Book Review: Writer’s journey in faith enlightens and entertains

Struck from Behind (My Memories of God)
James C. Howell
Cascade Books, 2012
Paperback, 170 pages

Despite his distinguished career as a writer and United Methodist leader, the Rev. James C. Howell recognizes the awkwardness of writing a memoir. The genre, he notes in his introduction, easily slides into self-obsession and personal analysis, and he does not want to be just another ego pushing for an audience.

Rather, with Struck from Behind, Dr. Howell seeks to turn the focus from the events in his own life to how those events made him aware of God’s presence. His memoir is aimed not at defending his legacy, but at spotlighting God’s activity throughout a life he has found to be “a surprising treasure, heartbreaking, delightful, sad, funny, and above all worth having lived.” (page ix)

The book relates a series of vignettes, each one related to the others but complete unto itself. Although the chapters appear in more or less standard chronology, Dr. Howell is less concerned with the factual narrative of his life than with the lessons and impressions that come with reflecting on his most formative memories—and on God’s often surprising place in them.

Dr. Howell’s childhood is filled with stories familiar to many readers, but nonetheless powerful because of his specific telling of them. He recounts his difficulties as an awkward boy in a home often filled with conflict, but also the wonder of recognizing that he mattered so deeply, and of discovering that staggering beauty can sometimes accompany the most crippling loss.

His accounts of love should also ring true to a number of readers, who will recognize their own struggles with adolescent awakening and emotional complexity. Although he notes with some irony that Jesus did not have to deal with the usual quandaries of domestic life, he nevertheless sees God as active even in this tumultuous life stage, patiently teaching him about forgiveness, vulnerability, and the ultimate love that human relationships point toward.

Dr. Howell includes stories that are in line with what readers might expect from a life-long pastor. Chapter 8 (entitled “The Baptists Tried to Kill Me”) tells of his conversion. He wrestles with the mysteries of grief and death in a chapter on hospitals, tells about his calling into ministry, and devotes considerable time to the influence of books on his life.

Thankfully, Dr. Howell’s reflections on pastoral vocation add up to “just enough.” He does not belabor the uniqueness of his calling, although life as a pastor obviously means a great deal to him. Instead, he spends the bulk of his time talking about things that almost everyone can relate to—friends and fears, gifts and families and interesting strangers.

Struck from Behind does not overcome all the limitations of autobiography. A sort of golden haze surrounds beloved characters, such as his paternal grandparents, and childhood havens such as Oakboro, N.C. Some of the stories fall into sentimentality, and even Dr. Howell’s considerable ability as a writer cannot create in the reader the same strong emotions that connect him to those events.

Overall, however, Dr. Howell once again proves himself not only a capable observer of how God moves through our experience of life, but also an expert storyteller who can communicate those insights with clarity. Struck from Behind provides readers with a personal—in some ways incarnational—glimpse into God’s work in the lives of one of United Methodism’s most skilled writers.

 The Rev. Van Meter directs the Wesley Foundation at Arkansas State University.


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