Monday, April 16, 2012

The Pilgrimage Is Never Over: My Review of Chasing Francis

Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim's TaleChasing Francis: A Pilgrim's Tale by Ian Morgan Cron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At the end of 2011 I was invited to write a brief review for a best-of list. The book was Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me, a memoir by Ian Morgan Cron about growing up in a car wash. Just kidding. The title was as accurate to the content as it was creatively uncreative, and the book was absorbing. I wrote an effusive review of the book and resolved that I would eventually, finally, read his first book, Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim's Tale.

Then I forgot about it for a while.

Then I had the chance to meet Cron, where I told him face to face how much I enjoyed his memoir, and where he asked what I thought of his first book, and where I had to red-facedly admit I'd let it slip by. I was embarrassed for a number of reasons: Chasing Francis has been influential on a number of my friends as they think about living out their faith in the twenty-first century, and because I admire them, I really should have read what they admire by now. As an editor for a Christian publisher, I've solicited endorsements for several books from Cron in the few years since Chasing Francis was released, itself a tacit acknowledgment of his importance, but never bothered to read what this important writer had written. And perhaps most embarrassingly, I had advance notice that I might get to meet him, might get to talk about his writing with him, and I still let his book go unread. Lame lame lame all around. In any event, Cron was gracious and, in an act of Franciscan charity, gave me two copies of the book. This being my personal Year of Overdue Books, I chalked it up to providence and read Chasing Francis over the weekend--maybe a bit faster than I should have--and thoroughly enjoyed it.

My copies of the book bear the subtitle "A Novel," which is a change from the subtitle at first release: "A Pilgrim's Tale." That change is unfortunate, as calling it a novel sets up the wrong expectations of the book and would likely disappoint. This isn't a novel; it's "wisdom literature," a style that's been used to good effect in recent years by philosophers such as Peter Kreeft and Christian gadfly Brian McLaren, among many others. Cron's goal for the reader in this particular wisdom writing is not to enjoy a subversive work of literary fiction but to enter into a time of reflection by way of imagined scenario: an accomplished but increasingly frayed pastor of an evangelical church, who represents the angst felt by many such pastors and laypeople today (including myself, I freely admit), loses it in the pulpit one day and is forced into a leave of absence by his elder board (who represent the tyranny of sameness that actively, though unconsciously, suppresses the redemptive imagination in all kinds of settings, not just the church), and sets out on a pilgrimage to the world of St. Francis of Assisi, the medieval child of privilege whose epiphany on the road to war led him to arguably (and it's a strong argument) rescue Christianity from its own obsolescence.

That's a long sentence, but it gets the gist of the book across. The main character, pastor Chase Falson, reads a little thin and implausible at the beginning; so does his church, actually. Both sound more like an amalgamation of evangelicals from all over America, moreso than a congregation specifically set in New England; Chase's initial ignorance of St. Francis, his casualness in the face of a startlingly unsympathetic reaction to his breakdown, his utter innocence in the face of betrayal by the congregation that he planted and cultivated--this initial setup serves the story almost too well. I would have liked to see Chase's feet of clay a little more clearly in the beginning.

But to ask for that is to judge the book as a novel, which is not what it is. And you'll grow quickly to root for and identify with Chase as he flies to Italy and takes up with several Franciscan brothers and sisters, conveniently speakers of English and mostly American, and makes the compelling case that the church at the beginning of the third millennium CE looks a lot like the church at the beginning of the second millennium CE: unmitigated materialism, regular scandals of the predictable sort, and a growing irrelevancy to the daily lives of loosely committed adherents. Francis, who expressed his faith in such wild and crazy ways as kissing lepers, walking through a war zone unarmed to offer a blessing to a Muslim emir, and stripping naked in front of a crowd to divest himself of his family's wealth, was a shock to the church's system--just the shock, it turns out, that the church needed. A Christian counterculture spread across Europe in Francis's wake, taking vows of poverty and simplicity, blessing communities in real, tangible and agendaless ways, and just generally taking the words of Jesus really, really seriously while taking the serious challenges of life lightly and joyfully. No wonder Chase falls in love with Francis; no wonder he has his world rocked.

I was surprised and impressed at the end of the book by how Chase was able to offer a vision for the contemporary church that is informed by Francis but achievable by modern evangelicals. Cron identifies five themes that capture the heart of Francis's ministry and challenge the mores and protocols of today's churches: transcendence, community, beauty, dignity and meaning. That these sound a little "duh" to me is a tribute both to how effectively Cron portrayed the zeitgeist in this book (he's not the only person to have been thinking along these lines in the past decade) and how influential his book has been in the six years since its release. The most interesting books do exactly that: they make you think that you already accepted the premise by showing how self-evident the premise is, even while honestly representing how controversial the premise will be. That's what good wisdom literature does too, frankly: we get fooled by the parable into thinking that we're something we've never yet been, and then we start to live into that something in redemptive and joyful ways. Chasing Francis is fiction in service to the pursuit of truth.

A running tension throughout the book is the contrast between evangelicalism and Catholicism, and the mutual suspicion between the two traditions. I've personally been on both sides of this chasm, which may be why I got this book so much more quickly than I've gotten similar treatises by other writers. Brian McLaren and others have written compellingly about the latest emergence in the arc of Christianity's history, and I have a great deal of sympathy toward the insights from those writings. But this look backward, this story of a textbook evangelical learning from an unmitigated Catholic, is for me touched with a special grace. There's no going back, Chase seems to understand, as he resists moving permanently to Italy, converting to Catholicism and joining a traditional Franciscan order. But there is historical continuity to the work of God in the world through the church: when there's nothing new under the sun, then what Francis discovered in his day can be rediscovered and freshly applied in our day. We move forward into history best when we carry the best of our history with us. As one of the priests in Chase's adventure reminds him, and us, "the pilgrimage is never over."

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