Summary: Sort of an interview, sort of a biography, sort of an introduction to Evangelism in Catholicism.
I have fallen out of my habit of reading at least one book outside of my standard stream of Christian faith a month. But I still try to read outside of Evangelical Christian world fairly frequently. I tend to read more in the Catholic or Mainline Protestant than Orthodox, but I really need to be more intentional about expanding my horizons.
I have been following Robert Barron for years. Not everything, but enough to know that even when I disagree, I find him thoughtful and interesting. Barron is now an Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles responsible for the Santa Barbara area, but he is most known from his YouTube videos, his Catholicism documentary series that has been played on PBS, and his movie reviews. I subscribe to his YouTube channel and watch about half of his videos there. I have not watched the Catholicism documentary, but I did read the companion book. I have not read any of his other books, but I have been to Mundelein Seminary, where was before he became a bishop, and I have some mutual friends.
I picked this book up because it was Barron and on sale without really paying attention to what it was. It is a somewhat odd little book. John Allen is a well known journalist specializing in the Vatican. I have read a book on current issues in Catholicism and a number of his articles.
This isn’t really a book by Robert Barron. This is a book by John Allen with contributions by Robert Barron. In some ways I wonder why it wasn’t really marketed as a biography with participation by Barron, because that feels like it would be more accurate. There are long quotes and statements by Barron in response to questions from either interviews or correspondence, but the shaping of the book is all Allen. I would guess that Barron read it previous to publication and signed off on it and probably even had some editorial contributions, but this is a book by John Allen.
That quibble aside, Barron is an interesting subject. He is interested in evangelism and I am always interested to read about how different strains of Christianity think about evangelism differently. Barron views himself as an evangelist. He is not a traveling evangelist like Billy Graham, but a pastoral evangelist that is primarily looking to re-evangelize Catholics that walked away from the faith. There is a staggering number in the book that if everyone that were former Catholics were a single denomination, it would be the third largest denomination in the US behind Catholics and Southern Baptists, and not too far behind.
Barron is culturally savvy. He understands how culture works. He understand the arts and the importance of story and how meaning is created. Some of the weaknesses of Barron are probably similar to some of the weaknesses of other evangelists and evangelistic pastors. I watched a video of Barron interacting with Jordan Peterson the other day. Barron gave a lot of credit to Peterson for reaching out to young men and interacting with biblical texts but not too much critique. Which is the type of thing an evangelist that is interested in building bridges with people does.
It is not the type of thing someone that is interested primarily in discipleship necessarily does. I have several friends that are very negative about Peterson because of their fears about Peterson’s nihilism and his misunderstanding of (Christian) anthropology and other issues that can distract Christians from the gospel. It is exactly these types of divisions, between evangelists and pastors that I think that is helpful to read about in other streams of Christian faith. It helps me think about my own stream of Christian faith from another angle.
My understanding of Catholic evangelism has greatly expanded since I first started listening to Father Roderick Vonhogen’s (a Dutch Catholic priest) podcast in 2003 or 2004. Father Roderick spoke about internet evangelism in very similar ways to Evangelicals that I knew spoke about internet evangelism. At the time, as someone that was not as familiar with Catholicism as I should have been, it was helpful to expand my view of Christianity. And in some ways was probably part of why I have tried to keep reading outside of my stream of Christianity regularly.
To Light a Fire is definitely not what I would consider a must read. It is somewhat fluffy. I am not a fan of the structure as a sort of interview, sort of biography. But I picked it up cheap, and it was a quick read. And it helps me to understand aspects of Catholicism, as well as the players, that I would not otherwise know.