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?
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.