This book grabbed my attention when it flashed across my RSS feed one day. The cover showed a small stone church against a clearly Italian backdrop. The title mentioned “Francis” and I rightfully assumed it was St Francis of Assisi and not Francis Underwood. Having recently discovered Saint Francis I was pretty much sold. The synopsis on Amazon closed the deal.
The story is presented as the first-person memoirs of Pastor Chase Falson. Chase grew up without solid faith background, however during college he had fallen in love with Christianity. After graduation he spent his adult life dedicating to building an evangelical mega church in his home state of Connecticut. His spiritual life had seemed perfect for many, but it was beginning to show cracks. Things begin slowly when Chase experiences doubts about the certainty his evangelical worldview and theology had always provided. In an exchange over a game of racquetball he admits these doubts to a trusted confidant:
“Why do I have this sneaking suspicion that I’ve been reading from a theological script someone else wrote? Is this my faith, or one I bought into as a kid without really thinking about it? Why do I feel ashamed that I have doubts and questions? My faith used to be so full of life; now it all seems so beige. Sometimes I get so angry I want to punch a wall.
“How come?” asked Mac.
“I was sold a bill of goods,” I said, tapping my racket head against the floor.
“It’s hard to put a finger on. The Christian subculture, I guess. That tiny slice of the world used to be all I needed. Now I think it overpromises and underdelivers.”
For months, anything that even remotely smacked of evangelicalism had been posing a challenge to my gag reflex.
Everything falls apart when the daughter of a dedicated and formerly drug addicted parishioner is killed in an accident. The girl’s mother asks Chase how the God he’s been trying to teach her to follow could do this or even allow it to happen. Chase is undone. The answers he’s been taught to give for these situations seem calloused and empty. The following Sunday , in a moment of vulnerability he bares his soul to the congregation. He shares his frustrations, doubts, and struggles. After service the elder board decides to send Chase on a “sabbatical” until the they decide if they want him to continue leading their church.
During his time away from church Chase goes to Italy to stay with his uncle, a Franciscian Monk. During his time there he is introduced to a new perspective through the old ways of Saint Francis. He keeps a journal of his thoughts as he visits important Franciscan landmarks, devours books about Francis’ life and teachings, and comes into contact with people whose Christian faith looks so much different than what he’s ever been exposed to. He begins to see how Francis’ understanding of God could have huge implications on not for himself, but the church and the world.
I related very deeply with the main character of this book. The forces of spiritual deconstruction seems to build under the surface over a long period of time. What begins as honest searching and seeking seems to lead to conclusions that were never expected. Eventually a few cracks begin to appear in the certainty that held your faith for so long. Then, one day, the walls crumble and all the ways you understand faith, God, and life seem to drain away. It’s confusing and disorienting not only for those who experience it first hand, but for those around them.
I envied Chase’s freedom to run away from everything and disconnect while he figured things out. Oh how nice it must have been to put himself back together before facing friends and family. In fairness that aspect of the story also felt fake. I couldn’t relate to the way events and circumstances seemed to work out perfectly after his melt down. It stank of the aforementioned “evangelical bill of goods.” An entire spiritual deconstruction resolved in the span of a few weeks. If only!
There may be better places to go if you are interested in learning about Saint Francis, but this wouldn’t be a horrible jumping off point. It gives an overview of Francis’ life and teachings within the context of a very compelling narrative. While the story of Chase has it’s thin moments, the culmination was very realistic and inspiring. I recommend this book to anybody questioning evangelicalism or going through theological/spiritual deconstruction. It’s a fun read and a lighthearted distraction from some of the other heavy reading you may be doing on the subject. I think many readers will definitely resonate deeply with the characters and feelings expressed in this book.