To Light a Fire on the Earth, Robert Barron with John L. Allen, Jr. New York: Image Books, 2017.
Summary: An interview between Barron and Allen that is part biography and part outline of Barron’s approach to the “new evangelization” of which his Word on Fire ministry is a leading exemplar.
Robert Barron is one of five Auxiliary Bishops in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. and through his YouTube postings, his Word on Fire website, and other media is probably one of the most followed Catholics on social media. He is the host of CATHOLICISM, a series of PBS documentaries on the Catholic Church. He is one of the most visible leaders of the “new evangelization” within the church. In this book, he engages with Catholic writer, John Allen in a wide-ranging discussion that is part biography and part survey of his key ideas and convictions that shape his ministry.
The Introduction and Chapter One focus on “The Barron Story.” We find out that Barron was an ordinary Catholic kid (and avid baseball player and fan) growing up in the era of Vatican II whose religious imagination was captured while in high school (!) he was exposed to Thomas Merton and St. Thomas Aquinas. A year at Notre Dame resulted in a calling to the priesthood, studies at Catholic University, ordination in Chicago and further studies under von Balthasar in France, where he came to a “post-liberal” perspective centered in Christ and scripture. A move back to Chicago to teach at Mundelein Seminary led to mentoring from Father Andrew Greeley and Cardinal Francis George and encouragement to break into the media world that led to the YouTube videos, the CATHOLICISM series and Word on Fire.
With that the discussion moves to the”three pillars” of Barron’s message–beauty, goodness, and truth. Barron believes in this generation, the evangelist leads with beauty and goodness, which point toward, but don’t elucidate the truth of the gospel. In his approach to “Catholic beauty,” he focuses on great literature, great cathedrals, great music, and great movies. Much of his focus on goodness centers around the saints and martyrs. He makes a fascinating statement about the latter:
“I thought, the only way Europe’s going to be reevangelized is through the martyrs. In some ways, it’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s true. Argument will be part of it, but it’s the martyrs. Martyrs will reevangelize Europe, and maybe it’s missionary martyrs as in the early centuries of the Church’s life.”
He believes the martyrs focus attention on the end or teleology of morals rather than morality as keeping a bunch of rules. He believes in a church that both maintains high standards without obsessively focusing on them, and stresses the essentials of Catholic life and belief and the greatness of God’s mercy. Barron the baseball fan describes it as wanting people to “feel the infield…to smell the ballpark.”
He believes that it is through the beauty and goodness to be found in the Catholic heritage that people open up to truth. And here, Barron speaks out against a “beige Catholicism” that is bland and apologetic with no hard edges. He contends for a message centered on the priority of Christ, that contends that not all truth is found through science or personal experience, and that Christianity is not simply one of many ways up the mountain.
This brings us to center in on his ideas about evangelization, which he believes is to bring people into a relationship with a person, with Christ. The evangelist proposes, rather than imposes. He is especially concerned with the spiritual but not religious “nones” as well as those who have departed from the church. He holds up Christopher Hitchens as a model of an evangelist–smart, witty, and willing to argue hard.
The book turns to Barron’s views of prayer and the supernatural, which he fully believes in, and the Bible. The influence of von Balthasar is evident here in his argument that priests need to start from scripture and that preaching above all must be biblical rather than starting from experience. It was fascinating that one of his favorite biblical scholars is N.T. Wright, who fuses scholarship and preaching. He describes a good sermon as one that “allows you to see the world with Biblical eyes.”
A whole chapter is given over to “obstacles to the faith” ranging from the idea of God to issues of human sexuality to the clergy sexual abuse scandals that rocked the church. Concerning human sexuality, his concern for teleology and not simply rule keeping is evident:
“What the teaching is trying to do is to move people into the stance of more radical and complete self-gift, which in the Catholic view, includes not just unity and friendship but procreation and the gift of life. When that sexual ideal is held up uncompromisingly, you’re going to get teachings against anything that would undercut procreation and the gift of life. That will strike some people as extreme. Yet the Church is also extreme in its mercy as it reaches out to, accompanies, walks with and understands gay people. For someone who has a gay orientation, is all that a massively difficult thing to integrate? Yes, absolutely, and we have to be sensitive to that. Do we need shepherds who are willing to walk with and accompany gay people? Yes, as Pope Francis always says. ‘How far do we go?’ All the way, all the way, but without dialing down the moral demand, the moral ideal. I think that’s the thing.”
Barron deals candidly with the sexual abuse scandals and also outlines the steps he took as a seminary rector in the screening of candidates for the priesthood.
The concluding two chapters bring us up to the present as we see both Barron the bishop and Barron as he wrestles with how a ministry might become a movement. This last chapter was tantalizing as it considered other Catholic movements, and what it would take for Word on Fire to become another movement. We’re left wondering if it will happen.
What was fascinating to me in this account were several things. One is that Barron is unashamed to speak of evangelization and seeking the conversion of people to the faith. Another was the focus on the person and work of Christ as central to the message of the church. I was also intrigued by his arguments against “dumbing down” the church’s teaching and that kids who can summarize the plots of Star Wars and remember the strange names of characters, should easily be able to do the same with the Bible. Finally, his appreciation of the role of the goodness and beauty of the life of the church in preparing hearts for truth, that is, the demonstration of truth in life and history, coupled with a vibrantly articulation of that truth that does not lapse into subjectivity or relativism, is a bracing combination that challenges the banal sameness of contemporary “seeker sensitive” evangelicalism.
As I noted in yesterday’s post, Barron and other Catholics of the new evangelization seem to be moving toward some of the very things American evangelicals are moving away from that once were hallmarks of their movement. We often seem squeamish about evangelism and conversion, about the Bible, the cross, and a bracing call to high ethical standards that reflect the ends toward which we have been saved. Barron, while thoughtful and engaging and gracious does not seem squeamish about any of this. Might there be something we could learn from the Bishop?
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.