Thursday, May 14, 2009

Christopher West Controversy

Several bloggers, writers and other Catholics have written critical commentaries on Christopher West's Nightline segment - and this is understandable because his message was cut short and ABC certainly sensationalized it. (here are a few links for commentary, warnings, and discussions on the issue - Fr. Angelo Geiger, Mark Shea, AmP, Ignatius Insight, Jimmy Akin). But, after Alice von Hildebrand made her comments, the issue has exploded. I would like to add some thoughts to the discussion below.

My take on the issue is somewhat nuanced, so it will take me some time to spell it out.

1 - After first watching the Nightline segment, I gave it an A-. I think that grade has fallen to a C- for me now. Why the change? Because I was watching through my own interpretive lens. I know how West finishes his arguments and thoughts, so I was finishing themn for him in the interview, though he didn't get a chance to do so. But, when I look at the interview more critically, I can see how the average Catholic, or non-Catholic, who has little to no knowledge of the Theology of the Body (TOB) can misinterpret the issues raised.

I have had several emails asking about West from students who have seen him live and studied his books. They don't have enough knowledge to finish his statements from the interview and thus they are confused and a few are asking if he is trustworthy. My answer is yes. I don't doubt that Christopher had every good intention, though he could have been more prudent. I am sure that his thought process saw a grand opportunity to spread the message he is passionate about quickly. But, he wasn't prudent in examining how the message would be handled once it got into the editting room. This is his biggest mistake - and one we should all remember is forgivable.

2 - I think a point is being missed in this conversation, it is that our culture has no prudence AT ALL about issues regarding human sexuality. When we are trying to help those caught in the culture which is over-sexualized (which is a majority of Catholics), sinful, pornified, and fallen, we need to make the counter-argument, which contains the truth about sexuality, relevant and applicable as well as faithful. For the most part, West is doing this.

He is by no means perfect, but I have had the opportunity to get to know him some. He is open to correction and has changed his presentations based on good honest feedback. This shows that he is humble enough to accept a criticism made out of charity. But, he is pointing out facts we need to be discussing, not blushing about and then just sweeping under the rug. The fact is that about 80-90% of young men and teenage boys are using porn (including faithful Catholics).

Our Church has swept sexual issues under the rug and (for the most part) responded by teaching a "just say no" approach. This hasn't worked. The evidence is legion - priest scandals, cohabitation, sexual addictions, broken marriages, Catholics using contraception, etc. JPII knew it hadn't worked and based his teaching (which I have studied, written on, and speak about) on practical experience - phenonenonlogy. I don't think West is perfect in his content yet (and neither am I or anyone else), but he at least has many people exploring, thinking about, and questioning the lies that the culture has sold to us all. He is also trying, as best he can, to do this in an approachable manner that is relevant to the person far from Christ and in the midst of this culture's approach.

For that, he should be commended, not thrown under the bus. You shall know a tree by it's fruit - and he has helped harvest much fruit.

3 - The fact is that the TOB was JPII's greatest catechetical work. We are still just on the tip of the iceberg in finding the depths to which it will lead us.

The TOB is an exploration of the Incarnation, humanity, the Trinity, and love. These are the basic truths of Christianity and it is all wrapped into language that can help modern man find God. Nothing bad in that at all. But, we also need good interpretive models to help get the message out. JPII is not easy to read - in fact, many good theologians struggle with some of his writings. West is helping get the message out.

Yet, my biggest criticism's of West lie in the fact that his approach is not broad enough for my tastes, but this is a mild criticism. When he teaches TOB, his focus is on the spousal union. But, I think a better approach is base it on our sexuality - but not so much the sexual act as important as it is - but rather sexuality as the differences and complimentarity between male and female.

I don't think West has the greatest analogies, methodology or interpretations every time...but he is more effective than most others teaching TOB right now and for that he should be praised.

The focus of TOB (or catechetics) should not only be about sexuality either. TOB is centered on the truth of the Incarnation and that our bodies reveal the Trinity and therefore the truth about human nature. This is especially true within our sexuality - being made male and female and this is an important part of what our culture needs, but not everything our culture needs.

4 - there needs to be a careful nuance and prudence when teaching on sensitive matters such as this. But, nuance and prudence should not give way to fear. What I mean is that if we fear our sexuality too much (which many in our culture do) then we will never find any part of the true freedom that JPII (and of course Christ) has taught we are all called to - though the fullness of freedom will never be found in this life.

5 - Don't stop critically analyzing West or any other speaker, author, or public Catholic figure. But, make sure it is true analysis of the issues and not ad hominem attacks. Also, let West's own words factor in here. I have already posted video of a talk which gives a little more context to what he was trying to say. Also, he has posted clarifications on his website about the interview and these should be heavily considered.

My thoughts are my own but I hope they help any students or others that are trying to wrap their minds around this issue.

John Paul II pray for us all!
Here is the Nightline piece that has caused all the controversy.


tour86rocker said...

Agreed on your revised grade for the interview. I might have rated it higher, too, if I hadn't watched it with my parents. I was very embarrassed and I think my parents were scandalized by it. I was able to see the interview through fresh eyes because they were right there.

When the journalist initially said that CW's two heroes were JPII and Hugh Hefner, I objected to my parents that it was a misquote, only for CW to then say with his own mouth that he sees a profound connection between the two. They noted that I appeared to be incorrect. D'oh!

I've actually been pretty reasonable about CW's blunder, given that he's probably preserved many viewers in their Puritanism through that interview. He came off as a kook. AvH was right in that it WAS too vulgar for a national audience.

But I, personally, know enough to know that the interviewer threw him under the bus. It was unfair. I'm going to try to get my parents to watch the YouTube video he did on Hefner. But anyone with a half-formed conscience who saw CW for the first time on Nightline is probably going to be wary of him based on what they saw. Can't blame them.

JPieters said...

Thank you for your thoughtful analysis. I agree, people, including Hildebrand,are basing their opinions of West on the Nightline segment rather than looking further. My experience with those who have heard or read West is always the same: they are inspired to deeper faith, holiness, and commitment to living out sexuality the way God intended. And that is good fruit!