny: bliss and ecstasy in union with God and one another forever.” (xv)  He calls this "living in 3D" (clever), and takes a page from John Paul II by focusing on the importance of how we interpret what we see.  As we walk through life, what do we perceive?  It is a highly visual book, replete with pointed reflections on art (pop and classical), movie (somewhat religious and entirely secular), and song (mostly from classic rock radio, but with a traditional hymn or two in there as well).

I’m very sympathetic to this presentation, since his interpretation of the theological anthropology of the audiences bears real similarities to my own (that is, we’re both highlighting certain sections of the audiences): a focus on seeing rightly, a focus on the original sign of the human being, and a focus on desire as the active expression of that sign…often warped by original sin.  It’s not an academic text, but it is faithful to both the audiences and the encyclicals of Pope Benedict XVI (who he quotes at some length), and the Communion and Liberation call for the primacy of “encounter.”  

In short, my review is: absolutely worth reading as a canny, young adult-oriented introduction to John Paul II’s theological anthropology.  As for academics, perhaps this is how you begin to teach to a hostile crowd that doesn’t know any significant theology.

Now for the second half of my posting: things I learned teaching college students through this text.
I teach a general education (aka required for graduation) course in theological anthropology; it is the students’ second course after a scripture requirement.  There are quite a few students at my university who are very devout Catholics.  After all, we have a minor seminary, and there are other active Catholics as well.  But the student population mirrors much of American culture: most of them, Catholic or not, come in “spiritual but maybe not religious.  Just not sure about that.”

This text electrified most of the class.  People really resonated with the treatment of desire, were open to the treatment of design, and were really thinking through consequences by the time we got to destiny.  As a professor, it struck me as an ideal first text before moving into more “academic theology” and primary sources.  Indeed, we went from this text to reading Augustine's Confessions, and they got it: Augustine wasn't an overly guilt-ridden sex addict who talks too much about his sinfulness.  He was a man with disordered desires who opened himself to a new way of seeing through grace.

What was intriguing to me was how they latched on to a piece that West has been criticized for in the past: West writing from the perspective that people have received a Christian upbringing that was cold, stoic, and rule-centered.  Some have criticized West that most Catholics after Vatican II simply have not had that upbringing: the stereotype is more “felt banner and singing about God’s love round the campfire” (which is not a fair stereotype, but moving on).

These students thought the cold stoic Church description was right on.  The Christianity they know, they say, is ALL about rules.  This “frame” (as West calls it) of desire, design, and destiny, wrapped in God’s lavish love, was seen as truly radical.

The thing is, that is not their experience—because a lot of them have no experience of being in a Christian church outside of major holidays.  The Church they “know” is a bizarre echo chamber of their parents’ apathy and fear, the culture of the mainstream press and movies, and a projection of their fears.  It doesn’t exist.  But for them, the echo chamber is keeping them from listening to the wisdom of the Christian faith.

One of the reasons West’s approach is effective is because he is talking to Christians, especially Catholics, who have fundamental misconceptions of what Catholic theology is about: and he addresses those misconceptions head on.  You shouldn’t end your reading of theology with West (does he ever argue that?  of course not), but this book whets the appetite for a faith seeking understanding that they do not know they have.  People on the inside forget that teaching theology in American culture neither builds on a solid catechetical foundation, nor a blank slate.  We unteach before we teach.  Christopher West’s popularity in many young adult circles—to the point of people saying things such as “the Theology of the Body changed my life!”—is attributable directly to West exposing the delusion of this echo chamber and presenting the revelation of Christianity in both the natural world of signs and the Church they clearly do not yet know.  He is a dazzling "unteacher," and this book makes space to truly explore what it means to be human.

It’s a potentially life-transformative book.

(By the way...apparently there is a tour.  Having read the book and not experienced the tour, I can say the book stands on its own.   But I could see how multisensory presentation on this book would  be profoundly effective.  I'd be interested to hear perspective from someone who has experienced it.)

***

p.s. good news on my own manuscript is JUST about ready to be announced!  Stay tuned!

2 comments:

  1. I have attended the event :) It was "sold out" at WYD in Madrid, and they had tech issues when I saw it in Rome. Finally I saw it in Toledo!
    The music that punctuates Christopher's presentation is deeply honest, moving, and speaks of universal longing, hope, and love. It is beautifully orchestrated by Mike Mangione and the Union, and is far from the "Jesus music" of some religious events. Rather, it is deeply touching and universally relatable. Adding a sand painter and a dancer to this mix, the team creates a complex of beauty as a backdrop for the teaching of this book. It is dotted throughout with modern media and humor, but is highly accessible, particularly for college age and young adults. (You should get them out to Winona) They are committed to holding this in theaters, not churches, in order to open doors to those otherwise less willing to be in a "religious" space.

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