Monthly Archives: December 2015

The Orthodox Liturgy

The Orthodox Liturgy: The Development of the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Byzantine RiteThe Orthodox Liturgy: The Development of the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite by Hugh Wybrew

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A friend and I have been having an enduring, good-natured disagreement on the nature of the Church and Christianity. He sees the history of Christianity as the accumulation of dogmatic and hierarchical barnacles that must be scraped away in order to get back to the pure, original Christianity of Christ and the first apostles. If you look at the history of the institutionalized church, he says, you see accretion, abuse, and general messiness that wasn’t an initial part of what Christ intended. The history of the Church, I think he might say, is a long history of missing the mark.

There’s certainly some truth to this. But if we’re using the analogy of barnacles encrusting something original and true, my answer to this metaphor is that I don’t think Christ came to entrust the apostles and the early Church with a boat. That is, I don’t think His purpose was to create or deliver something whole and entire that was supposed to be passed down, static and unchanging.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Christ did not come to deliver the truths of the kingdom of God or that those truths evolve or develop over time. I’m talking about the Church itself. It did not spring whole and mature at Pentecost like Athena from the mind of Zeus. Christ did not deliver a boat that we have to scrape the barnacles off to get back to the original shape. Rather, something was born at Pentecost, something given life by the descent of the Holy Spirit, and that thing is better represented (in my mind) as a thing living and growing in history (like a tree) than a shape or structure that needs to be restored.

This difference comes out most clearly when we talk about the actual practices of the Church. What is it here to do? My friend might say that all the dogmatic and ecclesiastical elaborations— incense and vestments and hierarchy and everything else that goes with liturgical worship— are examples of encrustations that need to be cleared away. It’s obvious these were not what the apostles were doing in the generation or two after Christ’s ascension.

On the other hand though, neither was the Canon of Scripture established, the dual nature of Christ articulated, or the trinitarian dogma formalized in those first generations. These were things the Church did in response to the historical events of the life and resurrection of Christ. They didn’t fall out fully formed and articulated. They were the result of the Church wrestling with what they knew to be true under— we believe— the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Christ didn’t deliver a body of beliefs or a structure of worship; he birthed a Church: a living, organic, growing, evolving thing.

To me, this view is necessary for understanding the work of the Holy Spirit in the narrative of history. It’s never made sense for me to see the Church as almost immediately “going wrong,” though proponents of this view often disagree about just when it started to depart from the “pure” faith of the apostles. If, as many do, they point to the reign of Constantine, this is also the same point at which the Nicene Creed is first articulated. So if we want to throw up our hands at the Church getting in bed with Imperialism, we also have to throw up our hands at the first attempts to formalize statements of Christian belief, which came about by the instigation of the Emperor.

I say all this to say that whichever view you take— barnacles or growth— will influence how you interpret the work of Hugh Wybrew in The Orthodox Liturgy: the Development of the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite. Either it’s a story of how multiple encrustations of liturgical worship grew up from the first to the fourteenth century to obscure the Church’s early and pure form of worship, or its a story of the development of the liturgy to the rich, vibrant form it has today. Enrichment or encrustation is a matter of perspective and teleology.

Wybrew, former Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, offers a comprehensive, in-depth survey of the development of the liturgy in the East— the liturgy celebrated by Orthodox Christians each Sunday around the world— from the the earliest Christian documents until its more or less fully developed form in the fourteenth century. One the one hand, you can’t read this book and then maintain that your Church worships in the same way as the apostles, or in the first generations after them, or even as the Church did in seventh century Byzantium. The liturgy has evolved. On the other, you’ll find surprising consistencies throughout. Wybrew follows both these aspects, change and continuity from the apostolic days until the fourteenth century, in this work.

The study is chronological, drawing on surviving documents and accounts to give a representation of liturgical worship (which, it needs to be pointed out, was not simply one way of worshiping but the structure of Christian worship) in different periods in the Byzantine Empire. Early on there are different forms of the liturgy, all with certain common traits, but by the seventh century the form practiced in Byzantium comes to dominate and become the standard throughout the Eastern Empire. Here the book’s focus is delineated: Wybrew isn’t looking at the rites of other non-Chalcedonian Christianities, nor is he doing a detailed comparison between the liturgy of the Greek East and the Latin West. It’s the evolution of a single species, albeit one that for various reasons became the dominant form of worship still practiced in almost all Orthodox churches around the world.

Wybrew— himself not an Orthodox— does not idealize this process, though he clearly sees the liturgy itself as a meaningful, historically rich, and important aspect of Christian worship. He points out places, for example, where changes over time have obscured the ritual’s original form, where certain important practices (such as Old Testament readings) have been dropped, or where vestigial practices (for instance the intonation of “the doors” before the reading of the Creed) have lost their original meanings. The most problematic trend that Wybrew sees though is the move throughout the centuries to separate the clergy from the laity, making the liturgy clergy-centric to the exclusion of the common people. Aspects of this include the practice of saying certain prayers inaudibly, closing off of the alter from the rest of the church, and infrequent communion by the people. All of these things served to separate the laity from the liturgy itself and make them more and more simply spectators of things they couldn’t fully hear or see or understand. (This perspective though also helps one appreciate how important are recent trends to correct this.)

Another helpful part of this work is that Wybrew doesn’t only provide a historical narrative of how the liturgy developed; he also outlines a history of its interpretation. That is, as the liturgy developed, it became something itself interpreted by theologians, linking the different aspects of the liturgy with scenes from the life of Christ, for instance, or with various representations. Like Scripture itself, the liturgy has an superabundance of meaning. The Great Entrance, for example, may historically be a vestigial practice that grew out of bringing the bread and wine from a separate building where they had been deposited by members of the congregation to the church itself, but today it is seen as also symbolizing the entrance of Christ into the temple, for example, or the beginning of His earthly ministry, or more generally simply the coming of the Word of God into the World.

Which illustrates something important about the Orthodox Liturgy, and something that brings us back to the idea of barnacles and boats. Is something like the Entrance a piece of encrustation that obscures the original practices and life of the Church? If by this question one is asking whether it’s something that was practiced from the very beginning or something vital to an understanding of Christianity, then the answer is probably no. So should it then be abolished? An Orthodox Christian would say no, because it’s a part of the organic growth of the practice of the Church. It has a place and a significance and a meaning. The Holy Spirit was the gift of God to the Church at Pentecost, and that Holy Spirit has been continually creating the Church and its realities in our world since. Things like the Entrance are part of a living heritage of faith.

The liturgy, as Wybrew shows so well in this text, has been a process of growth and development. It has been an evolution. It continues to evolve. It’s alive.

A random and perhaps theologically-flawed analogy: in some ways my view of the Church is like my view of marriage. Sure, I want to remain focused on the faith and the promise of my marriage and at times work to get back the simplicity of love that drew my wife and me together. But marriage isn’t something static; it’s the beginning of a unified life. I don’t look on everything that’s developed over our years together, all the practices and realities of a relationship and family and the traditions that have grown up in our home, as barnacles I need to scrape away to get back to the true purity of our original wedding day. I wouldn’t even know what that means.

A theologian could probably point to flaws in my analogy, and Wybrew’s work is certainly not an argument toward this understanding of the liturgy or the faith itself. Wybrew’s work is simply information: a comprehensive and well-researched outline of how the liturgy has developed and been interpreted over the centuries. How you view that information— as illustrating pointless accumulation of dead ritual or organic growth of living worship— is up to you.

The Rewind Files

The Rewind FilesThe Rewind Files by Claire Willett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I stay away from espionage. I also (at least in my own writing) tend to stay away from time-travel. Things get far too complicated too quickly, and it’s all I can do to try to wrap my mind around the paradoxes inherent in even a simple time loop. I also– to my shame– tend to avoid twentieth-century history in particular and American history in general in my own work, which revolves around astronomy in the 1800s. The Rewind Files, by Claire Willett, involves all of these.

On the other hand though, I do love a good scifi yarn.

In this instance, I was in no way disappointed.

Claire, who among other really cool things has written plays on the history of astronomy, has quite simply written a very smart, very compelling, very impressive 20th-century, time-travel, espionage adventure. It fits together beautifully, it has dizzying twists and turns, and it has sharp characters with crackling dialogue. It’s just really, really good.

But that’s not a very insightful review, so let me try to unpack that a bit.

First, let’s start with the nuts and bolts: the history and the time-travel. I’m embarrassed by how little I know about my own nation’s history and in particular the Watergate scandal, which forms the historical backdrop to this misadventure. But it’s clear Claire has done her research– and not simply as a dutiful student but as someone who is passionately interested in the characters and the narrative of these events. She doesn’t just make this history come alive: she plays with it, dances around it, and makes it give her a quick peck on the cheek. But it works because she knows what she’s talking about. And she loves what she’s talking about.

Now the time-travel: this is where she gives even classic popular time travel treatments like Back to the Future or pick your favorite Babylon 5 story-arch a run for its money. All the loops (and there are several of them) get tied up and make all of the questions from earlier make sense. All of the snakes bite their own tails quite nicely. And the complexity of the time-hops and transporting (superimposed on the additional complexity of a branch of the government dedicated to preserving the integrity of the timeline) is handled with the dexterity of someone fluent in technobabble: creating a system of constraints and then playing fairly within it but also surprising the reader. I might even use the term elegant.

But those are the nuts and bolts of a good episode of Dr. Who: what about the things important in a novel, characters and plot? Claire gets awards for writing plays, so you’re in good hands here as well. The plot is solid, and though I admit it was a bit slow to start, a) by the time the penny dropped about halfway through I was hooked and couldn’t put it down for the rest of the novel and b) my confusion in the first half from getting dropped right into things cleared up with the reveals in the second half. As soon as Gemstone hits, we don’t get another breath until the end of the book. The twists are satisfying because though nothing is out of left field (you have some inkling of some of the big reveals), they’re handled in an unexpected manner that makes them all the more effective.

And then there are the characters. I put the book down several times while I was reading and told my wife, “You have to meet Reggie.” Claire’s main character is nearly flawless (not as a person, but as a character). She’s snarky, self-deprecating, and competent. She loves her family, all of whom play a major role in the action. The cadre of time-bandits Claire builds up around Reggie are the most endearing part of the story, and more than anything else you get the sense that all the deftly-handled history and time-twists are more than anything to give these characters a fascinating canvas to run around on. You like Reggie, but more than anything else you believe in Reggie.

The Rewind Files being a time-travel odyssey of course could have a sequel tacked on, though it’s more structured to allow a prequel or even a concurrent novel following the exploits of Reggie’s famous father. I don’t know if I want this though. I want Reggie and her friends to have an enduring happy ending, one no longer threatened by major distortions in the timeline.

More than anything, I just want Claire to create some more characters and do this again– only completely different this time.

December Skywatch

The evening skies of winter bring one of the most familiar groupings of stars, Orion, known as a giant, hero, or hunter in cultures throughout history and visible at some point of the year from every inhabited portion of the globe. Orion carries within it several stunning sights for both the naked eye and telescope observer, and we’ll be focusing on this constellation both this month and next. In this column I’ll start with a naked eye orientation to the bright constellation, and next month we’ll zoom in on some of the features visible through a telescope.

Orion rises in our evening winter skies as a tilted hour-glass figure marked by brilliant stars. At the beginning of the month he’s well over the horizon in the east by 8:30; by the end of December he’s nearly halfway up the sky in the evening. Two stars mark his shoulders, three his belt, and two his knees. Fainter stars trace out his head, sword, and shield or club he holds extended to the west. Each of the bright stars would be remarkable on their own, but together they make the constellation impossible to miss and twinkle fiercely low in the sky on crisp cold evenings.

The two stars marking Orion’s top shoulders are Betelgeuse (reputed to be a corruption of the Arabic for “Armpit of the Giant”) and Bellatrix (of recent Harry Potter fame—ask a fan what other characters appear in the winter sky). Betelgeuse has an unmistakable pale orange hue, which flickers beautifully when it’s low in the east. The stars in Orion present a snapshot of stellar evolution, and Betelgeuse is the old man in the crowd.

Betelgeuse is a dying star, a red supergiant near the end of its life. During this period of a star’s life it balloons to enormous sizes and can go through periods of instability, its tenuous radius heaving in and out like a slowly beating heart. Betelgeuse is thought to range from a radius of 800 million miles down to 480 million miles, which means at its smallest its surface would still extend beyond the orbit of Jupiter if it took our Sun’s place in our own solar system. Its density though is so low it’s less than a ten-thousandth of the density of the air we breathe, literally a “red hot vacuum.” It’s bleeding off this thin outer atmosphere into space, a dying giant lying just over 500 light years from Earth.

It’s fitting Orion is known as a giant in mythology, because the constellation is full of them. The star marking Orion’s knee opposite Betelgeuse, and providing a bright white-blue contrast to Betelgeuse’s pale orange glow, is Rigel. Rigel is one of the most luminous objects in the entire galaxy, outshining our own Sun by a factor of tens of thousands and at a distance from us of about 750 light years. Though it’s a supergiant like Betelgeuse and therefore has left the “middle age” that characterizes stars like our Sun, it’s younger than the pale orange star. And because more massive stars age more quickly, it’s likely younger than our Sun as well. Supergiants like Rigel (thought to be about fifty times the size and mass of our Sun) live short, hot, bright lives.

The stars in Orion’s belt, going from west to east, are Mintaka, Alnilam, and Alnitak. The star marking the remaining (eastern) knee is Saiph (meaning “Sword” though it’s far from the region of the constellation known as the Sword of Orion). All of these stars are giants or supergiants as well. What makes Orion such a rich area in space for the formation of these bright, young stars?

Image by Mike Hankey,

The answer is the huge clouds of nebulosity that spread throughout this entire constellation, dark and invisible. Though hundreds of times emptier than the best vacuum we can produce on Earth, these clouds stretch for hundreds of light years and contain enough mass to form thousands of Sun-sized stars, as well as a fair amount of giants. And that’s exactly what has been happening for millions of years in this portion of the sky. We can see it in action in the visible part of the cloud, known as the Orion Nebula, a fuzzy smear of light in the center of Orion’s Sword, just below his belt.

We’ll zoom in on this nebula with a telescope next month, but a good pair of binoculars also offers quite a view. In the center of the nebula a tight grouping of four very young stars, known as the Trapezium due to their shape, are causing the surrounding nebula to glow. These gems at the center of the nebula are among the youngest stars visible in the sky, a scarce handful of millions of years old. The nebula that surrounds them is one of the most famous sights in the night sky. Though it lacks the intense color and detail you’ll see in processed images from large telescopes, it’s still quite impressive for backyard scopes.

The astronomy Robert Burnham, Jr., quotes the journalist and astronomer C. E. Barns as saying, “For who would acquire a knowledge of the heavens, let him give up his days and nights to the marvels of Orion. Here may be found every conceivable variation of celestial phenomena: stars, giants and dwarfs; variables, multiples; binaries visual and spectroscopic; clusters wide and condensed; mysterious rayless rifts and nebulae in boundless variety, with the supreme wonder . . . at its heart—the Great nebula.” I tend to agree. Now that we’ve introduced the constellation, next month we’ll take a closer look at what Orion reveals to backyard telescopes.

This column first published in the Kankakee Daily Journal.

Baylor at the Crossroads

Baylor at the CrossroadsBaylor at the Crossroads by Donald D. Schmeltekopf

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m coming to realize how much has been written about the nature, state, and ultimate fate of Christian higher education. Universities and colleges– my own included– seem to be at a kind of crossroads, with several tensions at play. Some of these are financial pressures, the forces that compel a university to take a hard look at its bottom line and dig into best practices from business and administration (often to faculty dismay). But there’s also the related tension between the liberal arts approach and professional training, as well as the tension between teaching and research, and between a school’s historic religious or denominational affiliation and a slide toward secularism.

Things are messy and complicated in the academy.

In other words, business as usual.

Against this background, the few Christians schools that have successfully navigated a transition from traditional undergraduate college to thriving research university while remaining true to their Christian identity markedly stand out. Chief among these in evangelical circles is Baylor University.

Baylor at the Crossroads: Memoirs of a Provost is a slender volume written by Donald D. Schmeltekopf, Baylor’s provost for more than a decade during the key period in the school’s transformation. His readable, straightforward recollection outlines his role in the transition of Baylor from a traditional undergraduate university with strong professional programs and a few graduate degrees to the premier research university in the evangelical tradition. Central to this though, as Schmeltekopf is anxious to make very clear, is a consciously maintained commitment to Baylor’s Baptist and Christian identity.

In some ways, this book provides a good counterpoint to Benjamin Ginsberg’s Fall of the Faculty, which I reviewed several weeks ago. In that book, the author rails against administrative bloat and the growing power of bureaucratic administrators interested in little beyond the pursuit of their own agendas. Schemltekopf’s account is certainly one of a dizzying array of meetings, provosts, vice provosts, assistant vice provosts, committees, centers, and campus initiatives, but it offers an example (at least through Schmeltekopf’s eyes) of how this administrative arsenal can be arrayed to effectively lead a university, catalyze research, and set a guiding course for the integration of scholarship and faith.

This doesn’t take place without bumps in the road, of course. Schmeltekopf is honest in his retrospective in examining the resistance among the faculty to some of the changes he helmed and in particular administrative endeavors such as the Polyani Center, created for foster scholarship on the relationship between science and Christianity and but becoming quickly embroiled in controversy related to exploring questions of intelligent design. In many of these cases, he admits that problems arose when administration didn’t get enough “buy-in” from faculty or were too top-down in their practices.

Some of the details in this book will be tedious to those unfamiliar with either the ins and outs of life on in university in general or with Baylor in particular. Schmeltekopf goes into detail on many of his initiatives, to the degree of what was discussed at specific faculty retreats and who the speakers were. At the same time, it’s interesting to see the curtain drawn back on the nuts and bolts of what from most external signs looks like a very successful provostship.

It’s also interesting to hear Schmeltekopf’s clear appeal that the missional emphasis of Baylor’s Baptist heritage not be lost. This is a primary theme in the work and throughout Schmeltekopf’s career: finding the balance between academic rigor and success in the academy without the drift into secularism that often accompanies. For Baylor, this meant an awareness of the difficulty in walking this line, campus and faculty dialogue on these issues, and a careful hiring practice in which provost and president played a close role in the hiring of faculty and were not hesitant to block hires they did not feel were missional fits.

There’s not a lot of Schmeltekopf’s philosophy of education in here; rather, it comes across in the account of his praxis. He writes on his initiatives to promote the liberal arts at Baylor, resulting in the formation of an Honors College and great books major, but here the book is most helpful in offering reading suggestions that shaped the thinking of someone who put these things into practice in his own institution.

For me, this book was also helpful in formulating my own vision and wish list for my own institution, a place in a situation somewhat similar to where Baylor found itself a few decades ago: a teaching university with some strong professional programs, a few graduate programs, and a proud denominational heritage.

But where to go from here?

Like Schmeltekopf’s Baylor, I feel we’re at a crossroads. Will we go on to be the “Baylor” of our own denominational affiliation? Or the University of Phoenix of the evangelical world? Or maybe something more like a tiny, Christian MIT– focused on producing engineers and scientists of excellence? None of these would necessarily be a wrong choice, but we can’t become all three.

Luckily for me, that decision and casting of that kind of vision are well above my pay grade. But I still look at Schmeltekopf’s account for ideas I think would benefit my own context, recognizing the important difference between us, a difference that remained a block box in Schmeltekopf’s account: money. Whatever else can be said about Baylor’s transition to a world-class institution, it certainly seemed to have all the money necessary to make this possible (or at least connections to that money).

Whether or not these can be instituted in my own particular setting, at least according to Schmeltekopf’s work the following seem things necessary in the transition from denominational college to world-class institution:

1. external advisory committee – One of the things Schmeltekopf talked about was the importance of having a large group of external but invested individuals help provide guidance in steering Baylor toward the future. This is different than hiring consultants; these seemed to be primarily well-placed, influential alumni who had important connections and experience but who also a genuine interest in seeing the university succeed. Involving this large group and giving them an official capacity as an advisory board not only generated good external insights, but it also made this group even more invested in Baylor’s future, something I imagine had monetary pay-offs eventually as well.

2. internal faculty panel – In addition to this large external group of advisors tapped to help plot Baylor’s course and review its priorities at its 150th year, Schmeltekopf talked about less official faculty advisory groups that met regularly throughout his tenure with no specific goal or objective but to dialogue about the relationship between faith and scholarship and how that played out on Baylor’s campus. This was a rotating group that met for breakfast regularly with the provost, and by the time it was done it had allowed the majority of faculty-members on campus a chance to dialogue closely and informally with their administrators. An institution will not move toward being a world-class university without enthusiastic participation of the faculty, and keeping a wide variety of avenues of communication open and consistent seems essential.

3. fund-raising for academic positions (attracting quality professors) – Baylor under Schmeltekopf moved from fund-raising focused on building projects alone to securing funds to attract and maintain the best qualified professors, primarily through the funding of endowed chairs. Besides the resources to attract quality candidates in academia though, Baylor also had to have the confidence in its own identity and mission to maintain its missional standards while doing this. It didn’t feel it had to hire faculty only through prior connections to Baylor or Baptist contacts. It did what it needed to attract the best faculty out there, and then it maintained its standards in who it hired. This is a tough stance, and it can’t happen at all without financial resources invested in drawing and retaining the best teachers and researchers.


Again, these aren’t necessities everywhere, and they might not even be necessities where I am. There’s no clear consensus that we want to follow in Baylor’s footsteps. But if we decide that we do, Schmeltekopf’s account is a good place to being looking for ideas of how to craft an outstanding research university that keeps faith with its Christian heritage.

Fill These Hearts

Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal LongingFill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing by Christopher West

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What do a bunch of celibate men have to tell the world about marriage, love, and sex? Apparently quite a bit if those celibates are men like Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Christopher West’s slender text, Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing is an attempt to unpack the Catholic Church’s richly developed and under-appreciated theology of the body, though his desire to make this theology accessible to the widest audience possible at times makes it feel an exposition writ in crayon.

Plus, he starts off very much on the wrong foot from an astronomical point of view. So, pardon a astronomer’s annoyance, but first a short rant:

The opening sentence in West’s book states that “In 1977 NASA launched Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 to explore the galaxy.”


There’s so much wrong here. Granted, this isn’t a book about science and West only makes this comment in passing to talk about how the music samples carried by these spacecraft testify to humanity’s universal longing. But it is the opening line of his book . . .

The Voyager missions were launched to explore the outer planets of our own solar system, not the galaxy. But more than that, that there’s a staggering problem of scale here. Imagine tossing an Oreo cookie into the center of a football field. That cookie is roughly the radius of our solar system. (The Sun would be a candy sprinkle at Oreo’s center, and Neptune would be a microscopic dot skimming around the cookie’s edge.) On this scale, the nearest planetary system is another cookie two football fields away. The galaxy is about 200 billion of these cookies spread over an area about the size of North America. And where are the Voyagers on this scale? In the decades they’ve been in space, they’ve drifted less than a yard away from our own cookie– er, solar system.

Saying that we sent them out to explore the galaxy is a bit like imagining sending a paramecium to explore New York City.

End rant.

Okay, so it’s not a book about science. It’s a book about theology. West’s major point is that we as humans are built with certain longings and desires and that this isn’t a bad thing. We have these desires for a reason, but we have three possible responses to this reality, two bad and one good. We can either ignore and suppress those desires (what he calls the “starvation diet”) or we can indulge them (what he calls the “fast food diet”). Though Christianity is often portrayed as leaning toward the first option, West says this is as wrong as the improper indulgence of desires. (And to be clear, throughout the book he’s mainly talking about romantic and sexual desires.)

The proper response, West says, is to recognize these desires as pointing toward something beyond themselves, as indicative of an eternal banquet to come, to realize the things of this world cannot satisfy our desires, and to see romantic and sexual desires as a way of stretching our hearts so God can satisfy us. There’s weirdness here and mysticism and even some discomfort. But there’s also quite a bit of solid theology and biblical exposition. Song of Solomon, for instance, is in the Bible for a reason.

West’s alliterative thesis is that our desires— when understood correctly– point toward God, our design shows we’re meant to exist in relationship, and our destiny is that God wants to expand our desires and longings toward infinity where they can be filled with His love.

Along the way we’re treated to passages from Scripture and Catholic theology interspersed with painful analogies from Spider-Man 2 and lyrics from U2 (see the comment above about being writ in crayon). The most compelling portions for me were the final chapters where West provides an outline of the Catholic view of chastity and sexual ethics. In West’s interpretation, chastity is a promise of immortality. It’s a way of rightly ordering desire here on Earth, of keeping human nature free of the addictive aspects of sexual desire and oriented toward eternity. (If it seems like a futile and desperate hope, it kind of is.)

There are lots of issues here, primarily related to the point that West seems to think humans all have more or less the same sort of desires and takes this as the starting point for his exposition. This is in keeping with what I understand of Catholic theology often beginning from a “natural laws” treatment of the world, something that I’m not sure remains tenable.

If nothing else though, besides bringing a taste of some of the deeper aspects of Catholic theology, West does call attention to the undeniable fact that many of the central themes and symbols in the Bible have to do with sex and marriage– and wine. Sex and alcohol, often shunned in puritanical circles, are central to a Biblical view of desire and satisfaction. Christ’s first miracle, as West points out, was at a wedding feast, and it was to provide that feast with a fine vintage. This is West’s central claim: that God isn’t interested in starving us or in seeing us waste ourselves seeking after pleasures that can’t satisfy. Rather, He wants to provide a real, eternal banquet and (though the analogy becomes strained, at least to me) a real, eternal marriage relationship.