Francis of Assisi lived over 800 years ago, but he's one of the hottest names in publishing today. In the last year, about 20 books have been published reflecting on this medieval man, with dozens more in the last few years. Most are written by and for Roman Catholics, but Mark Galli, managing editor of Christianity Today magazine and former editor of Christian History, believes Francis has much to teach evangelical Protestants as well. Galli's latest book, Francis of Assisi and His World, is part of the IVP Histories series published by InterVarsity Press.
What are some themes from the life of Francis that are timely for the evangelical church today?
One of the things that most fascinated me about him was that he was a radical reformer of the church. He clearly saw every single thing that was wrong with the church—how materialistic it was, how worldly it was, how hypocritical so many of the priests were—yet at the same time, he was absolutely devoted and loyal to it.
Most reformers today despise the church. You can tell they're angry with it, and there's no loyalty or love for it. There are other people who love the church and are loyal to it, but they can't seem to see any faults with it. One of Francis's geniuses was to do both.
What was the nature of that genius?
One thing is that he was what I'd call a God-intoxicated person. He was absolutely committed and taken with the vision of who God is and what that means day to day. When you compare the beatific vision of God in his greatness with any human enterprise, that human enterprise is going to come in for some hard talk.
At the same time, he recognized that this great God of love uses certain institutions or certain movements in history to accomplish and communicate his will. So he saw clearly that the church, for all its flaws, was in fact founded by Christ and was intended to communicate the good news of the gospel. So, at the same time that it needed reform, it was something to be honored and respected.
What was Francis like as a young man?
Francis would have been the most popular guy on campus. He was a natural leader of people. He had a reputation as somewhat of a carouser and party animal. He was the son of a cloth merchant, and that was a time in medieval history when cloth merchants were beginning to make a name for themselves and a fair amount of money. And so he was the son of a rich man. He had that sort of playboy, party animal reputation about him.
Francis had aspirations of being a knight, but failed miserably. A key turning point was when he ended up in prison. This is the first time he starts to rethink his life focus.
He gets out and he starts thinking and meditating on his life. He starts spending more time in prayer, and he wanders the countryside. Near Assisi is a chapel called San Damiano. He goes in there to pray one day, and as he steps in there and kneels before the crucifix, he senses that the crucifix is talking to him: "Repair my church, for you can see it lies in great ruin."
Francis was absolutely stunned by this and felt that it was Jesus speaking to him directly. He was absolutely captivated by the idea. But he was captivated at a very literal level. He thought the message meant repair this particular church.
How did he intend to do that?
He goes begging for supplies, money, or stones or brick in the neighborhood. He also raises money by going into his father's shop, taking a bunch of fine cloth and the family horse, and goes off to the market. He sells the cloth, sells the horse, and uses the money to rebuild the chapel.
His father is absolutely furious at what is going on. He's embarrassed that his son is begging. In medieval custom, a father has a right to throw his children into sort of a personal family prison and keep them confined there until they decide to reform. And so he puts Francis in the family cell and goes off on a business trip.
The mother has a little more sympathy, and Francis is able to talk his way out. When the father comes back, he's doubly furious and he goes to the city magistrate. But Francis says, "No, I'm under the jurisdiction of a church. I'm working with a priest here at the San Damiano. You can't arrest me."
The father then goes to the bishop, who says, "All right, Francis, enough of this. You just can't be taking money from your dad like that. Your mission may be good, but that's stealing."
Francis has tremendous respect for the church, so when the bishop says that, he replies, "Fine. You're right."
He goes off into another room, takes all his clothes off, puts them in a pile, puts a bag of silver on top of the pile, and walks back to the bishop. In front of a crowd, he says, "I no longer call Peter (his father's name) my father, but I say, my Father who art in heaven."
How did he go from there to getting followers and building his order?
You could call Francis the accidental reformer because his full intention, as far as we can tell early in his life, was simply to reform himself and to build these churches and do very specific local things. His lifestyle becomes increasingly impoverished, more ascetic, and more mystical. He's mocked by local townspeople and is an embarrassment to his family.
But in the midst of all this, he keeps at what he's doing and begins preaching his message of God's call for poverty and a radical life of obeying the Sermon on the Mount. Slowly, local young men, some of them fairly wealthy themselves, look at him and say, "You know, Francis isn't crazy. He's a crazy genius."
He never goes out recruiting. These young men are attracted to something about him. They begin to come to him and say, "Can we join you? Can we join your order?" After he gets about a dozen people he thinks, "I need to get a little organized here." So, he creates a rule and he decides to go off to get the Pope's approval. He feels it's absolutely necessary to get the Pope's permission to do this.
Even though for political reasons he can't make Francis's order an official order yet, he does give him his blessing. The Pope, Innocent III, has a spark of faith in him and sees in Francis something of the ideals of the gospel that he originally was called to.
What made Francis and his order different?
The business of being Catholic through and through was very important, because there were other movements very similar to his that called the church to poverty, emphasized preaching, and emphasized obeying the Sermon on the Mount, but they were so critical of the church of their day, they found themselves more and more alienated from the leadership of the church.
Francis felt that if he was going to have any success reforming the church he needed to stay in relationship to the church. It was absolutely important to him to stay connected. He insisted his friars be in obedience to him, and then when they had enough friars to have some hierarchy, so everyone would be in obedience to someone else.
How did the order grow from there?
Francis was a great leader for a group of 12 men. Six or seven years later, by the year 1219, the movement has 5,000 people. He just frankly doesn't have the administrative gifts to know how to manage such a thing. It's a sign of his great humility that he recognized his gifts were not meant for that type of organization. He actually turned the organization over to one of the brothers and submitted himself in obedience to that brother.
Why is Francis still important today?
He lived out the Sermon on the Mount better than anyone else except Jesus himself. But there's also another element. We today are just yearning for a new evangelistic technique, a new social justice technique, a new theology, a new way of thinking about the faith that will somehow make a difference in attracting more people to Christ. Well, Francis had a very radical and very biblical idea: Why not live out the Christian life as close as you possibly can?
It's very threatening to our subculture of evangelicalism, and yet one cannot help think that it's probably a message that's needed now. We need a little less talk, and a little less technique, and a little more simple obedience to the commands of Christ.
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In August 2000, The Atlantic Monthly published Valerie Martin's "Being Saint Francis."
Recent Christianity Today articles by Mark Galli include:
A Story Darwin Might Love | Brian McLaren's evolutionary interpretation of the faith promises more than it delivers, but what it delivers is good enough. (April 14, 2003)
Reimagining Francis | A documentary tells us less about the medieval saint than about pop spirituality. (April 11, 2003)
The Virtue of Unoriginality | The old kind of Christian is the best hope for church renewal. (April 4, 2003)
Are Prayers in a Time of War Really About Comfort? | In part. But their main purpose is about much, much more than that. (March 28, 2003)
Wielding the Sword | Early believers were not as troubled as we are by the use of force. (Feb. 20, 2002)
The Enemy Within | This Thanksgiving, let us remember our perverseness. (Nov. 27. 2002)
Why I Don't Imitate Christ | The Christian life is not a game of Simon says. (September 17, 2002)
Globalists R Us | But there's no guarantee this will always be true. (September 9, 2002)
Now What? | A Christian response to religious terrorism. (Sept. 21, 2001)
Recent Dick Staub Interviews include:
John Ortberg's Freak Show | Churchgoers' attempts to be average are killing them, says the Willow Creek pastor. (May 13, 2003)
Winning People, Not Arguments | John Stackhouse discusses the evangelistic need for humble apologetics (May 6, 2003)
Francis Schaeffer's Grandson Goes to War | Frank Schaeffer talks about how his views of his country, culture, and prayer changed as his son joined the Marines (Apr. 29, 2003)
Alistair Begg on The Beatles | The author and pastor talks about the Fab Four's cry for "Help" and why no one answered it (Apr. 22, 2003)
Robert Seiple on the War in Iraq | The founder of The Institute for Global Engagement says America suffers from an inconsistency between national values and national interests (Apr. 15, 2003)
Marcia Ford on Christian Misfits | The author of Memoir of a Misfit describes her eccentric family and her faith journey. (Apr. 8, 2003)
War Is Not a Necessary Evil | The author of When God Says War Is Right says early Christians weren't pacifists but looked at the entire Bible for advice on war. (Apr. 8, 2003)
Jim Van Yperen on Church Conflicts | The author of Making Peace: A Guide to Overcoming Church Conflict says the early church was also "full of problems." (Mar. 18, 2003)
Texas Pastor James Robison on the Life-Changing Faith of George W. Bush | The president of Life Outreach International talks about his friend's faith, the moral need of America, and his own conversion. (Mar. 11, 2003)
National Book Award Finalist Ron Hansen on Christian Fiction | It's important to instruct while entertaining, but method can be as important as message, says the author of Isn't It Romantic? and Atticus. (Mar. 4, 2003)
Gods and Generals' Director Links the Civil War with Today | Ron Maxwell talks about the role his faith plays in his career and what attracts him to the generation of the 1860s. (Feb. 25, 2003)
Why Don Richardson Says There's No 'Peace Child' for Islam | The author and missionary says he has tried to find bridge-building opportunities with Islam, but failed. (Feb. 11, 2003)