I Will Shout Your Name
John Matthew Fox
Reviewed by C.S. Boyll
Using humor and tragedy, John Matthew Fox has published his first short story collection that inspects the foibles of fundamentalist culture and its soul damage.
Fox is gentle with his characters’ psyches, although he doesn’t offer much, if any, spiritual power and solace. These believers make decisions with little awareness that Jesus will and does stick closer than a brother. I can’t deny that such outliers are among the Bride of Christ. Many readers have known at least one irritating person like “God’s Guerrilla” Randolf Hamilton. A retired missionary, Randolf still gives hellfire-infused speeches to youth groups, hooking their attention with stories about Bible-smuggling and snakebite survival. Unfortunately, Randolf suffers from early onset Alzheimer’s. Ironically, losing his memories makes Randolf a better father and grandfather.
We’ve also known haunting characters like young Amy in “The Descent of Punch the Frog.” Her sacrificial love is sucking the life out of her and her marriage. Meanwhile, her little epileptic son fixates on a picture book about Punch, the beat up savior-frog languishing in a deep well.
One of my favorite stories, “The City of God and the City of Man” laser beams atheist Cade Newbigin. Safety Inspector Newbigin has the sobering task of investigating two tourist attractions: “The Holy Land Park” and “The Humanist Park.” In Holy Land, attractive Ella Knight (except for her lazy eye) escorts Newbigin on a tour that includes a thirty-foot statue of Jesus rising to the “Hallelujah Chorus” every half hour and a carousal that plays “Onward Christian Soldiers.” The Humanist Park, under manager Wilfred Mange, can not to be outdone. His park showcases the Baptism of Reason log ride and the Bridge of Analytic Thought, adorned with busts of Kant, Spinoza, and Nietzsche. At Holy Land one may eat hummus and falafel; Humanist Park sells “freethinker fries.”
It’s laugh-aloud reading, except the story slowly illuminates lonely Inspector Newbigin. Because of an uncontrollable compulsion, he dresses up for Sunday service at various churches, drives to their parking lots, but never enters their buildings. He scrutinizes people, “trying to detect how they’d changed between their entrance and exit.” Learning of a river baptism, Newbigin perches on a hill with binoculars and calculates the water/urine ratio. Then he explains,
“But as I watched, my cynicism fell away like scales. The pastor gestured from the shallows, people in white robes filed into the spangled river, and one by one they were dunked and rose again. Oh, the chance to start over! The chance to be new! The power of it swept up the hill, tingling the soles of my feet. The cycle continued, person after person. When bodies sprung from the water, the light flashed from them, as if they’d been dipped in metal and reflected a newfound brightness, and the lenses of my binoculars flushed white, and after the color and shapes surged back, the final glittering drops fell from their hair and arms and the cloth clung to their bodies so tightly it seem like they were wearing nothing at all.”
Later, Newbigin reflects, “I needed to be a better Inspector. I needed to inspect the shape and bends of the universe, and the hidden currents inside the human heart, and the scaffolding up to the heavens” (134-135).
This is great writing from someone who has a solid pedigree: MFA, USC and MA , NYU; traveler to forty countries; former writing professor; and author of the literary blog Bookfox. His publishing resume includes award-winning stories in Crazyhorse, Third Coast, Shenandoah and the Chicago Tribune.
Here are some misgivings. Fox’s clever book title “I Will Shout Your Name” fails to name this collection correctly. Usually his characters barely whisper God’s name if at all. They experience much doubt in their sub-worlds of fundamentalist culture, even in places like Iran and Samoa. Nevertheless, Fox holds to his title in an interview with writer Darcia Helle:
“One of the stories is named ‘You Will Shout My Name,’ and when the book was published, a friend called me, worried that there had been a typo, since the book name was ‘I Will Shout Your Name.’
“Nope, not a typo. In ‘You Will Shout My Name,’ it’s about an atheist with religious Tourette’s. He’s shouting fundamentalist ideas about God even though he doesn’t believe them. So that title reflects coercion – he is forced to shout God’s name.
But many of these stories are about people who sincerely want to spread a divine message, and so I thought ‘I Will Shout Your Name’ would be a better title for the collection as a whole. But overall, those two titles point at a fundamental theme in this story collection. It’s about characters who don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing. Their own motivations are mysteries even to themselves.”
Any of Fox’s nine stories could trigger robust conversation in a book club or Christian college language arts class. He is an excellent candidate for speaking at Calvin College’s bi-annual Festival of Faith and Writing. Yet, I am uneasy that collectively these stories magnify church foibles and manipulations without some homage that the Good News is really good. I’m concluding Fox’s fundamentalist roots have been jettisoned long ago except for ties that bind like memories and family. Since I believe in the Creator of the Transformation Kingdom his doubting characters leave me a little melancholy.
Most likely there will be other good stories from Fox. I would desire (and even pray for) transcendent passion for this talented writer—that he may pen stories that move him and readers “further up and further in” (The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis). Time will tell.
Readers might want to check out free writing advice
at Fox’s website: https://thejohnfox.com.
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C.S. Boyll, Colorado Springs, writes “There’s a Blog in My Eye,” at http://www.csboyll.com. She has worked most of her adult life in writing and editing. Currently she lingers too long over a historical novel set in the 1600s.