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.