Sunday, September 07, 2008

Heaven's Song

For several days now, no probably more like a couple of weeks now, I've been mulling over how to write a review of Christopher West's newest book, Heaven's Song. Having gotten an advanced copy through Catholic Company's reviewer program I felt the need to write a well-thought-out review even more than usual. Those who know me well know this all too easily plays into my proclivity for procrastinating. Then I read this what I hesitate to call a review. You see, it just doesn't match anything that I read nor anything else I've read from Christopher West, and that is just enough to get me to actually move.

This book is a review and overview of a series of Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body writings which were not given in his series of audiences on the matter. Why were they not given? It is not because they are overly indulgent or vivid in describing sensitive matter, it is because those audiences are usually populated by everyone from the elderly to young children and the Pope rightly deferred to the parents' role as the primary educators of their children in this matter. Attention must be paid to the fact that while these writings were not given as part of the audiences they were left available in writing and can now be found in Michael Waldstein's translation from the original Polish in Man and Woman He Created Them. I suppose calling them "secret" at this point is both a bit of salesmanship and truth as I doubt many have made their way through that tome just yet. West does not, however, just let the writings speak for themselves, he also throughout presents them in less theologically-dense terminology and in a way that can be used readily by anyone in a position to talk about these issues be it as a pastor, consellor or one giving a talk on this subject.

As much as the word "erotic" is thrown around about this book it's very important to realize at the same time that does not mean "dirty" or "inappropriate". Briefly glancing at the cover notes on the book and reflecting on what I've heard about the Song of Songs I expected this book to be difficult and uncomfortable to read because, well, there are some things people just don't talk about in polite company. Don't let that concern stop you though - this is decidedly not something Hugh Heffner would have on his coffee table. In reality, I was surprised at how little the actual act was discussed, and even then only with delicacy and in abstract terms. I was, honestly, waiting for some part of the book to finally cross the line and it simply didn't come - West remained properly respectful of his subject matter throughout the book.

But let's get to the nut of the matter - would I recommend this book to others? Absolutely - but not if they're not ready for the Theology of the Body as a whole. To be honest, I don't think this is the best book with which to start studying the Theology of the Body - the subject matter is just too delicate and the reader might well be put off and assume the whole series does not show a sufficient deference to human sexuality. Let's be honest - one does not start talking about dating with a discussion on sex. For those not yet ready for the hardest part of this teaching I would recommend one of Christopher West's other books. At the same time I would hope people don't stop there because this book in some ways acts as a capstone to the whole TOB.

To put it simply, should you read it? Yes, a thousand times yes, but only when you're prepared. At the same time, if you're like me and have had to struggle with overcoming years and years of screwed up teaching on sex and sexuality be prepared for some uncomfortable reflections on your past life. I'll admit it, the book was hard to go through sometimes - but only because it reminded me of how far I've had to come and how far I still have to go. Perhaps the hardest part of dealing with this book is how positively it deals with the topic of sexuality. In many ways it's easier, even if less accurate, to deal with it as a "just don't" subject but TOB reminds us in the most direct terms that this whole area is a gift from God. If we can restore this pure understanding of our sexuality as both gift and calling the impact on society would be simply unbelievable.

This book needs to be on the shelves of all priests, deacons, catechists and anyone who may deal with the area of human sexuality. It is an important piece in the work to recover sexuality from the tailspin into which modern culture has tried to force it and restore to it the respect which it is due as a true gift of God. Finally, I have to agree with Sister Spitfire - since, as part of the review program, I got an unbound galley copy I'll be buying the, if you will, "real" copy as soon as my book funds allow. I can already thing of several people to whom I will be recommending or lending this book as well. The Theology of the Body is a tremendous gift to the Church and the world as a whole and this book adds to it all in dealing well and respectfully with this most important area.

This review was written as part of The Catholic Company product reviewer program. Visit Catholic Company to find more information on Heaven's Song.