Chasing Francis

Chase Falson, pastor of a successful New England evangelical church, is frustrated. After years of success in his ministry, he’s starting to think none of it has any meaning at all. When he breaks down and shares his true feelings with his congregation, the response is as bad as you might expect. Now in disgrace (and on an indefinite leave of absence), Chase calls up his uncle, a jolly Franciscan friar, who invites him to come to Italy on a sort of Franciscan pilgrimage. There he eats some good food, makes many new friends, admires some beautiful art, and most important, develops a new vision for his faith through his study of the life of Saint Francis of Assisi.

Ian Morgan Cron’s novel, which in my snarkier moments I’ve mentally referred to as Eat, Pray, Love for evangelicals, was the latest choice for my church book club. A step down from Milton, I must admit. Cron uses Chase’s story as a sort of framework to teach readers about Franciscan spirituality, which involves such virtues as humility, rejection of materialism, love for the earth and for all creatures, appreciation of art and beauty, active peacemaking, and concern for the poor and needy. It’s a beautiful lesson, really, but Cron couches it in a poorly written, clunky, and clichéd story that detracts from the overall message.

If you’re at all familiar with the work of Brian McLaren and others from the emerging church movement, Cron’s approach and ideology will probably be familiar. I’ve been following the movement off and on for years and see a lot of value in this movement among disenchanted evangelicals. (I also see some problems, which I won’t get into here. On balance, I think there’s more good than bad in the movement.) Several novels coming out of this movement have taken the form of a dialogue between someone facing a spiritual struggle having long conversations with someone who can provide a new way of looking at things. McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian is probably the most famous book of this type, but there have been a few others whose titles escape me. Cron’s idea of drawing Saint Francis into his story was a fresh spin.

The trouble, however, with using a novel to teach readers a particular way of thinking is that the ideology ends up driving the story, and the story starts to ring false. As someone who comes from a similar tradition to Chase’s I could have sat down and drawn up a list of the various complaints I’ve heard (and made myself) about evangelicalism as it stands today. And as I read, I would have been able to check every single one of them off in Cron’s narrative. Perhaps this means Cron is being accurate, but the thing is, the chapter about his spiritual crisis felt like the reading of a checklist rather than a genuinely messy spiritual experience.

Also, Cron is simply not a particularly good fiction writer. The dialogue tends to sound rehearsed, like talking points instead of muddy meandering conversation. The characters all seem to be types—Kenny, the Franciscan uncle, drives like a maniac and smokes like a chimney, making him just hip enough to appeal to readers who are feeling rebellious. All the Franciscans are consistently jolly, always ready with exactly the right insight at the right moment, and never peevish or irritable. They’re idealized and thus don’t feel real. And Cron’s efforts at adding writerly flourishes are often grating, as you see in this description of his meeting up with one of the friars after a few days’ absence: “Bernard greeted us in the refectory like a chubby yellow lab whose master returned from a long trip. His tail wagged so hard I thought his back end would fly off.” Am I the only one who pictured a chubby friar with a long wagging tail?

Still, clunky writing or not, if I’d encountered this book 15 or even 10 years ago, it would have been a revelation, which makes me feel bad for ragging on it. But then I realized why the poor prose and narrative style were so frustrating. And here’s the kicker—the book itself told me why!

One of the things that Chase learns about on his travels around Italy is that Saint Francis loved the arts. He followed the model of the troubadours, using song and story to teach people. Chase explains what he learns in this way:

There’s a difference between art that trusts beauty’s simple power to point people to God and Christian art that’s consciously propagandistic. … you can make art about the Light, or you can make art that shows what the Light reveals about the world.

Cron’s book feels “consciously propagandistic” instead of like a work that “trusts beauty’s simple power,” and that’s at the heart of my problem. I want the church to have a high standard for literary excellence. Unfortunately, I haven’t found this to be the case. There are notable exceptions, of course, but they are exceptions—and far too many of them are long dead. Cron means well, and I applaud his message. I hope someday to see this same message expressed in a literary work of art.

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12 Responses to Chasing Francis

  1. How interesting – I can see the source of your interest in the John Henry Newman discussion. Newman demanded that excellence, as well, the kind you mention in your last paragraph. Or, really, it is not that he demanded it, but that he knew how books thrived and survived – literary excellence was necessary to the message. He wanted a truly Catholic literature, but he knew that the only way to create it was the old-fashioned way – through the long, hard work of a handful of unpredictable geniuses.

    Not that Ian Cron and others should stop trying!

    • Teresa says:

      Yep, I’ve always been interested in the church’s relationship to art. I’m glad there are folks like Cron out there trying, but my frustration comes with the tendency to give poor art a pass because the message is so good. Paradise Lost is still read because Milton took the trouble to make Satan a vivid a fascinating character, risky though it was to his message. So much “Christian art” these days seems forgettable.

  2. Iris says:

    I am unfamiliar with the emerging church movement, so I have to admit that this post made me curious to know more about it. As in, how does it work? Do people read Franciscus in an evangelical environment? Isn’t it seen as a “catholic threat to protestantism”? (Or maybe I’m asking the latter because I’m too immersed in 19th century mission).

    • Teresa says:

      Brian McLaren is definitely the guy to read if you want to understand the thinking of the movement. He’s easy reading too. (A Generous Orthodoxy is probably the closest think you’ll find to a statement of emerging beliefs.)

      And yes, you’re absolutely right that many evangelicals would object to studying Francis because of his Catholicism. Cron actually talks about that :) In my experience, though, evangelicalism as a whole is not as anti-Catholic as it probably was in its early years. And I think the fact that evangelicalism is so loosely organized means that hardly anything can be said to be true of all, or even most, evangelicals. Attitudes about Catholicism vary quite a lot.

  3. The trouble, however, with using a novel to teach readers a particular way of thinking is that the ideology ends up driving the story, and the story starts to ring false.

    Amen! This sounds like it would have succeeded as a nonfiction piece.

  4. Bill says:

    You capture the problem with this book so perfectly with the illustration of the quote from the book…

    “There’s a difference between art that trusts beauty’s simple power to point people to God and Christian art that’s consciously propagandistic. … you can make art about the Light, or you can make art that shows what the Light reveals about the world.”

    While you know I had similar complaints that you did with it, I still really enjoyed it, exactly for the same reason you expressed, that if I’d read it 10 years ago, it would have seemed like a revelation.

    I also would note that in the finale, the sermon at the end, he proposes this mix-and-match approach to liturgy and tradition that, in reality, is the most secular, of-the-moment idea I can think of.

    Certainly, we should draw inspiration, and have dialog with, other Christian traditions. But why on earth do we need to make a fully “new” thing out of what’s been preserved and handed down to us at great cost for 2,000 years in the traditional churches?

    I guess this is my major criticism: the ideas in the book about emergent church seem obsessed with our cultural moment, yet what inspires them is all that which has remained constant through space and time via churches that bear witness to apostolic succession. Just very odd.

    • Teresa says:

      Bill, that’s almost exactly why I drifted toward the Episcopal church. I think the particular line of thinking in this book can get really close to jettisoning important traditions that benefit us tremendously—sometimes without our even knowing it. I think some of the people in this particular movement see themselves as being able to pick the good bits out of an otherwise tainted and compromised tradition. (If you want to see my go on a good and hearty rant sometime, ask me about anti-Constantianism.)

  5. Jenny says:

    Shame. I’m religious(ish) myself, and I’m always frustrated with how rarely I find people in books who are like me religiously. Christian fiction tends to be all about the moral, ditto a lot of the Victorians, and people in modern novels don’t seem to be big with faith. I love it when I come across a book (like A Canticle for Leibowitz or The Sparrow) where faith is important to the characters AND they’re able to question it AND the book doesn’t get preachy. TRICKY.

    • Teresa says:

      Jenny,The lack of high-quality literature about faith has been a source of frustration for me for years. Gilead is the modern literary touchstone I always think of as one that gets it right. It won the Pulitzer, and Home won the Orange, which tells me that honest books about people of faith can win over even literary critics. As does The Sparrow and the novels of Frederick Buechner. But the church doesn’t do much to actively encourage excellence in literature.

      (Off to look up A Canticle for Leibowitz.)

  6. Lisa says:

    Sounds like a book some Churches wouldn’t even allow! Also sounds a tad dull…. LOVE your blog–I just found it.

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