The popular priest's new book plumbs pop culture in search of the divine
Back in 2007, a Catholic priest from Chicago uploaded a video on YouTube – not about social issues, church scandals, or religious observances, but about Martin Scorsese’s film The Departed. “Evil cannot be fought on its own terms,” Fr. Barron said, riffing on Jack Nicholson’s character. “You fight fire with fire, the world becomes hotter. You meet violence with violence, you just get more violence. Go back to Goodfellas, go back to Mean Streets, his really great movies, you’ll see that motif played out over and over again.”
It was the first of many video commentaries from Fr. Barron’s Word on Fire, a nonprofit global ministry that has quickly become the new face of Catholicism in the culture. Armed with social media, highly produced documentaries, and a steady torrent of article and video commentary, Fr. Barron and his team are marrying philosophical depth with what’s trending, excavating truth, goodness, and beauty everywhere they turn.
The approach has caught on: Darren Aronofsky praised Fr. Barron’s review of his film Noah over Twitter; his YouTube channel has raked in over 12 million views; and a series of videos on the music of Bob Dylan so impressed one young nineteen year old that it brought him to the doorstep of the Church. “Up came one of your videos,” the teenager wrote to him. “It came up, and I saw the Roman collar, and I just wanted to close the window. But I watched it, and I liked it and so I watched another one of your Bob Dylan commentaries, and then a third one. That led me to lots of your other videos and that led me back to your website, and then I got drawn into it…now I am in the RCIA program.”
Seeds of the Word, a new release from Word on Fire, gathers Fr. Barron’s commentary on film, books, politics, and culture into a wide-ranging collection of essays. The first section, “Imago Dei” – easily the most fun to peruse – retraces the wry wisdom of Woody Allen (“Kierkegaard, Woody Allen, and the Secret to Lasting Joy”), the bleak, violent landscapes of the Coen Brothers (“True Grit and the Everlasting Arms”), and the human dramas of big budget blockbusters (“Spider-Man, Iron Man, Superman, and the God-Man”), uncovering elements of theological truth throughout.
“Take and Read” dissects books as different as The Hobbit and The Audacity of Hope, while “City on a Hill” offers a fresh realignment of the Catholic perspective on politics, lauding “the great both/and of Catholic social teaching” and lamenting the “breakdown of moral argument.” The book ends with the cultural smörgåsbord of “Rays of Truth,” where baseball, the vampire craze, and even the new atheism are all revealed to be “charged with the grandeur of God.”
As an essay collection, Seeds of the Word is a great book to flip through, put down, and pick back up again. And even though “the moment” has passed on some of these pensées, the book is remarkable in two other ways. First, it serves as a kind of template for drawing out the “mystery of God” in the culture: energetic, sophisticated, and involved in a wide spectrum of issues, Fr. Barron’s commentary is the gold standard for an evangelization that transcends political polarization or moral prohibitions. Instead, he “leads with beauty” and unpacks the works themselves to deepen the conversation.
Second, the book is a record of an indefatigable evangelist who has quickly become the Fulton Sheen of the internet generation. Seeds of the Word reveals a man as much as a method, a selfless priest who for over a decade has gone where the people are, become all things to everyone, and never missed an opportunity to nurture good seeds. Fr. Barron’s rallying cry for the Church is not just something he and his crew work by – it’s clearly something they live by:
“To a scientific culture, we have to show how only a properly transcendent and intelligent cause can explain the contingencies and intelligibilities of the finite world. To a materialist culture, we have to show that, in the words of our present Pope, Logos is more metaphysically basic than mere matter. To a skeptical culture, we have to show that belief in the resurrection of Jesus is intellectually coherent and historically defensible. To a bored culture, we have to demonstrate that life in the Spirit is a high adventure, corresponding to the deepest longing of the human heart.”
Matthew Becklo is a husband and father, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.