I just finished reading Hometown Prophet by Jeff Fulmer, another book I received from Speakeasy. It sat on the shelf for a while with all the busyness of my life, but the other day I saw it and realized, "Eeeek! I'm pretty sure I'm close to my 30 days deadline for this review," so I sat down and made a concerted effort with it. It was a pretty quick read; the writing style is simple and straightforward.
The protagonist is Peter Quill, a thirty something guy who has been something of a drifter (spiritually and materially) and settles back into his mother's house in Nashville and goes back to the church he attended with her when he was younger. He also begins to have extremely vivid dreams which turn out to be (spoiler alert!) prophetic and all come true in some way. At first, Peter is not too excited at first to discover that he is a prophet of God. His prophecies make him very unpopular with the local Christian bigwigs. As the blurb on the back says, "It isn't until his dreams challenge the biases of people in the community that he comes under attack, discovering what it means to be truly a prophet of God." For example, he predicts that a mosque is going to be vandalized, and tips off several local imams so they can keep an eye out. Sure enough, a mosque is graffitied and arson is attempted, although the building does not entirely burn to the ground, thanks to the local members being on alert from his tip. Peter wants to extend a hand of friendship and help to the Muslim community by having his church fund a rebuilding project, but his pastor--hitherto extremely helpful and friendly--refuses to pitch in and a few other local pastors/Christian talking heads call into question his status as a true prophet of God. After all, would God really want to spare Muslims any kind of pain and difficulty?
The story has many twists and turns, although none of them are what I would call mysterious or surprising. It does keep one's interest, though, which helped contribute to my quick reading of it. The book also has some romance for Peter, and I'll comment more on that later. I don't want to give away all of what happens in the story, but I will say that there is a fairly happy ending where several people either come to Jesus for the first time or else are forced to face their own hypocrisy and alter their ways (to some extent).
My main commendation for this book is that it addresses a subject always ripe for discussion: namely, that many "evangelical Christians" are not being as loving as they should and getting more wrapped up in thinking that the right politician or the right church or the right social platform will save them, rather than Christ. Mr. Fulmer does a good job of exposing the hypocrisy of various archetypes of Christian fame (radio commentator and Rush Limbaugh soundalike Ed Pressman; singer Jordan Stone who has some moral slip ups not unlike Amy Grant; various megachurch pastors for which you can easily imagine Rick Warren or Joel Osteen being a model). He, through Peter Quill's revelations, warn Christians about caring too much for their 401Ks and Roth IRAs than for the poor and needy. For making such points (often in the form of Peter giving a stirring speech), I commend him and his book.
But as I read (and especially in the latter part of the book where Peter and his girlfriend--both Christians--decide to consummate their relationship outside of marriage), I kept being reminded of a sermon I listened to recently preached on Jesus's letter to the church of Thyatira in the book of Revelation. Pastor Mark Driscoll (and I know some of you will want to stop reading right there, but hear him--and me--out) said this:
...it’s a sin for Christians to be more tolerant than Christ. He says, “But this I have against you, you tolerate.” Some of you are more tolerant than Jesus. Hey, bottom line, not everybody is going to heaven. Bottom line, not all religions lead to the same path. Bottom line, not all saviors can save. Bottom line, not all sacred books say the same thing or tell the truth."
"So this would be like in our day, someone becomes very popular because they say, “You could be a faithful Christian and a homosexual. You could be a faithful Christian and an adulterer. You could be a faithful Christian and a fornicator. You could be a faithful Christian and a porn watcher. And you can have both, and God doesn’t judge, and we shouldn’t judge, and we should be tolerant and diverse. And Jesus loves you, and we love you. And who are we to judge?” Jesus says, “This I have against you, you tolerate that.”
I wondered why Mr. Fulmer felt it was important to include his protagonist deciding to sleep with his girlfriend. I'm guessing it was to make him more "realistic" (i.e. appealing to non-Christian readers). His character does face a few moral qualms about it; since he's a prophet, shouldn't he, you know, not be having sex outside of marriage? But then he
rationalizes realizes that he already wasn't a virgin when he started having the prophetic dreams, and "being with Marian was a gift from God, too" (p. 236), so God must be cool with this affair. Mr. Fulmer says of Marian, "So, because of her child, as well as her Christian values, Marian viewed sex as a serious step in a relationship that should not be treated flippantly." (p.228-229) Well, isn't that nice? She sees sex as serious because she's a Christian. Not as seriously as Jesus does, but still, serious. I'll quote Driscoll once again:
And he says, “I have this against you, you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice,” not alternative lifestyles, but what? “Sexual immorality.” Now when Satan and marketers got done with it, sexual immorality became alternative lifestyle, because alternative lifestyle sounds like, “Oh, I don’t know, chicken, ham, fish, I just don’t know, there’s so many alternatives.” Sexual immorality has a bit more of a loaded, moral implication. Amen? So it goes from being a menu of options, to obedience and disobedience. You can see why they killed Jesus, and were he not in heaven saying this, they’d try again.
Marian's theology tells her that sex is serious, not sacred; perhaps she trots out the "We're married in God's eyes" or "God invented sex so we're really just worshipping" arguments. I don't know. That's part of the problem: Marian and Peter are a bit two-dimensional, in my opinion. We just don't know much about either of them, especially Marian. We never find out why she got a divorce, what she does for living, etc. She seems a bit like a deus ex machina device to assure us that not EVERYONE hates poor Peter.
Now, perhaps Mr. Fulmer's intent was more subtle; perhaps he intended to convey the message that God can use even sinners as his spokesmen. Peter does, later on, say publicly that he is a sinner, but it isn't because he's sleeping with Marian. Of that, he says, "I'm not ashamed of it." (p. 267) Even his pastor doesn't seem to think much of it. There's no mention of repentance. I kept hoping that the other prophet in the story, Jesse, would come a deliver a bit of a slap upside the head, kind of like the prophet Nathan did to King David, but that never happens. In the "happily ever after" type of epilogue, they are still seeing each other, but not married or even engaged. So, much as I would like to credit Mr. Fulmer with creating a character of some nuance who later repents of his sin, I can only assume that he shares Marian's view that sex is serious enough to wait several dates for.
For Christians, that is a disobedient frame of mind. I should know; I've been there. Oh, I grew up with all the "True Love Waits" campaigns and heard many talks and read many articles about "saving myself for marriage." I came to see it only in a technical light: as long as you don't have intercourse, you've saved yourself for marriage, hurray for you! Sadly, I indulged in plenty of "fooling around" with a boyfriend in college and then with my husband before we got married. I say this to my shame, especially in the case with my husband because we were both professing Christians whereas my boyfriend had not been. We knew better, and I don't think we ever pretended that we didn't know better. We just chose to disobey and to hope that God wasn't going to smite us. He didn't smite us, but He permitted us to suffer the natural consequences of our sins: becoming practiced in impatience, selfish thinking, disregard for God's authority in preference to our own, losing our ability to tell our children truthfully that we set a good example, etc. It really irks me, therefore, to see characters who call themselves Christians having sex outside of marriage and thinking that it is good and appropriate. That is not a good message to send to readers, especially single Christian readers who might be struggling with sexual temptation. In fact, for me, it becomes an extremely irritating distraction from the otherwise good messages in the book about loving your neighbor and basically not being a self-righteous jerk. It's kind of like the typos that are in the book ("ruble" instead of "rubble", a character named Thom whose name is sometimes spelled Tom, "bard" instead of "barb"). Yes, I know what the author meant to say; yes, we all make mistakes...but with every error, the overall integrity is tainted or at least strained by their very avoidable presence. Therefore, I could not recommend this book to younger, single or dating/engaged readers because I would not want them to pick up wrong teaching about how Jesus views sexuality.
This brings me to another question: for what audience is this book intended? I don't think many non-Christians would bother to pick up the book because it is overtly Christian, and many of the non-Christians I know don't want to pick up anything they think will be preaching at them. At the same time, conservative Christians will likely put it down early on if they pick it up at all because of the way many conservative Christian types are portrayed. I am guessing that the intended audience is those who have been burned by the church but still consider themselves to be followers of Christ, along with more liberal Christians and the category of "I'm spiritual but not religious" people. [Here I must digress to say, that reminds me of Susan E. Isaacs's wonderful line she uttered at a reading of her great book, Angry Conversations with God: A Snarky but Authentic Spiritual Memoir. She said, "I hate it when people say, 'I'm spiritual but not religious.' That's like saying, 'I'm crazy but not psycho.'" ] I'm thinking that this book will appeal to those in the emergent church or those whose understanding of God is primarily derived from The Shack or Velvet Elvis or A Generous Orthodoxy. Not to knock those books: I enjoyed them for what they were...BOOKS and not Bible. Interesting but not inerrant. This, too, could fall into that category. For those who are able to read with a critical eye and who are well-versed in scripture, this book could serve as a worthwhile catalyst for some soul-searching and reflection. Then again, you could just read the letters to the churches in Revelation and get the real deal and skip the "sexual immorality=what the cool and truly liberated, mature Christians do" subtext, or the "Hey, I know, let's bring up all the weird stuff in Leviticus to make the Bible look irrelevant!" subtext.
One final note: In the "About the Author" blurb on his website, Jeff Fulmer writes:
I grew up in Franklin Tennessee, just outside of Nashville, where I attended a charismatic church that sincerely tried to follow Christ's teachings and actively sought the gifts of the Holy Spirit. During the summer of 84, I interned in DC with the Reagan-Bush Re-Election campaign and was indoctrinated in the dark arts of neo-conservatism. After graduating from Pepperdine University in Malibu, I worked in the financial services industry in Atlanta; then I drifted back to Southern California for a few introspective years before eventually moving home to Tennessee. Along the way, I began to question some of my longstanding beliefs and attempted to reconcile my political and religious views. Increasingly, I became saddened and angered with how Christianity was so often misrepresented for personal and political gain. Hometown Prophet was written out of that frustration.
Seeing as Peter Quill retraces those same geographical steps, I must assume that Peter Quill, while not a carbon copy of the author, shares some convictions of his. Some of those I find quite laudable and well-said (his speech about what it means to be a modern-day good Samaritan being one of the best). But if Christianity is misrepresented for personal and political gain by conservatives (and I believe it is), it is just as misrepresented by liberals. If conservative Christians are tempted to be "holier than thou", liberal Christians are tempted to be "more tolerant than thou." I definitely haven't discovered how to be loving people like God loves people and hating sin like God hates it. But I know that He hates sin, and I think Pastor Mark's warning to us must remain as we read this book: Never be more tolerant than God.