Reluctant Saint: Francis of Assisi
Premieres April 13 (7 P.M. EST)
Environmentalists believe that the salvation of the world lies in the preservation of an eco-sensitive Francis of Assisi. Pacifists want to make Francis an instrument of their peace movements. And Reluctant Saint wants to make Francis into a religious pluralist who is shocked out of his parochial Christianity into a new respect for the goodness of Islam.
Though ostensibly about Francis, Reluctant Saint is really about current religious attitudes and reveals both the temptations and promise of religious biography.
The difficulty of presenting an even-handed biography of Francis has been with us since the beginning. Within a decade of Francis's death, for example, his more rigorous followers were already challenging the Franciscan bureaucrats by producing a biography that highlighted his asceticism.
The current cultural values implicit in this documentary are many. It is unseemly, for example, to want to be a saint. So Francis here is depicted as one for whom "sainthood was the last thing he ever wanted." But, in fact, Francis often drew attention to his sanctity. He plunged into a life of sacrifice, poverty, asceticism, and prayer—and made sure others knew that he was doing so. During one fast, for example, he vowed to not eat any meat. At one meal he consumed some chicken broth and was stricken with guilt. So he ordered a brother to lead him around town by a rope, shouting that Francis was a miserable sinner.
This is not to fault him for spiritual pride, but only to set him in his time: This sort of thing was a regular feature in the lives of medieval saints, who often "marketed" their saintliness to inspire others to holiness (with a dose of egotism mixed in, to be sure). Francis was very much a medieval man in this respect.
Or take religious pluralism, another high value in our age. This documentary would have us believe that Francis, disgusted by the ravages of the Crusaders (this Francis is not disgusted with the equally cruel Muslim warriors), went to a Muslim sultan "to preach peace."
According to the earliest accounts, though, Francis went to proselytize. Despite Reluctant Saint's peaceful images of chess-playing Muslims, and biographer Donald Spoto's voice-over about the "extremely cultured, extremely courteous, devoutly religious" sultan, the real Francis bumped into a less-than-irenic Islam.
In truth the sultan's religious advisers demanded that he behead Francis for preaching blasphemy. The sultan, in awe of Francis's bravado at crossing enemy lines to convert him, tried to persuade Francis to settle in Egypt. Francis said he could see the sultan wasn't interested in converting to Christianity (even when Francis threatened him with hell), so he preferred to evangelize elsewhere. In contrast, the documentary—with absolutely no evidence in the sources to support it—says Francis learned that "goodness and mercy were not solely the attributes of Christians," and "came home with more things spiritually from the sultan than he did from the Crusaders, his fellow Christians."
Evangelistic fervor, of course, doesn't play well in an age that often suspects evangelism of being a hate crime. So in this documentary we get stuff that does play well: A sentimental mystic shown hugging lepers (the medieval era's equivalent of people with aids), a wandering teacher who physically withers away because of his continued ministry to lepers, and so on. In fact, Francis only ministered to lepers for a few months early in his ministry, and his declining health was caused by his severe asceticism; he fasted himself into a mortal illness that killed him at age 44.
On top of this, key aspects of Francis's faith are absent. For example, he was devoted to the Catholic Church and to its priests. He told his friars that when they passed a church, they were to say a prayer of thanks for it, and when they met a priest, they were to bow to him and kiss his hand, for he was the one who administered the Holy Sacrament, the very body of Jesus. Francis was also deeply devoted to the Virgin Mary, to whom he wrote many prayers.
An Abandoned Francis?
But such ecclesiastical devotion doesn't sit well in many spiritual circles, certainly not among those responsible for this documentary. Granted, you can't do everything in a 45-minute film. But you should not leave out nearly everything that would make viewers squirm. And you should not mislead.
One example will have to suffice: Showing a couple of monks attending to a dying Francis, the documentary says Francis "really has two or three friends at the end," supposedly because his order had rejected his ideals. In fact, though the order was divided about how exactly to implement his ideals, it never rejected him and he was more popular than ever at the end.
During the last weeks of his life, whenever he entered a town, merchants broke off business engagements to ask his advice, the ill sought his prayers and healing, and many hangers-on just basked in the presence of a saint.
On top of that, the documentary downplays all suggestion of the miraculous. The crucifix in San Damiano only "seemed to" speak to Francis. Francis's preaching to the birds is chalked up to the imagination of medieval artists, who depicted Francis preaching to crows only to show that Francis preached to the poor.
It also hides the specifically Christian nature of his life and ministry. His order is described as "a brotherhood" and "almost a peace movement," and Francis was said "to provide them with another dream, another future." Francis's stigmata are not the wounds of Christ, but "the scars of leprosy upon his body."
What we end up with, then, is a Francis who has no strong connection with organized religion. He has no defining beliefs (other than a vague concern for the poor); he makes no demands on anyone but himself; he respects all religions; his mystical experiences are vague. He is on a quest for "enlightenment," rather than (as the earliest sources endlessly repeat) to imitate Christ or live by "gospel" poverty.
Despite our culture's seeming boredom with history, history remains an authority for us. And in some historical multifaceted figures—like Francis, like Jesus—one can find themes that seem to justify our lives. In a time when relations with Muslims are tense, we remember that Francis met with a Muslim sultan. We have been told that Francis was a man of peace, so he must have gone to seek peace. We have been told that Islam at the time was a flowering civilization, and we conclude that Francis must have been impressed and walked away a committed pluralist. (It's been said that deductive reasoning is dead, but this is surely not true, since many histories seem to be written this way.)
I'm not arguing for an academically precise history, or one that challenges everything we stand for. The historian has to engage readers and is wise to use a good dose of material that reinforces readers' values. But if he does nothing else—or worse, even adds material to reinforce those values—then readers and viewers are left impoverished. That type of history is nothing but a mirror, throwing our own image back on ourselves. History is also a window, giving us a vista of the past that, in turn, shapes our future. But it can only act as a window if we are allowed to see how the past was different from the present.
We should applaud the Hallmark Channel for taking up religious biography. But we might also encourage it to seek out producers and directors who can do what these have done well—appealing to the sensibilities of its viewers—while also drawing them into the strange and transforming world we call the past.
Mark Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today, and author of Francis and His World (InterVarsity, 2002).
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Reluctant Saint's online site has a trailer of the film, more information, and an available video.
Francis of Assisi & His World by Mark Galli is available at Christianbook.com
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