Chase Falson, pastor of an evangelical mega-church in New England, faces a crisis of faith after a young parishioner named Iris dies in a tragic accident. The problem is, his crisis reaches its tipping point right in the middle of his Sunday morning sermon. Chase's public confession of doubt doesn't sit well with the church's leadership (and many of its parishioners), and Chase is advised to take a leave of absence to deal with his doubts, much to the delight of the youth pastor, who would like nothing more than to be Chase's successor.
Chase turns to his uncle Kenny for solace and advice. Kenny is a Franciscan monk (it's hard not to appreciate a friar named Kenny) who invites Chase to join him in Italy and sets in motion Chase's pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi.
At this point CHASING FRANCIS turns into a didactic novel, a mix of nonfiction and fiction that is intentionally designed to teach. Mostly through dialogue between Chase and several Franciscan monks, and Chase’s journal entries, readers are taught a great deal about St. Francis, his ideas, his unusual lifestyle, and the myths and misconceptions associated with his life.
It's a decent enough work of fiction, and for the most part Ian Morgan Cron handled the mix of fiction and nonfiction well. It's certainly not an easy structure for even a seasoned author to attempt, much less a first-time author. But it's not without its flaws. Cron's obvious admiration of St. Francis seems to compel him to attribute to the saint a number of qualities that fit a bit too neatly with postmodern theology. While Francis certainly had a love of nature and a concern for all living things, to lay a veneer of environmentalism on his thinking about the natural world seems a bit of a stretch, as is the notion that St. Francis loved poverty. However, the account of the pilgrimage itself and the wonderful characterization of the monks and other characters, such as Iris's mother, more than make up for the few sections of the book that border on preachiness.
Readers who already have a fairly good grasp of who St. Francis was may find this book to be a bit too basic. In fact, it's somewhat surprising that the character Chase didn't know more about Francis than he appeared to before he went to Italy. Even as an evangelical pastor somewhat removed from the Catholic Church and its saints, he would likely have a better understanding of Francis than this character did. However, readers who only know Francis as a garden statue or birdbath will likely learn a great deal about the saint through this novel. Those who are most likely to appreciate CHASING FRANCIS will be adherents of the emerging church and other postmodern expressions of faith. Its primary critics will most likely be readers who believe that more attention should be paid to following Jesus than to following a saint.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on November 13, 2011