Monday, 11 June 2012

Fathoming Francis... Savvy Saint

My attention was first drawn to Ian Morgan Cron's (IMC) literary output when the Greenbelt highlighted a review he had made about the 2010 Festival which I blogged about here. Subsequently his 'memoir of sorts' Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me was praised by friends such as Maggi Dawn and Martin Wroe so I felt compelled to purchase, despite the J word in the title! To say I enjoyed it is an understatement, it was one of my top reads last year and one I heartily recommend. I was also aware of IMC's earlier book, Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim's Tale, a novel about a pastor of an evangelical 'megachurch' in New England who struggles with a crisis of faith, so when given the opportunity to review it I was delighted.

The book is prefaced with a firmly worded disclaimer that Chase Falson is not IMC in disguise... Ha, I expect I will not be the only one determined to find cracks in that defence! It then opens with Chase arriving in Italy to visit his Uncle Kenny after bucking the trend in church by saying what he really thinks and, as an outcome, being given an immediate sabbatical by the church elders (the Sanhedrin?!). The key characters in the church are introduced before the action happens as Chase is 'nudged' to call this enigmatic Uncle, a Franciscan monk / priest, who has persuaded Chase to drop everything and fly to Europe forthwith.

What then ensues is somewhat of a whirlwind exploration of both the physical church connections and the theology of Saint Francis of Assisi in the company of a bunch of lairy guys who are able to impart wisdom through both their love and behaviour. So our erstwhile pastor is thrown into a bewildering world of relatively orthodox Roman Catholic rituals and edifices in the company of these 'disciples' as they unpack the history of St. Francis. As a result Chase starts to write his journal entries directly to St. Francis, another literary medium to impart some deeply personal thoughts about his pilgrimage. There are some notable counterpoints, too, as St. Francis' advanced thinking is explored, for example, I couldn't help notice the narrative as red wine was poured into plastic cups whilst simultaneously discussing how St. Francis was effectively the first Christian enviromentalist. Furthermore, during one of the services of Mass there are disctinct similarities between the young IMC and the adult Chase. Ian, you've been sussed!

Now, just as I was starting to get a little uncomfortable thinking that the answer to all my spiritual quests could only be answered by attending Mass and/or church even more, half way through the book Chase is on his own and lands up encountering Carla, a gifted and beautiful cellist. Subsequently they share a meal with a top notch musicologist who has a major effect on them both.

From then on I was hooked. Ok, music may be home territory for me, but I found myself reflecting that perhaps, as a reader, I need to cover all the same ground as Chase, to be a pilgrim too? From then on I found myself reading purposefully, allowing myself to be absorbed as even more stunning surprises were revealed before the build up to the challenging conclusion, which is neither one of received wisdom or what you might expect. This is then developed in greater detail in the excellent and comprehensive study guide included as an appendix.

Interestingly his two books appear to be directed at different audiences. Chasing Francis is much more of a book for a Christian, churchy type whilst I could certainly give Jesus, My Father, The CIA and me to anyone, regardless of their faith journey or affiliation. As a UK citizen who just has to drive across this country to experience the relatively radical teaching that forms the core of the Greenbelt Festival ethos, I feel much of the theology in Chasing Francis was comforting rather than revolutionary. However, I equally found that an important aspect of this book is the encouragement and endorsement it provides, particularly concerning the arts and, for me, music. One minor warning for non North Amercian readers is some of the language and acronyms may remain a total mystery! IMC's later book translates better in that respect.

Readers will really appreciate IMC's turn of phrase, he has a enchanting writing style that makes this book very enjoyable and, as I said earlier, a great encouragement. More significant are the layers in the narrative that give the reader the opportunity to mine the text for interpretations that match their current condition, which migrates this work from purely fiction. IMC refers to this as 'wisdom literature' in the introduction, an apposite description. And what's really intriguing is the loose ends with many of the characters, roll on the sequel...!

Ian Morgan Cron is one of the speakers this year at Greenbelt 2012



nevell said...

Well, so far, Peter your recommendations have been good, so maybe I'll follow this one (or the other)this summer.

Peter Banks said...

Cheers again Tim! My hunch is you'll love both of these... His later book will have you laughing and crying in equal measures.

Best, PB