In Chasing Francis, Ian Morgan Cron has written an engaging and interesting consideration of the life of Francis of Assisi in the form of a novel about a successful pastor who undergoes a crisis of faith and then rediscovers his faith in Italy under the mentorship of his Franciscan uncle. The pastor, Chase Falson, reaches a crisis point when the child of a woman in the church dies and his Evangelical faith has no answers to offer the grieving and angry mother or Chase himself. But it isn’t just this. This crisis has been coming for some time as Chase increasingly feels that something significant is missing in his walk with Christ. After a moment of brutal transparency with his congregation about his struggling faith, the church is thrown into turmoil and Chase goes off to see his uncle in Italy. His uncle Kenny introduces him to numerous fascinating people, most of whom are connected with the Franciscan order. While Chase begins to learn about Francis of Assisi in Italy, his church back home struggles with confusion, division, and increasingly aggressive maneuvering from one of the staff members who is angling for Chase’s job. Eventually, the grieving mother flies to Italy, joins Chase in his journey, and, after she experiences the ways of Francis in Italy as well, the two of them return to America where Chase shares with the church his new vision of what he believes they need to become. To find out the church’s response, you’ll have to read the book!
It is an interesting way to approach the life of Francis. As far as novelistic approaches to Francis go, the gold standard remains, in my opinion, Nikos Kazantzakis’ beautiful novel, Saint Francis. Cron’s work is engaging and through excerpts from Chase’s journal the reader will encounter a solid recounting of the details of Francis’ life. Cron isn’t exactly Cormac McCarthy (who is?), but the story is told well and I suspect that somebody who is unfamiliar with the life of Francis would find this a helpful introduction
It is Chase’s (Cron’s) interpretation and application of the life of Francis to the church that muddles things up a bit. Cron gets a great deal right: Francis’ authenticity, his simplicity, his literal, simple, and beautiful biblical hermeneutic, his courage, his love for the poor, his nearness to the poor, his prophetic challenge to empty religiosity, etc.—all of these are spot on. But there are times, especially in Chase’s words to his church upon returning, when things get murky. In his final message to his church upon returning to the United States, Chase lays out his vision. Presumably, Cron believes that the vision he communicates through Chase represents a faithful application of Franciscan principles to today’s church.
In this message, Chase calls the church to reflect the best of the Franciscan values: transcendence, community, beauty, dignity, serving Jesus completely and unreservedly, and meaning. These are indeed Franciscan ideals, but one does wonder if Cron has not baptized some of his interpretation of these ideas in the waters of post-modernity in such a way as to untether them from Francis’ original vision. Take, for instance, this section of Chase’s message:
Francis’s vision of Christian community was pretty revolutionary for the times he lived in. He encouraged women to be in ministry and to follow his way of life. Women like Clare were his closest friends. He defied hundreds of years of church tradition by insisting members of his order live among the people instead of behind monastery walls. They didn’t make artificial distinctions between the sacred and the secular. Instead, they went into the marketplace to minister. (p.198)
Now, a modern church-going person who knows nothing of St. Francis is going to read this and immediately interpret it in terms of today’s conversations about “women in ministry” and make certain assumptions that truly do not fit the facts. Yes, the relationship between Francis and Clare was beautiful and unique and worthy of pointing out, but it should be noted that once Claire submitted herself to his way of life, Francis immediately had her (and, in time, her followers) cloistered and, in essence, they never saw each other again until she was allowed to see the dying Francis’ in 1226. This arrangement was not against Clare’s will, I hasten to add, and I am not at all trying to downplay a relationship that was beautiful and powerful in its own right, but the picture of a group of young men and women who lived and ministered together in an early display of gender egalitarianism is a bit misleading. For instance, I would wager that no serious student of Francis (and Cron is certainly that) would suggest that Francis would have supported women priests (he would not have). Even so, Chase’s words, read through the lens of the modern American ecclesial milieu would likely lead one to suspect that he did.
Chase also appears to be enamored with the sentiment behind the almost-certainly-apocryphal saying of Francis, “Preach the gospel all the time. Use words only when necessary.” I am not saying that Cron does not realize these words are apocryphal. I am sure he does. I am suggesting that he gets close to saying something similar when he has Chase say:
First, if Francis were around today, he’d say our church community relies too much on words to tell others about our faith. For Francis, the gathered community was as potent a form of witness as words. He was convinced that how we live together is what attracts people to faith. Rather than loading people up with books and words when they come seeking God, why don’t we just invite them into the community and say, ‘We’re all seeking God together — come join us. See how we relate to each other, to you, to the world. Experience God in our midst, and figure out if you want to be part of his family and what he’s doing in the world.’ It’s all about actions first, words second. (p.199)
In a sense, this is, of course, thoroughly Franciscan. Francis did indeed believe that proclamation was more than words and there can also be no doubt that there is something endemic to perhaps especially non-liturgical Protestant culture that has hurt itself by not understanding that truth is communicated in many ways other than through verbal propositions. Even so, I fear that a modern person who does not know the story of Francis’ life would be surprised in light of this statement to know that Francis sent his brothers out on preaching and evangelization missions and that Francis himself sought the conversion of Sultan Malek al-Kamil through verbal proclamation (including, yes, the quality of his own life and possibly even, if one believes all of the reports, miraculous demonstrations of God’s power and presence).
In other words, I suspect that Chase’s words say more than he intends to say. Francis was a great proponent of preaching and words. He would, I suspect, call for our lives to undergird our words, and he would be right to do so. But Francis had deep theological convictions and did not hesitate to proclaim the content of the Christian message. I have no reason to think that Cron would disagree with this if asked. Again, my concern is the overall impression that such sentiments suggest to a modern readership who will almost certainly interpret such without the qualifying balance of other aspects of Francis’ life.
Chase rightly calls his congregation to forsake their materialism and to embrace peacemaking. I think Francis would heartily applaud this statement:
Somewhere along the way we forgot that Jesus intended the Sermon on the Mount to be an actual, concrete program for living. He wanted us to actually live it, not just admire it as a nice but unrealistic ideal. (p.202)
However, near the conclusion of Chase’s message, he says something that I think modern left-leaning Christians would appreciate but Francis would find utterly odd:
For years I thought of the Bible not as a story but as a black-and-white photograph, something you could use in a court of law to prove that our doctrines and propositions were rational and true. Talk about trivializing and holding back the beauty of the Bible! Now I see the Story more like a painting filled with glory, poetry, and even blurry lines. Paintings are trickier than photos. They’re open to a wide variety of interpretation, depending on who’s looking at them and the situations those viewers live in. Seeing the Bible this way could lead to things getting messy from time to time — but the Word is living, not static. Our job is to invite people to inhabit our story, to be part of what God’s doing in history. And we don’t need to feel constant pressure to defend it against its critics. Truth doesn’t need defending. It is its own witness. (p.207)
This is, frankly, so much grist for the mill for the kind of Christian today who has, to borrow a phrase from Vance Havner, “developed the ability of almost saying something.” Francis’ hermeneutic, as Cron recognizes earlier in his novel (and recognizes five pages earlier when he speaks of Francis’ approach to the Sermon on the Mount), was profoundly simple (without being simplistic), direct, and radical. Francis did not read the Bible like Rob Bell appears to read the Bible. He read it as a direct, largely clear, and authoritative word from God that called for immediate action. But that action does not arise out of the postmodern hermeneutic of uncertainty. It arises from the exact opposite: a belief that the ideational content of the scriptures on the main is perspicuous, clear, and largely settled. I can see no other way to explain Francis’ actions arising from Francis’ interpretations.
This novel is a mixed bag. I am not trying to be unjust to it. I just wonder if, here and there, Cron has not demonstrated an unfortunate penchant for crafting modernistic non sequiturs that seek to link Francis to aspects of the church today that he would in some cases not understand and would in other cases outright reject. Even so, on the whole, there is value in this work insofar as it offers (a) a pretty clear explanation of the life and mission of Francis and (b) one person’s attempt to think through the modern day implications of a most amazing life.