Several statements need to be made right up front: This is the 500 year celebration of the Protestant Reformation. I am a Protestant who holds to Reformed Theology. While my heroes were once cowboys (allusion to Willie Nelson’s song), they have long since been theologians like Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and on and on. I hold to the 5 Solas of the Reformation, the 5 Points of Calvinism, and many other listings of theological concerns.
The fact remains that the Roman Catholic Church, which Luther and Calvin belonged to but sought to change, is still around. We are 500 years past the Reformation. That does not mean that everything is okay now or that we can shake our heads in disbelief over theological battles of the past. But many features of the ground war has changed. The fact that Catholics and Protestanst both recited the Apostles Creed and the Lord’s Prayer is a reminder of common ground.
The presidential candidacy of Al Smith in 1928 was harmed in part by his Roman Catholic faith. John Kennedy broke down that barrier in 1960 in an address to Baptists in Houston, Texas. While many may have objected to Joe Biden and Paul Ryan during the 2012 Presidential election when they were the opposing Vice Presidential candidates, the Catholicism both held to was not a factor.
We are grappling with a Secular Age, as Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor has noted in his brief pamphlett (of some 874 pages). Carl Trueman (Calvinist theologian and historian) notes that Taylor was grappling with the question of why it was almost impossible not to believe in God in 1500 and yet an easy option in 2000. Secularism, as a philosophy or worldview, has many children. We see the progeny in issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, rampant pornography, and a retreat from historic moral beliefs. We see issues which even Christians differ over how to approach: the size of government, who controls education, the flood of immigrants into the country, and gun control.
A popular saying, once seen on Christian trinkets, proclaimed, “Christ is the answer.” I believe that, but first we have to go back to what the question is. And, just saying “Christ is the answer” is not the answer.
I received a review book last month titled To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age. It is written largely by John L. Allen Jr., but is taken from his extensive interviews and quotes from Catholic Bishop Robert Barron. It is published by Image Books and is distributed by Word on Fire ministry. Before I received and read this book, I knew nothing of Bishop Barron and Word on Fire.
I would encourage evangelical, Reformed, Protestant, Presbyterian, Baptist (overlap or separate those descriptions as you wish) and other believers to strongly consider reading and applying this book. Barron is doing a work in our time that parallels the work of Francis Schaeffer in the 1960s-70s. Those of us who balk, cringe, or just mildly disagree with Bishop Barron’s theology can profit greatly from seeing what he is doing and why.
- Bishop Barron’s key labors are in the areas of teaching or communicating a message. He has written books, taught in seminary and other settings, and served in pastoral roles throughout his career. His main fame has come through Youtube videos and a film series on Catholicism (viewed historically). The printing press made Luther. Multiple printing presses made the Geneva of Calvin’s day. Background training on the stage made George Whitefield. Printings of sermons helped make Charles Spurgeon. For a time, radio broadcasts enabled some preachers to reach wide audiences. I never saw Billy Graham in person, but I watched many of his Crusades and heard many messages from him on television. Cassette tapes were my seminary at one point in life. Youtube is what has enabled Bishop Barron to reach wider-than-expected audiences.
- One of Barron’s target audiences is lapsed Catholics. That means people who were born or raised Catholic but who drifted away from their roots. Some changed and became members of Protestant churches, but many are still Catholic (as in knowing which box to check on forms asking about religion) but have no involvement or commitment to church at all. If lapsed Catholics were listed as an official religion, it would be the second largest denomination in the United States. I would like to think that this is a Catholic problem and a result purely of their theology. Nominal Catholicism could be listed as a fruit of Catholicism. But there are way too many people who were born and raised in some versions of Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Penecostal, and other churches who have drifted away, never commited, and have ignored the Christian life. Far too many church rolls are full of people who are out there somewhere, but who are not in church.
- A growing demographic in America are people who are classified as “Nones.” Barron and Allen joke about the Catholic need to distinguish between “Nones” and “Nuns” when talking to Catholics groups. Nones fit into the profile listed above–Catholics and Protestants who are unchurches. But they differ in that they now identify themselves on forms and surveys by checking the word “None” where their religious preference is asked. Related to this is an increasing ignorance of the Bible, basic Christian doctrines, fundamentals of theology, and traditions of Christendom. When President George W. Bush made a reference to “wounded traveler on the road to Jericho,” he left some of the reporters baffled. (See Luke 10:30) These Nones are not likely to just show up in our church services. The rituals that minister to the rest of us will not likely appeal to them.
- Barron’s repeated emphasis is on the priority of Christ. He is very Christocentric. His best known book is titled The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism. He really, truly believes, emphasizes, and teaches the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This emphasis in this book and in Barron’s teachings resonated strongly with me.
I especially loved Barron and Allen’s chapter titled “Truth.” Barron tells the story of a little nine year old girl who tells him the story of star Wars in detail. After the story, which included every minor player and complicated name, he asked the mother, “Now tell me why little kids can’t understand the Bible?” True enough, if they can master a grand narrative like Star Wars, the Avengers, the Harry Potter world, and other stories, they can grasp the essentials and the particulars of the Bible. In another example, Barron was talking to a group of teachers in Catholic schools. He said, “I hate dumbed-down Catholicism.” when they applauded, he told them to not applaud but to do something about it.
“High school kids can handle a lot of serious stuff; so why aren’t they reading C. S. Lewis? Why aren’t they reading Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton? Why aren’t they reading Aquinas, for that matter? My nephew, he’s a smart kid, he’s a junior in high school, and he’s a math guy….Man alive, the complexity of the math books he’s dealing with….Why couldn’t we give him Augustine or Thomas Aquinas?….We dumbed it down out of this attempt to be relevant.”
As a teacher in a Christian school, I can identify with Barron’s objections to dumbed down Catholicism and “Beige Catholicism.” We face the same problems on our side of the divide.
This is a worthy book and a great introduction to part of what is going on among those who are on the other side of the Reformation divide.