Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: St. Francis (Christian Encounters Series) by Robert West. [Vol. 3, #36]

“A Spring of Water in a Burning Wasteland

A Review of
St. Francis (Christian Encounters Series)
by Robert West.

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

St. Francis (Christian Encounters Series)
Robert West.
Paperback: Thomas Nelson, 2010.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]

St Francis - Christian Encounters Series - Robert WestAt some point, the editors of the “Christian Encounters” biography series from Thomas Nelson must have faced the dilemma of whether or not to include a volume on St. Francis.  On one hand, as perhaps the most recognized figured within Christianity outside the first century, he would certainly merit inclusion among the other notable Christians in this series.  However, as such a renowned and recognized figure, the question of whether the world really needs yet another biography of Francis must have crossed the editors’ minds. Of course, we know now that they did indeed choose to include a biography of Francis and Robert West’s work does not disappoint, offering us an enjoyable and educational introduction not only to St. Francis, but also to the world in which he lived, at the height of the medieval era.  West’s biography is neither literary – like the tales of Francis’s life penned by Chesterton or Kazantzakis – nor hagiography (like, for instance, Brother Ugolino’s The Little Flowers of St. Francis), neither is it a lifeless history text full of facts about Francis.  West’s biography, instead, is a fine example of what I would call narrative history.   Written with careful attention to language, one can imagine this account being told aloud in the oral tradition, and yet it is also attentive to what is known historically about Francis and the times in which he lived, and is careful not to mythologize him.  West’s biography is one of the finest introductory biographies of St. Francis that I have encountered, and would be an enjoyable read even for students as young as middle school.

All of the familiar stories about Francis are told here, from his upbringing amidst the wealth of a merchant family, to his rejection of that life, to the eventual formation of an order of Francis’s followers, to his friendship with St. Clare, to his brave, peaceful but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to win over the sultan Malik al Kamil during the fifth crusade (a part of Francis’s story that has been explored at length in the recent book The Saint and the Sultan) to the waves of reported miracles that occurred in the late years of his life.  However, perhaps the finest section of the book is its brief conclusion in which West reflects on the theological significance of Francis’s life.  West begins this conclusion by extolling Francis’s example as a pertinent one amidst the ecological crises of our age.  He then goes on to say:

[Francis’s] message was not theologically profound; it was really quite simple: repent … for the evils you have done, turn from your old life, and live in love and praise of the Lord.  What made his message particularly appealing, though was the way he presented it.  Unlike so many before and so many down through the ages, he spoke without having a hidden personal agenda.  This was one of the most powerful outgrowths of the order’s devotion to poverty … A person standing before you attired in rags and refusing any kind of payment, gift, favor, or personal following is a message without words.  Once madness and heresy could be ruled out, and people realized that the friars minor “had nothing” and truly “wanted nothing,” the simplicity of their message and the raw power and sincerity of their faith was like a spring of water in a burning wasteland (217-218).

Indeed, West here has perhaps hit at the heart of why Francis has been such an enduring icon throughout the Christian tradition for almost a millennium, his simplicity and earnestness in following in the footsteps of Jesus.  Francis’s story is thus one that we should never tire of hearing, and West’s telling of this story, albeit covering much familiar territory, falls upon our eyes and ears with a freshness that just might be the tiny whisper of grace that we need to hear in these days of ecological and economic instability, where self-preservation and all manner of hidden agendas hover over our political and economic landscape like a thick black smoke that chokes any hopes for progress toward the common good.  May we hear the story of Francis – and its witness to the good news of Jesus – again and may our hearts not be hardened to its message!

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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One Comment

  1. Thanks especially for pointing to the new book by Paul Moses, The Saint and the Sultan, and for the link to the excerpt. What a timely timely book that is, as well as your comments on this book on St. Francis.