Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Brand New Painting: Adding to Christopher West


Christopher West and I both went to the John Paul II Institute and it has been a long time since I have seen him. I knew that he was doing a lot of great work in speaking and writing about the Theology of the Body, but last spring he caused a bit of a stir by appearing on Nightline and comparing Pope John Paul II to Hugh Hefner. Many people were scandalized that the two were even mentioned in the same sentence. Other people quickly came to Chris’ defense by pointing out that he was badly taken out of context. So when I heard that Chris was going to speak at Holy Trinity Parish in Gainesville, I was excited for the opportunity to reconnect with an old friend and hear Chris West in person.

When Chris began his talk I quickly remembered what a dynamic speaker he is. Chris was extremely engaging as he began to introduce the Theology of the Body and explain God’s beautiful plan for man and woman. The union between man and woman in marriage was meant from the beginning to be a small window into God’s infinite love for us. Chris is great at using images, stories and even song lyrics to illustrate his points. In one of his points he had us think about a painting of the creation of man and woman. He said that this painting might be the most beautiful painting in the world because it depicts one the original truths about man and woman. Before original sin, Adam and Eve were naked and yet maintained a purity of heart. They were able to form a nuptial union by giving themselves freely to each other in the way God intended.

Original sin causes a great disruption to the original unity of Adam and Eve. Lust enters the human heart and it becomes very difficult to understand the real purpose of sexuality let alone fulfill it. The beautiful painting of man and woman becomes distorted and twisted. Because there is so much confusion about God’s plan for man and woman, there has been a strong temptation throughout history to completely repress sex and sexuality. Chris calls this reaction Puritanism and says it’s like throwing the beautiful painting (albeit marred by original sin) into the trash basket.

Yet all men and women are hungry for the truth about God’s plan for sex and sexuality. Here is where Chris started to explain his comparison of Hugh Hefner and John Paul II that he used on Nightline. Hugh Hefner realized that there was an immense appetite for the truth, but people will gladly feed on the perverted truth. So Hefner pulled the twisted and marred painting from the trash and presented it for mass consumption. And for almost fifty years the feeding frenzy on the pornography has generated billions of dollars and has caused the destruction of countless lives.

Pope John Paul II also recognized that there was a burning desire for truth, but instead of recovering the distorted painting, he has been trying to draw our attention to the beauty of its original state. At this point, Chris did not continue the analogy and I became a little disappointed. By the end of his talk, I felt that the analogy of the painting was still incomplete. I realize that Chris’ presentation that night was just his introductory talk and it is impossible to do justice to Theology of the Body in one night. But Chris left out something crucial for the rest of Theology of the Body and how we talk about it.

If I had the chance I would have ask Chris if the redemption of the body brings about a restoration of the painting or a completely new painting. It is certainly true that in recovering the theological history of man and woman, John Paul II draws our attention to their original state of nakedness and purity. But instead of a restored painting, the redemption of the body brings about a completely new painting for the Cross of Christ makes us new creations (cf. Gal 6:15). In this painting man and woman are clothed, not in figs leaves trembling with fear, but they are covered in royal clothing like the famous painting of the betrothal. John Paul II spends the bulk of his Catechesis on Human Love drawing our attention to this new painting, which is more beautiful and greater than the original.

The fact that man and woman are clothed is an extremely pivotal point in the new painting. The clothed man and woman become the new paradigm in the Theology of the Body. Before original sin, man and woman not only see each other without lust, but they are also able to grasp the glorious mystery of sex and sexuality with purity. After the Fall, it becomes necessary to the guard the mystery from lust and exploitation. Christ makes it possible to glimpse the mystery of man and woman again thorough grace and virtue, but guarding the mystery is still a necessity.

Here it is important to understand that in the tradition of the Church, mystery is not something baffling and unknowable. Rather, the mysteries of the Church are great secrets that are gradually understood when they are lived. The mysteries are like precious pearls and Christ warned us to be cautious about throwing the pearls before swine (cf. Mt 7:6).

Modesty guarding mystery becomes the crucial paradigm for the rest of the Theology of the Body. In fact, John Paul II refers to it as the new “mode of communication” for man and woman after the Fall. This new mode of communication is even important for couples within marriage for lust and perversion easily enters married life. The significance of mystery and modesty is so important, it should even temper of how we discuss and promote Theology of the Body. Let me give an example.

During his presentation, Chris asked to see a show of hands of the people who grew up in a household where God’s glorious plan for man and woman was never talked about openly. Virtually everyone raised their hand. Chris characterized this as starvation. When people are starved there is a great tendency to gluttony when any kind of food finally comes along whether it be beauty or perversion. Chris said that the starvation diet is the primary reason for the perversion feeding frenzy. Rather than starvation or gluttony, Chris proposed that we should be feasting on God’s glorious plan for sex and sexuality.

I would offer that the alternative between starvation and gluttony is not necessarily feasting, but fasting. In this analogy, fasting is more in keeping with modesty; it is more along the lines on the new painting of man and woman clothed with dignity. Fasting is not the same as starvation; it cultivates self-mastery and steers us away from gluttony, which better prepares us for the feast. Not every household that doesn’t openly talk about the glorious mysteries of sex and sexuality is a case of starvation. They could be fasting; they could be guarding the mystery. It all depends on how the mystery is lived out by the parents and the family and sometimes non-verbal means are the most powerful ways of conveying mystery.

It is obvious that this current culture of death is saturated with the perverted notion of sex and sexuality. Building a Culture of Life does not necessarily mean we should saturate the world with an open presentation of the truth of sex and sexuality. In order to effectively build a Culture of Life, we have the much more difficult task of recovering a proper understanding of mystery and restoring modesty in all things.