Ian Morgan Cron
Ian Morgan Cron is an Anglican priest, author and speaker. To introduce others to St. Francis of Assisi, he authored CHASING FRANCIS: A Pilgrim's Tale, which was hailed by The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Phyllis Tickle, Fr. Richard Rohr, Brian McLaren, Brennan Manning and Tony Campolo, among others. His book JESUS, MY FATHER, THE CIA AND ME: A Memoir of Sorts, is scheduled to be released by Thomas Nelson Publishers in the Spring of 2011. You can visit his website at www.iancron.com.
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Singer, songwriter and nationally recognized speaker Ian Morgan Cron has inspired countless readers with his debut novel, CHASING FRANCIS, which weaves the historical account of Saint Francis of Assisi into the fictional narrative of a New England minister. In this interview with FaithfulReader.com’s Marcia Ford, Cron talks about the spiritual crisis that prompted him to write about an evangelical pastor’s pilgrimage, elaborating on the takeaways that he gained from his own personal journey and what contemporary Christians can learn from St. Francis. He also reflects on the relationship between art and the desire for redemption, discusses the challenge of bringing St. Francis’s story to life, and shares his thoughts on the commercialization of Jesus Christ.
FaithfulReader.com: In your book, CHASING FRANCIS, evangelical Pastor Chase Falson experiences a crisis of faith that takes him first to Italy, and then on a pilgrimage that follows the footsteps of Francis of Assisi. How much of Chase's story is your own?
Ian Morgan Cron: The memoirist Shirley Abbot once wrote, “All fiction is autobiography, and all autobiography is fiction.” That nails it. I think it’s impossible not to have a novel contain traces of your own life story.
In 1998, I experienced a spiritual crisis similar to Chase’s that nearly led me to leave the ministry and the institutional church. To clear my head, I went on vacation to a friend’s home in Bermuda. As I was going out the door to drive to the airport, I threw a copy of G.K. Chesterton’s book ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI into my suitcase that a friend had given me months earlier.
Once in Bermuda, I sat on a giant volcanic rock looking out over the water and read Chesterton’s book. I was deeply moved by Chesterton’s description of St. Francis. He painted a portrait of a Christ-follower whose life was so true to the gospel that I found myself inspired to remain a Christian and stay in ministry. I thought, “If this is Christianity, I want to keep going.”
FR: What were some of the main takeaways for you personally from your own pilgrimage?
IMC: The word pilgrimage comes from the Latin word peregrinus, which means “a person wandering the earth in exile, someone in search of a spiritual homeland.” Every so often I think our yearning to be transformed by God can make us so restless that we feel compelled to get up and physically go someplace that we think can do something for us that we’ve been unable to do for ourselves.
One of the takeaways from all my pilgrimages to Italy and Ireland has been a deeper awareness of how present God is to us in every moment of our lives, and how blind I am to it the majority of the time. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes - The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”
My pilgrimages have inspired me to work on really seeing the shimmering presence of God throughout the day in creation and elsewhere.
FR: What are one or two important lessons today's church could learn from St. Francis?
IMC: Francis could teach us that if you want to reform the church, which it needs, then don’t just be a cynic who sits around whining and criticizing what’s wrong with the institution; just do it better. Frankly, I’m tired of speaking at conferences where everyone complains about how the Church sucks, how disappointed and angry they are with it, and how they think it has no future, etc. Fifteen years ago this attitude launched the emergent movement, which I think is cool, but the angry energy has to be jettisoned. Now I think we need to be forward looking, optimistic and hopeful people. It’s time to do what Jesus told Francis to do, “Francis, rebuild my church!” --- not “Francis, whine and put down the institutional church.” Ultimately that kind of defeatism goes nowhere.
FR: What are some of the parallels you see between the church of today and the church of Francis's time?
IMC: Like Francis we are living in the gap between two historical moments. He lived during the shift between pre-modernity and modernity, while we are in the synapse between modernity and post-modernity. When these kinds of seismic historical shifts happen, which isn’t often, they rock institutions, political structures, businesses and cultures --- nothing is spared.
In Francis’s day, the church was hemorrhaging credibility; it was seen as hypocritical, untrustworthy and irrelevant. Some people even wondered if it would survive. Clergy were involved in well-known sexual scandals. It had commercialized Jesus, selling pardons, ecclesiastical offices and relics. Sermons were either so academic that people couldn’t understand them, or they were shallow and canned. Popular songs ridiculing the church and the clergy could be heard all over Europe. The laity felt used by the professional clergy, as if they were there to serve the institution, not the other way around. The church had also become dangerously entangled in the world of power politics and war. Disillusionment with the church inspired many people to turn to alternative spiritualities.
A spirit of aggressive capitalism gripped the world of commerce, so greed ran amok. To top it all off, Christians were at war with Muslims. Sound familiar? Needless to say, there are lots of parallels, and this is why I wanted people to hear about him. St. Francis managed to rescue the church in an age just like ours. We need to look at his playbook.
FR: Please describe what you call a "consumerized Jesus" and where you see him in the church and society.
IMC: I just moved from right outside New York City to just outside Nashville. I love my new community and friends, but I’ve also been suddenly exposed to the crazy ways that Jesus has become little more than a moneymaker for countless industries, whether it’s from Christian publishers who put out books that are either theologically nutty or just sentimental fluff --- there are exceptions to this, though --- or manufacturers who make and sell Christian kitsch, like Jesus bobble-heads, that do little but trivialize God. Jesus is the Lord of the Universe, for goodness sake!
There is also a Christian music industry with really talented artists, but they often just mimic sounds that have been successful in the secular market and overlay them with Christian lyrics, rather than writing material that is distinctive. Why, for example, are the vast majority of worship songs in major keys? Ever heard a lament like the ones we find in Psalms written in a minor key and sung in church? This is probably all overstated, and there are really cool things being done, but isn’t some of this the modern-day, commercial equivalent of selling indulgences?
FR: One character in the novel attributes the loss of interest in the church in part to the lack of beauty and the diminished importance of the arts in church life. What do you think is the correlation between beauty and an interest in church and spirituality?
IMC: The character who says this in my book is a British theologian and musicologist named Liam Scudder. I can’t say it any better or more succinctly than he does,
“In Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak describes one of his main characters like this [Liam said]: ‘Lara was not religious. She did not believe in ritual. But sometimes, to be able to bear life, she needed the accompaniment of an inner music. She could not always compose such a music for herself. That music was God’s word of life, and it was to weep over it that she went to church.’ What was it about music that awakened the spiritual in Pasternak’s Lara? It was this: The object of all great art is beauty, and it makes us nostalgic for God. Whether we consider ourselves people of faith or not, art arouses in us what the Pope calls a ‘universal desire for redemption.’”
I love that last sentence. Art does make us nostalgic for God, and it awakens in people a “universal desire for redemption.” I love hearing about churches or individuals with resources allocated not only to alleviating human suffering, but who also invest in commissioning symphonies, paintings, dance companies and films, or in any other artistic endeavor that will stimulate this desire for redemption in those who come to see performances or exhibits. We wouldn’t have Bach, Handel, Michelangelo and countless other artists if churches and other patrons hadn’t stepped up to the plate and commissioned their work.
By the way, I would strongly encourage any Christian who has an interest in the arts to read “Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists.” It is as beautiful and moving a document as you will find on this topic. If you are an artist, you will feel so valued and understood after you read it.
FR: What if St. Francis --- or someone like him --- lived today? How do you think society would react to him?
IMC: I recently heard Ronald Rolheiser and Richard Rohr say that what the Church needs today more than anything is the emergence of a new St Francis, a man or woman whose life is radically aligned with the values of the gospel, yet who remains approachable, winsome and inspiring.
But how would society react to this person? Sadly, I think it would be the same old story. Good church-going Christians and the institutional church would be the first to reject him, whereas the irreligious and the marginalized would be the first to embrace him. The Church would resent him because of the depth of his or her commitment to Christ, and the advancement of his interests in the world would expose how far the church has departed from the gospel. The irreligious would love him because he would extend the gospel of radical grace and inclusion to them in a way that really would be good news.
FR: How do you respond to critics who accuse you of following St. Francis instead of Jesus?
IMC: I’ve never heard anyone accuse me of following St Francis instead of Jesus. If anything it’s the opposite. Francis always pointed people towards Jesus, not towards himself.
Besides, what’s wrong with having a spiritual role model, whether it’s your grandmother or C.S. Lewis or Mother Teresa? I hope everyone has a person like this in his or her life. I think you’re impoverished without one.
FR: CHASING FRANCIS is a novel that is openly designed to teach as well as entertain. What are some of the particular challenges you faced in telling a story that is so saturated with factual information?
IMC: The challenge is making sure you don’t create characters that become little more than pawns for communicating the historical or academic information you want your readers to know. If you do, the characters won’t be believable, and their dialogue will sound flat: they will say things no normal person would say, and the reader will feel like they are being manipulated and resent it.
I didn’t always get it right, but I tried to embed the teachings of Francis inside characters that grew, changed, and that readers came to care about. If your reader doesn’t care about what happens to your characters, you’re finished.
My editor Dave Lambert was great. He constantly told me, “The story comes first, not the message.” That was great advice.
FR: You use the term "orthodox progressives" to describe contemporary Christians who adhere to a spirituality that’s similar to yours and Francis's. Isn't that an oxymoron? What does the term mean?
IMC: The term “orthodox progressive” is only an oxymoron if you are someone who sees the world in a dualistic, either-or way. I think one of the marks of a spiritually maturing person is their increasing ability to see that much of the spiritual life is a both-and proposition, and they are able to live in the tension of it.
For me, St. Francis was a classic orthodox progressive. On one hand his core theology was very traditional. At the same time his thinking about the care of creation --- his radical identification with the poor and oppressed, his innovative approach to evangelism, the way he integrated faith and art into it, his commitment to dialogue with people of other religions, and his support of women who wanted to align with his movement --- were things that people had never been seen before. That’s what I aspire to be and the reason why I use that term.
FR: One of the most influential people who offered endorsements of CHASING FRANCIS is Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who says he read the book twice and found it equally compelling both times. How did that endorsement come about? Maybe a better question is this: What prompted you to seek an endorsement from him?
IMC: Several months ago a friend twittered me asking, “Did you hear the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech about your book, CHASING FRANCIS?”
At first I thought he was joking. I couldn’t imagine how the head of a church of 80 million people, not to mention a brilliant academic mind I admired, could have gotten a copy of my book, liked it enough to read it twice, and then spoken at length about it to a large group of church leaders.
I was able to get a hold of one of the Archbishop’s personal assistants, and I asked if the Archbishop would be willing to endorse the book. Almost immediately, the Archbishop himself wrote a kind note back with enthusiastic words of praise for CHASING FRANCIS, which are now on the cover.
The Archbishop then extended an invitation to come to Canterbury and visit him. I was in the U.K. for the Greenbelt Festival in August, so I drove over and spent an hour and a half at his home having tea with him. He is a very generous and gracious soul, and it was wonderful to meet him.
On a final note, the author and historian Phyllis Tickle and the progressive theologian Marcus J. Borg endorsed the book as well. It delights me that CHASING FRANCIS is a work that attracts both progressives and conservatives. There’s something in it for everyone.
FR: Who are some of the authors you read? Who are some of the major influences on you as a writer?
IMC: I just turned 50, and I wrote a post on my blog, www.iancron.com, in which I list the “99 Books that Made My First 50 Years Worth Living.” Check it out!
At any given moment, I try to read one work of fiction and one work of nonfiction, specifically one having to do with Christian spirituality or theology.
One author who I can say is my hero is Thomas Merton. I read him over and over again. His capacity to diagnose and perform surgery on culture and the human soul is unparalleled. I think THE SEVEN STOREY MOUNTAIN, NEW SEEDS OF CONTEMPLATION and CONJECTURES OF A GUILTY BYSTANDER should be required reading for everyone. They aren’t quick and easy to get through, but they are well worth the effort. I try to stay on top of the theological conversations that are going on, especially among emergent writers and thinkers. I think it’s vital to read a wide spectrum of writers, both those we agree and disagree with. There is something to be learned from everybody.
FR: What's up next for you as a writer?
IMC: I am two chapters away from finishing a spiritual memoir of Thomas Nelson titled JESUS, MY FATHER, THE CIA AND ME: A Memoir of Sorts. It should be out in the spring of 2011. I am doing lots of speaking --- you can check out www.chaffeemanagement.com for a list of my engagements --- and hosting a speaker series called the Conversation in Courage and Faith in Greenwich, CT. Last year, we hosted Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle, artist Mako Fujimura, Irish theologian Pete Rollins, a commissioned symphony with composer Rob Mathes and renowned Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In the upcoming year we’ll have theologian Marcus J. Borg, Tony Campolo, an evening with the American treasure Dr. Maya Angelou, Cambridge theologian Jeremy Begbie and Bible scholar N.T. Wright.
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