John Matthew Fox's short story collection, I Will Shout Your Name, looks at missionaries and people of faith from an unexpected perspective – their flaws. Doubt and faith, hesitation and commitment, love and hate all mingle together to create complex characters which initially left me uncertain how to understand the collection as a whole. As I continued reading, connected themes and repeated questions began to emerge.
Fox’s exceptional writing ties these stories to each other. He has clearly spent time observing human nature and deftly cuts to the heart of our behaviors with keen insights. For example, husband and wife struggle to communicate during difficult circumstances in “The Descent of Punch the Frog.” She realizes her husband’s face “seemed foreign to her” and their bed feels “like the ridge of a fence” (20, 22). Sharp dialogue, brisk pacing, and lovely descriptions move the stories forward.
Several of the stories involve complex familial relationships which highlight the imperfections and past hurts of the characters. In “God’s Guerrilla,” the title character travels to speaking engagements to share about his life as a missionary. When pastors decline allowing him to speak because he uses frightening stories in an attempt to impress kids, he calls them apostates. Later, during a visit with his estranged daughter, he tells his granddaughter, “When people twist your hair, poke them with a pencil” (147.) His dialogue is full of ill-conceived advice and odd, Biblically inspired insults to passersby. The pride and gruffness of this character pushed me away from the story and made me question his effectiveness sharing Christ’s love.
Elsewhere, family relationships create moments of endearing vulnerability. “In the Dark Heart of the Fojas” follows two very different brothers on a trek through the jungle. The older brother, as described by the younger, grows "his confidence in a greenhouse so it [won’t] be harmed by the weather of the real world" (58). The younger brother doesn’t think their efforts will be worthwhile, narrating the story with a mix of fear and anger. He eventually reveals that he came with the hope of earning his brother’s respect and the opportunity to “rewrite memories until all the dark history of [their] relationship had been whitewashed” (69). At this point, any frustration I felt toward the younger brother’s anger and irritation dissipates in light of his honesty.
Throughout these stories, John Matthew Fox asks, "What business [anyone] has telling others about eternal life when … [we’re] struggling against forces so deep inside us that nothing can root them out?” (“Down on the Pitch,” 102). There are numerous missionary stories full of faith and victory floating through the world today. Too often, this doesn't leave room for individuals to waver. I appreciate John Matthew Fox's desire to share stories of questioners wrestling with their faith and flaws. Most of his stories, and the whole collection, end without a clear resolution, leaving me with an assortment of characters and my questions. I Will Shout Your Name causes me to wonder about the role of God’s grace. The characters try, fail, and carry on, but very little, if any, change occurs. How can we, as storytellers and Christians, balance honesty about our doubts and flaws while living in hope that God transforms our brokenness?
Megan Pooler is the Book Review Editor for Relief journal and is grateful to be part of a community celebrating the intersection of art and faith. A creative nonfiction writer and graduate of Whitworth University, she lives in Bend, OR where she works as a digital content curator for a travel company. When not agonizing over the right word choice for her essays, she can be found cooking with her family and friends, playing on the water, or curled up with her dog and a classic movie.