A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to read the book Chasing Francis by Ian Morgan Cron. It relates the (fictional) tale of a contemporary evangelical pastor whose crisis of faith leads him on an Italian sabbatical to reflect on the life and principles of St. Francis of Assisi. By the time he returns to the United States, the 39-year-old pastor has a new perspective on church and ministry summed up in five words: “transcendence, community, beauty, dignity, and meaning” (196).
As a Church historian who teaches ministry courses–and who spent a day and night in Assisi this past summer–I had a great deal of interest as I approached in this book. At least part of this excitement continued throughout my reading of it. The central narrative was compelling, and it was interesting to see and experience how the story of Pastor Chase Falson unfolded. The descriptions of Italy and Assisi brought back fond memories, and Cron’s writing helped deepen some reflections I had about St. Francis during my “pilgrimage” there this July.
And yet: there were aspects of the story that I didn’t enjoy. For inasmuch as the central narrative was engaging, aspects of the text were problematic. Falson’s home church, for instance, seemed chock full of attacks on (perceived) evangelicalism ,including a rather dim portrayal of an ambitious, deceptive, and less-than-bright youth pastor. Conversely, the Franciscans the pastor meets in Italy were inspiring but perhaps too perfectly idealized. Lastly, Falson himself–though certainly a developed character–can come off as a somewhat unattractive protagonist. A bit too wide-eyed at times and sarcastic at others, he leaves Italy ostensibly humbled even while the book seemingly posits a sense of superiority towards others who haven’t taken his journey of enlightenment.
Do my critiques read too much into the text? Perhaps. Do I feel that its central task could have been accomplished more helpfully? Yes. Trust me, I’m not against being inspired by the saints of the past to think about reforming the Church of today. I’m an ordained minister and PhD-holding Church historian, for Heaven’s sake.
But then perhaps that’s why I offer this critique. I know how easy it is to look to the idealized past and/or lofty theology and be dissatisfied with the present. I understand that everything isn’t as it should be. Even so, I think that’s no reason to simply adopt a “I know better than you poor ignorant evangelicals” approach to ministry. That’s at least some of book’s implicit message, and insofar as it is ungracious towards that end, I reject its approach. After reflecting on the life and character of the man of Assisi, I suspect he might too.
I did find aspects of the book helpful for considering today’s church, and certainly think that the historical/spiritual approach wedded to contemporary narrative was a powerful method. My critiques are born, rather, from one who has sat with some of this material for many years and is concerned that the author isn’t being thoughtful enough about the entirety of the picture. And yet–considering my earlier critique–it simply wouldn’t be proper for me to dismiss newcomers to this subject matter because they haven’t had the opportunity I have had to consider all of the related issues. Such a thing would be dismissive at best and elitism at worst.
The main concern I’d have for evangelicals who approach this book is that it would leave them disgusted with their congregations to the point of rejection. While to be sure there are many issues at work in churches of all different shapes and sizes (and theological traditions), the potential with Chasing Francis is to leave readers so dissatisfied with their Christian community and so impatient for change that they will simply leave to find a greener church pasture. Contemporary evangelicalism has its issues, but I would submit that it is not as universally compromised as this book can imply. Loving Christ means loving Christ’s Church…and if we indeed are called like Francis to rebuild he Body of Christ we must take that into consideration.