To Light a Fire on the Earth, the state of modern evangelism in America

by Matt Komprood


“To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age” by Bishop Robert Barron and John L. Allen Jr. Published by Image Publishing. 262 pages.

Anyone who has been paying attention to the Catholic media world in the last few years has come across Bishop Robert Barron. Currently serving as an Auxiliary Bishop for the Diocese of Los Angeles, Bishop Barron made a splash several years ago with his video series Catholicism.

Co-written with John L. Allen Jr., a well-known Catholic journalist, To Light a Fire is written in an interview style, with Allen supplying background and commentary throughout. For those familiar with Barron’s previous work, this book provides more background into his life, thought, and evangelical philosophy. While not organized around any specific theme, the book is best read as both the biography of one of the seminal figures currently serving the American Church as well as an introduction to the state of modern evangelism.

Barron and Allen outline the current evangelization problem: 12.9% of American adults are ex-Catholics. If they formed their own denomination, it would be the second-largest in the country. Reading Barron’s book, I came away with a renewed hope and excellent ideas for how to speak with others about the faith. The power of To Light a Fire lies in the ability to treat it as a field manual for evangelization. Are all the answers there? No, but it serves as a wonderful guide and introduction for how to reach people who have grown up with little or no exposure to Christianity.

The theme of the first half of To Light a Fire is that there are three ways to win people over to the faith: truth, goodness, and beauty. However, it is Barron’s repeated appeals to the beauty of the faith that made the book a compelling read.

Critics will point out that Barron appears to deemphasize some of the moral requirements of the faith saying, for example, that it isn’t necessarily productive to keep emphasizing the Church’s moral teachings on sexuality when you’re dealing with a culture that treats the very existence of God and objective morality itself as absurd. He’s not saying that these teachings should be deemphasized or sidelined, but that their importance grows in relevance in concert with one’s love for and understanding of the faith.

To use Barron’s analogy, you have to come to love the game of baseball first before you’ll get excited about understanding its rules, and before you can understand why those rules are there at all. Once you come to understand this, it’s easy to see how the rules and structures contribute to the elegance of the game.

If the theme of the first half of To Light a Fire concentrates on the philosophy of faith in God and what our attitude toward evangelization should be, the second half focuses on specific problems encountered when evangelizing in the modern world, specifically looking at the Bible, prayer, and more detailed objections to the faith, such as those posed by the so-called “new atheists.”

“I’ll tease them, saying, ‘You drop the question right when it gets really interesting’…You get to a question such as ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ and… just drop it. And I’m the one doing the magical thinking here?” Observations like this are peppered throughout To Light a Fire and give a lot of help to readers, as well as new ways to address some of the most common questions from nonbelievers they’re likely to encounter.

One critique might be that To Light a Fire tries to do a bit too much: to give Barron’s biography, touch on the problems and challenges of evangelizing, and rebut various popular arguments against Christianity. You’re certainly left wanting more, but also wishing that the book had concentrated on one of these themes exclusively.

However, while the book doesn’t treat any one topic in depth, it gives enough “aha” moments throughout to concentrate the mind and reveal new areas for study. To Light a Fire is a quick and encouraging read, and should be recommended to anyone who wants to better know how to give, as St. Peter says, “a reason for hope” (1 Peter 3:15).

Matt Komprood is the business manager at St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Center in Grand Forks.