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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.


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