Christopher West is a well-known commentator on Pope John Paul II’s ‘Theology of the Body’ lectures. Before his writing and speaking career, he worked as Director of the Marriage and Family Life Office in the Archdiocese of Denver, Colorado. Since the late 1990s, he’s been teaching graduate and undergraduate courses in family ethics. In 2004, he co-founded the Theology of the Body Institute near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 2010, he co-founded the Cor Project as a membership and outreach organization with a global mission to help men and women around the world learn, live, and share the Theology of the Body.
In this exclusive interview with REGINA Magazine, Christopher brings us up to date on his latest projects.
REGINA: You have been working on ‘unpacking' Pope John Paul's ‘Theology of the Body' for about two decades now. What drew you to this work to begin with?
CHRISTOPHER WEST: I was raised on what you might call the “starvation diet gospel” – desire was “bad” and should be repressed, and Christianity seemed like nothing but a list of rules to follow. Not surprisingly, I turned to what I call the “fast food gospel” to satisfy my hungers – the secular culture’s promise of immediate satisfaction for my hunger. But all the grease and sodium, so to speak, caught up with me. When I was in college in the late 80s, a ragged prayer came out of my heart begging God to show me why he gave me all these desires and what I was supposed to do with them.
CHRISTOPHER WEST: The answer to my prayer came as an interior call that I couldn’t ignore: “Seek and you will find…” So I turned to the Bible. I figured if this were really God’s book, it had to have something to say about why he made us sexual beings. Over a period of about three years of intense searching and study, I came to see that the Bible takes us on a journey from a wedding in the temporal paradise of Eden to a wedding in the eternal paradise of heaven. I came to see that the prophets use some bold sexual imagery in describing divine love (e.g., Ezek 16:7–8), that the erotic love poetry of the Song of Songs was a window into the things of heaven, and that the one-flesh union of spouses was a “great mystery” that revealed Christ’s love for the Church (see Eph 5:31–32).
REGINA: How did people react?
CHRISTOPHER WEST: The spousal imagery of the Scriptures was bringing to life the dry doctrine I had learned growing up and was shedding a bright light on the entire Christian mystery. Discovering this set me on fire! Expecting an enthusiastic response from other Christians I knew, I was surprised to be met with blank stares or worse when I tried to explain how the union of man and woman was like a key that unlocked the mysteries of our faith.
REGINA: Somehow not surprising.
CHRISTOPHER WEST: Then, in September of 1993, a fateful meeting with my sister’s high school theology teacher literally changed the course of my life. Testing some of my “spousal” reading of the Bible on her, she responded with, “You must have read John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.”
“What’s that?” I probed.
“Gosh, I thought you’d already read it. What you’re saying sounds just like the pope.”
I could hardly believe my ears.
REGINA: No doubt!
CHRISTOPHER WEST: Turns out, John Paul II had spent the first major teaching project as pope unfolding an in-depth examination of the very same Scripture passages I had been studying. Reading his Theology of the Body for the first time, I not only found confirmation that I wasn’t crazy, his insights took me to an entirely new level. I sensed I was holding the answer to the crisis of modern times in my hands and I knew then that I would spend the rest of my life studying his teaching and sharing it with others. Hence began my life’s work as a “theologian of the body.”
REGINA: Looking back over the years and in the light of today's sexual politics, it does seem the Pope was prescient in many ways. What prompted the Pope to tackle these issues in the 1980s do you think?
CHRISTOPHER WEST: Oh, it goes back much further than that. He was already tackling these issues as a young priest in the 1950s. His first book, Love and Responsibility, was published in 1960 and it certainly raised eyebrows at the time to have a Catholic bishop talking about husbands bringing their wives to climax as an act of Christian virtue.
I can only explain his prescience as the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit grants the church what she needs when she needs it. Whenever there’s a crisis in the church, the Holy Spirit raises up great theological minds to respond to that crisis. Without a doubt, John Paul II is one of those minds.
I love how George Weigel, John Paul II’s biographer, put it. He described the Theology of the Body as a kind of “theological time bomb” set to go off sometime in the third millennium of the church, perhaps in the 21st century. I’ve given my life to helping that time bomb detonate.
REGINA: Your approach seems to draw in many Protestants. Why do you think this is?
CHRISTOPHER WEST: Yes, my work has reached across denominational lines. I owe a debt of gratitude to my Protestant brothers and sisters for their influence on me and I have a deep ecumenical heart. I think the Theology of the Body appeals to Protestants because it’s simply a reflection on the Scriptures. From start to finish, John Paul II gives us a thoroughly biblical vision of what it means to be made in the image of God as male and female.
REGINA: Why is your ministry called the Cor Project?
CHRISTOPHER WEST: Cor is Latin for heart. And the question of sexuality takes us to the heart of what it means to be human. It also takes us to the heart of culture and civilization. If society has a “cancer,” we need to treat that cancer at the cellular level. And the fundamental cell of society is the family. But at the heart (or “cor”) of the family is the union of man and woman in one flesh. The Cor Project is to go back to those basics and bring hope, healing, and redemption. In a word, we want to show men and women around the world how beautiful they truly are.
REGINA: You will be in the UK in January to speak to a conference there. What can people expect to hear from you?
CHRISTOPHER WEST: First, I’d like to thank Core Issues Trust, Anglican Mainstream, and the Office for Marriage and Family in the Westminster Diocese for inviting me. I think people will recognize, bear with me here, that I have beautiful feet. Did I just say that!?
CHRISTOPHER WEST: Yes, I have beautiful feet. Remember how Scripture says, “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news”? Well, I’m coming with good news about our creation as male and female, good news about the meaning of sex and gender, good news about our sexual desires, good news about the healing and redemption of sexuality in Christ.
And God knows we need some good news! Christians hear far too often what we’re not supposed to be doing with our sexuality. But what are we supposed to be doing? People can expect to hear an eye-opening, life-changing, liberatingly positive vision that puts what’s going on in the world today in its proper context.
Join best-selling author Christopher West on a life-altering journey through classical art, pop music, and film by way of the Christian mystical tradition. Along the way, Fill These Hearts blows the lid off the idea of Christianity as a repressive, anti-sex religion and unveils the hidden truth of life — that the restless yearnings we feel in both our bodies and our spirits are the very cry of our hearts for God.
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