Faith, Media & Culture

Faith, Media & Culture


Theologian Christopher West on his new book, the difference between true human desire and superficial lust, the positive power of art and a spiritual lesson from “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

What People Want. Christopher West is a well-regarded teacher, writer and theologian who is, perhaps, best known for making the dense scholarship of Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body accessible to a wide audience. He’s also the founder of The Cor Project, a non-profit group created to encourage positive culture through the “New Evangelization.

From his website: West has been teaching graduate and undergraduate courses on the Theology of the Body and sexual ethics since the late 1990s, having served on the faculties of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, The Institute for Priestly Formation at Creighton University in Omaha, and as a visiting professor at the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, Australia. Since 2004 he has served as a research fellow and faculty member of the Theology of the Body Institute near Philadelphia. His courses there continue to draw clergy, religious, and lay people from around the globe. He also serves as a visiting faculty member of Saint Therese Institute of Faith and Mission in Bruno, Saskatchewan, Canada.

His website also noted that for all his titles and accomplishments, his most important roles are that of husband and father five children.

In his new book, Fill These Hearts: God, Sex and the Universal Longing, West tackles the importance of human sexual desire and the role that culture, including pop culture, can play in channeling that desire toward positive growth.

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JWK: What motivated you to write Fill These Hearts and what is the primary message you hope readers take from it?

CHRISTOPHER WEST: I’ve been in dialogue with a team of creative thinkers and artists for several years.  We’ve all been impacted by art and music as much as by our study of theology.  We were especially inspired by Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists, in which he insists that the Gospel cannot be effectively presented without the help of art. That was the inspiration for a live event we put together called Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing.  We incorporate live music (Indie folk-rock act Mike Mangione and the Union), movie clips, YouTube videos and other artistic works into a contemporary exposition of the Gospel.  This book is named after that live event and tries to take the same approach in written form.

The message I hope readers take away is simply this: There is a banquet that corresponds to the hunger we all feel inside.  Life, yearning, suffering, love, our cry for intimacy and union – all begin to make sense when the Church’s teaching is properly framed and presented as the beautiful invitation that it is.  It’s an invitation to an eternal “wedding feast,” where a bliss and ecstasy awaits us beyond what we can think or imagine. This message desperately needs to be shared because, for lack of it, we are turning to so many false promises of happiness and fulfillment in the world today. And they lead to suffering, disillusionment and despair.

JWK: How did Christianity become known as a repressive, anti-sex religion?

CW: It’s ironic when you think about it – the religion of the Incarnation, the religion of God “in the flesh,” has a reputation for being opposed to bodily things like sex.  What happened here? I think we can admit that a deep ambivalence about the body and its functions – particularly its sexual, genital functions – is a not a limited Christian phenomenon, but appears as something universal. I think it’s even fair to say that integrating body and soul, sexuality and spirituality, is in some way the human challenge.  How do we reconcile our highest spiritual aspirations with our bodily appetites?  Rejecting the body and sexuality as something evil is an easy way out of the dilemma.  In fact, John Paul II said such an approach is a “loophole” to avoid the requirements of the Gospel. The Gospel calls us to the integration of spirituality and sexuality, and that’s hard work. When properly understood, Christianity doesn’t demonize the body. It divinizes the body. The body itself is raised in Christ to the highest heights of heaven. Christians themselves are desperately in need of recovering this fundamental and challenging truth.

JWK: Does the Church sometimes contribute to that image by appearing to focus too much attention on contraception and gay marriage?

CW: We are very confused about the basic purpose and meaning of sex as a culture. In light of that confusion, we shouldn’t be talking less about these issues. We should be talking more about them. Much is at stake. Questions about sexuality touch on the very core of our humanity and have to do with the very survival of the human race. Our sexual choices, for good or for ill, really do determine the kind of world we live in.

JWK: How can the Church utilize a sometimes antagonistic media to better explain its positions regarding sexual matters?

CW: It’s really difficult to communicate the richness and breadth of Church teaching in a sound-bite culture. But I think we can begin by inviting people to a sense of wonder at “the gratuitous beauty” of the human body and of human sexuality, to use an expression from John Paul II. When you see how beautiful a flower is, for example, you don’t want to trample upon it. Perhaps we treat sex so casually and carelessly in our world today because we’ve lost a sense of awe and wonder before so great a gift and mystery.

JWK: You say in the book that “without destiny, there is no morality,” and then you relate this to the classic “going the wrong way” scene from Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Can you elaborate on the idea of destiny and morality?

CW: I love that scene – John Candy and Steve Martin are driving down the wrong side of the highway and a driver on the other side is screaming: “You’re going the wrong way!”  John Candy responds obliviously: “Oh, he’s drunk. How would he know where we’re going?” Aren’t we the same way with the Church, especially when it comes to sex? But maybe the Church, just like that other driver, sees something we don’t see. The point with destiny and morality is this: Think of the McDonald’s nearest to your house. If that’s your destiny, but you drive in the opposite direction, someone could rightly say, “You’re going the wrong way.” But if you’re just out for a random drive, there is no right or wrong way to go.  In the biblical vision, sexual love is a “great mystery” that is meant to reveal divine love.  In other words, it’s meant to point us to heaven. Sexual morality, in this sense, is all about making sure that it does.

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JWK: How can individual Christians better express their values to a society immersed in a pop culture that mocks them and condemns them as intolerant?

CW:  The subtitle of my book is God, Sex, and the Universal Longing. We have to start with what’s universal – the “ache,” the longing, the thirst we all feel as human beings for “something more.” I think a lot of people confuse Christianity with what I call the “starvation diet gospel” – a dry list of rules that really has nothing to offer the deepest hunger of our hearts. So rarely is Christianity properly framed as the divine response to the deepest, most wild desires of the human heart. And if it’s not, the culture’s “fast food gospel” – the promise of immediate gratification of our hunger – starts to look very attractive. As I say in my book, if the only two choices for my hunger are starvation or greasy chicken nuggets, I’m going for the nuggets. If it’s a contest between “starvation” and “fast food,” the fast food wins. But if it’s a contest between fast food and the true “wedding feast” that Christ promises, the wedding feast wins. We can better express our values as Christians in this world by leaving all judgmentalism behind, and by “going into the main streets and inviting everyone to the wedding feast,” just as Jesus said.
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From Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists: Society needs artists, just as it needs scientists, technicians, workers, professional people, witnesses of the faith, teachers, fathers and mothers, who ensure the growth of the person and the development of the community by means of that supreme art form which is “the art of education”. Within the vast cultural panorama of each nation, artists have their unique place. Obedient to their inspiration in creating works both worthwhile and beautiful, they not only enrich the cultural heritage of each nation and of all humanity, but they also render an exceptional social service in favour of the common good.

The particular vocation of individual artists decides the arena in which they serve and points as well to the tasks they must assume, the hard work they must endure and the responsibility they must accept. Artists who are conscious of all this know too that they must labour without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves. There is therefore an ethic, even a “spirituality” of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11



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