MILWAUKEE — This Valentine’s Day more than 500 people attended an all-day workshop with renowned educator, best-selling author and theologian Christopher West. His lecture, “To Fill These Hearts Full: God, Sex and the Universal Longing,” was applauded at every turn as he explained Pope John Paul II’s teachings, and how they can be applied to a rapidly growing modern world.
“Why did you come here today?” West asked the waiting crowd. “I want you to ask yourself that question, and give yourself answers. There is some desire that brought you here, some curiosity, perhaps. But curiosity itself is desire; try to think what that desire was.”
The workshop, held at downtown Milwaukee Public Library’s Centennial Hall, was based on the first major teaching project of Pope John Paul II — 129 short talks during 1979 to 1984, as an effort to provide “a beautiful version of human embodiment and erotic love.” Pope John Paul called it “The Theology of the Body,” and 30 years later, it is still being explained to those seeking to understand God’s plan.
A highly sought after speaker, West’s presentations are well attended and his appearances on national radio programs, Fox News and MSNBC are well received. He has taught at St. John Vianney Seminary, Denver, the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, Australia, and Creighton University’s Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha. He is a faculty member of the Theology of the Body Institute in Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife Wendy and their five children.
West was joined by the local folk-rock group, Mike Mangione and the Band, featured recently as The New York Times “Pick of the Week.” The band, which includes a cello and violin, helped West and audience members “listen to the rhythm of their desire,” a major theme of the workshop.
During his lecture, West pounded drums and sang modern rock songs from popular bands such as U2, Bruce Springsteen and Peter Gabriel to emphasize his points. West said he was encouraged to listen to Christian bands by his parents, but as a teenager, he could never fully relate to the lyrics. Finding the music that truly spoke to him was one of his first experiences of “listening to his desires.”
“It didn’t speak to me,” he said about Christian music. “It didn’t speak to me. They were singing about something that I didn’t have, and I couldn’t relate. But I remember full well when I was 6 years-old and I was listening to the radio before I went to sleep, and Bruce Springsteen came on.”
West talked about the three paths or “gospels,” which he called “Fast Food,” “Starvation Diet,” and “The Banquet,” metaphors that describe “any message that claims to feed the hunger” in life. The Fast Food gospel promises immediate gratification, West said, explaining, “In that case, in 99.99 percent of the time, our culture is linked with sex, sex and more sex.” While it may seem a good way to find love, West said people are often “looking for love in all the wrong places.”
West described the “Starvation Diet” as having a “rule obsessed” attitude. This approach suggests that desire and rhythm itself is bad and needs to be “stuffed, repressed, and annihilated.” “It’s the false version of Christianity that most of the western world is versed in,” West explained. “The Starvation Diet gospel will encourage you to stuff that rhythm, not to listen to it, because it’s only going to get you in trouble. Because the rhythm itself is bad, the rhythm itself is evil. You even hear the preachers on TV saying that the rhythm of rock and roll is the devil! I say, no, the rhythm is of the God who is song and rhythm.”
West encouraged people to ask questions when it comes to religion, saying he rejects any religious organization that does not “encourage you to ask questions and do your own exploration.” Finally, West encouraged the audience to choose the gospel that meets in the middle of the other two, where sexual intimacy is saved for marriage, and not seen as a bad craving that must be curbed. People should view it as a banquet, he explained. If it feels good, it’s a preview of the coming attractions, he said.
“Just imagine that there really is a banquet that satisfies the hungry. That would mean that we wouldn’t have to repress our desire, like gospel number two says, the Starvation Diet. It also means we don’t have to reduce our desire to finite things, like gospel number one says, Fast Food, because that gospel actually encourages us to settle for less than what we’re made for.”
We must view desire as a “living hope” of ultimate satisfaction, said West. Parker Tiffany, 22, a seminarian studying in Milwaukee, attended the event because of the positive things he had heard about West. He also attended West’s lecture for college students the previous evening at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He said the past few days had given him a lot of ideas. “I run a youth group, so I think I’ll take some bits and pieces from this and apply it to some activities for the youth program,” the Michigan native explained during the lecture’s intermission.
Nick Landwehl, 23, also found substance in West’s talk. “I’m a campus minister at my high school, and I’m just looking for what everyone else is looking for, trying to explain our deepest desires and how to fulfill that, and it just helps with the real-life examples (that West gives),” said Landwehl.
“Christianity does not reject the body,” West assured. “Authentic Christianity is all about the body. It’s all about the word made flesh. We are saved by God’s body and his blood; that’s our salvation, the body and blood.” West’s appearances in Milwaukee were sponsored by the John Paul II Center, Pallium Lecture Series, UWM Newman Center, Three Holy Women and Old Saint Mary parishes, Milwaukee, and Lumen Christi Parish, Mequon.