Monday, October 12, 2009

A Short Novel with a Big Idea

I read Ian Cron’s novel Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale because a lot of people from Nashville and suburban Franklin, Tenn., follow me on Twitter, and I follow them.

It started with Thomas Nelson Publishing showing up as a follower one day. Hey, a book publisher wants to follow me, I reply in kind. Then it was Nelson’s CEO, Michael Hyatt. Then some people associated with Compassion International and a ministry called Recreate. Then came several people connected to Crosspoint Church.

One of those people is a guy named Randy Elrod (@recreate). I used (with his permission) a photo he took of the bottle of Chardonnay that was at the heart of the movie “Bottle Crazy.” Not too long ago, Randy posted a couple of tweets about a friend of his named Ian Cron and his book Chasing Francis. Cron is an Anglican priest who lives in Connecticut, and his novel was published in 2006 by NavPress. I looked it up on Amazon, thought it sounded interesting, and added it to a book order I was making.

I finished it last night. And while it is the story of a pastor having a spiritual crisis, an evangelical pastor who’s led to try to find Francis of Assisi, it is also something far more than that – a short novel with a big idea.

The big idea: Francis of Assisi might – just might – offer a way to revitalize and transform the church – the evangelical church in particular and the larger church of God more generally.

Francis of Assisi? St. Francis who lived 800 years ago? St. Francis the Catholic?

Yep, that St. Francis. The aristocrat who renounced his fortune, gave it all away (to the point of stripping himself naked in public so that it was clear he owned nothing), and lived a radically different vision of faith. I had previously read two biographies of Francis – the one by G.K. Chesterton entitled simply Francis of Assisi and God’s Fool: The Life of Francis of Assisi by Julien Green. But Cron’s book goes after Francis in an entirely different way, a fictional, yet no less real, way.

The spiritually-at-sea pastor is named Chase Falson (pay attention to names here), and he enters into a kind of pilgrimage to find Francis, specially, to learn what Francis might have to teach him. Falson reads book and biographies; he visits churches and monasteries associated with Francis and the Franciscan order; and he consumes large amounts of Italian food and beverages (i.e., gelato and expresso). And helped by his uncle, a Franciscan priest, and several others of the order, Falson begins to find what he’s looking for – which turns out to be less about Francis and more about his own spiritual struggle. And there’s a larger story here, too. Perhaps faith and the church should be less about theology and head knowledge and the appeal to the “rational” (a modern notion, that), and more about hearts, and deliberately seeking to encounter God.

Falson, and by extension the reader, comes to examine five aspects of the faith of St. Francis: transcendence (encounters with God), community, beauty, dignity and meaning. The summary speech the minister makes at the end to a meeting of his church explores it all – but you need to read everything that leads up to it.

So perhaps with all the ferment that is the church today, and especially the church in America – emergent vs. traditional; house church vs. “church church;” physical church vs. online church; the music wars; seeker orientation vs. edifying believers; the cultural relevance debates – perhaps all of this is a distraction, the noise drowning out God speaking to our hearts.

Cron is up to simple stuff here – simple, radical stuff, like the transformation of the church. If you doubt that, check out the study guide at the end of the novel. A lot of Christian novels had study and discussion guides today; it’s almost standard operating procedure. But this one is detailed, goes chapter by chapter, and it’s 40 long. This is no ordinary discussion guide at the end of the novel for book discussion groups to use.

That’s serious. And like the novel itself, just possibly convincing.


katdish said...

That sounds like a fantastic book! pile of books is getting higher and higher.

Maureen said...

You are adding to my stock of books bedside, and for that I'm grateful.

A few years ago, I found a primitive wood carving of St. Francis that I gave to my husband, now Episcopalian but formerly Catholic (once a Catholic, always a Catholic), and it now sits on the mantel in our family room. It's a lovely reminder of the five aspects of faith you list in your post. When things get to be too much, we irreverently if sweetly call on "Frank".

Marcus Goodyear said...

This is quite a review, Glynn! I confess that my favorite part is hearing your summary of the way social media hooked you into buying the book.

As for St. Francis, who can argue with the sorts of things he did? Would we were all so bold.

Anonymous said...

ordered and soon to be on its way. this one sounds very interesting.

thanks for writing about it.

Glynn said...

nAncY, maureen and katdish, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Marcus, I'm getting increasingly fascinated with social online networks and what can happen because of them. Thanks for commenting.