Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Theology of the Body, Extended: to be published summer 2014, Lectio Publishing

Publication announcement!

The Theology of the Body, Extended: the Spiritual Signs of Childbirth, Impairment, and Dying has been accepted by a new Catholic academic publisher, Lectio Publishing.  It is part of the "first wave" of peer-reviewed books for release in Summer 2014, and will be available as a paperback and ebook.  The slightly revised text is in their hands (I've been sitting on this news a few weeks now.  Sorry!).

This is definitely exciting: to see this research and then manuscript come to fruition, receive positive peer reviews, and have the confidence of a new and interesting academic enterprise in Catholic theology is just a great thing. I am very humbled.

I deeply thank people who follow this website and are on the email list for their support.  If you want to be on the email list, there is still time, just find the address on the sidebar at right.... I promise not to overuse the email list; it's just to tell people when the book is available, and perhaps other publication-related news (cheap copies for reviewers? etc.).

In the meantime, I will update this website more regularly with topics and issues related to the topic.  I am writing a review for Jeff Tranzillo's excellent book John Paul II and the Vulnerable, coming soon, and also want to write some reflections on Pope Francis' call for an extraordinary synod on the family, which strikes me as relevant to this topic in important ways.  Also, I am working up a variety of more popular public presentations on this topic, if you are interested in having me at your parish or retreat center--and an online article is set to be published next month.  Please continue to "be connected" if you are interested in this topic, and let's keep conversing!

Many thanks, Susan WD

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!