A new movie: the Francis for our time?

Recently I was invited to a screening of a new movie about St. Francis – The Sultan and the Saint, a docudrama about Francis’s visit to the Sultan of Egypt during the fifth crusade. As we know, social groups construct St. Francis in many and various ways, according to the needs of the historical moment. And now I see this construction happening before my very eyes! Will this be the St. Francis for our age – the Brother Sun, Sister Moon of the early twenty-first century?

If so, it’s in the very best of causes. The producer is the Unity Productions Foundation, whose goal is to “counter bigotry and create peace through the media.” Their films are “part of long-term educational campaigns aimed at increasing understanding among people of different faiths and cultures, especially among Muslims and other faiths.” So the intent of the film seems to be to promote peace and understanding between Muslims and Christians. I’m in favor of that; we need more of it. But in this case, it relies on a fairly tenuous reading of the sources.

(Let me hasten to say that I certainly don’t think the historical record about Francis justifies an adversarial or violent relationship between Christians and Muslims. In no way am I advocating for any anti-Muslim sentiment, nor for any anti-Christian sentiment.)

I haven’t seen the movie yet. I can see that the producers consulted very reputable academics for background (although there are some surprising omissions as well, at least in the publicity materials.) On the other hand, I’ve already spotted some anachronisms. The website says that the early Franciscans practiced “nonviolence” – a twentieth-century term and philosophy. And the trailer contains a real howler. It has Francis proclaiming that God intended us to be “instruments of his peace.” For those who haven’t read my book, or the other sources that explain this – the lovely prayer about making us instruments of God’s peace does not come from Francis, but from anonymous twentieth-century sources.

The trailer is also heavy on scenes of violence. Is this for realism and context, or is it to attract mass audiences? Of course, attracting mass audiences might not be a bad idea. As I understand it, the largest numbers of moviegoers are young men, and they often seek out films featuring violence and conflict. Perhaps they are the people who most need to hear a message of peace.

One of the consultants to the movie is Paul Moses. A few years ago, Moses published a book and a number of articles promoting the idea that the encounter between Francis and the Sultan was an early model of peaceful interfaith dialogue (The Saint and the Sultan, Doubleday, 2009). Moses is a distinguished journalist, but not a historian by profession. He recognizes that “interfaith dialogue” is a concept of our time, not Francis’s, and he acknowledges that not all textual sources are equally reliable. Still, as a good journalist, he seems unable to resist telling a good story. He weaves these not-entirely-reliable sources into a compelling narrative in which it’s not always clear where the sources end and imagination begins. Naïve readers, and sympathetic readers, will probably omit the assessment of sources and just remember the story.

Between the book and this movie, I expect to see that story widely repeated as “truth” over the next few years or decades.

For a more nuanced account, readers should look at the introduction of John Tolan’s Saint Francis and the Sultan (Oxford, 2009). Tolan explains clearly what we can and can’t know about this incident, and he is also instructive about what the few surviving primary sources meant in their own context. Readers might also want to note Lawrence Cunningham’s review of Moses’s book, in which he notes that Moses’s idea of Francis still lies under “the long shadow of Sabatier,” the landmark work in modern liberal visions of Francis (America, November 2, 2009).

The main purpose of Tolan’s book was to lay out the diverse ways the incident of Francis and the Sultan has been interpreted over time, and to what purposes. For early Franciscans the story was part of an argument about the purpose of the order. For nineteenth-century Europe, it was about mission and colonialism. In the mid-twentieth century it was about international peace and interpersonal nonviolence, a subject that my book takes up in more detail. The movie’s angle of vision – interfaith encounter – has been around in some form since at least the 1960s, but it really became prominent after 2001.

So, will this be the Zeitgeist movie, the Brother Sun, Sister Moon for our age? We’ll see. When I watched Brother Sun, Sister Moon a few years ago, I found it was better than I expected it to be.


St. Francis statue stolen

My local newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, recently reported on the theft of a statue of St. Francis from the grounds a local Roman Catholic church.The church is used only for offices these days, as the local diocese closed it in a wave of consolidations of Catholic parishes. The Gazette’s photo shows a statue that’s closer to a Protestant or popular styles than to a traditional Catholic one, a figure surrounded by animals and birds, not gazing at a cross or contemplating a skull. What’s even more remarkable is the story from a local resident who called for the statue’s return via a Facebook page. She told the Gazette that when her cat disappeared some years ago, she left a note in Francis’s flower basket asking for the saint’s help. An hour later, she passed that way again in the midst of a sunshower. The combination of sun and rain caused the statue to be surrounded by rainbows. The resident  associated this manifestation with the Rainbow Bridge story, a bit of folklore that circulates widely in print and on the Web. It says that the souls of deceased pets await the arrival of their human companions at the Rainbow Bridge, where human and animal pass over together into the next life.

It’s not clear whether she is a Catholic parishioner. Christian teaching in general does not affirm any afterlife for animals. Yet the Rainbow Bridge narrative provides comfort for many people, and it’s not limited to non-believers. The religious imagination – “religious” in the sense of concern with life, death, and our ultimate destiny – operates within organized religion as well as outside it.

By the way, the statue reappeared a few days later, wrapped in a plastic trash bag and leaning against a fence. Had it been there all along? Or did some sinner repent? Would that someone would return the lovely Frederick Warren Allen figure, long missing from Meerwood in New Hampshire.


Some interesting reading

Writers Read and The Campaign for the American Reader asked me what I’ve been reading lately. I found that a number of common themes emerged, without my having planned it that way – how we appropriate the past; how history and religion interpret the past; how we come to terms with our personal histories, especially later in life. And I found themes of exile and mystery and ambivalence, and of the particular complexities of women’s lives in disparate cultural settings. Click on the links for more.

Environmental theology before Pope Francis

The terrible events in Paris a few days ago now overshadow the upcoming conference on climate change in that city. Nonetheless, the problem of climate change is not going away, and we can still hope for some fruitful if somber discussion. In that context, Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ will call for renewed attention. It’s an influential statement and a thoughtful, nuanced document.

But some of what he had to say was not really new. Protestant theologians were discussing similar issues back in the 1960s, often in similar terms. Read more about that conversation in this blog post for the University of North Carolina Press.

The blessing of the animals: why?

Blessings of the animals have become a tradition in many churches. A generation of young adults has grown up with them. And yet this tradition is relatively new. It does have some earlier antecedents, but in its current form, and as a Protestant practice, it’s only thirty years old or so. I’ve wondered why it caught on so quickly, why Protestants find it a good idea, and what kind of “cultural work” it does. Here is a short column that considers these questions. For more, see the book, of course.

Francis in the garden


St. Francis is often sighted in garden centers, so I thought it would be a good idea to have a book signing at one of them. My friend who owns a New Jersey garden center, Perennial Favorites, agreed. It was a beautiful day and we had a great crowd.

St. Francis garden statuary is largely a creation of the twentieth century, born of a historical matrix of landscape, housing patterns, spirituality, garden design, art, wealth, and social concerns. While it’s easy to dismiss garden statuary as a cliché, my research indicates that it has much deeper and more diverse meanings. It can be an expression of intention, a wish or a hope, an opening into a wider world, or a focal point for quiet meditation – itself a countercultural act in our increasingly noisy and hurried society. And for many people, as my friend pointed out, the garden statue is simply a reminder of a favorite spiritual hero or a person who was attuned to nature.