I will approach the commentary in the Word on Fire Bible from two different angles: First, it’s worth summarizing Bishop Barron’s stated goals for the commentary and the overarching principles he describes in the introductory essays. Then, I’ll delve into my personal impressions of the commentary and offer some examples that stood out to me.
Goals for the Word on Fire Bible
In two brief essays, Bishop Barron explains his overarching goals for this first volume of the Word on Fire Bible. The essays cover an impressive amount of ground in only eight pages, but I would extract six key points to understand Bishop Barron’s primary intentions:
1. Everyone needs the guidance of the Church in reading scripture:
The Church has realized from the beginning that we need assistance if we are to read the Scriptures with profit. We require precisely the interpretive lens provided by the great scholars, saints, mystics, popes, and prophets who have gone before us…Bishop Robert Barron – “The Word on Fire Bible: A Bible for Restless Hearts”
2. The commentary is especially geared toward people who are not religiously affiliated. It is “designed to appeal to nonbelievers, searchers, and those with far more questions about religion than answers.”
3. The primary focus is on fundamental theology: Who is God, and who is Jesus Christ?
4. A large amount of the commentary is extracted from Bishop Barron’s homilies and books, but there are also selections from many theologians, popes, and spiritual writers throughout history, including Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, Therese of Lisieux, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Fulton Sheen, Thomas Merton, etc.
5. The Bible features many examples of the beautiful artistic tradition inspired by the Catholic faith with short essays explaining the artwork. These features are all intended to “introduce the seeker to Christ through the aesthetic splendor that he has inspired.”
6. The commentary is designed to view Scripture in a holistic way, integrating spiritual, theological, philosophical, and psychological insights. This is consciously opposed to a single-minded historical-critical approach, which “can lose sight of the overall purpose of the Bible considered as a totality.” Historical criticism “can overlook the fact that, despite all of its sometimes disconcerting variety, the Bible is finally telling one great story, or perhaps better, unfolding one great drama.”
My Impressions and Experience
I have now read through Matthew, Mark, and the first eight chapters of Luke, along with all the commentary and art essays on those passages. Most of the commentary comes across like a homily — not surprisingly, since much of it is extracted from actual homilies that Bishop Barron has preached. Throughout the gospels, the commentaries take familiar passages and quickly bring them from the first century into the present, shaking me out of my familiarity and translating the meaning and importance of the passage for modern life.
Overall, the aim here is very similar to the footnotes in the New Catholic Bible from Catholic Book Publishing Company. I described those notes as mini-homilies that “are written from the perspective of a modern Catholic evangelist, who sees the biblical writings in the broader context of Catholic theology and draws insight from them for living the Catholic faith.” The same description is equally true for Bishop Barron’s commentary, although there are differences of style and emphasis between the two.
The New Catholic Bible‘s notes enjoy basking in the glory of the Church — especially how it fulfills God’s perfect plan of salvation — and they often discuss spiritual insights in a somewhat theoretical and church-centered way. One could say that the notes were written for committed Catholics who are secure in their faith, love the Church, and want to gain more insight from the Bible.
The Word on Fire Bible’s commentary speaks to the reader more directly and forcefully. It certainly delves into theological and spiritual concepts, but it has a way of quickly integrating them into a forceful, convicting insight that applies to personal experience. Old passages that have become stale after reading them dozens of times are suddenly, surprisingly, jarringly made urgent and important to a modern reader.
In my experience, I often react to an insight in the New Catholic Bible with something like “Oh, that’s a good point. I hadn’t thought of it that way.” In the Word on Fire Bible, my reaction has been closer to: “Whoa, that was powerful!” more than once.
Consider this selection, where Bishop Barron comments on Matthew 9:38 (“…ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”):
…What precisely does it mean to evangelize?
Euangelion (glad tidings) was a familiar word in the culture of the New Testament authors. When the emperor or one of his generals won a battle, he would send evangelists ahead to announce the glad tidings.
The first Christians were being consciously edgy when they adapted this word to their purposes. They were saying that the definitive battle had indeed been won, but that it had nothing to do with Caesar and his armies. It had to do with the victory that God won in Christ over sin and death.
Jesus went into the belly of the beast, into the heart of dysfunction, to the limits of godforsakenness, and he defeated the dark powers. He demonstrated that the divine love is greater than our greatest enemies.
This evangelical message entails, too, that there is a new King, a new Emperor. Christ, the victor over sin and death, must be the center of your life.
Or, consider this challenging reflection on Matthew 12:30 (“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”):
Life is filled with ambiguities, and sometimes a certain psychological “pluralism” is permissible, even welcome; but what Jesus is saying here is that, in regard to one’s ultimate concern and final allegiance, one has to be clear, unified, and unambiguous. Sometimes, despite strong counterarguments and very grave dangers, a definitive choice has to be made.
Another astonishing insight comes in a comment on Matthew 16:18 (“…on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it”):
…Jesus insists that this society, grounded in Peter’s confession, would constitute an army so powerful that not even the fortified capital of the dark kingdom itself could withstand it. It is fascinating to me how often we construe this saying of Jesus in precisely the opposite direction, as though the Church is guaranteed safety against the onslaughts of hell. In point of fact, Jesus is suggesting a much more aggressive image: his Church will lay successful siege upon the kingdom of evil, knocking down its gate and breaching its walls.
There are practical insights here on living the commands of Jesus. Here is the concluding paragraph of Bishop Barron’s reflection on Matthew 18:21-35 (forgiving seventy-seven times, and the parable of the unforgiving servant):
How do you become a better forgiver? Perhaps I can offer four practical suggestions. First, keep your own sins frequently before your mind’s eye. Second, go to Confession more regularly. Third, forgive offenses quickly. Don’t give them time to settle deeply into your psyche; seek reconciliation right away. Finally, forgive through a concrete act or a concrete sign. Write a note, make a phone call, give a gift, offer your own presence. Forgiveness is most effective when it becomes concrete.
It’s easy to read the parable of the wicked tenants (Matthew 21:33-43) as a reflection on the Sadducees, Pharisees, and scribes of the first century. After all, Jesus told the parable to warn the religious leaders that the Kingdom of God would be taken away from them and given to others, right? Bishop Barron does not allow us to comfortably observe this in its first century context:
Just before his Passion and death, Jesus tells the striking story of the landowner who planted a vineyard. The fertile vineyard stands for Israel, his chosen people. But it could be broadened out to include the world. What do we learn from this beautiful image? That God has made for his people a place where they can find rest, enjoyment, and good work.
We—Israel, the Church, the world—are not the owners of the vineyard; we are tenants. One of the most fundamental spiritual mistakes we can make is to think that we own the world. We are tenants, entrusted with the responsibility of caring for it, but everything that we have and are is on loan. Our lives are not about us.
Christ is God’s judgment. We are all under his judgment. In the measure that we reject him or refuse to listen to him, we place our tenancy in jeopardy. And so the great question that arises from this reading: How am I using the gifts that God gave me for God’s purposes? My money? My time? My talents? My creativity? My relationships? All is for God, and thus all is under God’s judgment.
There are countless examples of insights and exhortations like these scattered throughout each Gospel. Make no mistake, this is not strictly a “non-believer’s Bible.” It is full of reflections that would be challenging and interesting for lifelong Catholics or converts. To my mind, the intellectual depth of the commentaries and the deep moral challenges to every reader make me wonder whether it’s accurate to describe this Bible as “designed to appeal to nonbelievers.” Certainly, it pulls no punches in presenting the faith to a nonbeliever, and that is a refreshing difference from oversimplified, consensus-based attempts at evangelism. But it is absolutely not “too basic” for a lifelong Catholic. This Bible is a great resource for any Catholic, no matter how advanced.
Excerpts from the Church Fathers
I’ll limit myself to one example of the excerpts from the Church Fathers. These are usually short, but they offer important insights. Did you know St. Jerome wrote that the curse on the human race because of Eve’s sin was undone by the women who came to the tomb and reported the Resurrection to the apostles? That was news to me. Usually, Mary is presented as the one who overturned Eve’s curse. Take a look at this excerpt from Jerome (commenting on Matthew 28:8-10):
Two different emotions filled the minds of these women: fear and joy. The fear came from the scale of the miracle they had witnessed, the joy from seeing their longings for the resurrection fulfilled. Both feelings drove them forward. They continued till they met the Apostles in order that the seed of faith would be sown abroad…Thus it happened that Eve’s curse was undone by these women.
Artwork and Essays
The art inserts are generally two pages, with the art depicted on one page, along with captions and insets to draw attention to important features. On the facing page, Michael Stevens offers a short, two or three paragraph essay with background on the artist, technique, and important features of the work. I’ve enjoyed these. I am not an artist, and I don’t have much knowledge of art history beyond the basics. These inserts have been educational, and in many cases, they have introduced me to artists and artwork that I never knew before.
Each gospel is preceded by a short introduction written in a popular style. These introductions are not technical, and they have almost nothing in common with the historical-critical introductions in the NABRE. They usually focus on the experience of the reader, who is about to set off on reading the Gospel. Brandon Vogt, in his introduction to the Gospel of Matthew, tells a few stories about how difficult it is to make it through the genealogy in the first several verses. He then moves on to discuss some of Matthew’s main themes in an extremely approachable way. Fr. Stephen Grunow, Elizabeth Scalia, and Abbot Jeremy Driscoll, OSB, penned the introductions to Mark, Luke, and John respectively.
Overall, I’m very impressed with the commentary in this Bible, and I highly, unequivocally recommend it. It pulls no punches, addresses tough questions head-on, and challenges the reader to think through the implications of Gospel passages that have become familiar. In a small handful of places, I wished that the commentary provided additional historical detail before delving directly into the personal and spiritual relevance of the passage, but in large part, that is simply my desire for accuracy and completeness, not a failing of the commentary’s mission. The commentary is explicitly not designed to emphasize historical-critical details, and it does an excellent job with its main goal: to show a modern audience the relevance and power of the Gospels.