Monday, April 2, 2012

Who Wants To Talk To a Naked Troubadour? - Chasing Francis Series

Chasing Francis is easy to read. Although its ideas are important for everyone they are not inaccessible to anyone.  Like many good books though, we can read it on several levels. Behind its simple story and accessible vocabulary there is a world of literature, theology and social commentary. We can enjoy the story without all of that; we will just miss out on its deeper levels. 

If we will allow to, Chasing Francis opens up a door to what Mortimer Adler once called, 'The Great Conversation'.  Adler was referring to the continuous discussion among history's great minds; the people who created what we call civilization. Unfortunately, our first encounter with civilization’s great ideas usually comes through boring textbooks read by bored teachers. A shock like that can make a person learning-resistant for life.  However, it is possible to overcome the trauma of a bad high school literature class and still join the dialogue that civilizes people.  This book is a good way to begin.

Chasing Francis is a modern story about a medieval man. Its author believes that meeting a medieval man may help us escape the ills of modernity. We certainly need to do that, seeing that the modern age has crashed. We are now well into the era of post modernity. Unfortunately, no one knows exactly what that means. We do know that if we only talk about the ideas of our own culture and age, we will be consuming the same regurgitated material as everyone else. That will be about as nourishing  as it sounds! From time to time, we need to escape the provincialism of our own era in order to truly understand it. Thats what the Great Conversation does for us; it pulls us into other ways of thinking.

The Western portion of the Great Conversation begins with bits and pieces of old material passed down orally through our ancestor’s stories and songs. It moves into the ancient world, principally in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. It then flows into the medieval age, or, as some might prefer to call it, the Age of Faith. After a thousand years it explodes to become the Reformation and Enlightenment. Those movements created the social world that most of us have known. Now the Great Conversation is taking a new turn. No one is sure about where it is headed, including Christians.

At each stage of its development, the Great Conversation has impacted, and has been impacted by, the way believers think about God, community and what it means to be an individual. When the Conversation shifts, things can get really crazy for a while. “Common sense” gets challenged. Then it gets modified. Some of us adapt quickly. Others get lost. 

Christians,like everyone else, respond in different ways to the great shifts like the one we are presently facing.  

If we don’t join the Great Conversation, all we will have to work with to determine our response to this cultural change, will be that nasty regurgitated material I mentioned earlier. We will all be talking about things we already know, already believe, and already feel.That may be comforting for a while but it won't help us very much. 

Chasing Francis can help us think about what “church” means in the new era we have entered. Even if we are very traditional and conservative, we need to understand the questions people are asking now. We will not know how to respond even to our own children if we cling for dear life to the world of General Eisenhower. “Just because” won’t cut it, even for our grandchildren, much less for non Christians.

If we don’t enter the contemporary conversation, we might as well move to rural Alaska and live alone in a hut. If our church decides to opt out of the conversation, we may be able to convince the whole congregation to move with us! 

Becoming hermits in rural Alaska could delay the need to engage with the world’s questions for perhaps another generation. But things are going to become quite unpleasant for either us or for our children when our corporate denial finally shatters. Science is not going to retreat. Technology is not going away. Globalization is not going to reverse. The Great Conversation has already moved on.

So how do we enter the Great Conversation?

Cron suggests that two old guys can help us. He introduces us to Francis first, of course, and Francis has the floor most of the time. However, lurking in the shadows is Dante. He too has something to say.

Dante takes us to hell in a hand basket, literally! Along with Milton, he invents Western Christianity’s conception of both paradise and inferno. Both Milton and Dante invented their scenes of heaven and hell from the scanty biblical material available. In so doing, they probably affected the ways we imagine those places more than even scripture itself!

However, just as Chasing Francis is not really about Italy – although our dear Minister of Music and his wife evidently think so -- may their conscience not afflict them as they stroll about in Rome and Milan while we labor in the Lord’s vineyard here; Dante's The Divine Comedy is not about eternity as much as it is about spiritual life in the nasty now and now.

In fact, The Divine Comedy has more to say about spiritual life than a hundred sermons. If you get a good translation with helpful footnotes, you will find it interesting, alarming, and, in places, even funny. Dante put the pope in Hell, for example. He didn’t do that for theological reasons – he was a Roman Catholic after all – but because the pope wasn’t living right. Michelangelo put the pope in hell too, but high on the chapel ceiling where it would not be discovered until both he and the pope were long gone.

(Michelangelo was ticked because the church was not paying the artists a fair wage. What was that pope’s name again?)

Dante has lovers in hell, rehearsing through all eternity how one nasty book overcame their sanctity and resulted in the loss of their souls. That will teach us to not read the Decameron!

I hear the voice of G. K. Chesterton in Chasing Francis too. Of course, his voice booms through a great many books and songs. He made his words out of glue and they stick on everyone he touches. But forget Chesterton. Don’t even look him up!  No one who reads him ever gets rid of him. So don’t say I didn’t warn you. Boccaccio and Chesterton, those are two voices that for different reasons seduce one’s heart. Take care!

Many people work a daily grind that makes it difficult for them to read great works. Also, people are gifted in different ways; not everyone enjoys digesting a book that requires a great deal of attention and focused thought. That’s why God appoints some people to prepare vital pieces of the Great Conversation for the general public. The Great Conversation is much too important to leave to professionals and experts. After all, the world’s greatest breakthrough once came from a carpenter.

Books like Chasing Francis connect working people to their heritage of faith and culture. Being connected to these parts of our physical life is extremely important for our spiritual life.

I say this because intellectual formation is an indispensable part of becoming a follower of Christ. St. Paul called it “the renewing of our minds.” It is the process of hearing what God's people throughout history say about the ideas and products of the Great Conversation; taking that information into our own minds until it forms our emotions, imagination and cognition; and then, learning how to make some sort of contribution to the discussion.

That’s what Dante did. As he felt the age shifting around him, he gave voice to his confusion.

“Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.”

After that, life became hellish for Dante, at least for a little while. Then, with the help of Virgil, he walked through his torment until he finally caught a glimpse of beatitude ahead. Virgil could not help him then. He needed a saint. The intellect can only take us so far on this path to glory.

So with a nod of gratitude to Dante, let's look back at Francis.

Unlike Dante, Francis didn’t leave us great literature. He left a prayer, a nativity set, and a community of servants who have built hospitals and cared for the dying. He left us a great hymn: All Creatures of Our God and King. But most of all, he pointed a safe way forward through the debris of a crumbling church system.

Francis had the courage to get naked. He took off every stitch of his troubadour clothes, laughing his way into the next era of history by the light of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.

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