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Review & Reflection – Hannah Coulter

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry (190 pages, 2005)


41dJeP6EAQL[1]Hannah Coulter is one of the more recent novels of the prolific and influential author, poet, farmer, and country-philosopher of, Kentucky: Wendell Berry.  Berry has published 15 volumes of fiction over the years, and all of them center on what he loves to call “the membership of Port William”.  Port William is a fictional rural township located on the western bank of the Kentucky River.  Berry’s writing follows the intertwining threads of the lives of various families and town members from 1888-2008.  Berry often explores the shift from family farming to agribusiness, and the diminution of small-town and rural life as people move off to the cities.  These themes, however, always take a backseat to the loss and joy of his characters, and it is these characters that always take center-stage.  At the end of the day, Berry’s work is always about people, and this novel is particularly about one person: Hannah Coulter.

The novel is written from the first-person perspective of Hannah as she looks back on her life as an old woman.  The gentle ruminations of this elderly woman stretch from her early life (filled with difficulties) to her middle years, (a jarring mix of loss and gain in the midst of the horrors of WWII), and on to her final days (where joy mingles with sorrow, and all is resolved in hope).  At the heart of Hannah’s story is the giving of thanks.  As Hannah herself puts it, looking back on her life: “I was grateful because I knew, even in my fear and grief, that my life had been filled with gifts.”  


Berry’s prose best speaks for itself so I won’t say any more about the themes or plot of the book.  I can only say that this book changed me, and continues to change me, in ways I can barely understand.  I don’t always agree with Berry, but he is always thoughtful, and thus, always thought-provoking.  I’ve never walked away from Berry’s work and not felt that I was better and richer for having listened.  If you’re new to Port William (or to Berry in general) this would probably be the place I’d recommend a start.  In it you’ll be introduced to names and faces that will become dear to you as you find your own life caught up in the story of Port William.  Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, is another wonderful introduction, but Hannah Coulter, is so brief, and so poignant, that I think I’d suggest reading it first.  As a life-long fan of biographies I always love hearing of a life well-lived.  Hannah’s is such a life.  If I haven’t convinced you to “take up and read”, perhaps a few quotes from Hannah can do so:

“You can’t give yourself over to love for somebody without giving yourself over to suffering.”

“Living without expectations is hard but, when you can do it, good. Living without hope is harder, and that is bad. You have got to have hope, and you mustn’t shirk it. Love, after all, “hopeth all things.” But maybe you must learn, and it is hard learning, not to hope out loud, especially for other people. You must not let your hope turn into expectation.”

“I began to know my story then. Like everybody’s, it was going to be the story of living in the absence of the dead. What is the thread that holds it all together? Grief, I thought for a while. And grief is there sure enough, just about all the way through. From the time I was a girl I have never been far from it. But grief is not a force and has no power to hold. You only bear it. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”

“You think you will never forget any of this, you will remember it always just the way it was. But you can’t remember it the way it was. To know it, you have to be living in the presence of it right as it is happening. It can return only by surprise. Speaking of these things tells you that there are no words for them that are equal to them or that can restore them to your mind. And so you have a life that you are living only now, now and now and now, gone before you can speak of it, and you must be thankful for living day by day, moment by moment, in this presence.
But you have a life too that you remember. It stays with you. You have lived a life in the breath and pulse and living light of the present, and your memories of it, remember now, are of a different life in a different world and time. When you remember the past, you are not remembering it as it was. You are remembering it as it is. It is a vision or a dream, present with you in the present, alive with you in the only time you are alive.”

“You mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this:
“Rejoice evermore.
Pray without ceasing.
In everything give thanks.”
I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.”


Review & Reflection – “Charles Hodge”

Charles Hodge by S. Donald Fortson III (128 pages, 2013)


FBitesize-Biographies-Charles-Hodge-by-Don-Fortson[1]or the past few years Evangelical Press has been publishing a series of “Bitesize Biographies” designed to introduce contemporary evangelicals to some of the great figures of the past.  Drawing from both well known figures (such as Whitefield, Hodge, or Schaeffer) and names that have been forgotten by many (Savonarola, Renee of France, or Kivengere).  In this contribution, S. Donald Fortson (a church history professor at RTS Charlotte) offers a pithy survey of the life of that great American Princetonian theologian: Charles Hodge.

In keeping with the goal of the series, Fortson’s book is brief.  In a mere 128 pages he provides us with a timeline of Hodge’s life, an introduction to the book, eight chapters, and a list of recommended reading.  Fortson’s table of contents gives us a good feel for the scope of the book as he covers: 1) Family and Education, 2) The Professor, 3) The Great Schism, 4) Seminary Life, 5) The Church Question, 6) War and Reunion, 7) Legacy, & 8) The Impact of Charles Hodge’s Life.  Reading through the book leaves you with a sense of awe at the massive impact that Hodge made on his world.  During Hodge’s fifty years of teaching at Princeton seminary, “Dr. Hodge trained almost three thousand ministers, missionaries, and professors who had carried the gospel message throughout the United States and to many parts of the globe” (p. 11).  His position as a noted professor at the most notable seminary in the United States at the time gave Hodge tremendous influence; and his three volume Systematic Theology has had an abiding influence to this day.


Fortson writes well and has given us a worthwhile read in this little volume.  The chapters are brief, the content is clear, and Fortson does a good job of both orienting the reader to the landscape of 19th century American church life while also providing us with interesting facts about Hodges life (for example, did you know that when Hodge studied theology in Europe his German teacher was none other than George Müller (pg. 27) or that his wife was a descendant of Benjamin Franklin (pg. 23)?)  Hodge was certainly an impressive figure, and Fortson does a good job of giving us a sense of familiarity with his life without getting too bogged down in the details.  The theologian in me would have liked to have seen more of Hodge’s theology coming to the fore, but perhaps too much detail would have detracted from the flow of the narrative.  Fortson seemed to draw out the theme of Hodge’s ecumenical spirit quite strongly.  I was never quite sure whether this was a theme that was prominent in Hodge or simply if it was one that Fortson wished to emphasize.  Again, I’d be curious to dig deeper into the details of Hodge’s own thinking and theologizing on this point.  Nonetheless, this is a fine introduction and well worth a read.  If you don’t know much about Hodge, this is as good a place to start as any.


Review & Reflection – “The Hole in Our Holiness”

The Hole in our Holiness by Kevin DeYoung (159 pages, 2012)


I recently finished reading Kevin DeYoung’s little book on the all important topic of sanctification.  The title itself gives us a clue as to why DeYoung wrote the book; he’s convinced that there’s something missing from our idea, and practice, of holiness.  As he puts it, “The hole in our holiness 13640788[1]is that we don’t really care much about it” (p. 10).  DeYoung is seeking to correct an over-correction.  Anyone who has an ear to the ground of evangelicalism will have heard the frequent discussions of how we need to live under grace and not the law.  Or of how Christianity is about a relationship and not a religion.  Or about how God only cares about the intentions of our hearts rather than the actions in our lives.  DeYoung describes this tendency this way, “Among conservative Christians there is sometimes the mistaken notion that if we are truly gospel-centered we won’t talk about rules or imperatives or moral exertion.  We are so eager not to confuse indicatives (what God has done) and imperatives (what we should do) that we get leery of letting biblical commands lead uncomfortably to conviction of sin. We’re scared of words like diligence, effort, and duty” (p. 19).  In our fear of legalism many Christians have rushed to license.  DeYoung’s goal is to balance the scales.  His thesis is simple: “There is a gap between our love for the gospel and our love for godliness.  This must change.  It’s not pietism, legalism, or fundamentalism to take holiness seriously.  It’s the way of all those who have been called to a holy calling by a holy God” (p. 21).

How then, does DeYoung set out to accomplish his goal?  The book is divided into ten chapters (most of which are around 15 pages long) with a study guide at the back of the book, whether for personal or group use, and a Scripture index.  The book is not long and each chapter focuses on one central topic or idea.  Some chapters address common language or ideas like, “Be Who You Are” or “The Impetus for the Imperatives” or “Saints and Sexual Immorality”.  Throughout DeYoung keeps a personal and pastoral tone without watering down the force of Scripture or the testimony of the Reformed faith in any regards.


DeYoung’s main goal is to balance the scales, and I believe he accomplishes it admirably.  I can think of nothing that I would change about this book.  It’s accessible and winsome enough to place in the hands of the young Christian while simultaneously being meaty enough to do good to the most mature believer.  DeYoung has a truly remarkable gift of presenting biblical and Reformed truths in a way that anyone can grasp.  I found myself underlining and marking up my copy and I’m sure it’s a book I’ll be revisiting over the years.  I found the book helpful in correcting some of my own over-corrections and helping me to better reflect the Bible’s teaching on holiness in my language and life.  This would be great for personal reading, one-on-one discipleship, or even a group context (again, the study questions would come in handy there).  All in all, this is the best contemporary book I have ever read on sanctification.  Highly recommended!

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