Many thanks to all of you for a lively discussion on the Word on Fire Bible over the past few weeks! This is one of the most ambitious projects in the Catholic Bible world in recent years, and I’ve been reflecting on a few lingering questions that could have broader implications for Catholic publishers working on future Bible projects. I think it would be useful to conclude the blog’s coverage of the first volume of the Word on Fire Bible by reflecting on a few broad themes.

Who is the target audience?

After reading a substantial portion of the commentary, I came away wondering why this Bible is being marketed so strongly toward “nonbelievers, searchers, and those with far more questions about religion than answers.” The commentary would be useful to many lifelong Catholics, and it fills a void of practical, actionable reflection that most American Catholics do not have in the NABRE, with its historical-critical focus. The New Catholic Bible (NCB) offers spiritual and theological reflections in its footnotes, but the Word on Fire Bible is generally more practical and personally challenging than the NCB.

The high-quality printing and binding in the Word on Fire Bible is also strikingly unusual for a Bible whose primary aim is evangelizing non-believers and seekers. Traditionally, Bible publishers have focused on mass market paperbacks and dynamic translations like the Good News Bible or more recently, the Common English Bible and the Message to encourage people with little Bible knowledge to take it up and read it. Is a non-believer likely to buy a high-quality artistic production like the Word on Fire Bible? Or is the goal for practicing Catholics to buy these Bibles as gifts for non-believing family members?

The high quality of the printing and binding seems to appeal to a Catholic audience with a love for the beauty and tradition of the faith. As many long-time readers of this blog and Timothy’s blog know, there is an assortment of Catholics who long for high-quality premium Catholic Bibles. The Word on Fire Bible combines a good quality leather cover, excellent gilding, and sewn binding with an appreciation of Catholic art and theological reflection (both modern and historical).

But the high quality leaves me a bit uneasy. As much as I love it, I also wonder if it will end up being a showpiece that people rarely read. Will it stay on coffee tables or end up gathering dust on shelves like oversize wedding bibles or other presentation bibles that are impractical for daily reading? As Timothy reflected in his post “Confessions of an Ugly-Bible Reader,” premium bibles are often not practical, especially with young children, and they can end up unused, sterile, and pristine, compared to the lived-in warmth of a well-used simple hardcover or paperback.

In short, I think this Bible will appeal to a broader audience than the marketing suggests, but the premium printing and artistic features raise the age-old question: Is it too nice? Does the high quality defeat the purpose of inviting people to read the Bible for the first time, or with new eyes?

What is the best way to format commentary?

As I read through the Word on Fire Bible, I was reminded of my long-time stormy relationship with commentary formats (I made a general post on the common format variants here). I’m frustrated by footnotes, because they inevitably break up the flow of reading. That little symbol indicating a footnote is so tantalizing! I want to know what the note says! But it’s hard to follow the broader themes of a biblical book when I’m constantly interrupting my reading to look at notes. On the other hand, endnotes allow for less interruption, but they are more cumbersome to work with, requiring flipping back and forth from the text to the notes. I’ve often felt that the best commentary format is what Fr. Nicholas King chose in his translation of the New Testament: Alternating extended sections of the biblical text with indented commentary paragraphs that are located at natural break-points.

The Word on Fire Bible is similar to Fr. King’s format. The commentary and biblical text are interspersed, allowing parables to stand (relatively) uninterrupted, followed by a multi-paragraph commentary on the entire parable. On the other hand, Bishop Barron’s commentary is far more extensive than Fr. King’s commentary, so the flow of reading is more interrupted in the Word on Fire Bible.

As a rule, I don’t think there is a perfect commentary format. I sometimes lean toward a separate commentary (like the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible or the New Jerome Biblical Commentary) combined with a plain-text Bible that offers no distractions. This solution only works for at-home study, though. When bringing a Bible to Church or on a vacation trip, a huge commentary volume is totally impractical. Maybe the Word on Fire Bible is as close to the ideal as I can reasonably expect. I’m curious to hear your opinions. If you agree, should other Catholic publishers try interspersed commentary, rather than the traditional footnotes and endnotes?

Is single-author commentary a weakness or a strength?

I was initially surprised when I learned that a substantial majority of the commentary in the Word on Fire Bible was extracted from Bishop Barron’s homilies. Does this limit the breadth of the reflections, or consign them to being relevant primarily to this moment in history? Or does it allow for greater depth and individuality than a committee-produced, edited scholarly commentary?

After reading it, I am impressed enough with Bishop Barron’s reflections to think that the breadth of information is very good. On the other hand, Bishop Barron’s personal theological perspective certainly comes through strongly in his writing. Perhaps this is a good thing. Certainly, the early Church fathers expressed their individual theological views in their commentaries, with the influence of prior writers reflected in their own thoughts. How does Bishop Barron’s approach compare and contrast with other well-known Catholic commentators on the Bible?

Conclusion

The Word on Fire Bible is one of the most ambitious Catholic Bible projects in recent years. It certainly ranks along with the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible in ambition and originality. I’m interested to see its popularity and impact over the next years as additional volumes are released. I suspect it will have an impact on what Catholic publishers are willing to try in the future.

28 thoughts on “Concluding Thoughts on the Word on Fire Gospels”

  1. You know, upon reflection, I am surprised Word on Fire is not making this available for tablets. It seems the iPad or the Microsoft Surface would be a fine way to present this Bible and preserve all the typography and layout not to mention the color art. While they might lose sales of the paperback version, their costs would be much lower than a physical book. Plus the navigation would be easy.

    1. I completely agree. A digital edition seems like a no-brainer. It would be a great way to expand the audience, especially to Catholic college students who frequently face difficult decisions about their faith during their time in college.

  2. The biggest shock of all of this to me is that it is the NRSV!

    No matter what the arguments are in our little online subculture that made it seem like the NRSV was the dying missive of the mainline liberal protestant establishment, it is still a translation with a future.

    *That doesn’t mean I like it.

    1. I’m guessing that not even Bishop Barron could find a practical and harmonious working relationship with the copyright owner of the NABRE.

      1. But somehow MTF did, when it came to the NABRE Didache Bible. I suspect the issue may well be the USCCB’s mandate that the NABRE always and everywhere be published with its footnotes, and WoF likely didn’t want two competing sets of commentary under one cover (can’t blame them, the MTF Didache NABRE is pretty big). Alternately, NRSV seems to be the translation most respected by non-Christians, so maybe that’s why it got selected. Or perhaps both.

  3. I’m loving this volume of the Bible. The more I use it, the more I realize that it’s answering the call to provide high-quality workmanship when it comes to Catholic Bibles. Most Catholic Bibles, prayer books, and Breviaries, etc., come with bonded or faux leather, or some sort of vinyl cover (The Oxford NABRE large print edition is made with a stiff genuine leather that reminds me of bonded).

    Perhaps someday WoF will release a full Bible in fine leather. Maybe with brief commentary. With the current project expected to continue over the next few years, I doubt it. But perhaps a publisher will step up to the plate as we see more high-quality workmanship coming out.

    I personally think this Bible volume is suitable for newbies (I would have really benefited when I was coming into the Church), but it’s quite good for those who’ve been around awhile, too, who already have study resources. It’s a great addition to the biblical library.

    Thanks for the great reviews on this beautiful edition.

  4. Marc,

    In regards to your comment on the intended audience of this Bible edition I think the “About” description in the Word on Fire Blog says it all:

    “WORD ON FIRE
    Word on Fire Catholic Ministries is a nonprofit global media apostolate that supports the work of Bishop Robert Barron and reaches millions of people to draw them into— or back to— the Catholic faith.

    Word on Fire is evangelical; it proclaims Jesus Christ as the source of conversion and new life. Word on Fire is Catholic; it utilizes the tremendous resources of the Roman Catholic tradition—art, architecture, poetry, philosophy, theology, and the lives of the saints— in order to explain and interpret the event of Jesus Christ.
    Word on Fire Catholic Ministries exists to draw people into the body of Christ, which is the Church, and thereby give them access to all the gifts that Jesus wants his people to enjoy. To be most effective in this mission, Word on Fire places an emphasis and urgency on the use of contemporary forms of media and innovative communication technologies.” End of WOF quote.

    The focus of Word on Fire is the “New Evangelization..” The New Evangelization that was first coined by St. Pope John Paul II, is often confused with the application of new media tools (mostly internet based.) There is such confusion regarding what “The New Evangelization” means that I noticed that it is now rarely used. anymore. It must be noted that the “New Evangelization” includes the evangelization of Catholics and Catholic countries who may be culturally Catholic or Christian, but have lost the Faith (Europe, North America?) See JP II encyclical “REDEMPTORIS MISSIO-On the permanent validity of the Church’s missionary mandate.” defines the terms.

    Now take a look at the mission on the Word on Fire website and the words of JP II, and you can see how this new Bible edition measures up to the mission with the exception of using “New Media.”

    I agree with the comment above, that this New Evangelization needs to use some New Media, such as a high quality digital version at a significantly lower cost.

    Jim

    Jim

  5. My shipment came in today. I ordered the “ Evangelization Pack “ which came with 1 leather and 4 paperbacks. A great deal in my opinion. I’m an extensive bible collector and this bible (Gospels) is just refreshingly original. I plan on keeping the leather version in my library and using the paperback frequently. I already gave one paperback to my Grandmother and plan to give the remaining 2 away. I hope many were able to take advantage of the package deal.

  6. I’ve only had my copy for a few days, but here are my initial thoughts on these questions.

    Who is the target audience?
    I think it’s a compliment to this work that it seems suitable to multiple audiences including those unfamiliar with Christianity, practicing Catholics, fallen-away Catholics, or Protestants. It’s quite a remarkable volume for something that could potentially have broad appeal. There are already a couple glowing reviews posted to Youtube by Protestants.

    What is the best way to format commentary?
    The page formatting is perhaps the most amazing thing about this volume to me. At first glance, the page looks like a complete hodgepodge. Bible text in a single column, commentary in double columns, other comments with different background colors, none of which are placed consistently on a certain portion the page, but instead jump around between top, bottom, left, and right. After only a glance, you kind of fear you won’t know when to read or look at any of these parts.
    But then you start reading, and it turns out you just flow seamlessly between all these different parts. The key was the care given to where they inserted breaks in the bible text, and how much effort went into fitting a narrative or parable of the bible and the commentary that expands on it all together on a two page layout. So you end up reading the bible narrative and the commentary all together, without footnotes and without flipping pages. It’s not as though the commentary mixes in with the biblical text, it’s formatted completely differently. But while reading you just flow from the text to the commentary and back to the text with no effort or disruption. It’s really a remarkable success in page layout.

    Is single-author commentary a weakness or a strength?
    I haven’t read enough of this volume to give a full assessment of the commentary. But I will say from an overall perspective of this bible, you can tell they executed to a singular vision. There is no sense that the any of the components are in conflict or just tacked on. From the physical construction, to the page layout, to the art, to the commentary, it all works together. So in that sense it was definitely a positive to avoid too many cooks in the kitchen. Whether it is a strength or weakness for so much of the commentary to be from a single person, I certainly appreciate that every comment is signed by who said it. I much prefer this to a commentary asserting vague authority anonymously.

    Conclusion
    After only a few days, I so far have no regrets purchasing this first volume of the WOF Bible, and expect I will purchase the future volumes as they are released. I’m also optimistic about what this might prompt other Catholic publishers to produce in the future.

  7. Marc,

    I hope Bishop Barron takes seriously all the reviews and comments on this site. Why? Think about the production of this bible in terms of the production of a tank. Firs there is the prototype. Then there is the first production run, which usually exhibits all sorts of teething problems After those steps, unless there is an upgrade, the tank moves in full production. Bishop Barron has the opportunity to make a second edition and correct things that are wrong, such as the incorrect quote from St Jerome. He now has the opportunity to have future volumes be spared the issues of this bible has , which, really are not many at all.

    I do think the Bishop has taken a better approach, overall – an evangelizing bible, instead of a apologetics bible. We need more evangelization and less apologetics at this point. I am not saying we do not need apologetics anymore, but that was more of a 1990s thing.

    1. Interesting point, James. I have a soft spot for Catholic apologetics. It had a major impact on kindling my interest and love for the faith as a high school student. But I have a feeling that you’re right. As I’ve gotten older, sharing the Good News, beginning with the basics, seems all the more important than fighting internecine battles.

  8. If indeed the focus of the Word on Fire Bible is the “New Evangelization” as coined by St. John Paul II, it must be remembered that this form of evangelization includes and centers upon a revitalization and education of the Catholic faithful in what the Church holds as the truths of the faith.

    Often I hear that there is great confusion between proselytization and the New Evangelization. Proselytization never includes self-catechesis whereas the New Evangelization begins with (and has as a primary objective) this very thing.

    Since many peoples already have a faith, and since proselytization, as carried out by many, has at its aim the destruction of the customs and the disconnection with the origins of the culture of one’s people, the New Evangelization can often find its end in the revitalization in Christian 9and sometimes purely) Catholic areas that have lost their zeal for the faith. By proclamation of the Gospel in ways that reawaken the faith of Christians gone astray, discipleship is strengthened where it could have otherwise been lost without the measures taken by the New Evangelization.

    This is not to say that people who have yet to hear of Christ are not brought into the Church by this means either, but each era has its particular focus in the proclamation of the Gospel. The WoF Bible seems to be a product suited to the New Evangelization more than one from previous periods when preaching the Gospel of Christ meant presenting Christian truths in different manners. There seems to be an appeal to the Christian in its design–likely one searching.

    Illustrations and blurbs stand out in a Bible version more likely to be purchased and used by a person who is searching or returning. (Despite our personal likes or views, the NRSV is the current English academic standard.) The WoF would likely be seen at the home of a practicing Catholic or in one of Barron’s many ads by someone searching, and the artwork would catch their eye. These volumes would be more welcoming because they are just “slices” of the Bible instead of the entire “pie,” which can be overwhelming for people on the fringes.

    Being as objective as I can possibly be, the WoF is in my view like everything else Bishop Barron does: very precise and fulfilling an objective I have heard him mention, namely, presenting the Catholic Church in the manner he feels others fail to do in their publications and public presentations.

    Like every other post I give, I usually refrain from offering my personal opinion on the matter. I have learned from experience that most people, since they are offering up their personal convictions, believe I am doing the same. Believe me, I do not, as a rule.

    Tonight, right here, I do something different. I briefly add my personal opinion at this point:

    I do not feel comfortable with this publication or with anything Bishop Barron prints or produces. There is something not right. There are pictures of him everywhere on his materials and his name is a brand. Some of the things he has said about the Church and Israel are just a little, well, off or odd. I can’t put my finger on all of this, but this brand of WoF and “Bishop Barron” feels wrong. I know there are other Catholic writers who are just as or more prolific and may show themselves off in a similar fashion, but something about the way it is done by him and his WoF organization, it just doesn’t seem right to me. I’m sure he’s a good man, and maybe I just have the heebie-jeebies for nothing. But have them, I do.

    There ends my opinion.

    The New Evangelization is not so much about spreading the Gospel in fields untouched and making converts. It’s about living the Gospel and being Christ in the world, educating by example, word, and prayer where necessary whether it’s with self or encouraging fellow Christians to stay faithful to Jesus. Find the tools that can be most useful to reach your goals in doing God’s work for today.

    1. I received an email from Word on Fire now that the Bishop is touting a “Journal” which is really a glossy, very ornate magazine as a premium for It does smack of hubris and materialism. I agree with you about your feelings.
      Here is a YT video of BB presenting it with his fireplace, and Samoyed dog.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X0BT7EWNQqY

      1. Are museums, paintings, stained glass windows all examples of “hubris and materialism”? Are beautiful things now “bad”?

        1. No one said beautiful things are now bad, no need to take offense because someone disagrees with you about Bishop Barron’s work. But yes, museums, paintings and stained glass windows can certainly be examples of hubris and materialism for all their beauty.

  9. In regards to who is the target audience? I suspect it’s the “lukewarm” Catholics and the None’s. Who do I suspect would be the mostly likely buyer of WoF Bible? I suspect four groups of Catholics:

    1st: Those who love the Word on Fire apostolate and Bishop Barron books and videos.
    2nd: Those of us, like myself, who love to collect a variety of bibles, especially unique high quality ones that this bible appears to be.
    3rd: Catholics looking for a book to give to someone they love to help that person delve deeper in the Catholic faith.
    4th: Catholics looking to “upgrade” their bible. For many American Catholics, the first and often only bible they own is the paperback edition of the NAB(RE) that now is published by World Bible Publishing and currently sales for five dollars on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/American-Bible-Revised-Psalms-Testament/dp/0529064847). I can see Catholics with this paperback edition (or other paperback edition of the Bible) wanting to upgrade their bible to a more permanent and beautiful one. The WoF Bible would be a fine choice for them.

    But I really don’t see Seekers (unless they’re already using the Word on Fire Catholic Ministries as a resource) actually purchasing the WoF bible in a bookstore or on Amazon. For one, this WoF Bible is not currently being sold on Amazon or on Barnes and Noble or on any other online bookseller site.

    If someone is curious about the Christian/Catholic faith and is seeking to purchase their first bible, they are most likely to go to a brick & mortar bookstore or an online bookstore like Amazon. In either place, they will currently NOT find this WoF Bible on sale! I would have thought, if the Word on Fire Catholic Ministries aim is to have this bible to be an evangelical one, that they would have sought wider distribution channels for it from the get go. Quite puzzling to me that it’s not even listed on Amazon yet.

  10. “it fills a void of practical, actionable reflection that most American Catholics do not have in the NABRE, with its historical-critical focus. The New Catholic Bible (NCB) offers spiritual and theological reflections in its footnotes, but the Word on Fire Bible is generally more practical and personally challenging than the NCB”

    I’ll stick with my Didache Bible (RSV-2CE, though it’s also available in the NABRE).
    All the above, but as a single, hardcover Bible.

    “I also wonder if it will end up being a showpiece that people rarely read. Will it stay on coffee tables or end up gathering dust on shelves like oversize wedding bibles or other presentation bibles that are impractical for daily reading?”

    They’re counting on it.
    That way they can sell you the next volume.
    And the next.
    And the next.
    Until your “collection” is complete.

    This is the “Franklin Mint collector’s plate” of Bibles.

    1. I tend to forget about the Didache Bible. I don’t own a copy, but everything I’ve seen suggests it is very good. The NABRE edition is especially interesting to me, since it combines the historical-critical NABRE footnotes with the theological notes from the Midwest Theological Forum.

  11. After a few days with this bible I can’t speak highly enough of it. The commentary is so refreshingly orthodox yet the design just modern enough. The leather version is beautiful but I highly recommend the paperback version also.

  12. Thanks Marc for those reflections. Here are my two cents on some of your questions.

    Is a non-believer likely to buy a high-quality artistic production like the Word on Fire Bible?

    Yes, more likely than a ‘mass-market’ catholic bible. This non-believer will possibly be a university graduate, and sometimes even a former theology student who studied at university and subsequently lost their faith. NRSV is the academic standard as someone rightly pointed out in the comments. It was a good choice in my opinion for this target readership.

    Or is the goal for practising Catholics to buy these Bibles as gifts for non-believing family members?

    This could also be a goal. Doesn’t it make sense to use existing networks to evangelize?? The evangelization pack someone mentioned in the comments would lend weight to this approach. What a clever idea!

    Is it too nice? Does the high quality defeat the purpose of inviting people to read the Bible for the first time, or with new eyes?

    If Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire group wants to attract people to the Lord via ‘beauty’, wouldn’t a cheap, low quality end product detract significantly from this? Although I’m sure it would be grist to the mill for some of the uncharitable armchair experts on this blog who dislike what Bishop Barron does. (As if Evangelization has to be one size fits all – c.f. St. Paul!)

    Which would you prefer to give as a gift to a loved one who needs their faith in JESUS in-kindled – a beautiful set of gospels like this or a bible you are straining to read because of its small print, ghosting pages and double columns?

  13. The great thing is, there’s a format for every taste and budget.

    If one wants a free bible, there’s free bibles! If one wants the hubris and materialistic version, those are available too.

    I’m really looking forward to my copy of the gospels in all it’s gilt edge, leather bound glory. I’ll spend many many hours treasuring the both contents and the beautiful format. And yes, I’ll buy the others as they are released.

  14. Marc and everybody,

    I heard back from Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire regarding the error: Here is what they said:

    Re: Patristic Error in the Word On Fire Bible: the Gospels
    Fri, Jul 3, 2020 9:01 pm
    Word on Fire (contact@wordonfire.org)
    To:you + 1 more Details
    James,

    Thanks! We’ll look into this and see if it needs to be corrected for the next printing. We really appreciate the feedback. God bless you!

    Word on Fire responded in a nice, non-offensive, and non-committal fashion. Realistically, we cannot expect them to answer a scholarly criticism quickly. Whether someone actually looks at my comment and addresses the problem is another matter. We will have to wait and see. But, if this is left unchanged in future printing, I personally, would think twice before buying any of the volumes. Old Thomas P. Halton, late editor of the Fathers of the Church series at the Catholic University of America Press would have had it fixed. We will see.

    The concept is good and has great promise, but I do not want the project to be undermined by sloppy patristic scholarship.

  15. Not to continue beating a dead horse, but I just discovered a fascinating project that instantly reminded me of the Word on Fire Bible. Have you heard of Alabaster?

    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/519726203/alabaster-the-bible-beautiful

    https://www.alabasterco.com/

    “Alabaster aims to give the reader a fresh visual experience and heightened level of contemplation while reading this ancient text, that ultimately points to the beauty of God.”

    This is almost precisely what Bp Barron seems to be trying to achieve with the WoF series – the main difference between the two projects seems to be the Catholic commentary in one that doesn’t exist in the other. I wonder if he heard about Alabaster and decided that Catholics could use something similar, or if it’s one of those strange coincidences like Newton and Leibnitz each discovering calculus at the same time.

    1. Very interesting! I hadn’t heard anything about Alabaster. It looks like the publisher is using the NLT for the Bible text, although they also have a Psalms volume in the ESV.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.