Who knew that the "new sexual revolution" would take place from within the church, or that the writings of Pope John Paul II would be the catalyst?
According to many Catholic theologians, the Pope's Theology of the Body (TOB) series — 129 brief lectures delivered between Fall 1979 and Fall 1984 — are the force behind just such an inevitable movement.
George Weigel, author of Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, called TOB "a theological time-bomb set to go off with dramatic consequences."
The Pennsylvania-based Theology of the Body Institute goes even further: "By helping us understand this profound interconnection between sex and the Christian mystery, John Paul's theology of the body not only paves the way for lasting renewal of marriage and the family; it enables everyone to rediscover 'the meaning of the whole of existence, the meaning of life.'"
And there lies the potential rub, if you're outside the Catholic faith but thinking about attending the multimedia lecture/concert Fill These Hearts: God, Sex and the Universal Longing this Saturday at the Pikes Peak Center. Show producer Mark Wassmer insists that his team is "trying to provide an atmosphere offering friendship and propositions."
"You can really trust that you'll be in an environment where these ideas are discussed and proposed," he says, "but at no point is there going to be ... the signup sheet in the back, you know, where we're all going to go join the club."
Yet a show brochure claims TOB "meets us here in this place of searching, and through the Gospel, proposes a destiny in Christ for the satisfaction of our desires."
Whether it's just an "invitation" or an arm-twist, the show exudes enough Christianity to overmatch its intentionally neutral venue. It exudes some controversy, too, since its key player — author, motivational speaker and TOB Institute faculty member Christopher West — has been chastened for using pop culture references to convey heady theology.
So what, exactly, is coming? And for whom?
Let's talk about ...
In our interview, Wassmer describes the show as lecture merging with film, music, sand painting and "other elements of art and atmosphere" that "explore truth via beauty" and ... "what it means to be human, but certainly proposed with an ultimate destiny."
If you feel that description fails to relay a solid sense of what the show really drives at, you aren't alone. After a couple of interviews and scrutiny of roughly a dozen source materials, I couldn't shake a sense that Fill These Hearts might just reduce down to a slickly packaged call to JC. I pressed for clarification, and here's what I got from West.
"It's looking at the experiences of every human being in light of what I call the deep ache, the hunger of the heart. Bruce Springsteen says everyone has a hungry heart. Why do we have a hungry heart?
"Then we're gonna be looking at, 'If we all have a hungry heart, why can't Mick Jagger get no satisfac-tion?'"
Dragging out the last syllable with an apropos-of-nothing Cajun accent, West just sounds goofy, hardly troublemaking. But in a May 12, 2009 Catholic News Agency Web article, respected Catholic philosopher Dr. Alice von Hildebrand strongly criticized West, saying "he has become much too self-assured and has lost sight of the extreme sensitivity of the topic ... his vocabulary and his way of approaching [TOB] totally lacks reverence."
Case in point for von Hildebrand is West's allusion to Hugh Hefner in his teachings. While she calls the Playboy magnate's mere mention an "abomination," West, in a posting on his website, calls Hef "one of the most successful -evangelists- of the modern era" ... who "flip[ped] the puritanical pancake over from repression to indulgence." (He later integrates that indulgence into a call for merging sexual desire with divine love.)
Von Hildebrand has also called his lectures (which inform Fill These Heart's script) "insensitive to the 'tremendous dangers' of concupiscence," the Catholic belief that people have the propensity to continue sinning as an effect of original sin. That charge continued to haunt West, and earlier this year, he announced a six-month sabbatical in part to "reflect more deeply on fraternal and spiritual guidance he has received."
Back on the road as of last week, West has claimed he's got new "insights" that he'll share in future articles that "will also address the criticisms" of his work. But he says in our interview that he hasn't changed anything about the show, and that he's still "trying to bring a fresh approach" to TOB.
"The goal is to blow the lid off the common idea of what Christianity teaches, and demonstrate that Christianity isn't an invitation to starve," he says. "Christianity is the invitation to a banquet that really feeds the hunger."
West in the West
Fill These Hearts was developed in 2008, when West and co-performers Mike Mangione & The Union took an early version to Sydney, Australia for World Youth Day. According to an Aug. 30 interview with Wassmer on the Colorado Catholic Herald blog, the show played to standing-room-only audiences of 4,000 over three nights. It's since been staged in four U.S. cities.
Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan remembers West filling more than 500 seats at Holy Apostles Catholic Church on Carefree Circle for a lecture a few years ago. He acknowledges that West's "popular language he uses to try to capture audiences is perhaps not as sophisticated and theological as some people would want." But he adds that von Hildebrand and West are "talking past one another" in many ways; he's clear to say that he's "not aware of any concern from any magisterial official teaching quarters in the church that Christopher West is to be guarded against."
For his part, Sheridan says he believes the TOB is "going to be very important, and we've yet to really plumb the depths of it."
As West looks to do just that in Fill These Hearts, I take another tack in asking about his intended audience. Who might the show not be for?
"It's for everyone," he says, "because it's an appeal to the longing for love that every human being has."
That said, he's well aware that "there will inevitably be some who are offended" by his work.
"But you'd probably be surprised as to who they are," he says. "... [They're] usually from the religious right."