Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Dawn Eden vs. Christopher West

Dawn Eden has written her master's thesis critiquing the work of Christopher West. She was kind enough to send me a free copy and I read through it carefully. I admire Dawn and thank God for the grace of her conversion to the Catholic faith and the wonderful work she has been doing to promote chastity. She is the author of The Thrill of the Chaste and has had the courage to speak out for chastity even in a debate at a bar in NY.

I sent her some lengthy feedback that was more critical than favorable. Since discussion of this is going on in the Catholic blogosphere, I'd like to say something about it without revealing details of her thesis. (It can be obtained from her as she indicates: "In response to requests, I am making a revised edition of my master's thesis available as an eBook, as a gift to those who donate to support my doctoral studies. At the same time, it is available for free to priests, deacons, seminarians, and lay catechists who work in an official capacity for the Church (e.g. for a parish, diocese, or religious order)." Here's some intro:

My background in this area is as follows: For the past 16 years, I've been working in our apostolate as a developmental editor. I edited Christopher West's book Theology of the Body Explained (Pauline Books & Media). I also collaborated with Dr Michael Waldstein when we published his translation of the Pope's TOB talks. It was a privilege for me to have carried out this work. Both West and Waldstein are outstanding, dedicated Catholics who are working tirelessly to promote Catholic teaching.

My general impression of Dawn's thesis is that she took on a large project in giving “a comprehensive overview of West’s presentation of TOB.” Since much of West’s work has been in his speaking presentations, to fairly evaluate it would require her to follow the development of his teaching as it has unfolded over the past decade. That’s quite a project. It's so broad that I don't think it's even possible to do it in a master's thesis. To be fair to West, she would need to also contextualize his teachings so as to present them objectively without any distortion. In my opinion, the thesis does not accomplish this objective.

Since West is actively engaged in developing his work continually, her thesis may become dated quite quickly. This point also touches on the question of how West has responded to criticisms. I believe that he has made changes to his presentations in response to various types of feedback. In my personal work with him on his book, he was very open to constructive suggestions and willing to make edits when needed. I mention this because Dawn does not document how West has in fact made changes to his presentations after getting constructive criticism. If her goal is to give a comprehensive overview of West's presentations of TOB, that's a necessary part of the picture.

More to follow


Sr. Helena Burns, fsp said...

Thanks for your firsthand witness and opinion, Sr. Lorraine! I, too, appreciate Dawn's work (I love her book "The Thrill of the Chaste"), but I, like you, find she is quite lacking in context for not only CW's work, but even the way she applies Church teachings (which she is brand new to). I hope she will reconsider.... I was privileged to a do a "Head and Heart Immersion Course" week with CW in August 2007. I had no objections to what CW presented or how he presented it. Quite the contrary!
in St. Paul,
your sister in Christ who has fond memories of our community in Toronto,
Sr. Helena Raphael Burns, fsp
TOB busybody

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. It is not obvious that he is constantly developing his approach nor is it evident from his responses that he is doing this.
Unfortunately, his approach is not what we, my husband and I, need. I did find it encouraging that some abuse victims have commented that he has helped them tremendously and I pray he continues to help.
One big concern of mine is that I do not want the whole Mass sexualized (phallic symbol of the Easter Candle) but I do know that I have not attended nor heard all his classes (couldn't) so I could not be a fair critic, just know it wasn't what I needed.

Something else concerns me is that Peter Kreeft has taken a similar approach (Sex in Heaven) seemingly confusing what communion of persons/saints with the marital embrace.

Rising above base desires is hard enough when trying to pray....

Sr. Lorraine said...

Thanks, Opey, for your honest feedback. I agree with you that C. West's approach may not suit everyone, and that's fine. There's room for many different approaches in learning about John Paul's work, and more and more people are developing different approaches.

I'm going to blog more about Dawn's thesis, and one thing she did do a very good job on was explaining how the sexual symbolism around the Easter candle is not accurate. She did some good research on that point.

gsk said...

Thank you, Sister, but I'm confused. When people evangelise, they have to be accountable for words--written and oral. It seems that when others have difficulties with Mr West's theology (the presentation is another matter subject to taste) the response is usually, "Ah, but you have to see A. B. and C in order to get the full context." We didn't have to do that with John Paul II or any saints, for that matter. If his words are so subject to misunderstandings or require constant contextualisation ("You have to hear him speak...") then what are the coming generations to do with his books (especially after he's gone)? All we'll have then are these written words, some of which he hadn't gotten around to correcting.

Sr. Lorraine said...

You're very right that people have to be accountable for their words. And so I agree with you that that applies to Mr West just as much as anyone else.
If people are getting what he says second or third hand, though, they may be getting a misinterpretation. (Remember the old telephone game, when people pass on a simple message, and how garbled it gets by the end?)
People who go in person to his talks have an opportunity to question him, and he gets plenty of questions and feedback. That's normal for any speakers.

About Pope John Paul: last week I went to the TOB Congress. Fr Richard Hogan in his workshop said that when the pope started giving his talks, no one really knew what he was talking about. So there was a lot of confusion about the Pope's talks too. It's inevitable since he was dealing with deep subjects.
God bless you!

gsk said...

That may highlight my point, Sister. There may have been confusion but the Pope's words as spoken (and later published) will stand for all time. On the other hand, you say that the work dedicated to critiquing Mr West "may become dated quite quickly." In that sense, I'm extremely uncomfortable comparing Mr West to John Paul II.

Anonymous said...


I will be interested in the specifics of you have to say about Dawn's thesis. I think you have made some generalizations about her work that will not be born out by the facts.

You seem to be questioning, not Dawn's analysis, but her accuracy as to the facts of the case. Dawn, is not getting her information second and third hand sources, but from West's writings. Furthermore, much of his work as a presenter is available on the internet, CD and DVD. I would like to know where her critique of West's writing would be undermined by what he has said in public. I think you need to be more specific about this.

If West has changed his positions on some of the points critiqued by Dawn, then this can be easily verified. Certainly, West will have retracted on such points, especially if he committed them to writing.


There is a considerable amount of West's presentation material on Youtube. Much of it is consistent with what Dawn criticizes. If Mr. West no longer holds these positions, or if he no longer believes that his former manner of presentation is appropriate, perhaps he should have those videos, taken down, and perhaps he could be specific about what he has changed and why.

Perhaps he will do this when he ends his sabbatical.

If your principle refutation of Dawn's extensive research is to show that Mr. West no longer holds the positions he once did, then your job should be very easy. But this is precisely what I think you will have a very difficult time showing.

Sr. Lorraine said...

To MaryVictix,
I do plan to do more blog posts on this matter and that will get into some more specifics. However, Dawn is the one who has to prove her case about West. I'm pointing out some problems with her arguments. My purpose here is not to defend West. My purpose is to have a discussion in charity that could further harmony and unity in the Church while promoting the message of Pope John Paul. I think that this is the time for Catholics to take that message seriously.

I want to clarify one point of confusion. In my earlier reply to GSK, when I spoke of getting it second or third hand, I wasn't referring to Dawn's thesis. I was responding to GSK's comment about ordinary Catholics who happen to hear something about West.

G said...

Thank you VERY MUCH for your balanced analysis of this issue as well as not allowing yet another Catholic blog to degenerate to the lowest level of namecalling & finger pointing... which seems to happen when bloggers put their personal agendas above the facts.

Its easy to tell how relevant JPII's beautiful TOB teaching is to the Church today because of how much vitriol the proclamation of it has stirred up!

Sr. Lorraine said...

Thank you, G, for your kind words. You are so right that we need to discuss things at the level of ideas and not reduce the discussion to name-calling, etc.

Sr. Helena Burns, fsp said...

...and furthermore...

"Vituperative!" What a great word, Sr. Lorraine!

Christopher used to be explicit/graphic when he spoke in the beginning, but he has since retired this style (as have other TOB speakers). I am adamant about that. That's the beauty of TOB, we talk about sex/the body in a theological context that respects modesty, a mixed group, various ages, etc. If a man is talking about TOB in a men's prison or something, it might be fitting to be more explicit/graphic. But TOB is not sex education, biology, anatomy, etc. It's theology. I also agree that we have to be careful about sexualizing everything, e.g., the Paschal Candle. One of our sisters made a great point about sacramental symbols being SUBTLE and multivalent. We don't reduce them to one thing or even hammer people over the head with one reference from a Father of the Church on one possible meaning. :]
But let's keep talking and straightening things out and getting it right. TOB is too beautiful, important, and urgent not to!

Sr. Helena, fsp
TOB busybody

Anonymous said...

Dear Sister,

There are elements of Christopher West's teachings that are revolting...that are contrary to common decency and the dignity of the human person. I do not have a litany of letters behind my name. I am a wife and mother, trying to live a life of holiness via prayer and a sacramental life. One does not have to be an "expert" to know that some of what Christopher West has espoused is erroneous.

Dr. Alive von Hildebrand has given an excellent critique of Christpher West's writings. It is what some of us have known all along.

God Bless.

Sr. Lorraine said...

Thank you for all of these comments! I think the point Sr Helena raises about delicacy of expression is very important and true.

Kevin said...

I really wouldn't say that many TOB enthusiasts have "toned down" their statements. If anything, they continue to speak provocatively.

One need only look at Janet Smith's now notorious tweet "God is a stalker" at the TOB congress.

Having read Miss Eden's masters thesis, I too join others who believe the assertion painted is not fitting with the facts.

You point out how West's work is "constantly developing." Doesn't that sort of make the point? If he's had to substantially revise his stuff as he goes on, is someone really out of line for saying "maybe this stuff should have been worked out before he spoke to millions?"

One of the main beefs a lot of people have with the way West and others present TOB is that they completely divorce it from the greater Catholic tradition. (Fr. Loya is explicit about this, when stating for 500 years, the Church was in unreality on these matters.)

If one actually reads the disputes between the Docetics, Gnostics, Manicheans, none of what John Paul II has said is that surprising. He does give quite a nice development, especially on the oblative aspects of love, yet this is not evidence of the Church "in ignorance." The Church, in her wisdom, responds to the issues that are raised with the times.

There is scarcely an appreciation of this sentiment within the writings of many TOB enthusiasts. And that is a real shame, since in the end, they do more to hurt the legacy of the pope they so love than help.

Anonymous said...

If anyone doubts that Dawn Eden has taken some of her information from 2nd or 3rd hand opinions, just check her footnotes, the proof is there.

Sr. Lorraine said...

Well, yes, there are some, but she does also quote a lot from West himself. However, some of the quotes are from interviews he gave, and I think those are less trustworthy. The reporter who interviewed him naturally had to select certain things he said, and so those sources are less reliable than quotes from West's own writings.