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To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the gospel in a secular age, by Robert Barron with John L. Allen Jr

18 January 2019

Edward Dowler looks at an advocate of the return to confident Catholicism

ROBERT BARRON, Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles, is a former seminary principal with an academic background, who, in recent years, has started to rise to celebrity status. The author and presenter of a TV series and accompanying book, Catholicism: A journey to the heart of faith, Barron’s “Word on Fire” YouTube channel reaches viewers around the world with high-quality theological input on a huge variety of subjects, presented in an intelligent and engaging style.

In this lucid and wide-ranging book, the RC author and journalist John L. Allen offers a portrait of Barron which ranges widely over his subject’s theological interests, and includes striking and lucidly presented reflection on subjects such as philosophy of religion, use of the Bible, prayer, liturgy, and apologetics.

First and foremost, Barron sees himself as an evangelist in the tradition of the great Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who rose to prominence in the mid-20th century through his own popular TV presentations of RC thought. Barron’s central criticism is of the “beige Catholicism” with which he was brought up: “what I didn’t get was a proud, confident, truthful and beautiful presentation of Catholicism”; and it is this that Barron labours to provide.

His strategy for evangelisation could, therefore, be described as maximalist: to bring out from what he describes as the “Grandma’s attic” of the Catholic tradition all that is most engaging, inspiring, theologically rich, and artistically beautiful. He is confident that, if the Church offers beautiful liturgy, biblical preaching, cogent and intelligent apologetics, and appreciation of the theological riches contained within centuries of Christian art and music, these will convert people to the God to whom they point.

The task that Barron sees as most important for today’s Church is that of evangelising the “nones”: the rapidly increasing number of people in the Western world who claim no religious affiliation. Many of them are profoundly sceptical of both the truth-claims and the goodness of religions. The approach to them which Barron advocates is through initially offering an experience of what is beautiful. Out of the three “transcendentals” that reflect the perfection of God, Barron’s order of priority is: “first the beautiful, then the good, then the true”.

Two reflections perhaps arise for Anglicans on Barron’s important and fruitful ministry as it is related in this excellent book. Over the past 60 or 70 years, we have seemed to assume that the Church attracts people only when it is willing to play down some key part of its tradition and identity, such as doctrine, the Bible, or liturgy. Barron encourages us to be more confident: in the words of St Paul, “all things are yours.” Second, those who are serious about evangelisation in our Church often seem to sit very light to the category of beauty in their presentation of Christian faith. Barron suggests that this may require a rethink.

The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings in the diocese of Chichester.

To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the gospel in a secular age
Robert Barron with John L. Allen Jr
Image Books £22.99
Church Times Bookshop £20.70

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