Thursday, July 19, 2012

Review: At the Heart of the Gospel

At the Heart of the Gospel, by Christopher West, is heavy-duty reading material about JPII’s series of talks summarized in “The Theology of the Body.”  By heavy-duty I don’t mean that Mr West uses a lot of big confusing words, although he has a few, but rather that het states some simple things that just don’t seem logical.  Kind of like Jesus’ saying “You must eat my flesh.”  It’s a simple statement and you think you know what it means, but unless you really THINK, you don’t.  This book makes you think, to understand what the author is really saying.
Early on Mr. West states: “The signs of the times continue to underscore how desperate is the need – both in and outside the Church – of recovering a vision of the “great mystery” of divine love revealed through our bodies.”  He points to Ephesians 5:31-2 where Jesus tells us why the “two shall become one flesh:” to reveal the great mystery of Christ and his love for the Church.   All of the original covenants of the Old Testament were between God and man, but the final covenant was in one being, Jesus Christ, uniting God and man, uniting the spiritual and the material body.  Mr West explains, through the theology of the body, how the marriage of man and woman reveals the ultimate covenant of Jesus:  man was meant for union with God in all eternity. 
That eternal unity of the Body of Christ, in which we are to participate, is shown to us through the construct of the human body, created in the image of God.  It was meant to be a thing of unity; it was meant to be a thing of beauty.  “Helping the world to ‘see’ the human body and the ‘great mystery’ of human sexuality in this way is central and essential to the new evangelization.”  Mr. West notes: “In summary, the terms ‘sex’ and ‘sexuality,’ properly understood, refer first and foremost to a rich theological ‘identity’ not to an impersonal or animalistic ‘activity.’” 
Mr. West goes on to explain how we must go about evangelizing society.  He speaks about making sure we can talk to those we wish to reach, not speaking in a judgmental way, but recognizing everyone as “good” and desired for union with Christ, and so we must treat them with respect.  We must find common ground on which we speak to one another, and then move forward to teach. 
West quotes Hugh Hefner as saying: “It’s the key to my life, the need to feel loved.”  That is something we can agree upon.  Further, he notes that Catholics should agree with Hefner’s diagnosis of the disease of Puritanism, the fear and rejection of the body and sexuality.  “We agree with Hefner’s diagnosis of this disease, (but) Christians must disagree with his cure.  Hefner’s remedy doesn’t, in fact, solve the problem of Puritanism at all.  All he did was flip the puritanical pancake over from repression to indulgence.  Both approaches flow from the same failure to integrate the body and soul.” 
“The human body is not in itself shameful,” wrote Wojtyla, and as Pope JPII he ordered a restoration project for the Sistine Chapel, removing many of the loincloths that previous churchmen had ordered to cover Michelangelo’s original nudes.  The body, created in the image of God, is a thing of beauty.  Satan, “by mocking the body and the one-flesh union, twists their ‘theo-graphic’ nature into something ‘porno-graphic.’  It is sobering to realize that the diabolic plot behind the pornographic culture in which we live has one final aim:  to blind us to the ‘great mystery’ revealed through our bodies and thereby foil our participation in the Marriage of the Lamb.”
I said that this was heavy-duty reading!  But a slow, thoughtful read of Mr West’s work will lead you to better appreciate the deep insights of JPII’s Theology of the Body work.  It is said that theologians will be studying all the implications of this great work for 50 years; I think it may be more.  The only shortfall of this book is practical advice, for those who can understand this teaching, on how to convey this doctrine to others.  West notes that we must reach down to begin the conversation with others, but only hints at the roadmap of what then to say.  Perhaps that, too, is just something this book leaves you to think on.
I found this book a great read, a great meditation.  Mr. West did offer practical advice on spousal love and lust and thoughts on the difference between idolatry and iconoclasm --- worship of versus appreciating the beauty of the body.  He gives you a great interpretation of Blessed John Paul II’s teaching on the body, and leaves you longing to understand more.  I guess that’s what a good book does.       

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