By John Burger, Courtesy Word on Fire, June 11, 2018
“We’re falling in love with self-invention,” says founder of Word on Fire.
Many people of a religious bent had high hopes for the internet and social media as a place to spread their message. Some have been disappointed that the digital world has turned out to be more of a landmine that seems more to encourage secularist messages and immoral behavior. And actions by social media giants in censuring certain messages, such as Google blocking pro-life ads, have made Christians suspicious of the media.
So it surprised some people when a Catholic bishop named Robert Barron showed up at Facebook headquarters to give a talk about religion and evangelization. And a subsequent appearance at Google headquarters showed that it wasn’t simply a one-off, that this energetic and engaging theologian was not confined to the sanctuary.
But in fact, Barron is just as comfortable in Silicon Valley offices as he is addressing fellow clergymen or committed Catholics. From the beginning of his ministry, Word on Fire, he has regarded the digital world as the “new Areopagus,” like the gathering place in ancient Athens where St. Paul the Apostle preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Greeks who worshiped “the unknown God.”
In many ways, American culture has become like that pre-Christian world, and Bishop Barron is finding ways to reconnect it with the Judeo-Christian values it once took for granted.
In an interview with Aleteia in mid-May, the bishop explained his vision for advancing the New Evangelization and spoke of the dangers and opportunities in 2018 America.
What’s new with your ministry, Word on Fire?
Very shortly we’re coming out with a new video series. I gave six talks last October at one of our beautiful churches here in Santa Barbara, on what is the Mass and walking through it, step by step. So we filmed all those, and they interspersed it with a lot of nice photography and music and so on. Those are coming out in early June.
I feel so strongly that maybe the key focus of Vatican II was to revive a sense of the Mass, but I feel that that’s not happened. It’s one of the great unrealized dreams of Vatican II, because … 75 percent of Catholics stay away from Mass on a regular basis.
Why hasn’t that vision been realized?
I don’t know; it’s a good question, because it’s a document of Vatican II, but it was not part of the implementation, I think; it was not emphasized, for general cultural reasons, the falling away from religion that’s happened, and the rise of secularism. So there are all kinds of reasons for that.
How would you define evangelization? And what is it in this day and age?
It’s the thing that it’s always been, which is declaring the lordship of Jesus and the good news that he’s risen from the dead. The Greek word evangelion means glad tidings, and the glad tidings are about the resurrection, which shows that Jesus is the Christ, he’s the king, he’s the lord.
So that’s the short answer, which is declaring the lordship of Jesus and inviting people to follow him in the Church. … Now, that takes place under different cultural conditions, and so part of the New Evangelization is the understanding of novel ways we have to do this, proclaiming the lordship of Jesus today.
How do you get invited to places like Google and Facebook? Are you speaking more and more in fora such as these? It seems like you’re trying to go beyond preaching to the choir.
It’s certainly part of our mission. From the beginning, Word on Fire has been designed to reach out to the wider culture. I’m very happy to edify Catholics and to bring former Catholics back, but the widest focus is on the world, to bring the culture to Christ. So appearing at Facebook or Google, to me, is like our version of Paul on the Areopagus. Paul goes into the place where ideas have been debated openly, where there was mostly hostility to his message, which we hear even in the Acts of the Apostles, where people laughed at him or walked away. But a handful listened. And that’s always been inspiration for Word on Fire. We usually identify the present day Areopagus with the Web. The internet represents the Areopagus. But Facebook and Google would be part of that as well.
These talks happened through some contacts I have in the Diocese of San Jose—men involved in that world who have been following me for a long time. And they came to see me one day, and I didn’t know any of them. They said “If we could pull some strings and get you into these places, would you be willing to go?” I said “Yeah, sure, if you can pull it off.”
To be honest with you, I wasn’t at all sure that they could do it, but then, sure enough, several months later we get these invitations. They work through the Catholic groups [at the companies], which is clever. The Facebook talk was live streamed, and I think that went out to like half a million people, and the Google one they put up on their own YouTube page. Just after a couple of days it’s gotten 50,000 views. I’m delighted to do that. They didn’t censor me in any way; they received me very warmly; there was a good q-and-a session after each talk.
In your travels, do you sense that there is a growing proportion of society that not only are “Nones” or agnostics or atheists or whatever, but that we do not even have a common language, a common vocabulary anymore, so that they can’t appreciate what you are trying to express?
Yes, I do notice that. I think communication is more difficult. If you go back to the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century, you kind of assume a biblical literacy. Most people have some sense of the Bible and, frankly, most people were religious. So there was kind of a moral and even metaphysical frame of reference that almost everybody shared—Catholic, Protestant, Jew—in our country.
And then after, let’s say, 1960 or so, things really began to fall apart. And I think you put it correctly: a shared vocabulary, grounded in the Bible and certain moral and metaphysical convictions began to disintegrate. And yes, that has made it much more difficult to communicate.
What you have to do is find elements of that consensus that was once very real and integral, you find elements of it in the culture today. So it’s not as easy, but you can find bridges. And that’s a lot of my work: talking about movies, talking about music, talking about the popular culture, about books, and so on, is to find these bridges between the classical Catholic faith and the contemporary culture. It’s more of a positive, it’s less of a Jeremiad, sort of hand-wringing critique of the culture, although I do some of that, when I think the culture is really gone off the rails. But my general approach seems to be more positive, to find points of contact.
Tell me about some of the stories of people who have been moved by what you and Word on Fire are doing—stories of the impact it’s made, conversions, reversions, etc.
We have a book of stories of [conversions]. That’s one of the most gratifying, edifying parts of my ministry, to read these stories. A lot of the people who stumble upon my work on the internet—it’s the sowing of seeds. I do a commentary on Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, let’s say, and people watch it on YouTube, and I have no idea where that’s going to land or how it’s going to land. And then you read of someone who stumbled on that video, and it started them on a journey to other videos of mine and then to the website and to other Catholic resources and so on. We have lots of stories like that of, I would say, the odd seed that landed and led to growth: people on the YouTube page, people who watch the Catholicismseries. A lot of ex-Catholics, some of whom ran across my work at the university, some of whom ran across it in youth groups. Here’s a kid, an 18-year-old high school senior: he went to his priest to ask about resources he could find, and the priest recommended Word on Fire. And so he started this journey and now he wants to be a new evangelist.
What in your view is the greatest danger American society is facing today?
I would say it’s the ideology of self-invention. What I mean by that is, this goes back to Nietzsche in the 19th century and comes up to Sartre in the 20th century, Michel Foucault, people like that. It was once a very high academic thing, but now I think it’s in almost every teenager in America: the view that truth is a function of my will, value is a function of my will. I decide on my own what’s true and what’s good. You see that now in a thousand different forms in our culture. Not only is this deeply out of touch with reality, but it makes religion almost opaque to people, because the claim that there’s a truth and a value that’s outside of you, to which your mind will have to conform, that’s very difficult for people today. I think that gets in the way of people’s happiness, massively. If you start saying “I invent truth and I invent value,” you’re down this road to self-destruction. The joyful life comes from a surrender to the great transcendent truths and values that summon the mind and summon the will. When one surrenders to those and then finds the right path, that’s what religion is all about. It’s all about the discovery of great objective value and truth.
So I would say that’s the greatest danger we’re facing in the culture: we’re falling in love with self-invention. “I decide.” I think that’s a recipe for deep unhappiness.
How do we combat that?
You combat it, I think, by showing in a compelling way that truth and value are not inimical to freedom but they actually engage in and make freedom possible. You combat it by showing the saints, who discovered truths and values that made their lives radiant.
I always use the examples of learning to play a sport or learning to play an instrument. You don’t get good at these things by saying “I’ll do it any way I want to,” or “I’ll make up the rules.” It’s by submitting to these objective norms that you become a great player or a great instrumentalist. The same is true in the moral and spiritual order. It’s not just self-invention, this kind of orgy of self-congratulation, but it’s through the disciplined acceptance of objective truth and vaule that you come alive. That’s the paradox that people today have a hard time grasping.
What is the greatest opportunity we have today that we might not even be recognizing?
It’s closely related to what I just said. The greatest opportunity is people’s unhappiness. The world that’s being created by ideological secularism and by the culture of self-invention is a deeply unhappy world. Watch it especially among young people: the deep unhappiness that’s obtaining because they’ve bought into this secularist ideology, and that unhappiness awakens the hungry heart. And the hungry heart is the friend of religion. That’s the Augustinian intuition: that is, if you follow your hungry heart all the way it’ll lead you to God, because that’s what the heart is hungry for.