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.