Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale by Ian Morgan Cron
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I came to a realization reading Ian Cron’s work: Mystics are empiricists. They’re trying to meaningfully express experiences. I’ve always been a theorist. I try to fit my own experiences and those of others into pre-conceived patterns and structures. I had always imagined (without much thought) that this was the other way around. I imagined the mystics were the theorists and that my own thoughts were grounded more firmly in empirical evidence. Meeting and reading Cron made me realize that the true mystic always speaks from experience.
I say all this because I do believe Cron is a modern-day Christian mystic. He came and spoke at my university at the beginning of this semester, and I had the privilege of meeting him as he visited and had lunch with one of my classes. He is deeply passionate, well-spoken, and kind. His words and vision are compelling, and he left behind stirred minds as well as hearts, a campus buzzing with what he had expressed, and a stack of his books generously gifted to my class.
So it was I found myself reading Chasing Francis, a book several of my students assured me was “the best book they had ever read.” I’m not sure what I was expecting, but within the first chapter I realized it wasn’t this: Francis through the lens of the fictional disillusioned, burned-out megachurch pastor Chase Falson. Though my opinion on the text differs significantly from that of my students, I believe what Cron is doing here is excellent and immensely important: unpacking aspects of Catholic mysticism and social gospel through the eyes of a mainstream evangelical.
The basic premise of the novel (Cron calls it “wisdom literature”) is that a pastor of a successful megachurch has a crisis of faith and finds himself traveling to Italy to spend some time with his uncle, a Franciscan. In the company of his Uncle Kenny and a few other jovial monks, he lives for a time as a spiritual tourist, shuttling back and forth through the Italian countryside visiting historic sights linked to the life of St. Francis and taking up a correspondence of sorts with the saint through his journal. New characters are introduced as needed to explain to Chase aspects of the Catholic spiritualism Francis exemplified: the love of artistic beauty, community, peace-building, and service, for examples. Chase learns there is a lot more to being Christian than the conservative, consumeristic view of the Church he previously held, and he returns to his church a changed man.
First, the value of this book: if you want to learn about the life of Francis, there are better ways. If you want a tour of Italy and Church history, there are better ways. But if you don’t know much about either and if you’ve been raised in the kind of Christianity Chase’s character represents, this might be your window into a new world. For me, this is why– despite the flat characters and the forced plot-line– it’s still gratifying when my students tell me they enjoyed reading it. Because the perspectives they take away from that are important. For someone, for instance, who sees in the symbols and practices of liturgical worship nothing but empty form or at worse harmful superstition, Chase’s realizations are going to be essential.
These themes aside though, the story itself is a bit tedious. The characters– most particularly Chase himself– are caricatures. They have conversations about spirituality and faith and beauty, but they’re simply observers, even the group of Franciscans. Even the most emotionally powerful portion– the account from a survivor of the Rwandan genocide– is staged and somehow sterile: we’re sitting beside Chase as he listens to a lecture at a peace seminar. The entire book is like this: Chase is staring through windows, meeting people who deliver information and perspective. This sense of disconnect reaches its climax in the chapter on beauty, when Chase happens to meet a concert musician, and then they happen to meet an Anglican priest conductor who gives a lecture on the role of beauty in theology, and then they all go out for dinner.
There’s a deeper problem here though, and one that caused a nagging worry as I continued to read. Chase begins the story as a self-centered individualist who realizes the answers he had are no longer working. For the duration of the story he functions as a self-centered spiritual tourist (Cron uses the term “pilgrim,” but I remain unconvinced. Chase is a tourist. He never abandons the Western tourist mentality.)
Chase’s church had been the “Chase Falson” show; he returns to it with new and transformed ideas, but his goal upon his return appears to be to simply reinvent it into the new, improved Chase Falson show. Nothing about his idea of church has essentially changed. He has absorbed apparently nothing from the Franciscans about humility, menial service, church hierarchy, or putting oneself under the authority of a spiritual superior or mentor. Chase’s McMegachurch is certainly transformed upon his return– and some of the twists here will be familiar to anyone who has experience with church politics– but it’s not a transformation away from the dominant paradigm of one man with a dedicated cadre of followers. As the final scenes make clear, this will still be the Chase Falson show, now simply informed by some ideas of St. Francis.
Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me: A Memoir…of Sorts by Ian Morgan Cron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Ian Cron is a bridge between multiple worlds. He’s a bridge between mysticism and everyday evangelicalism. He’s a bridge between Catholicism and Protestantism. He was raised in one world and now, from what I can see, identifies strongly with the Via media of the Anglican church. And in that position he can mediate between many of the traditions and denominational languages of contemporary Christianity. I saw this at my own university, where Ian on the one hand led our chapel in an ecumenical eucharistic service and on the other listened and tried to understand students expounding on the Nazarene view of holiness.
Wherever we are among these different worlds, we need people like this.
If Chasing Francis, his first book, felt flat and unreal even as it communicated important ideas, Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me is alive. In this memoir Chase Falson, the omni-man protagonist of Chasing Francis, is replaced by Cron himself, and the writing that had only a constrained glimmer in Chasing Francis explodes into three-dimensions in this memoir. Here is someone writing about something real. Here is a true mystic expressing true experiences.
The title of the book, as Cron relates in the first chapters, comes from his realization upon his father’s death that Cron knew very little about his father’s actual career, which apparently included time as a CIA operative. His father– an emotionally abusive alcoholic– remains one of the primary threads woven through the work, and it is clear a primary impetus in the writing was Cron grappling with his memories of his father and the way they shaped his childhood. This makes the book’s conclusion– which seems at first glance disconnected from the rest of the narrative– a powerful commentary on fatherhood in general and the lasting repercussions of both wounding and redemption.
Cron calls the book “a memoir . . . of sorts,” but this hedging seems to me to devalue the work itself. He writes in the beginning that he feels the need to qualify this because not every conversation is written from memory and many are recomposed in his mind as he believes they would have happened. But can any memoir be any more than this? Considering the blending of history and fiction that characterized his prior book, I was left by this qualification with a shadow of doubt about whether Cron had taken more than usual artistic liberties with his representations of his past. Otherwise why insist that it was only a memoir of sorts? This would be disappointing, as the whole thing has a vibrant feel of realism and honesty.
The book bounces around chronologically, beginning with his father’s deathbed and funeral, jumping back to Cron’s childhood and teenage years, and chronicling his own battle with alcoholism and his life as a father today. In between he writes about his first communion and the power and transcendence of that experience, which comes full circle as he recounts his own first officiating as an Anglican priest. The stories along the way range from hilarious to deeply troubling, but there is a constant theme of wonder, humility, and gratitude. The language, which seemed forced in Chasing Francis, flowers here into something much deeper.
Cron writes, speaks, and lives well. I hope he comes back soon.
Excellent, thank you. So glad you feel this way about a book like Chasing Francis. I hadn’t heard of it, but there are three similar sorts of books I wasn’t able to finish (got about two-thirds the way through each) because of the undramatic flatness and lecture-like quality you mention here: Sophie’s World, The Shack, and World War Z. Books like these are understandably trying to follow in the vein of ‘wisdom literature’ (be it Solomonic poetry or Platonic dialogues or what have you), but they come across in the end as neither. Their lectures are not anywhere nearly as good and rich and rousing as actual lectures. These types of books provide (fairly shallow) surveys of thought rather than the deep wrestlings of a Job or Ecclesiastes (or The Republic for that matter), and it is the latter that makes for ‘wisdom’. The ‘stories’ of such books are, of course, not even close to literature. They are pedagogical vehicles built to carry the aforementioned lectures and surveys. They may even be constructed with a great amount of creativity and skill. But they are nothing more than expanded high school level ‘examples’ or the like. Such books would better be called ‘teaching narratives’ than ‘wisdom literature’. I have to admit that I find them plainly counterproductive. They lead readers *away* from deep and critical thought and away from true imaginative connection and processing. And sadly, they do this in a way that *deceives* the unwary reader into thinking they have experienced precisely what they haven’t: deep engagement with difficult and profound ideas. As you mention, they can be ‘useful’ in a way, as introductions. But they achieve this, if they do, almost in spite of themselves it seems to me. Frankly, I would love to see their day come to an end and everyone just have to do the harder work of reading, if it must be modern, Dostoevsky and Steinbeck and Toni Morrison and Chinua Achebe and the like for themselves, wrestling out the themes at that scary and more genuine level in which the works are written. And read the real memoirs and biographies. And, indeed, read the actual collections of lectures and essays, the ‘surveys of thought’ textbooks, and so on. I might add that I felt this way as a younger man too. Even in my late teens and early twenties I felt insulted by a book that was trying too hard to hold my hand and lead me down the garden path. And I was no genius or prodigy. It just felt weird and icky to me and was ultimately boring. And it wasn’t that I didn’t like anything that was intentionally written with non-experts in mind. I loved an essentially plain-talking sort of work like Lewis’s Mere Christianity because, though it was geared toward a layman like me, and in jargon-free language I could understand, its actual arguments and analogies and so on were profound (even where they might not have ultimately added up). I was being respected as a reader and led (gently, no doubt, for which I was grateful) into the deeps, not a kiddie pool.
Anyway, I resonate with all your other thoughts here as well, about the need of these different communions to understand one another, for evangelicals to truly break out of their McModels and re-embed themselves in the stream of historic Christianity and so on. Thanks again. (Always love your reviews, Stephen. Still trying to find time to read them all, since they’re always enlightening and enriching. This one just grabbed my eye from the first sentence and sent me hurling to its end.)
Hey, thanks for the feedback. Good to hear that interested readers still stumble across these on occasion. As I’m sure you know, sometimes this whole blogging thing seems like whispering in the dark, but I can’t seem to keep myself from writing a review of every book I finish. Pathological?
Anyway, I think I agree with your thoughts regarding “teaching narratives,” though the only one of the three books you’ve mentioned that I’ve read was Sophie’s World. I felt pretty much the same way about that one, but I wondered whether something had gotten lost in the translation. Regarding Ian’s work, I think the disparity between genuine grappling with ideas and pat answers is illustrated pretty well by these two books: his memoir, it seems to me, is incredibly powerful simply because it’s so real and raw. Perhaps the reason so many of my students resonate with Chasing Francis has less to do with its method of presenting ideas and more to do with the fact that there are very few popular texts out there trying to meaningfully engage Catholic thoughts for an Evangelical audience.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s review, in which I mention you and your work on monsters.