River Runs Through It
House Church Central Goes to the Movies

Columbia Pictures. Produced by Patrick Markey and Robert Redford. Directed by Robert Redford. Screenplay by Richard Friedenberg after a Norman Maclean's autobiographical novella.

"Eventually, all things merge into one, and the river runs through it." So says the concluding, title narrative that stresses the importance of the river in this story. Pastor Rev. Maclean (Tom Skerritt) and his two sons constantly return to that river to practice the art of fly fishing, and find healing and reconciliation there. The older son, Norman (Craig Sheffer), is the story teller. The younger, Paul (Brad Pitt) is caught up in a gambling addiction--yet, in many ways (metaphorically, as a fisherman), he is an object of beauty and perfection.

The river itself, running through the wilds of Montana, is one of the main characters--and the filmmakers spend much screen time documenting it with sensitivity. In this film version, however, Redford subordinated the river to another theme with far more appeal and with far more theological implication. That theme is first expressed while Norman is courting his future wife, Jesse (Emily Lloyd), who's brother is a man who tells tall tales in an effort to hide his ineptitude in just about everything--especially fly fishing. Greatly beloved by his family, the brother finally leaves town in humiliation. Jesse asks Norman, "Why is it that the people who need the most help, won't take it?"

That question, to which Norman has no answer, frames the tragic events that follow in his brother's life. Paul's skill as a fisherman approaches perfection, but he continues to fall deeper into debt until he finds the tragic, unavoidable end that can only be described as arising from a fatal flaw in his character. We see that flaw when he is a child as stubbornness and recklessness. As Paul ages, we see it grow until it consumes him.

The question lingers well after the closing credits, and is sure to resonate with almost anyone who views this movie. Surely many of us have parents or children who have such a weakness and stubbornly refuse to accept any help from those that love them. In fact, the same can be said in the much broader case of Christian evangelism. Consider Ezekiel 16, for example--that beautiful allegory in which Israel is so ungrateful for the blessings of God. And we see it everyday in the faces of those who we know God loves, but who are so caught up in their own obsessions that they will not accept the savior's help.

That the father in this film is a Presbyterian minister who is always trying to teach his sons about God is of little theological weight. His gospel is a transcendent one, God being so distant and unreachable that the only hope one has of hearing God's voice is to listen quietly to the sound of the river. Of course, the beauty of the Montana photography can add to one's appreciation of natural revelation, but the question the movie asks is haunting. Why, indeed, is it that the people who need the most help, won't take it?

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