Bill Linder-Scholer’s illuminating post about the novel “The River Runs Through It” by Norman Maclean raises many fascinating points. Here are some additional reactions to the novel and to Bill’s post from a fellow member of Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Men’s Book Group.
When I first tried to read this novel several years ago and again this last Fall, I was put off by the novel’s first line’s equating religion (Christianity) and fly fishing. In my boyhood and for the last nearly 35 years, I have been seeking to be a Christian, but I am not now, and never have been, a fisherman of any sort, much less a fly fisherman. To equate the two seemed absurd.
Moreover, I was baffled Bill’s reference to fly fishermen’s being the “penultimate” or next-to-last species of anglers. Who was the first or “ultimate” species of anglers, I wondered. Bill told me what should have been obvious to this Presbyterian Christian: the ultimate angler is God through Jesus. After all, in the New Testament, Jesus recruits two fishermen, Simon and Andrew, to be “fishers of men.” (Matthew 4: 18-20; Mark 1:16-18) I also relooked at the first paragraph of the novel, which says that the two brothers’ father, the Scottish Presbyterian minister (John Norman Maclean), reminded them that “Christ’s disciples [were] fishermen” and that the two brothers were left to assume “that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite [disciple of Jesus], was a dry-fly fisherman.”
Bill’s allusion to the ultimate angler suggests another interpretation of the novel’s extensive (too extensive?) discussion of Paul and Norman’s careful selection of different lures to catch different kinds of fish in different kinds of waters. In short, the lure that works for one kind of fish does not work for another kind. Accordingly, Jesus’ disciples, including us, need to develop different ways of explaining our faith or evangelizing to different kinds of people in different circumstances. “One size does not fit all.”
I also was surprised by the novel’s second paragraph’s telling us that the Scottish minister-father repeatedly stressed to his two sons the importance of the first question of The Westminster Shorter Catechism: “What is the chief end of man?” and its answer “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”
Although that document is one of 11 confessions and creeds contained in The Book of Confessions of The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I do not recall any sermon or other discussion of that document in my years of being a Presbyterian. Perhaps its importance to the novel’s Scottish father-minister is due to the fact that it was written in 1646 and 1647 by the Westminster Assembly, a synod of English and Scottish theologians intended to bring the Church of England into greater conformity with the Church of Scotland to produce a means of educating children and those of “weaker capacity” about the Reformed Christian faith.
This emphasis on the answer to the first question of the Shorter Catechism also seems to oversimplify what Jesus endorsed as the greatest commandment: “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:25-37)
According to the older brother’s narration, his father held what I see as a very un-Presbyterian and un-Reform notion of God’s grace. For the father, the narrator says, “all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.” This statement suggests that grace is earned by an individual’s good works, which is the very antithesis of the Protestant Reformation. Instead, God provides many gifts by grace to many people; the gifts are not earned by the individual’s efforts. The individual, on the other hand, must first accept the gift and then develop and improve the gift by dedication and diligence so that it becomes an art. In the novel we see this in Paul’s skill and art of fly-fishing. Another example would be an individual who has a God-given musical gift of playing the violin. He or she could ignore or reject that gift and not do anything with it. If, on the other hand, he or she accepts that gift and hones it through many hours of study and practice, then he or she develops the art of playing skillfully and beautifully. In so doing, the individual glorifies God, in the parlance of the Shorter Catechism and of the novel’s father.
Finally the novel’s theme of the relationships between the two brothers and with their parents is analogous in some ways to those relationships in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32), an important Biblical passage for me as discussed in a prior post. In the novel and Parable, the younger brother is wayward while the older one is dutiful. Yet the fathers (and the mother in the novel) lavish love and attention on the younger brothers while ignoring the older brothers. In the Parable, the older one shows understandable signs of resentment of this treatment, but in the novel the older brother, who is the narrator, sounds like an objective bystander without any such resentment or jealousy. I find it difficult to accept the novel’s older brother’s lack of any emotion about this difference.
Perhaps Norman’s feelings on this issue leak out in his comments about the family’s Last Supper when their mother “was especially nice to me, since she hadn’t paid much attention to me so far, but soon she was back with fresh rolls, and she buttered Paul’s [but not mine]. ‘Here is your favorite chokecherry jelly,’ she said passing it to him [not me]. . . . Somewhere along the line she had forgotten that it was I who liked chokecherry jelly, a gentle confusion that none of her men minded.”
Thanks, Bill, for sharing your analysis of the novel.