We have no shortage of people claiming to speak for God nowadays. In nearly every branch of the Protestant tree voices provide personalized updates from the Almighty. Whether it’s end-times experts warning of impending Armageddon – regardless of how many incorrect dates they’ve already proffered – or charismatic pastors proclaiming new seasons of anointing for their congregations, you don’t have to search long to find a self-proclaimed prophet. Even within more conservative establishments of Evangelicalism, it’s difficult to get through a Sunday school class without hearing someone remark, “God told me …”
This is what makes the premise of Hometown Prophet so easy to accept. If a bona fide prophet of God arrived on the scene in Bible-belt America, what would we do with him? How would the most Christianized contingent of contemporary society react to a believer receiving visions he claims are from God – and then come true with 100-percent accuracy? We believers are generally comfortable with the idea that God can and does communicate with His children. But the existence of an Old Testament-style mouthpiece of Yahweh in modern times would likely unsettle us, both doctrinally and emotionally. First-time author Jeff Fulmer, a Middle-Tennessee resident who has located his story squarely in familiar territory, has done a commendable job of grappling with these issues while piecing together a tale that satisfies, but not without a few complaints.
Peter Quill is a loser – 31 years old, still single, unable to hold down a job, and living once again with his divorced mother in Franklin, Tennessee. He appears to be a typical by-product of contemporary Evangelicalism – not “too” spiritual, but not entirely disconnected from God or the church. It’s during the lowest point of his life, without any purpose or direction, that God selects him as a prophet. At first his prophecies are limited to close friends and personal connections. But as the accuracy of his predictions begins to gain attention, God entrusts him with greater and more dire warnings. Quill gains a following, both of adherents and detractors. The pervasiveness of digital media and the public’s hunger for sensationalism catapults the man into unwanted stardom. All the while, Quill struggles against the reality that God has chosen him to bear the prophetic burden. This “gift” strains his relationships with his mother, his pastor, and especially with those upon whom his prophecies have the greatest effect. As one would expect, Quill grows as a human and a Christian as God uses this prophetic assignment to communicate to His creation and shape His servant.
As another Middle-Tennessee resident, I identified strongly with the story’s placement. Such familiar icons and locations as the Ryman Auditorium, the “Warner Brothers” parks, the Parthenon at Centennial Park, and idyllically gentrified Leiper’s Fork regularly appear as supporting characters. These call-outs never seemed heavy-handed, and would likely add charm to those unfamiliar with this neck of the woods. Fulmer also uses recent events in Tennessee history as his prophetic backdrop, most noticeably the coal ash spill at the Kingston, Tennessee electric plant, and the May 2010 flood that inundated the Cumberland River zone of greater Nashville, as well as many parts of surrounding counties.
Certain supporting characters display local familiarity, while others exceed the boundaries of the Bible belt. One radio personality, for example, appears to be an amalgamation of Rush Limbaugh and Don Imus. Occasionally Fulmer’s choices of character names come off as overly clever. “Quill” as the name of a prophet, for example, as well as “Bragg” for a crooked (conservative) congressman, caused a bit of eye-rolling. “Jordan Stone,” a Christian pop-radio princess, just has to be a stage name. But overall, Fulmer’s characters display a range of personalities and enough depth to avoid cliche, coming across as real and identifiable.
I read the Kindle edition of the book, and found numerous typographical errors, one of which I reported directly to the author. Others persist. Occasional word transpositions also appear – “conscious” instead of “conscience”; “timber” instead of “timbre”. Some of these problems could be explained as character quirks, such as when Peter writes in his journal in a post-dream stupor. There are enough of these issues, however, to show that Fulmer could have used a more astute editorial eye.
Hometown Prophet raises theological issues, and lands on particular sides of those issues with which not every reader will agree. Fulmer regularly relegates Quill’s prophecies to sociological, political, and environmental concerns, whereas the Old Testament prophets’ primary motive was to call God’s people back to Him as their Lord. True, the prophets often scolded Israel for such things as not caring for widows or taking advantage of the poor. But these were symptoms of their greater sin – rebelling against God’s lordship and Law. In one scene, Quill’s friend Victor, a Native-American environmental activist, quotes: “The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant” (Isaiah 24:5 ESV). Victor uses this verse to explain the consequences of man’s misuse of nature. But it’s clear from the context that the condition of Israel’s land is actually a consequence of their rebellion toward God.
More troubling is the unclear nature of Peter’s relationship with God. We know that he’s basically a backslidden Evangelical of some variety. So when he “recommits” his life to God prior to his first prophetic dream, we read: “Lowering his head to the carpet, he gave himself over to the Son of God.” This nebulous explanation doesn’t illustrate how this giving over takes place. Was he already a believer, and is this merely some sort of rededication? Or is this his one true salvation experience? If so, why is there no indication that he is repenting of sin and receiving Christ as his Savior? One would hope to have answers to these questions in an ostensibly Christian work of fiction.
At the core of the story’s weaknesses is its nearly-absent Christology. We understand Peter is on a mission from God, given dreams he must interpret as messages to certain people. Yet again, in contrast with the Old Testament prophets, God’s messages in this book have more to do with people getting their acts together rather than truly getting right with God – repenting of sin and confessing the blood of Christ as the solution to their sin problem. Caring for the environment, loving neighbors of different religions, and other such actions are only the fruit of being justified before God by faith. They don’t comprise a suitable response to His warnings of judgment or discipline. A prime example of this confusion is when Peter declares: “Sometimes we make [Christianity] so complicated, but Jesus said it comes down to loving our neighbors as ourselves and loving God with all of our hearts.”
Well, that’s just the problem, isn’t it? We don’t do those things. And Jesus did not say it “comes down” to those things, anyway. He responded to a question about what is the greatest commandment – the most important law of God. As the epistles of Paul make clear, no one can forge a right relationship with God by obeying His Law. Obedience is the fruit of genuine, saving faith. It seems that if God truly were to send a modern-day prophet back to his hometown and put him through the kinds of hardships Peter experiences, that would be His message. God desires to save sinners, not produce well-behaved, contrite pagans.
Yet I must commend Fulmer for one clear proclamation of the gospel, a scene in which Peter stands up to a false pastor and his wayward flock: “We all fall short. That’s why we all need Christ.” Amen! I wished for much more – and many more – of this sort of Christ-focused prophetic utterance from our hero. Sadly, what we largely receive are instances such as Peter’s reply to a local news reporter when asked how one turns to God: “Well, everyone has to work that out in their own way … we could all live like we really do have faith.” Quill, the supposed prophet of Christ, whiffs the softball any believer would love to have lobbed their way.
All in all, Hometown Prophet concludes as a fairly strong story filled with interesting characters and believable dialogue, featuring a satisfying ending, but marred by an underdeveloped, watered-down Christianity. Ironically, it’s this same flavor of surface-level Evangelicalism one might think God would send a prophet to correct.
I gladly recommend this book for one’s reading enjoyment, as long as the reader keeps both theological eyes wide open.