Tuesday, February 14, 2012

"At The Heart Of The Gospel" by Christopher West - A Review

I value the work Christopher West has done in spreading John Paul II's teaching on the human person. He has brought it into the consciousness of the common Catholic unlike any other person. In fact, we all owe him a debt of gratitude. Without West, I might never have heard about the Theology of the Body (TOB) and I would never have had my life transformed by it or written my book on it. For this, and more, many Catholics are grateful.

But, West is not without his critics. Personally, I have spent time discussing issues surrounding our understanding of the Theology of the Body with Christopher and have to say that I agree with his thesis in his new book, At The Heart Of The Gospel (Image books, paperback, 304 pages), that the world needs this teaching on the human person more than ever. It is the mission of the Catholic Church (you and I) to get this message out.

The Theology of the Body (TOB) (the common name for JPII's Christ-centered anthropology) is difficult to read and understand. Too many Catholics find the original addresses of JPII unapproachable because they are philosophically dense. Hence, the need for others to "interpret" the teaching of JPII into a modern language that the common person can understand. This is where West is masterful. He understands how to speak to modern man. This book is another step in the development of West's pedagogy and understanding of the TOB.

West certainly has his critics and I have followed the discussions closely, even participating in them at times. Much of the problems with the criticisms were in the tone of the argument. Some critics fell into ad hominem and others seemed to forget we are all on the same side. Still others stayed with the issues but seemed to not understand what West was truly teaching. Theological inquiry and interpretation is not an exact science and sometimes we will have differences, but charity seemed to be missing in parts of the argument surrounding West. West's new book was written after months of public silence about these criticisms, while he spent time in a sabbatical thinking and praying about his approach to the TOB.

Personally, I would have come out with both guns blazing if I got the kind of criticism he did. But, to his credit, West didn't fire back right away. He humbly stepped back and reflected on what his critics wrote and said about him. This measured response shows itself in full-display in this book. More than anything I found a humble tone of self-gift to the Church and to Christ. West, more than ever, is living out the TOB in how he presents it. He certainly has a much more mature presentation and the book is his best yet.

West admits to making several mistakes in how he has presented the TOB, in the past, and he defends himself against other accusations. But, I believe he is fair in his self-assessment and generous in his approach.

The book itself does not break any new ground in regards to the Theology of the Body. Rather, he tries to come back to areas of concern and examine them again. He gives his own previous works a number of long quotes in accomplishing this task. One area West does seem to try his best to engage the theological tension is in his section on concupiscence and grace. His critics have said he ignores man's concupiscence and tendency to sin, while West maintains that JPII, and the Saints, tell us that we can achieve a state of virtue that overcomes concupiscence. But, not without grace and a lifetime of effort.

I must say I have to side with West in this area of theological disagreement. When Christ calls us to "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect", is he giving us an unreachable standard or would he make it possible through his powerful grace?

"At The Heart Of The Gospel" is a very readable book, which is the ultimate reason West is so popular. He knows how to reach people where they need to be reached. Ultimately this is what evangelization is all about - bringing Christ's life-transforming Gospel to others. West achieves this goal in his new book.

Check out out the Patheos Book Club for more discussion on this book.

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