A Tale of Two Rivers

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others…”

Whether you’re a moviegoer or a reader, I suspect you’ll recognize that passage. It opens A River Runs Through It, and Robert Redford reads it with appropriate reverence in the beloved big-screen adaptation he directed.

It sets the stage for a story about a family living between the rivers of religion and art. And although I’ve always been a city boy, this story set in the great outdoors, has felt like a gift meant for me. In fact, the film opened on October 9, 1992 — my twenty-second birthday.

Last week, I sat my forty-two-year-old self down to watch this twenty-year-old picture once again, and it moved through me more powerfully than ever. Basking in Phillipe Rousselot’s patient, observant, Oscar-winning cinematography, I experienced a mysterious solace.

I was already familiar with Norman Maclean’s semi-autobiographical story. One of my English professors had celebrated its exemplary prose, and I follow his example in my own fiction workshops, holding up Maclean’s work as storytelling worthy of study.

But the film, which expands this story of the pastor and his sons, moves me even more. The story, told with such patience that it feels spacious compared to almost all popular American movies since then, explores the central tensions of my own life.

The Maclean family resembles mine — a father who teaches the scriptures, a mother who serves the family with selfless generosity, and two boys who pursue artistic aspirations on different paths. (The Maclean boys part ways over literature and fishing; I chose literature, my brother chose music.)

While Paul, the youngest Maclean brother, becomes a masterful fisherman, he also becomes dangerously irresponsible with alcohol, women, and money. I’m grateful that my brother and I have, by God’s grace, never fallen into Paul’s relentless rebelliousness. We’re both more like Norman, the older brother, deeply rooted in the teachings of our family, our school, and the Baptist church of our childhood.

The fishing scenes in Redford’s film, which are as graceful as Maclean’s prose, always prompt me to think about my own writing life. We watch these fishermen tie their own flies—an art both practical and aesthetically beautiful. Then we watch them cast their gleaming lines into the wind, watch the lines settle into the water, watch this mysterious ritual draw up mysteries from the deep until revelations break the surface and dance in the sun.

While I still feel like an apprentice at prose, I’ve come to value the rituals of discipline, just as the Maclean boys practice the art of casting. Those who aspire to be writers but have no patience for the study of grammar and punctuation remind me of those who vow to follow Jesus but have no respect for religious tradition.

I fling a line of words out over mysterious currents, hoping to catch something big and beautiful. Having practiced for many thousands of hours, I find that the fundamentals come naturally now. I can improvise and make new discoveries, learn what more is possible. Sometimes, I catch something. And I lose myself, swept away by light and motion, until I return with a blessing and deep gratitude.

But another aspect of the film intrigues me this time. Maclean describes the Presbyterian minister as emerging from a church service “anxious to be on the hills where he could restore his soul and be filled again to overflowing.”

This rings true. How many times have I looked out the church window and longed to be at the ocean’s edge, or hiking to a peak? As a child, I endured sermons by drawing pictures of the natural world. Growing up, I’ve often been troubled by the great divide between the rivers of art and religion in my life.

Why have I experienced more profound revelations of God’s presence in art than in Sunday morning worship?

I’m not criticizing former churches. On the contrary, I’m grateful for the teaching I’ve received in pews of my childhood Baptist church and the Presbyterian church I called home for almost two decades. There I’ve learned the fundamentals of what it means to be the body of Christ.

But 2012 has been a season of unprecedented hardship for my wife and me. I have struggled in my faith, work, and art. And both of us have felt drawn into a new and unfamiliar sanctuary—a space alive with beauty and mystery, where the line between religion and art is all but impossible to discern.

In our new Sunday destination, the congregation gathers in reverent anticipation rather than social chatter, as if something extraordinary is about to occur. Currents of incense wind through the air. We observe more than moments of silence, we sink into long pauses, listening for the words of God that the Reverend Maclean insists we might hear beneath the rocks of the riverbed. We kneel, rise, and turn as if in a ceremonial dance. We give voice to scriptures and prayers so beautiful that they unite believers across continents and centuries.

Afterward, rather than commenting on the pastor’s “performance,” or catching up on the week’s most dramatic developments, I emerge nearly speechless (a condition which is, my friends will tell you, quite uncharacteristic). I carry a sense of sacred mystery similar to what I feel after my own Montana excursions. I’ve been blessed with more than a message; I’ve engaged with all of my senses. Now the ears of my ears are awake . . . the eyes of my eyes are open.

I don’t know how long we’ll worship in this sanctuary. But for now, I’m grateful. This art-full worship restores my soul. I am caught up wholly in the holy. And in those moments, all things merge into one. And, yes, a river runs through it.

  • Vic

    Thanks for this reflection. One of my all-time favorite movies.

  • T.Martin Lesh.

    First of all let me second the opinion on the movie as well as the book ( personally I think the book is better ) Both worthy of many a 2nd 3rd etc viewing / reading

    Second though I’m afraid you’re succumbing to one of of the two main traps of General Revelation …. In your case … over emphasizing the General ( nature and that that applies to all ) assuming it to be either a substitute or superior to the specific ( The Bible as is preaching/teaching )

    As appealing as this current route may seem …… you will come to a sudden and very harsh dead end with it which can and will only add to what ever it is that is making this year so difficult for you and your wife .

    Might I suggest a balanced strategy ? e.g. Keeping the Specific ( reading the Word – Attending a sound church – maintaining contact with fellow believers ) while taking respite in the General . That is a path that can and will bring solace to your troubled times while leading you to an open door ( rather than the dead end you’re heading for ) in the end .

    Life is hard and complicated in the best of times – and the True and Genuine answers to those times are equally as hard and complicated . The simple answers being the ones that will lead you down a path of failure at best – and destruction at worst

    • Jeffrey Overstreet

      T. Martin,

      I’m afraid you’re jumping to conclusions. I’m not “succumbing to a trap.”

      I work at a Christian university, where I am blessed by excellent teaching from the Scriptures every week. I read more theology and meditations on the Scriptures and the Christian life than anything else. Anne and I both download sermons from preachers who speak powerfully into our lives. After a lifetime of sermons on Sunday and sermons all week, I have come to a place where I feel I am receiving more than enough of one thing, and not nearly enough of another. You’re right about balance.

      Besides, the Scriptures are constantly directing our attention outward. The Psalms, the Scriptures that Christ quoted as much as anything but Isaiah, teach us again and again to look outward and behold the glory of God in the things that he has made.

      Furthermore, the liturgy we recite together is Scripture, most of the time. Meditating on that, speaking it, committing it to memory… this is one of the best ways I know to study the Scriptures and absorb them into the DNA of my day.

      I cannot believe that sitting and listening to one man talk for 40 minutes a week is God’s Ideal Plan for Worship. Is it useful? Yes, depending on the teacher. Is it a rich and essential tradition and a vital part of worship? Of course. But just as I feel that having somebody explain art to me is not the same thing as “artmaking,” I am finding inspiration and blessing beyond my past experience in a more immersive, participatory, and “bodily” form of worship in which the sermon is not treated as “the main event.”

      If I had said that I was abandoning Christian relationships (I have the opposite problem; I am overcrowded with Christian community), or that I was turning my back on the teaching of the Scriptures (I am immersed in it every day), or that I was seeking something other than a “sound church” … then we’d have a problem.

      Moreover, several years ago I realized that 9 out of 10 the artists and teachers and writers who speak most powerfully into my life and who inspire my faith are people of a more liturgical, “high church” tradition. And that influence has only increased in recent years. My “current route” is bringing me more fully into the experiences of N.T. Wright, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Scott Cairns, Madeleine L’Engle, Kathleen Norris, Thomas Merton… and a list of faithful witnesses who have deepened my experience of the Scriptures and the experiences of others for many generations. These are not the names of people who came to “failure” and “destruction.”

      I realize that I had only 1,000 words to talk about both a movie and a transition in my life, so I didn’t have enough room to tell much of the situation. But please be careful not to presume and judge. You do not know enough about my “current route” to conclude that I’m heading toward a “dead end.”

      Jeffrey

      • http://drgtjustwondering.blogspot.com Diana Trautwein

        Amen. Well said. Thanks be to God for the grace, mystery and beauty which all point toward the holiness of God in liturgical settings. This is lovely, Jeffrey. Thanks so much.

  • Anna

    Oh how I love that book and that movie. You wouldn’t think that a book about sons and fishing would resonate with an eighteen year old girl (the first time I read the book). But it did. The parallels to my own walk with Christ (which was two years old at the time) and the connection with God’s creation drew me in. It is still one of my favorite books (and movies). My husband bought me a beautiful hard copy of it when I turned 30 last year. So, I read it again. I saw something different there, than I had before… a weary minister. I knew how to spot it because I had plenty of experience in it. We have been the ones in leadership, seeing all the bickering amongst leaders; the foolishness that happens to men when they’re motive isn’t exactly holy anymore. It’s exhausting to watch the power plays. The tedious arguments from older women, “But I’ve always done the bake sale like this. Always.” The great divides amongst families in the church over doxology. It’s plain exhausting. So when Reverend Maclean sets out to restore himself in nature after his several church services… it resonated in a new way. Time and again we have also been burned by other believers. And while that has helped us narrow down the search for the right church and denomination/organization to serve in, it doesn’t come without the temptation to flee altogether. The last time was two years ago, my husband and I were toying with the idea of going back to school to study horticulture and become winemakers. Sigh… church is exhausting at times and messy. Because it’s filled with sinners. I just figure as long as I make the time for those long walks in nature… I’ll be better able to continue to serve God in the midst of other sinners. Like Reverend Maclean.

    Praying God would lead you and your wife to where you belong. Amongst sinners. Where God can come rushing in to do the miraculous… allow sinners to serve and bless other sinners. Peace be with you.

    • Jeffrey Overstreet

      Thank you for sharing your experiences, Anna. I wondered if I was overreaching in seeing this story as a provocation to consider the tension between church and natural revelation. Glad to know I’m not the only one inspired to think about those things by this story.

  • http://davidclarkart.com David Clark

    Jeff, a beautiful essay–both the elegance of your prose and and your thoughtful observations. Thank-you.

    • Jeffrey Overstreet

      Thanks, David!

  • Sharilyn

    Jeffrey, thank you for this. It remains one of my favorite books (and movies–always thought altering the time period to Prohibition was brilliant). There are passages of that book that read more like poetry than prose. Glorious. And your spiritual journey of late resonates as well. Andrew and I are emerging from one of the darkest hours of our lives. Our faith has been tested and refined. Is still in process. I look at people who are absolutely convinced of their entire belief system and I think “how can you not struggle?” Anyway, again, thank you for sharing.

    • Jeffrey Overstreet

      Sharilyn, thanks! I hope that we can someday find time together in person to reflect on our lives since SPU. Can you believe it’s been, what… almost 20 years since we saw each other last?

  • Laurel

    Just beautiful, Jeffrey. God is beauty and worship without beauty (whether it’s art, music or words etc.) is missing something intrinsic to what corporate worship is supposed to be. But I know what you mean; I’m Doug’s mom.

  • Peggy Harris

    I’m a recent subscriber, having signed up after meeting you at Glen West this year (my second year). I attended Scott Cairns’s lecture there and observed his half-joking interaction with you about the Orthodox tradition and your Presbyterian background. When I read your post, the first thing I thought was, “Oh, he’s trying the Orthodox tradition.” I was grateful for the Glen West experience for so many reasons, but mostly because I got to mix and mingle with Christians from all backgrounds. I am the wife of a United Methodist pastor (from deep in the evangelical South). Both of us are far more “free-thinking” than most of our congregation, but I never feel safe sharing my feelings with others. To do so might mean causing problems for my husband. I’m going through a dry spell myself. I, too, am surrounded by way too many church people (too many for a balanced life). One day at the Glen, I joined a table conversation with members of our fiction class. One of the women had searched every Christian denomination and had ended up Orthodox. I loved talking with her. I told my husband afterward that maybe after he retires we could try it. My apologies if my assumption about your new worship experience is completely wrong, but I still wanted to write and tell you that you aren’t alone as you seek to find peace and authentic expression in worship. May God bless you on your journey.

    • Jeffrey Overstreet

      Peggy, Anne and I are still “slow pilgrims” at this point. We have not yet had the blessing of an Orthodox service, but we are on the move.

  • Scott Cairns

    Beloved brotherman! Lovely post. And I am keen to hear more about your journey—sounds East, but could very well be West, eh? Love, S.

    • Jeffrey Overstreet

      My journey? If we’re talking about church traditions, I’m “leaning in” to the East. If we’re talking about Glen Workshops, I’m confirmed as what Tolkien called “a child of the kindly West.” Thanks, Scott! Will we see you in Santa Fe?

  • Scott Cairns

    Wonderful, Jeffrey! Love to you and the beloved Anne! As it happens, Greg asked me to go East this year, but (alas) my Greece program overlaps with the Glen East. I, too, am a confirmed child of the kindly West, though I prefer my liturgy to look gloriously East. We’ll hope to join you in Santa Fe sometime soon, but not in 2013. Again, LOVE, and GOOD JOURNEY! When you have a chance, send me the details (via email) of where you guys are attending worship, eh?

  • http://www.deniseframeharlan.com Denise Frame Harlan

    I love your descriptions of worship, here, and I think the parallel to natural beauty is apt. Something strange about liturgical worship: the form is so old, but the effect (for me) is newness, reverence, breathlessness.

    Thank you for reminding me.


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