By Ian Morgan Cron
Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2006
Review by Carl McColman
Francis of Assisi might not be the first figure who comes to mind as a mentor and inspiration for a twenty-first century evangelical pastor, but in this enjoyable and thought-provoking teaching novel by Ian Cron, Francis turns out to be just the figure to both encourage and challenge a “successful” pastor who is dealing with issues related to burnout. The hero of this tale is Chase, a thirty-something minister who has shepherded his New England-based non-denominational church from its missional, church-plant beginnings to a thriving, bustling congregation with a gleaming new building filled with state of the art audiovisual equipment. Chase is perhaps the envy of many a pastor in his town, but he himself begins to struggle with a personal sense of questioning related not only to his ministry, but even to his faith. This inner struggle, unfortunately, leads him to act out his uncertainties in a very public way at the church, arousing the anger of enough of his leadership council that he is forced into an unplanned sabbatical. Emotionally trainwrecked, Chase decides to really get away — and winds up across the Atlantic, visiting a family member of his who some years back had converted to Catholicism and is now a Franciscan friar in Assisi, the very town where St. Francis himself lived.
A bit contrived? Sure. But the issues of clergy burnout and trying to deal honestly with doubt within a paradigm of faith that does not tolerate deep questioning are real enough to make even this made-to-order plotline into a page-turner. Granted, the story is a set-up designed simply to bring Chase (and we, the readers) to Assisi, where his culture shock at finding himself so far from home keeps him just enough off his game so that he is actually able to open his mind — and heart — to the simple yet truly radical message of il poverello — the poor little friar.
Mentored by his uncle and several other Franciscan brothers, Chase begins to learn an entirely new approach to Christian spirituality, from respect for creation to deep love for the poor (including a commitment to serve those in need), all derived from the life and teachings of Francis. When a member of Chase’s church — one of the few who saw his “breakdown” as a sign of authenticity, rather than weakness — unexpectedly shows up, Chase finds he has an ally in his journey toward this new understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Summoned back to his church where he learns that his associate pastor is now campaigning to replace him, Chase makes an eloquent appeal to re-imagine the church according to Franciscan values. An unexpected twist defines how this scenario plays out, bringing the story to its close with a rejuvenated Chase, on fire for the Gospel as seen through Franciscan eyes and confident that, with God’s help, truly miraculous things can happen.
Although this novel is clearly written for evangelical Christians who may not be familiar with the life or message of St. Francis, I think it would be appropriate for anyone wishing to learn more about the friar from Assisi, and how his life and message can truly inspire Christians today — of any denomination. Indeed, part of the message of Chasing Francis is that il poverello belongs to the entire body of Christ, not just to Catholics. Lovely as that message is, I was a bit disappointed in how the novel avoids some controversial issues related to the division between Catholic and non-Catholic. For example, one powerful moment in the story involves Chase, the Protestant pastor, receiving Communion at a Catholic mass. Many Catholics (even relatively liberal ones) will wince at this scene, and I suspect even a few Protestants might raise their eyebrows at this point in the story. Catholic theology concerning the Eucharist — and the commensurate policy of closed communion — are neither acknowledged nor attacked, but simply ignored.
Indeed, the entire question of why a medieval Catholic saint deserves to be an inspiration to postmodern evangelicals is basically absent from the story line; at one point when Chase is pitching Franciscan values to his church, one little old lady mutters out loud, “Saint Francis is Catholic” — and that particularl elephant never really leaves the room. The author dodges the question of the divided body of Christ by simply choosing to let Francis’ wisdom speak for itself. And while I (and anyone else who loves Francis) would agree that the power of his message is enough, others might reasonably wonder why such an obviously holy man is not already better known among Christians like Chase. Addressing this question would have resulted in a different book, and probably would have dulled the impact of Francis’ message somewhat; for that reason alone, I see why the author chose to leave those particular rocks undisturbed. But sooner or later, for Catholics to learn from the rich tradition of Protestant Bible study or for evangelicals to drink from the deep well of Orthodox and Catholic mysticism, we (as a body, and at the level of the pews, not just at the level of our leadership) will have to address the sad divisions that continue to separate us.
But I don’t mean to diminish the overall value of this book, which I believe is considerable. Chasing Francis is a fun and easy-to-read teaser that provides just enough information about St. Francis to, hopefully, inspire interested readers to learn more on their own. As depicted in this novel, il poverello appears as a Christian saint for all people, of all church traditions, and in more ways than one deeply relevant to our time. Thanks to this sympathetic and appealing introduction to the man, I suspect that more than a few readers of this book will go on to “chase” Francis themselves.
Disclosure: a complimentary review copy of the book reviewed in this post was supplied to me by the publisher. If you follow the link of a book mentioned in this post and purchase it or other products from Amazon.com, I receive a small commission from Amazon (at no extra cost to you). Thank you for doing so — it is the easiest way you can support this blog.