Book review: FILL THESE HEARTS by Christopher West

His critics and his fans . . . both kinda right.  This book is definitely worth buying, but think twice about giving it to people looking for loopholes.

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Have you read Christopher West?  Have you been scared off by his critics?  Are you fully convinced that his critics have actually read Christopher West?  Tell, tell!

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  • Jeanne G.

    LOL ” Are you fully convinced that his critics have actually read Christopher West?” I have wondered if they really had read his stuff!

  • Abby

    Wait, I’m confused. Are you denouncing him as the devil or praising him as a great prophet? I can’t tell which you’re doing. It has to be one or the other, right?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

      I apologize for my lack of clarity. I think I will go on a year’s hiatus to figure this out, so I don’t lead anyone else astray.

  • http://gravatar.com/rmlinek Becca

    I struggle with being too scrupulous, so Christopher West is kind of good for me. I’ve only listened to a few (two, maybe?) of his talks, though. Never read the books.

  • Andy, Bad Person

    Christopher West has had his critics, and some of those criticisms are valid. At least he has done the right thing when faced with these criticisms: he’s gone to his bishop and asked for clarification.

    When I first discovered West, I was right in his target audience: college-aged kids that disagreed with the Church’s sexual teaching because they either didn’t understand it or because they found it too difficult (I was part of both groups). I attended a talk of his and read one of his books, and it started me on the right path to actually trying to understand the Church’s teaching and conversion. He was exactly what I needed at that time.

    I never really got the vibe of “walking the concupiscence line” with him, which is I think the main criticism. Maybe I just missed it, or maybe it’s only there if you’re looking for it. Either way, if the criticisms are valid, I hope he continues to sharpen his thoughts.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

      Yeah, I was SUPER impressed by his humble response to the critics, when he took a hiatus to figure out if there really was a problem. I hope I wasn’t too hard on him, because I really do think he’s doing a good and necessary thing.

  • Kristine

    His books changed my life. (I mean, the Holy Spirit used his books to change my life.) When I read about the criticisms, and from whom they came, I wanted to tell them, “But wait! He’s not writing it for you! Don’t you know that this subject matter doesn’t make the rest of the world blush?” I am so grateful for his work, because in a life where I had never considered chastity, he gently led me to it.

  • http://thisfelicitouslife.wordpress.com laurachristine06

    Andy’s experience is similar to a friend of mine’s. I only skimmed “Good News About Sex Love and Marriage.” Then a friend and her fiance were having trouble with the Church’s teachings on contraception. She took them on faith but didn’t really understand the whys. He wanted to do the right thing but didn’t get it at all. I sent them the book and both say it was a life-changer. They’ve both whole-heartedly embraced the Church’s teachings. One good (or bad) effect doesn’t make or break a book, but I will always be favorably inclined toward West’s writings because of that experience.

  • http://Arlinghaus.typepad.com Bearing

    Let me preface this by saying that I haven’t read his more recent work — I listened to all the “Naked Without Shame” tapes ten or eleven years ago — and I am only superficially familiar with the criticisms that led to the hiatus.

    In your piece you wonder about his arguing against an asceticism that is hardly the problem of our age. I wanted to suggest why I think this line of argument is not all that crazy. I think it is a sort of meta-argument meant to demonstrate that the Church doesn’t demand asceticism of that sort from us, at least if it isn’t our calling. If someone is holding back from full communion with the Church, or fully living out the Christian life, because they fear it will demand that kind of asceticism, then the knowledge that West at least stands within the Church and argues persuasively “the Church teaches us that sex within marriage is good, holy, that the desires of the body are gifts, etc,” will help. It is a kind of invitation to those who understand that sex itself is not the problem — “Come in. We don’t think that sex is the problem either. Let me show you what is the real problem: Using people for pleasure.”

    I think one effect of the anti-ascetic argument is to reassure and welcome people who have been told the Church thinks sex is bad, and who know that it isn’t. It gives them what the outside world might call a “sex-positive” way to explain the pain and suffering that they see around them that is rooted in sexual behavior. And when they see that the Church’s arguments are on their side, not against them, they may listen to more.

    In short: it is an evangelization tool, not just a piece of rhetoric.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

      I would appreciate it if you would post this comment at the Register, because I agree with you, but I don’t think I explained myself well. I completely agree that there is a need to re-present the Church’s teachings, to refute the discouraging and forbidding idea that religion = puritanism.

      I agree that it’s a valuable tool – I guess my worry is that it won’t be used in conjunction with other tools, which remind us that it’s not enough to reject puritanism! I do know plenty of people who discover that, and stop there.

      • http://Arlinghaus.typepad.com Bearing

        Happy to. Thanks for reading!

  • Eleanor

    For what it’s worth: I’m a Protestant and I had given up on books on sex and marriage in the non-Catholic world. (And not because I was anti-marriage. My parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles had great traditional marriages. I just thought the evangelicals weren’t giving me anything that described the good marriages I had seen. Also that I couldn’t see how the incredible emphasis on marriage made any sense of people who were called-permanently or even temporarily-to be be single.)

    Then I read Humanae Vitae and was shocked–finally someone saying something that I could recognize as beautiful and something that described what my parents had. Also the first meaningful critique of contraception I had read that I could see as part of the larger vision for marriage. Then Love and Responsibility REALLY captured my heart. Then I found Christopher West and was underwhelmed.

    I am happy for anyone who reads West and loves it, is converted by it, or comes to a deeper appreciation of Christian teaching because of it. It didn’t work for me, but then, I’m also an extreme nerd and he didn’t top Love and Responsibility. But then, that wasn’t what he was trying to do. I do, though, agree with Simcha that the lack of emphasis on chastity is sorely missed (a critique which I would extend to the evangelical books as well).

  • Rebecca

    I heard Christopher West give a talk when I was in college, and I’ve read his book, The Good News about Sex and Marriage, which I enjoyed a lot. In fact, when I taught about human sexuality in a Catholic high school, I used excerpts from his book. I find his writing to be accessible and helpful; I think his message is one that my generation (twenties) needs to hear, and he does a good job explaining the basics of theology of the body. My college roommate began practicing her faith again after reading his book (and a whole lot of praying and talking).

  • Corita

    I appreciate his humility in the face of criticism as well. As a victim of sexual abuse I find it ridiculous hard to find balance in how I approach sexuality; perhaps that is the pervasive long-term effect of exposure to pornography and abuse. Christopher West was very good for me as a balancing force at one point in my life; now he might not be so as my pendulum has swung in another direction. I can’t criticize him, though. There are theological realities to the criticisms but the Body of Christ does seem always to bear out the need for lots of kinds of language about God and humans.

  • anna lisa

    I’m intrigued enough to buy the book. Thanks for the “heads up” that it came out. I’ve never read West’s books. I’ve read excerpts,stumbled across blogs and critiques that were raging over what he has written, or what he has been accused of implying. One of the critics that I found myself strongly disagreeing with was Alice Von Hildebrand, whom I have deeply admired in the past. Her shrill panic over West’s words damaged her credibility in my eyes. Janet Smith’s response to her was measured and far more reliable in scholarship. I’ve never disagreed with the gist of what he was trying to say. I can agree that perhaps he was a little daring, but in the same way that Pope John opened the Vatican window, in a symbolic gesture, to let “fresh air” in, I am sure that West has thrown open the doors on a HUGE issue that still needs to be addressed to our wounded Catholic community, as well as our very wounded culture.

    .

    As you pointed out in your blog post about the atheist mother, it was a fundamental misunderstanding of God which led her down such a dark path.

    .

    Years before West, a European priest helped me to understand how deeply “post puritanical” our culture is. He pointed out how American Catholicism is permeated with these undercurrents.

    .

    Of course there is nothing new about our human penchant to recycle the body- fearing gnosticism that has been served up by Satan from the very infancy of Christianity. But why are we so prone to such a dark, stunted, world view? Guilt. Guilt in destructive, crippling doses.

    .

    This is where good spiritual direction comes in.

  • anna lisa

    I just couldn’t believe some of the rigid things Catholic men and husbands were saying in their blog posts. Their rage toward West was strange. They argued like little old ladies. I found myself deeply pitying their wives. Their outrage reminded me of those Mormons who wore long underwear with strategically located slits.

    Crazy town.

  • anna lisa

    Curious to know what kinds of “loopholes” might be tempting to some…?

  • Kate

    I picked up his “Theology of the Body for Beginners” and really couldn’t figure out what all this hoopla about JPII’s “new revelation” was. The Church has always taught the body and sex were good. It’s only Catholics in Puritanical American influenced by Irish and French Jansonist who have kooky ideas otherwise. However, maybe I wasn’t the target audience. I’m in my late forties, was raised in a large (not-Irish) Catholic family, went to an orthodox Catholic college and married an earthy, sensible convert.

    • Anna

      I think it’s largely that JPII put together what was always there. Rather a lot of people seem to think this is brand new, but you’re right, what JPII said in ToB was really always the teaching of the Church. But he’s the one who has put it all together into a cohesive theology and “adequate anthropology”; he took all the pieces and assembled the puzzle so we can see a picture. That’s why I’ve loved studying ToB – it puts all those strands of everything from Marian teachings to sacraments to the Trinity together.

  • Carla

    I loved reading these comments and have enjoyed Christopher West. Having well read and good intentioned friends in both camps, I do see the critiques as being great vehicles for West to clarify, rethink and fine tune his understanding of JPII’s work. It’s a great contribution to the larger communal discussion on JPII’s work. But I whole heartedly agree that his work is primarily about the evangelization of the lay Catholic that has no real grasp of the why behind the Church’s teaching. He does bring in a breath of fresh air to our brethren who think this whole teaching on marriage and sex is a bunch of “propaganda”(something I overheard from a fellow Catholic in my engagement retreat/marriage prep years ago). Glad his work is still out there and thriving.

  • Anna

    I thought a lot of the criticisms of West’s work were way off base. Though much depends on the timeline: he has certainly changed his approach somewhat over the years and some of his phrasing and such in, say, 2001 had changed a lot by, say, 2009. He mentioned once that it was pointed out to him that “crude isn’t the antidote to prude” – but some crudeness had been, early on, his attempt to balance out some of his childhood formation of “that’s all bad and yucky and don’t ever talk about it!” Also, having taught grade school and high school for several years, I’m always inclined to give people a lot of leeway when critiquing their talks (less so in writing). I can think of a long list of things I said in my classroom that still make me cringe – and I’ve been out of the classroom for 7 years. That’s the hazard of speaking on the fly with references to pop culture and addressing audience questions as they come up; sometimes you’ll be spot on and sometimes you’ll realize later just how poorly you answered what was really being asked. I think that’s where some of the criticisms of West came from – unclear phrasing due to speaking off the cuff (or being edited since a lot of the critiques came after that news segment, 20/20 or whatever it was).

    Thanks for the review. It’s interesting to me… he’s so personally involved in whatever he’s writing. Last I heard him speak (ToB 2 class a couple years ago), he was talking about how he gets so sad at the last bite of his dinner and the realization that it was because it was one more reminder of never being full, complete, perfectly satisfied in this life. From your review, he turned that experience into a book.

  • http://www.littlejesusandme.blogspot.com Monica

    Congratulations on winning one of the Sheenazing awards!