The transition of today’s churches from modernism to postmodernism dominates many discussions in Christian and secular media. While mainline denominations are experiencing dwindling memberships, evangelicals are witnessing explosive growth. But even within mega-churches that court thousands of members, some evangelicals point to a growing malaise among their members.
The novel Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale, by Ian Morgan Cron, addresses this post-evangelical dilemma. What happens when the truth, typically defined as the Bible’s black-and-white answers to all moral questions, begins to take on shades of gray? And what about the paradox of taking the Bible literally but driving fancy SUVs, shopping upscale stores, and supporting war and violence to achieve certain ends? Morgan Cron explores these questions through the life of St. Francis, who lived in a time of extreme wealth for the few, rampant church corruption, and the Crusades.
Morgan Cron’s story begins with the main character, Chase Falson, doubting his deeply held evangelical beliefs. His life becomes meaningless as his pre-programmed idea of “Truth” begins to shatter. This type of crisis is serious for any Christian, but it’s especially troublesome for Falson, who is head pastor of an evangelical mega-church in New England.
Falson finds himself in Assisi on a forced leave of absence while visiting his uncle, a semi-retired Franciscan priest and spiritual director. Uncle Kenny suggests a pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Francis, promising that the physical pilgrimage will mitigate Chase’s internal struggles by showing him the way of St. Francis. Kenny gives Chase a journal to document his internal pilgrimage.
Falson visits the sacred places St. Francis traveled, preached, and slept, often accompanied by Kenny and three other Franciscan friars. The conversations the men have are interesting, especially for those unfamiliar with Francis’ life. Morgan Cron’s language is fluid and non-pedagogical. However, a major problem begins early in the story, in that the pilgrimage mainly stays centered on the external. With such a huge crisis affecting Chase’s spiritual and professional life, I would have expected every journal entry to be overflowing with emotional doubts, regrets, and searching. But most entries remain superficial.
The author, himself a pastor, may have wanted to keep Chase’s character light and free from theological language, but Falson never exhibits any believable signs of emotional unraveling. His jokes are flippant and sophomoric, and his language is full of clichés. Many who suffer such spiritual crises often become depressed, but Falson never unravels.
Fictional storytelling that includes historical discovery while simultaneously discovering life’s true meaning is especially creative and intriguing—and difficult. Examining a character who discovers Francis within a whirlwind of discontent and doubt could be powerful. It could also possibly point the church back to its original Christ-centered purpose, as St. Francis so humbly did more than 800 years ago.
Showing the heart of St. Francis, rather than telling readers about it, would have made for a much more powerful example of how St. Francis changes lives. One such example exists. Toward the end of the book, Falson is unexpectedly asked to bathe a man dying of AIDS. This occurs after Falson has spent a day working in a soup kitchen in Rome and later taking food to those who live in cardboard boxes on the street. Falson “pushed against his revulsion and plunged the rag beneath the water” and bathed the man, and then says his “terror and embarrassment was replaced by peace, edging toward sublime joy.”
Falson goes home a changed man. But the question is whether the changes stick or simply fade. When he says, after returning to America, that now he must buy himself an espresso coffee maker, one easily surmises the answer.
Lynn Schwebach is a writer and artist from Colorado. She is a regular correspondent for Vital Theology as well as a freelance writer for numerous other publications.