Robert BARRON, Word on Fire: Proclaiming the Power of Christ. New York: Crossroad, 2008. pp. 225. $16.95 pb. ISBN-13 978-0-8245-2453-1.
Reviewed by Benjamin BROWN, Lourdes College, Sylvania, OH 43560

Word on Fire is a collection of homilies by Fr. Robert Barron, professor of systematic theology at Mundelein Seminary, originally given over the radio. Fr. Barron has been giving such homilies since 2001, all of which can be found as podcasts online. Word on Fire collects some of the best of these homilies, slightly edited for a written format.

Those familiar with Fr. Barron’s writings will recognize many common themes in Word on Fire: the strangeness of Christianity; Christianity as a way of life, a form of apprenticeship (discipleship) through which one is transformed by Christ; the transcendence and immanence of God; the non-competitiveness of God and the world; how closeness to God highlights one’s sinfulness and insufficiency; the way revelation leads into mission; and the beauty of the dance which is the liturgy, to name a few.

Also, typical of Barron’s “post-liberal, post-conservative” theology, he presents ideas that tend to be downplayed by liberals and conservatives in turn. He insists that God does punish (though not all suffering is a punishment) while also emphasizing the importance of solidarity with the poor and suffering. He underscores the beauty of diversity in the transnational kingdom of God and he maintains that the Mass is fundamentally a sacrifice. He contends that social justice is an irrevocable part of the Gospel while also insisting on the irreducibility of personal responsibility.

Barron’s distinctive style moves fluidly and fluently between Scripture, the lives of the saints, the liturgy, philosophy, literature and art, sometimes speaking at length about Peter Maurin, pagan mythology, humanism or Rose Hawthorne. While Barron rejects Tillich’s correlational method and suggests that homilies which are “long on stories and anecdotes and rather short on Scripture” fail to be good homilies (3), one finds some of the same in Barron’s own preaching. However, one notable difference lies in the way he allows the biblical word to shed new light on our experience more so than the other way around. Naturally, one must read the Bible in light of one’s own experience and worldview, but Barron insists that in the process one’s understanding and life must be reshaped and transformed as well. This, I think, is his true concern, that the radical newness of the Gospel not be lost in the process of correlation, that it not be reduced to the mundane. Those who know Barron’s theology will recognize in this his characteristic von Balthasarian endeavor to make the Christian message, for all its strangeness, so much the more beautiful and thus alluring.

Readers will find Barron’s homilies at times insightful, uplifting, convicting, inspiring and thought-provoking, though at other times paradoxical or moving too quickly between illustrations. But throughout the book, they shed new light on well-known scriptures and are definitely worth at least a quick read by those unfamiliar with his work.

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