Pope John Paul II (adapted by Sam Torode)
Theology of the Body in Simple Language
Philokalia Books, 2009
ISBN-13: 978-1442141049

Between 1979 and 1984, Pope (now St) John Paul II gave 129 lectures on human sexuality during his Wednesday audiences in St Peter’s Square. The irony that such an exhaustive treatment on human sexuality - known popularly as the Theology of the Body - came from a man vowed to celibacy is not lost, but many – like US-based author and minister David L Hatton – believe that "no other theological work approaches its thoroughness and depth in dealing with God’s purpose for the physical human body’s sexual nature".

It doesn’t take long for any Christian exploring sexuality, body image, nakedness, art or God’s design of us as sexual beings, to stumble across the Theology of the Body. Yet the work is perhaps not as well-known as it could, or should, be. This may bear witness to how oddly silent and conflicted the church can be on matters relating to sex – the information is there, but one must look for it.

Theology of the Body

 

"It doesn’t take long for any Christian exploring sexuality, body image, nakedness, art or God’s design of us as sexual beings, to stumble across the Theology of the Body. Yet the work is perhaps not as well-known as it could, or should, be. This may bear witness to how oddly silent and conflicted the church can be on matters relating to sex – the information is there, but one must look for it."

The lectures - which are readily available in full - are quite dense. Catholic writers such as Christopher West have done much to simplify and promote the Theology of the Body through commentaries, lectures, projects and even an institute. There are numerous books currently available ranging from beginner guides to studies as detailed as the talks themselves – all seeking to unpack the lecture series for a given audience. But this review will focus on the refreshingly plain and very accessible Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body in Simple Language, published by Philokalia Books and adapted into everyday English by Sam Torode.

Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body in Simple Language summarises 86 of John Paul II’s 129 lectures into very short - many less than two pages - reflections. As such, they could make wonderful daily devotions, thought-provoking meditations or even Bible study discussion topics.

Love, marriage, body, nakedness, sexuality, lust, acceptance, pornography, shame, culture…are all there, set out in loving studies. And this is a fascinating point: instead of a dry academic lecture from a celibate man about the dos and don’ts of sex and the body, John Paul II has given us an extraordinary insight into God-given human sexuality that espouses beauty, creation, art, love and the aesthetic wonder of humankind created in God’s image. 

But perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised at this writing. Karol Józef Wojtyla, as he was born, was a man known for his deep love of nature - which included leading youth expeditions into the wilderness - and of the arts. Those loves, and how he connected beauty with God’s creation, is presented in a gentle and nurturing style in the Theology of the Bodyand is retained by Torode in this summary.



Wojtyla’s love of art and beauty is also evident in his Letter to Artists, which he prefaced with, "To all who are passionately dedicated to the search for new 'epiphanies' of beauty so that through their creative work as artists they may offer these as gifts to the world".

His letter then opens with, "None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands".

And further on, "In perceiving that all he had created was good, God saw that it was beautiful as well. The link between good and beautiful stirs fruitful reflection. In a certain sense, beauty is the visible form of the good, just as the good is the metaphysical condition of beauty."

This link permeates the Theology of the Body. Pope John Paul II’s deep interest in Genesis appears throughout with the reader frequently reminded that "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good".

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While short and possibly too simple at times - which risks the reader missing the nuance of important points - Theology of the Body in Simple Language is a refreshing and much-needed introduction to topics too often glossed over or ignored from the pulpit. And it provides access to the reflections of a man who saw God’s beauty and image in all that was around him.

It is a shame that the Theology of the Body is not more widely known – within both Catholic and Protestant circles. The work explores topics that should be discussed more openly and fearlessly. We are, after all, image bearers of God, and as such, we as Christians have a responsibility to know and understand what that means. 

The human body is not something to hide from or be embarrassed by. That we have been made to resemble God is His wondrous gift to us. Surely that is something to celebrate, ponder and study profoundly. And it is why Christians should be a leading and welcome voice in matters of sexuality and body image, not a condemning voice of prudery or misguided notions of modesty.

As John Paul II reminds us: "This great mystery of creation - that we are created in God’s image - is the key reference point for understanding all aspects of humanity, including our sexuality."

Anyone exploring issues of sexuality or body image from a Christian perspective; who wants a deeper understanding of the marital union of man and woman and why indeed God created us as man and woman; for those seeking a theological understanding of nakedness; or to consider the impacts of lust, adultery and objectification, would do well to use Theology of the Body in Simple Language as a theological foundation. 

It is a beautiful book and one destined to uncover deeper thoughts and questions within the reader that are ripe for further study.