Like many Catholics, I've read a lot more about Christopher West than I have read things by Christopher West. I am very familiar with what his critics say, and also with what his fans say. And when I read his newest book, Fill These Hearts, I discovered that his critics and fans are both right, up to a point.
Fill These Hearts doesn't have any new ideas in it -- and this is a good thing. West has woven together many old and extremely important ideas and presented them for a new audience, one that desperately needs to hear the message that he brings. His writing is clear, accessible, and easy to understand -- but the ideas in it are profound.
He systematically demolishes the false notion that Christ wants us to squelch our desires -- that "eros . . . is the enemy of holiness [and] a list of burdensome rules and rote prayers are . . . the means to it" (Fill These Hearts, 15). Again and again, West shows, through Scripture, the Catechism, and quotes from the saints, that we are purposely designed by God as creatures who desire, and that growing in holiness means learning to re-align our bodily desires toward their true ends. He says that, when we confront our natural desires (for food, alcohol, and sex, among others), we can respond either as "stoic, addict, or mystic ... The option I choose," says West, "... indicates whether I'm learning to direct my desire according to God's design so that it launches me to my destiny." (32)
I appreciate West's generosity in describing the human experience -- our struggles, our disappointments, our confusion, and our pleasures. Many authors, when dealing with the problem of how to purify our desires, show disdain or disgust for human weakness. West is not flippant about the seriousness of sins of the flesh, and he treats sinners with dignity (and doesn't fail to include himself among the sinners). This approach highlights both a strength and a weakness of West's writing: he makes a huge effort to discover profound truths in pop culture, constantly referencing rock songs, movies, and even YouTube videos. He acknowledges that, when The Bangles sang, "Am I only dreaming / Or is this burning an eternal flame?" that they're asking something real, expressing a genuine yearning of the human heart.
And yet . . . The Bangles? One of the messages of this book is that even the most trivial of pop culture is full of yearning and longing, and that this is no coincidence: it expresses something true and profound about humanity. And I understand the need to show that the truths of the Catholic faith speak to 21st-century people, and are not just dusty and outmoded cultural artifacts. But relevance is a two-edged sword. While West chooses his quotes carefully, and finds genuinely insightful questions in the top 40 chart, there is a problem: I get most of his references. But I'm 38 years old, and I am most emphatically out of the pop culture loop. So anyone even slightly younger or hipper than I will likely put Madonna and the 2011 movie Friends with Benefits in the same dusty, outmoded, irrelevant category as they would Bonaventure and Aristotle (whom West also quotes).
Luckily, West samples liberally from the wisdom of every century, and makes a point of alternating the more accessible and poignant words of Therese of Liseiux, Pope Benedict XVI, Louis de Montfort, Augustine, Caryll Houselander and so on with the words of Billy Joel, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, etc. So, maybe it works, maybe it doesn't. You certainly can't accuse West of being either too stodgy or too hep; and most of the time, his juxtapositions of new and old work well.
Another common criticism of West is that he puts an unnecessary emphasis on enjoining people to listen to their desires -- that he seems to be arguing against a asceticism which is hardly the major plague of our time. It's hard to argue with this objection. He is very careful to repeat, in many places, that he is not advocating licentiousness, and he devotes many passages to describing the misery the comes of following "the culture's 'fast-food gospel' -- the promise of immediate gratification through indulgence of desire." (23) He argues that lust and licentiousness lead to Hell, and he speaks of selfless love.
And yet he does not discuss chastity until page 127!
When he does get there, it is a moving, insightful and illuminating discussion, and offers some brief but helpful advice for how to get out of the pit of lust, and how to listen to God's response to your prayers. But there remains the problem of emphasis. I can imagine a young person reading this book and coming away with the idea -- purely because of the emphasis in it, and not because of any specific passage -- that God wants us to do whatever feels good, as long as it seems like love. Please note, West does not say this! He says the opposite. But he does not say it firmly enough. As any teacher ought to know, it's not enough to tell your students the truth: you have to use all your powers to make them understand that context is everything.
This imbalance in emphasis is frustrating, because there is so much valuable in the book. As I said, it brings old ideas to a new audience. Where else will a new generation hear, so clearly stated, how to tell the difference between freedom and license, between lust and love? When is the last time you heard someone exhorting you to be perfectly honest before God? Who else is writing about the beauty of self-denial, or about the eternal truths that our biological forms hint at? Who else speaks so frankly about the frustration we feel when we hear everyone preaching about how good and generous and merciful God is -- while our own experience is just the opposite?
West does all of these things very well, and his writing is often gorgeous and lyrical. He has a trick of introducing an analogy which seems trivial and handy, and then bringing it back later, unexpectedly drawing out a deeper significance. His words are encouraging, full of hope, brimming with joy as he speaks of what God offers us, and full of sympathy as he describes the temptations we all face.
I liked this book. I sighed and clicked my tongue at this book. I wrote question marks and exclamation points in the margins. Sometimes I shook my head in frustration, and sometimes my face flushed with delight as I read. I recommend it. But I recommend that any reader keeps in mind that West's point of view is only part of the picture as we work toward understanding the role of desire in our lives.