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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Prayer and a Spanish Hymn at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

Two parts of the August 4th worship service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church were especially meaningful for me.[1]

The first was the congregational unison Prayer of Confession that spoke to the sin of pride that infects most of us in these times. The words went as follows:

  • “Oh Lord, we come before you, knowing that even in our vast knowledge we remain ignorant of ourselves, deceiving and blinding ourselves. We lose hold of that knowledge given us at creation, of God’s generous and continuing favor toward us, and of the original nobility that God bestowed upon our ancestor Adam. When we do remember our great gifts, we think of them as belonging to us alone, in boasting and self-assurance, when we ought instead to honor those gifts among our neighbors, for Scripture bids us to esteem others above ourselves, and to apply ourselves wholly to doing them good. We despise others, and forget that in despising them we despise ourselves, for we re together made in the image of God.”

The second part of the service was the hymn Tu Has Venido a la Orilla (Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore), whose gentle melody is reminiscent of a rocking boat by a lakeshore and which is easy to sing. Its lyrics are based upon Matthew 4: 18-20, when Jesus encountered two fishermen (Peter and Andrew) casting their net into the Sea of Galilee and asked them to follow him and be fishers of men and women.The lyrics go on to urge us to do the same.

Here are the words of its refrain as translated into English: “O Lord, with Your eyes You have searched me, And, while smiling, have called out my name. Now my boat’s left on the shoreline behind me, Now with You I will seek other seas.”  The four verses go as follows:

  • “You have come up to the lakeshore, Looking neither for wise nor wealthy.You only wanted that I should follow.” (Refrain)
  • “You know that I own so little, In my boat there’s no money or weapons, You’ll only find there my nets and labor.” (Refrain)
  • “You need the caring of my hands.Through my tiredness, may others find resting. You need a love that just goes on loving.”(Refrain)
  • “You, who have fished other oceans, Ever longed for by souls that are waiting, My dear and good friend, as thus You call me.”(Refrain)

The Presbyterian Hymnal also contains the original Spanish verses. While most of the Westminster congregants sing the English version, some sing the Spanish. With my very rudimentary Spanish language skills, I softly sang the Spanish words to remind me of my one trip to Spain and many others to Latin America and of my friends throughout the latter region. It thus becomes for me a song of solidarity.

Cesáreo Gabaráin
Cesáreo Gabaráin

This hymn was written in 1979 by Cesáreo Gabaráin (1936-1991), a Spanish Roman Catholic priest and composer of over 500 liturgical songs. He also held the position of Chaplain Prelate for Pope John Paul II.


[1] The bulletin and audio and video recordings of the service are online.