Photo: Bishop Robert Barron visits the headquarters of Facebook.
BOOK PICK: To Light a Fire on the Earth, Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age
Bishop Robert Barron has been likened to a 21st-century Fulton Sheen: His website (WordonFire.org), his Catholicism series and his social-media presence have given this popular Catholic evangelist multiple platforms to reach and preach to today’s secular culture.
This book is a collaboration between Bishop Barron and veteran journalist John Allen to tell the story behind Bishop Barron and his Word on Fire ministry. The Church’s contemporary challenge, says the bishop, is a creeping secularism in the culture and among individuals.
Culture has increasingly amputated itself from its religious roots, and 9/11 helped revitalize the Enlightenment prejudice that religion is a violent, destructive and irrational force. This, in turn, fuels the New Atheist movement, he explains. Simultaneously, the rise of religious dropouts — lapsed Catholics, “nones” and “spiritual-but-not-religious” — has shifted America markedly in a secular direction. The Church didn’t help itself with the sex-abuse scandals and its ham-handed handling of them.
But Bishop Barron doesn’t regret. He wants to do; to reach out to the unchurched and disaffected, not with vinegar, but with honey — the honey of beauty: “In Christian tradition, beauty, goodness and truth are known as ‘transcendentals,’ linked to the three core human abilities to feel, to wish and to think. Jesus refers to them in the Great Commandment, when he talks about the mind, the soul and the heart. While Bishop Barron is convinced that Catholic Christianity represents the fullness of all three, he’s equally convinced that the right way to open up the Catholic world to someone is with its beauty.”
Bishop Barron owes his focus on beauty to Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of his philosophical mentors. God as Beautiful will lead us, he believes, to God as Truth and God as Goodness, but the quest for the Divine begins in Beauty — which is where the Catholicism series begins, too.
Allen leads us through Bishop Barron’s ideas about beauty, truth and goodness to create an evangelism for today that addresses today’s culture. He also identifies some of the bishop’s key themes, three of which merit attention: 1) Christocentricity — Catholicism begins not with our experience, but with Christ, who seeks a relationship with us; 2) biblical focus — the Catholic story is grounded in the biblical world, one very different from ours, and good preaching starts there, refracting our experience through it, not the other way around; and 3) intellectual rigor — in trying to explain the Catholic message, Bishop Barron does not want to “dumb it down,” arguing we have lost a lot by a catechesis of oversimplification and coloring books. As he puts it: “There was a young lady who worked at Word on Fire and she had two kids. Her daughter was nine. In she comes one day, and her mom says, ‘Hey, tell Father Bob all about Star Wars.’ So off she goes, recounting in infinite detail the whole Star Wars saga — every minor player and every complicated name. I’m smiling as she told me all about it, and when she finished, I said to her mother, ‘Now don’t tell me little kids can’t understand the Bible.’ Give me a break! I frankly don’t see how Habakkuk and Nebuchadnezzar are necessarily harder to memorize than Obi-Wan Kenobi and Lando Calrissian.”
This book supplies a good background into a very popular, effective and erudite spokesman for the Catholic message today. My one reservation is its repeated downplaying of Catholic sexual morality. Yes, I agree it’s not where evangelization need begin. But anybody who has followed contemporary culture knows that defense of the “sexual revolution” is the hill on which much of the American chattering and opinion-making classes will die.
To pretend that sex is not ground zero of the contemporary battle for human dignity is to deny reality. I’m not sure if it’s just Bishop Barron’s strategic choice about where to begin or Allen’s mediating the dissident line that sexual morality is “not central to the faith,” and so, with a wink and nod, the topic gets marginalized not so much by explicit rejection as the “sounds of silence.” I’m not suggesting Bishop Barron does not engage these issues, but I question their being put on a back burner.
Still, Bishop Barron is on to something that may even become a new movement in the Church — this book illumines its richness.
John M. Grondelski, Ph.D., writes from Falls Church, Virginia.