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Stu­dents gather with Pro­fessor Somerville for dis­cussion of poetry and Cottage Inn pizza. | Courtesy Pexels

At 7:05 p.m. on a Wednesday evening, a troupe of children come flying out of a back classroom into the sanc­tuary of Hillsdale Orthodox Pres­by­terian Church, newly released from cat­e­chism classes. John Somerville, pro­fessor of English, looks up from a stapled copy of Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River,” and, over the babble, reminds his class to read Part Two for next time. Cottage Inn pizza boxes are thrown away, and another “Poetry and Pizza” night con­cludes at Hillsdale OPC.

This fall semester, the church began hosting “Poetry and Pizza” classes on Wednesday evenings.

“I want to introduce people to the writers and see these writers engaging with ques­tions that all of us deal with,” Somerville said.

Somerville’s vision is essen­tially con­structive — rather than destructive — aiming to both teach his church about lit­er­ature and stim­ulate dis­cus­sions about Christian responses to topics such as death, mar­riage, and children, instead of shoot down poems with Bible verses.

“That’s so reduc­tionist,” Somerville said. “I recoil from that.”

Somerville started with poems about coming to faith, and included several others about the rejection of faith, such as Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning.” He hopes to have several years to develop this informal syl­labus, even­tually reaching con­tem­porary writers.

“There are a lot of people out there who wonder if any con­tem­porary lit­er­ature is worth reading or even Christian,” Somerville said.

So far, the class has covered works from Stevens, such as “Sunday Morning;” T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi;” and, cur­rently, Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River.”

Somerville said atten­dance has been fairly good, with roughly 15 people par­tic­i­pating in the class. Everett Henes, pastor of Hillsdale OPC, said that he’s heard a lot of pos­itive reviews, and Anita Hamilton was even inspired to pick up her old copy of “The Sun Also Rises.”

“I was so pleased and charmed,” Dr. Somerville said.

Hamilton said that after an evening dis­cussing the first chapter of “Big Two-Hearted River,” she decided to start reading through a col­lection of Nick Adams stories.

“The class has def­i­nitely exceeded my expec­ta­tions,” Anita Hamilton said in an email. “Dr. Somerville brings so much insight and back­ground infor­mation regarding the authors of the poems and stories…I had never read a book by Hem­ingway and decided that I should pri­or­itize reading Hem­ingway since he is con­sidered a great author in American lit­er­ature.”

Though Somerville teaches the class, and many attendees are faculty at the college, the session of Hillsdale OPC didn’t want people to leave thinking, “Well, I could have gone and taken a class at the college and heard the same thing,” according to Somerville. “Pizza and Poetry” aims to be less of a classroom lecture and more of a “dis­cussion that might happen in somebody else’s living room,” Henes said.

While Henes has pre­vi­ously led the­ology classes on Wednesday evenings, such as a class on the origins, inscrip­turation, and trans­mission of the Bible, the session of Hillsdale OPC wanted to broaden the dis­cus­sions by asking how Chris­tians should engage with sub­jects such as lit­er­ature, poetry, and history.

Henes said the dis­cussion nights encourage the church by giving oppor­tu­nities for its elders to teach in their areas of spe­ciality.

“We promote it as family night within the church,” he said.

While the adults par­tic­ipate in the poetry class, Henes, Christopher Hamilton, asso­ciate pro­fessor of chem­istry, and the Henes children teach cat­e­chism classes at various levels for the children. Henes is cur­rently working through the West­minster Shorter Cat­e­chism with a group of children about 9 to 14 years old, while Hamilton teaches those between the ages of 4 and 8, and the Henes’ teenagers teach the tod­dlers a simple children’s cat­e­chism.

Though “Pizza and Poetry” is a family night for Hillsdale OPC, the class is open to fam­ilies and friends alike.

“Dr. Somerville has a winsome approach to teaching poetry. He’s in his element,” Henes said.