Janet Smith says criticisms of West ‘unfair’ and ‘unsubstantiated’

Janet Smith says criticisms of West ‘unfair’ and ‘unsubstantiated’

Professor Janet Smith
Professor Janet Smith

.- Continuing the discussion about Theology of the Body speaker Christopher West, Prof. Janet E. Smith has argued that theologian Prof. David Schindler’s criticism of West has been “unfair” and has focused upon “unsubstantiated” and “out of context” examples of errors he sees in West’s work.

Smith, a moral theologian at Detroit’s Sacred Heart Major Seminary, is teaching a June immersion course on Pope John Paul II’s “Love and Responsibility” with West through the Theology of the Body Institute.

Schindler, a dean at the John Paul II Institute at Washington, D.C., initially criticized West’s interpretation of the late pontiff’s Theology of the Body for significantly misrepresenting the thought of John Paul II, for being “too much about sex and too romantic,” and for neglecting a sound understanding of mankind's fallen nature.

In the second of his two criticisms published at HeadlineBistro.com, Schindler said West’s views can encourage a “dangerous imprudence” and argued that those not at ease with his presentation have some cause for concern.

Smith’s second response to Schindler, also published at HeadlineBistro.com, repeated her praise for West, saying he is a “pioneer” who has taught the public and has created an “excellent tool” for scholars with his commentary on the Theology of the Body.

“Criticism of his work is to be welcomed but it must be delivered in a way as to be useful,” Smith wrote, expressing her continued “serious misgivings” about the manner of the conversation about West’s work.

“It surprises me that Prof. Schindler defends his use of unsubstantiated examples taken out of context in his critique of the work of West,” she said, adding that if sufficient evidence against West exists it should be evident in his many CDs and DVDs.

Smith said she could not respond to Schindler’s criticisms of West without knowing the context of the disputed elements.

“Schindler seems to me to risk sliding into sound bites as criticism rather than textual citation as criticism. It is time for more citation of texts; not sound bites, not implication, but substantiated criticism.”

Some critics of West, she remarked, refer to “impressions” of the speaker whom they may have seen more than ten years ago and are not reacting to his more recent work and presentations.

She then responded to one of Schindler’s specific criticisms, namely that West has used “phallic symbolism” to describe the Easter Candle.

“I wouldn’t use the example myself, but I don’t think it worthy of a wholesale attack or a wholesale defense; the issue is very overblown,” she said.

“I know that West’s talks have elements that challenge the sensitivities of many. When I heard West in his first series of talks claim that the submersion of the Easter Candle into the holy water font was sexual imagery used by the Church to show that, through baptism, spiritual children are born, I was appalled.”

Smith explained that her response may have been “prudish” but she thought West’s reference was “vulgar and irreverent.”

However, she said, she was surprised to learn that liturgists and theologians “from the early days of the Church” have understood the Easter Candle “just as West does.”

“Schindler thinks that some things ought never to be discussed in public,” Smith continued, suggesting that if West told an audience he would only address certain issues in a private discussion, the whole audience would show up.

Smith said Schindler had justified West’s status as a public figure to “use the media and create a firestorm” by making his arguments. She argued that it was “unjust” for someone of Schindler’s influence to raise “very serious objections” in a public forum.

“I believe here that he is stepping outside of the arena where the kinds of concerns he raises are best and appropriately addressed – the academic arena where issues can receive patient reflection and prolonged and careful assessment; not the arena of the Internet blog which invites hasty and unreflective judgment,” she wrote, referring to the news aggregator HeadlineBistro.com.

Smith reported that a bishop and a conference organizer have both said they received a copy of Schindler’s critique from someone who sought to dissuade them from sponsoring West’s appearance at a conference. While Schindler does not want West to fail, she said, some will attempt to use the scholar’s authority to make the popular speaker fail.

She then suggested that Schindler’s aims differ from those of Pope John Paul II and Christopher West:

“John Paul II and West have not undertaken the same project that Schindler undertakes. Their approach to topics is chosen for pedagogical reasons and thus they may not go into some of what Schindler considers essential for understanding the relation of the person to God and the body to love.”

Concluding her response, Prof. Smith said “some good things” are coming out of the conversation about West. She expressed hope West will “just keep getting better and better,” will convert many people, and will take present criticism “as graciously as he had taken criticisms in the past.”

“I also hope West’s critics, after patient and prolonged reflection AND a close look at the evidence, will be very open to the possibility that they are not being altogether fair to him,” she wrote.

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