I’ve grown to dislike writing autobiographical elements into my reviews. Such reviews tend to be overbearing and egotistical, less concerned with the actual facts on the page or screen and more obsessed with petty minutia and feelings. That said, I am in a weird position with this particular essay. I’m not writing about a regular book. I’m writing about a full library of books, hotly debated in its complexity, interpretation, and application for over two thousand years. As such, any piece about this particular book is going to be bogged down in personal context and biases. That way, any reader can pick this up and understand where I am coming from and what this book will mean to them. I hope that comes across in this.
Modern Catholic Evangelism
I am not Catholic. I am a cradle Protestant raised by a fundamentalist Baptist family, and while I attended non-denominational services in my adolescence, I am now an adult attendee of an Anglican Church of North America parish. I am part of the generation of young Christians drawn back to traditional liturgy, although I’ve never been tempted to convert out of Protestantism, despite the best protestations of my dear Orthodox and Catholic friends.
That said, I can’t help but admire the work that many of my amazing Catholic brothers and sisters are doing in terms of bringing evangelization to the current generation. Many prominent Catholics have taken leading roles in the culture war. It is impressive that Fr. Mike Schmitz’s Bible in a Year Podcast is one of the most popular podcasts in the United States. And now, the fine people at Word on Fire have begun to cement their legacy with the creation of one of the most beautiful editions of the Bible currently in print.
Bishop Robert Barron is one of the best evangelistic voices in the culture at this moment. He is the presiding Archbishop of Los Angeles but he’s gained a curious reputation online as the host and creator of Word on Fire ministries, a Catholic publisher and content producer that creates video content reacting to problems and events within the culture. I first discovered him through his amusing film reviews, but his influence has skyrocketed of late. He was even declared one of the “Four Horsemen of Meaning” next to Jonathan Pageau, Jordan Peterson, and John Vervaeke – four men doing a lot of work to try and resurrect understanding and meaning in the modern post-Christian world.
Word on Fire’s ongoing project, The Word on Fire Catholic Bible, has been one of the most fascinating undertakings of their ministries in the past few years of their Christian teachings. It’s an ongoing multi-volume commentary Bible that goes through the entire text of the scriptures and offers useful commentary from dozens of prominent Catholic thinkers — from contemporary minds like Pope Benedict, Pope John Paul II, Fr. Fulton Sheen, and G.K. Chesterton to notable historical figures like Thomas Aquinas, Augustine of Hippo, St. John Chrysostom, St. Bede, Origen, Dante, and more!
The first volume on the Gospels was released in June 2020 and the second volume on the Epistles was released in January of this year, with its next volume on the Pentateuch set for release in mid-2023. Subsequent volumes are planned for the future as well going forward.
Approaching a Bible
I was delighted when Word on Fire was kind enough to send me a review copy of Volume II, which covers the New Testament Book of Acts, the Epistles, and the Revelation. Slowly as I paged through the book, though, the full nature of the undertaking became clear to me. Trying to “review” a Bible started to sound like an act of hubris and opened up more cans of worms than I can begin to resolve. What aspect of it needed to be reviewed? The translation? The Catholic traditions that influenced the translations? The commentaries? The binding? How do I describe the book without being sucked into the innate politics of the Reformation and the schism which still causes conflict after 505 years?
The Bible is one of the most complex and thought-over books in human history, and I’m in no position to discuss matters of translation or denominational differences. These are all academic discussions and ones I’m not prepared to delegate. Additionally, I don’t want any review of this text to just be a tract on my own reservations about Catholicism. My Protestant lay opinions on Marianism or the Papacy have no bearing on the usefulness of the book as an evangelistic tool.
The question for a book like the Word on Fire Bible is ultimately “What purpose is it fulfilling?” More often than not, a person approaches a new Bible translation for some specific reason. Maybe you want the academic sensibilities of the English Standard Version or Alter’s Hebrew Bible. Maybe you’re a King James Version-only traditionalist. Maybe you only read Catholic translations that preserve the Apocrypha as canon or maybe you want a more accessible translation like The Message or the New International Version. In any case, the translation is ultimately serving a pragmatic purpose in your daily faith journey — to help you develop daily reading habits, spend time in the word, and comprehend how you are supposed to live out in your daily walk with Christ.
Evangelizing Through Beauty
In that regard, the best way to understand the Word on Fire Bible is as a tool to evangelize by beauty, something that Bishop Barren had dedicated a great deal of his ministry to discussing. The website for the book describes it as “A Cathedral in Print”, and that it is “wrapped in 2,000 years of insight, art, and tradition.” It certainly succeeds at that.
The main appeal of this Bible is twofold: that it is an excellent introductory text for first-time readers with its extensive commentaries and depictions of dozens of the most beautiful works of Christian art ever created. It is a way of expressing what the Barron describes as pulchritudinous, “the way of beauty” or using beauty as a tool to draw the masses towards Christ by expressing the beauty of Christianity in context with the ugliness of the world.
Volume II is filled with at least a dozen examples of paintings, drawings, mosaics, statues, and other works of art created by great artists. We’re given page-long essays on the likes of Piero Di Cosimo’s Crucifixion of Christ, Pierre-Etienne Monnot’s Saint Peter, Raphael’s Deliverance of Saint Peter, Gustave Dore’s The Empyrean, and more. The essays are short but they deliver short bursts of incredibly beautiful and edifying artwork and offer explanations for how they connect to the ongoing story of the Bible.
Translation and Commentary
The flow of the book is dense. Almost every chapter is bookended with a page of commentary, or a short essay by Barron himself, reflecting on the implications and meaning of the expression that this passage is meant to mean. I haven’t even been able to fully read the commentary cover to cover yet, thus why this is only a “brief” review. The full text for Volume II alone is 841 pages, just covering the last 23 books of the Catholic Bible. Volume I covers just the Gospels and it is of similar length. Most of that is commentary.
Upon first reading, I initially approached the book wanting to skim through a few choice passages, namely Romans and Hebrews, which I hoped would give me a strong enough sense of how the book approaches commentary. Almost immediately I was sucked into the book and spent two hours one afternoon just paging through the commentary in the Book of Acts.
The translation is drawn from the NRSV – Catholic Translation, which Bible Gateway describes as an ecumenical translation from thirty scholars of Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish backgrounds. It is unclear though if the translation affects any of the written contexts of the Bible but it doesn’t appear to, beyond adhering to the traditional Catholic ordering of the books. This differs from Protestant Bibles which are ordered differently and contain seven fewer books.
The translation is very ecumenical but the commentary doesn’t avoid indulging its Catholic bent. Analyzing Romans 9:21, the editor includes a defense of the Catholic view against the Calvinist view of double predestination and defends the authority of the church as the sole arbiter of interpretation, as was described by the author Flannery O’Conner:
This doctrine of double predestination is a strictly Protestant phenomenon. Until Luther and Calvin, it was not countenanced… This brings us naturally to the second question about priests and laity. it is the bishops, not priests, who decide religious questions in the Catholic Church. Catholics believe that Christ left the church with teaching authority and that this teaching authority is protected by the Holy Ghost; in other words, in matters of faith and morals, the Church cannot err… I do not believe Christ left us to chaos (218).
Much of this Catholic editorializing is to be expected and most of it isn’t polemic in nature. Barron does a good job of exploring the nuances of Catholic moral teachings, such as his description of the nature of evil in his commentary on Romans 3:8: “This curious passage… has proven to be the cornerstone of Catholic moral theology for the past two thousand years… As we legitimately fight the great social evils of our time, we must remember Paul’s simple but trenchant principle: never do evil that good might come of it” (185).
I closed my reading by paging through the Revelation of Saint John, which I was eager to read for its commentary as the final book of the Bible is most perplexing. If anyone ever told you they understood Revelation, they’re liking basing it off on the interpretation of the theologian Cyrus Ingerson Scofield outlined in his Scofield Reference Bible, which is not highly regarded outside of Evangelical circles or by liturgical Christians. This is the version represented by films like Left Behind. I have no strong opinions on premillennialism or postmillennialism for this reason. Most theologians struggle with Revelation and I was curious what the Catholic answers Barron would offer. I wasn’t disappointed.
Such readings of the last book of the Bible have been employed for centuries as a means of understanding the text, often propagated by charismatic preachers who bolster their claims with convincing arguments and persuasive rhetoric. These interpretations, fascinating as they may be, impose a restraint on the book of Revelation, preventing its true spiritual insights and theological patterns from emerging. The result has been an impoverished understanding of the text, a narrow reduction that blocks insight and understanding… reduced to a kind of faith-based conspiracy theory.Barron, p. 718
Much of this commentary is equally fascinating, mind-numbing, and frustrating, as is Revelation. Reading the commentary, you start to see how Revelation’s infamously coarse imagery was slowly transformed into Catholic mysticism. Barron interprets the woman clothed with the sun in Revelation 12 to not merely be the Virgin Mary but uses it as evidence that she is the Queen of Heaven, which becomes the starting point for most mystical and supernatural Catholic readings on the Virgin Mary: “Mary is Queen and Christ is King. The powers of the world will not prevail against them” (775).
These are just sample quotes of how Barron and his team approached the Epistles and there is a lot to consider. As I said above, the purpose of a Bible is that it is to be read, studied, and used as a tool to nurture one’s faith in Christ. In the book’s introduction, Barron describes four goals he wanted to accomplish with his book: to gear it toward those not affiliated with Christianity, to describe Jesus Christ, and to draw on voices from the Catholic faith who can bring meaning to the scriptures and evangelize through beauty.
Word on Fire has a massive mission ahead of it and the challenge of trying to put as many of these Bibles in front of fresh eyes as possible. The Catholic Integralist Sohrab Amari writes:
…someone has to evangelize a generation immiserated by neoliberalism, distracted by screens, addicted to porn and painkillers, alienated by divorce and de-natured by gender ideology. Earlier missionaries could take for granted that un-evangelized peoples knew the difference between men and women — how much harder and more rewarding the work of a Barron, who must start by teaching American YouTubers about nature as a legible whole (let alone the supernatural).
Insofar as the Word on Fire Catholic Bible helps to accomplish that goal, to bring beauty and truth to the lost, it must be considered a success and a spiritual accomplishment. I haven’t met with anyone who has spoken of the book in such terms as of yet. However, I have met burgeoning Christians who picked up the first volume as they were learning and found it edifying. Hopefully, many more will!