In journalism, as in basically any other gig, sometimes you get to do what you want, and other times you do what you have to. For me, the opportunity to spend several months getting to know Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, probably America’s premier Catholic evangelist right now, fell clearly and definitively in the former category.
Barron is an endlessly smart, engaging, and articulate guy, and the fruits of our conversations are in the new book To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age, published by Image Books and on-sale today.
I had heard of Barron, of course, largely through his ten-part video series “Catholicism.” I hadn’t really spent much face time with him over the years, however, save for occasionally sharing a TV platform during a big papal event as he did commentary for NBC and I did the same for CNN.
I discovered many things about the 58-year-old Barron (he turns 59 in November), including a shared passion for baseball. For me, however, I enjoy watching the games, and that’s pretty much it. For Barron, his love of baseball – and, as it turns out, Bob Dylan too – are metaphors for what it means to be an effective evangelizer.
First get people hooked on something they find beautiful, Barron believes, and eventually you can get around to explaining the rules and the moral demands that come with it. Trying to do it the other way around, he’s convinced, has long been a fatal mistake for the Church.
The following is an excerpt from To Light a Fire on the Earth, which appears with the permission of Image Books.
Baseball and Bob Dylan
Several of the defining passions of Barron’s life came together early. As we’ve seen, he was a teenager when he discovered his “two Thomases,” Thomas Aquinas and Thomas Merton, who remain lodestars of his faith today. His childhood is also when two other powerful forces captured his heart and mind – the game of baseball, and rock-and-roll, perhaps especially the music and poetry of Bob Dylan. It’s instructive to see how Barron speaks about both, because it’s clear there’s a nexus uniting all three that has something to do with the attractive power of beauty.
Of baseball, as we’ve mentioned, Barron is a diehard Cubs fan, despite his recent relocation to Los Angeles. (He did actually throw out the first pitch at a Dodgers game on “Catholic Night”, however, so he’s not quite fanatical in his loyalties.) He played the game himself from Little League through high school, generally fielding the shortstop position, and he wasn’t bad, several times making all-star teams. He was playing other sports too, including basketball and football, but it was clear that America’s Game had a special pride of place in his heart.
Barron always emphasizes that it was the love of the game that came first, well before he mastered its fine points. It was the smell of the grass, the “crack” that a cleanly hit ball makes when it leaves the bat, the “smack” of a well-fielded ball entering the glove, the infield ballet required to produce a groundball out, the combination of speed and cunning and power good teams have – just the poetry in motion of it all. The passion he felt for the game, and his drive to share it, he says, was in some ways his first taste of what it means to evangelize.
“I’m an evangelist for baseball. You love something, and you want to share it. Something beautiful has seized you, and you think baseball is terrific, and you want to let people know why. If someone says to you, ‘I hate baseball; it’s boring’, you want to grab them by the lapels and say, ‘Let me tell you why it’s not boring. Let me explain it to you.’ And you can do that in a way that’s not browbeating.”
Only when you’ve had that experience of falling in love with something, Barron believes, will learning the rules that support it make sense. Otherwise, “rule-talk” is always going to seem like someone trying to control another, like an exercise in power rather than liberation to play the game well.
“My analogy is the infield fly rule,” Barron said. “It’s a good rule, and I love it. I remember distinctly when I learned it in Little League, but there’s no way I would have been drawn into the splendor of the game through that rule. To compare it to the life of faith, if you’ve got someone who wants to know what Catholicism is and who Jesus Christ is, you’d never start with the Pauline privilege!”
[Note: The infield fly rule states that a fair fly ball in the infield, which, in the judgment of the umpire, could be caught with ordinary effort, is an automatic out, in order to prevent dropping the ball on purpose and catching runners off base. The Pauline privilege is an aspect of Catholic marriage law that states when two non-baptized persons are married, the marriage can be dissolved if one partner converts to Christianity and the other leaves the marriage as a result.]
Barron recalls his early baseball coaches as, in the sense he’s describing, natural-born evangelists.
“When I was learning baseball, I had these good coaches. They were young, probably in their twenties, but seemed ancient to us. One of them said, ‘I want you to get down on your knees, and I want you to feel the infield.’ What he was doing, I understand now. When you’re trying to field the ball, you get kind of skittish. If you’re really uncomfortable with the grass and the dirt and all, you’ve got to get over it, because you have to be comfortable moving in to get the ball. He was literally having us feel the infield. Then they had us watch filmstrips of baseball players and to notice the various positions of the bat, where your hips should be in relation to the swing, how high your elbow should be, etc. Then, of course, they got us playing. And we played terribly, we were throwing wildly and striking out, but having a blast. It would never have occurred to them to say at this stage, ‘Let me clarify first the infield fly rule.’ I think what happened in my experience growing up is something like that. In the Church, we started with the infield fly rule. People looking at it would have said Catholicism…I guess it’s all about rules, especially sexual ethics. It’s about getting your sexual life in order. I became convinced, and am still convinced, that a huge swath of Catholics do not know the fundamentals of Christianity. They don’t know the beauty of the game. They don’t know what the infield feels like. They don’t know the texture of it. I want them to feel Catholicism, to know the essential stuff. Furthermore, we won’t get the sexual teaching right until we get the essentials right. It will just seem like arbitrary rules being imposed on you, which is how it feels to a lot of people.”
In many ways, filling that gap, and, in so doing, restoring the proper sequence between falling in love and then learning the rules, has become the idée fixe of Barron’s life and career. Today, he says, his favorite sports parallel comes not from baseball, which he can’t play anymore, but from golf.
“Golf is a baseball swing on the ground,” he laughs. “Notice how golf people are obsessed with rules. We love them. Once you get a few rules and know how this thing works, we love it, reading Golf Digest and so on. There’s solace in the rules. We understand what the Psalmist was talking about: ‘Lord, how I love your law, I meditate on it day and night!’
“Rules are not the enemy of golf,” Barron said. “Rules are what make it possible, and what free you to be a good golfer. That’s the right way to approach the rules of Catholicism too, but the trouble is we have this rule book and people bicker about prohibitions all the time, especially in regard to sex. Many wonder, who needs it? I think that’s the reaction of a lot of people my generation and younger. Who needs all that?”
Around the same time Barron was developing his appreciation for the proper place of rules in evangelizing through baseball, another equally strong passion began to flourish. He discovered the music of Bob Dylan, and, to hear Barron tell it, nothing would ever be quite the same again. (To this day, he’s got a picture of Dylan he once drew in his residence, along with Merton, Aquinas, and a beloved fellow Chicago priest.)
“I discovered Bob Dylan right around the same time I discovered Thomas Aquinas and Thomas Merton. Remember the Concert for Bangladesh album that came out in the early 70s? I’m about 12, 13, 14 and I was just discovering rock and roll. That’s when I was listening to the Beatles, and that was the connection. My brother gets the Concert for Bangladesh. I was listening to it on the record player, the vinyl. I’m listening to George Harrison’s music, and then my brother turned over the record and I hear Harrison say, ‘I want to bring on a friend of us all, Mr. Bob Dylan.’ I’d never heard of him, but the crowd went berserk. Here’s this really peculiar voice, but I was just old enough and had enough experience in school to get poetry and language, and so I’m listening, and he sings the first song I ever heard by him, ‘Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.’ He does ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ ‘Tambourine Man,’ ‘Just Like a Woman,’ his biggest songs. I was particularly blown away by ‘Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.’ The language, the voice and the people responding to it … that was it. I’m kind of an obsessive guy, so with Aquinas and Merton I went all the way, and with Dylan I started going all the way.”
According to Barron, it’s not just the poetry of the lyrics or the quirkiness of the voice that drew him to Dylan, but also the strong religious sensibility he exudes.
“Do you remember at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, when Springsteen inducts Bob Dylan and says the snare drum that opens up ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is like kicking open the door to your mind, and this whole world opens up? This is cliché to say, but the Old Testament prophet is the right rubric for Bob Dylan. He’s Biblical. He’s a lot of things, of course, but above all, from beginning to end, he’s Biblical. He’s the one, perhaps more than anyone else in pop music, who brings the Biblical worldview into our time. Buddy Holly, Woody Guthrie, Elvis and others influenced him, but it’s the Biblical take which drives his interest in sin, judgment, eternal life and God. One of his later songs, called ‘I’m trying to get to Heaven before they close the door,’ has stayed with me. Often when I’m in prayer in my chapel, I’ll look up at the tabernacle and say, ‘I’m just trying to get to Heaven before they close the door.’ When it gets down to it, that’s all I want. I’m just trying to get to Heaven before they close the door.”
Once again, Barron says he was seized with such a strong passion for Dylan that he felt compelled to share it, instinctively leading him down a path that he would today recognize as a kind of evangelization.
“It’s sharing something that I find so compelling and lifegiving. I became a Bob Dylan evangelist immediately. I remember saying as a little kid, have you ever heard of Bob Dylan? He has a crazy voice, but it’s actually great once you get it. You’ve got to listen to this song. I’ve had people all my life ask me, ‘Bob Dylan? Why? He’s terrible!’ But from the time I was 15, I’ve been a Dylan evangelist, and I don’t think I’ve ever been offensive about it. I think people see a guy who really loves Bob Dylan, and is articulate about him, and can tell you why he likes him. He can introduce him to you. Balthasar says anything beautiful first arrests you – you’re stopped in your tracks by it. Then, Balthasar says, the beautiful elects you. You’ve been chosen. Not everyone who hears Dylan becomes a fan, but I got elected. Finally, he says, the beautiful always sends you. You’re sent on a mission.”
Another point Barron absorbed from his love for Dylan, he says, is not to be bashful about asserting the superiority of your passion over other possible choices. Today, he thinks, there’s sometimes too much skittishness around missionary activity for fear that it may seem to treat Catholicism as better, truer, than other faiths – but, he insists, if you’re truly convinced of that, why wouldn’t you want to share it?
“Do I think Bob Dylan is superior to the vast majority of singers and songwriters? Yes! Absolutely! And I can demonstrate it if you want. I’ll sit down and show you. I’m convinced of it, and frankly, I want you to be convinced of it too. I think it’d be great if you listened to him too, because he’s wonderful, and I think he is better than the other ones. But I don’t think that’s offensive to people. It’s the enthusiasm of the missionary. So, do I think Catholicism is the fullest way to live the way of Jesus Christ? Yes. Do I think Jesus Christ is the son of the living God, and the Way and the Truth and the Life? Yes, I do. I’m not apologizing for it, and I’m so on fire about it I want you to know it too.”
From baseball and Bob Dylan, therefore, Barron took away a strong core belief that the right way to expose someone to a new idea, a new way of life, is to start with what makes it beautiful, relentlessly help them see and feel that beauty, and only then introduce them to the structures and rules that make such a way of life possible.
Beauty, in other words, is the key to it all.