Thoughts About “The River Runs Through It”

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Extraordinary “Ordinary Grace”

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The 53-year old Frank Drum in the novel, “Ordinary Grace,”  begins his narration by saying that in 1961, when he was 13  years old, the deaths of his sister and four others in his small  southern Minnesota town were not completely tragic. These  deaths also brought him wisdom by “the awful grace” of God  in accordance with a quotation from Aeschylus, a Greek  playwright, that suffering and pain, “against our will, [bring  us] . . . wisdom through the awful grace of God.” [1]

The reader thus immediately is faced with two terms: “ordinary grace” and “awful grace.” Do they mean the same? Or are they different concepts? And are they different from “divine grace”? The novel does not answer these questions.

Towards the end of the novel after many horrible deaths, Frank’s father, Rev. Nathan Drum, a Methodist minister, repeats the Aeschylus quotation. Frank responds with this pithy, skeptical question, “Awful?” Rev. Drum merely responds, “I don’t think it is meant in a bad way. I think it means beyond our understanding.” (P. 289.) That was the only other reference to “awful grace” I found in the novel.

Similarly the only time I found the term “ordinary grace” used was in Frank Drum’s description of a lunch at the church pastored by his father. The lunch was just after the funeral service for Ariel Drum, the pastor’s daughter and Frank’s sister. Rev. Drum was quietly composing himself for what everyone expected to be a thoughtful, lengthy prayer of grace before the meal was served. Ruth Drum, the pastor’s wife and the mother of Ariel and Frank, rudely interrupted the solemn silence. “For God’s sake, Nathan, can’t you, just this once, offer an ordinary grace?” (P. 269.) (Emphasis added.)

Everyone at the lunch was stunned into a nervous silence. Jake Drum, Frank’s younger and stuttering brother, broke the quiet and surprised his embarrassed parents and the others with these three words: “I’ll say grace.” Then Jake, after a brief stutter, prayed, “Heavenly Father, for the blessings of this food and these friends and our families, we thank you. In Jesus’ name, amen.” (P. 270.) (Emphasis added.)

Frank, who was startled and frightened by Jake’s announcing he would say the grace, afterwards looked at his brother “with near reverence and thought to myself, ‘Thank you, God.’” Frank also commented that this grace was “so ordinary there was no reason at all to remember it. Yet I have never across the forty years since it was spoken forgotten a single word.” (P. 270.)  (Emphasis added.)

Therefore, a simple answer to the question about the meaning of “ordinary grace” is it was the simple prayer offered before lunch by an ordinary person, a young boy without any theological education.

But this is too simple an answer, in my opinion.

Immediately after saying this prayer, Jake’s stutter disappeared, and he told his brother that he thought he never would stutter again. Jake added that this change was a miracle that happened without his seeing a light or hearing a voice. Instead, Jake said he “wasn’t afraid anymore” and if “we put everything in God’s hands, maybe we don’t any of us have to be afraid anymore.” (Pp. 281-82.) Their mother concurred, saying, “it was a miracle by the grace of God.” (P. 292.) (Emphasis added.)

In other words, although the prayer itself may have been an “ordinary grace,” Jake’s being able to say it and its impact on his stuttering were examples of God’s grace or divine grace.

Another example of divine grace entering the lives of the people of this small town in 1961 through the words of an ordinary person was the sermon by Rev. Drum on the Sunday after Ariel’s death.

  • Rev. Drum said that the events of the past week had caused him to think about “the darkest moment in the Bible [when] Jesus in his agony on the cross cries out, ‘Father, why have you forsaken me?’” In “that moment of his bitter railing [Jesus] . . . must have felt betrayed and completely abandoned by his father, a father he’d always believed loved him deeply and absolutely. How terrible that must have been and how alone he must have felt. . . . Jesus . . . saw with mortal eyes, felt the pain of mortal flesh, and knew the confusion of imperfect mortal understanding.” (Emphasis added.)
  • Rev. Drum continued with a personal confession. “I see with mortal eyes. My mortal heart this morning is breaking. And I do not understand. I confess that I have cried out to God, ‘Why have you forsaken me?’” (Emphasis added.)
  • “When we feel abandoned, alone, and lost,” Rev. Drum added, “what’s left to us? What do I have, what do you have, . . . except to rail against God and to blame him for the dark night into which he’s led us, to blame him for our misery, to blame him and cry out against him for not caring? What’s left to us when that which we love most has been taken?”
  • “I will tell you what’s left, three profound blessings. In his first letter to the Corinthians  [I Corinthians 13:13], Saint Paul tells us exactly what they are: faith, hope, and love. These gifts, which are the foundation of eternity, God has given to us and he’s given us complete control over them. Even in the darkest night, it’s still within our power to hold to faith. We can still embrace hope. And although we may ourselves feel unloved we can still stand steadfast in our love for others and for God. All this is in our control. God gave us these gifts and he does not take them back. It is we who choose to discard them.” (Emphasis added.)
  • “And in your dark night, I urge you to hold to your faith, to embrace hope, and to bear your love before you like a burning candle, for I promise that it will light your way.”
  • “And whether you believe in miracles or not, I can guarantee that you will experience one. . . . The miracle is this: that you will rise in the morning and be able to see again the startling beauty of the day.”
  • “I invite you, my brothers and sisters, to rejoice with me in the divine grace of the Lord and in the beauty of this morning, which he has given us.” (Pp. 194-95.) (Emphasis added.)

Frank commented that he “left the church that morning feeling, as I do to this day [40 years later], that I had experienced a miracle, the one promised by my father who had spoken a truth profound and simple.” (Emphasis added.)

For me, these examples and the rest of the novel suggest that there is no difference between ordinary grace and divine grace, which for Christians refers to acts of favor or gifts from God toward humans that we have not earned or do not deserve. Indeed, Saint Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians says, “we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.” (II Corinthians 5: 20.) This theological issue is left to the reader to ponder.

The novel reminds us that death comes into everyone’s life, often at unanticipated moments. In other words, death exists in the midst of life. The key issue for those affected by death of family members and friends is how do we respond. Funeral or memorial services always remind me that my days are numbered and that I do not know when my death will arrive. Therefore, I should live each day as if it were my last and be present in the moment. Despite this obvious conclusion, I too often do not live that way.

The novel also reminds us that children, here the 13-year old Frank and his younger brother Jake, can be strong and insightful even when faced with stressful events like the death of family members and friends. Indeed, the two boys seem stronger in some ways than their parents, at least in Frank’s account.

Of course, we are hearing the account of this year from only one participant, 40 years after the fact. We undoubtedly would have other perspectives if there were reports from at least the other members of Frank’s family.

Near the end of the novel Frank, now a high school history teacher, acknowledges these limitations of his account of that summer when he says that “when you look back at a life, yours or another’s, what you see is a path that weaves into and out of deep shadow. So much is lost. What we use to construct the past is what has remained in the open, a hodgepodge of fleeting glimpses . . . . [W]hat I recall of that . . .  summer . . .  is a construct of what stands in the light and what I imagine in the dark where I cannot see.” (P. 302.)

Indeed, Frank says, “there is no such thing as a true event. We know dates and times and locations and participants but accounts of what happened depend upon the perspective from which the event is viewed. . . . I’m aware that Jake and my father recall things I don’t and what we remember together we often remember differently. I’m sure that each of us has memories that for reasons our own we don’t share. Some things we prefer remain lost in the shadows of our past.”

Ordinary Grace” offers an extraordinary exploration of grace and wisdom. The five deaths in one summer in a small town also allow the novelist’s mystery-writing skills to peak through. Reading the novel has many rewards.[2]


[1] A prior post expressed my objection to the use of this quotation in this novel.

[2] “Ordinary Grace” was the “January All-Church Book Read” at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. The novelist, William Kent Krueger, is the author of the award-winning Cork O’Connor mystery series set in northern Minnesota. Now I want to read them.