Sunday, January 13, 2008

Chasing Francis

After reading Maggie Dawn's comments yesterday about the novel Chasing Francis by Ian Morgan Cron I went down to our local Christian bookstore and bought it. It isn't a heavy read and I just finished it. It was a good read in many ways...'creaky' as Maggie described it in others.

It is the story of Chase Falson, a pastor of an Evangelical megachurch in New England who goes on pilgrimage to Italy with his uncle, a Franciscan, when his faith goes off the rails. Spending time in the places where Francis ministered in the company of Franciscans helps Chase reimagine and rediscover his faith.

There were a number of things I appreciated about the novel. I too have found that old certainties have become less solid to me over time in ministry. People's lives and God's grace just don't seem to fit all the nice categories I used to have. And I too have found comfort, challenge, new insight from returning to the lives of the saints. I say returning because unlike Chase who is thoroughly shaped by a Protestant evangelical sub-culture my early formation took place in Catholic communities.

There is a lot of good material about Francis and Franciscan spirituality as well for people, especially folks interested in the Emergent Church movement. But if I had a basic criticism of the novel it is the same one that Maggie made:

There are pages where the story has to stand still while a sermon is preached or a lesson delivered. I wonder if there isn't something inherent in the form of fiction that demands that you can't absolutely make a point and still have fiction that lives and breathes.

There is a certain irony when Chase returns to his church and tells them that they need to stop treating the faith as if it is principally a matter of the head instead of something transcendent because much of the novel does read like a lecture on Franciscan spirituality. He says that they have to show people the faith and not load them up with books and yet the first thing his uncle does when he arrives in Italy is load him up with books. His journal which runs through the novel reveals much more about what he is reading than it does what he is experiencing. The most compelling parts of the book for me are instead when Chase goes to Mass and when he serves in a soup kitchen and then AIDS hospice.

It strikes me that there is a difference between Christian fiction and fiction written by Christians that has to do with whether or not the primary focus is make a point or to tell a story. In Chase's words:

"I'm beginning to see that there's a difference between art that trusts beauty's simple power to point people to God and Christian art that's consciously propagandistic. My Uncle Kenny, with whom I spent most of my time in Italy, said something profound--that you can make art about the Light, or you can make art that shows what the Light reveals about the world. I think the latter is what we want to do."

Yet I think in many ways Chasing Francis is still an example of the former. Graham Greene and Frederick Buechner would be better examples of the latter.


Tim Chesterton said...

Right on, Erin. I tried to keep this distinction in mind while I was writing 'A Time to Mend' - not sure if I was always successful!

Erin said...

I'm looking forward to reading it when you are done - I am just waiting until it is all done because I can't hack suspense - how many more chapters are there?

Tim Chesterton said...

Five or six I think. It's all done, I just don't want to put them all up at once.

Erin said...

okay - I can wait :-)
I'm good at delaying gratification... not!