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“grace comes by art and art does not come easy”

By December 2, 2011 No Comments

Recently I’ve been re-reading the novella by Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It. It has been nearly fifteen years since I first read it and it remains one of my favourites. One reason for that—other than the beautiful prose, stunning imagery, and dare I say a kind of identifiable plotline and connectable character—is the role that Presbyterianism plays in the story. If you’ve not read it, or for that matter seen the movie, I’ll give you the basics. The story is a semiautobiographical account of Maclean, his brother, and stoic Presbyterian minister father, set in the 1920’s in Montana. It’s a story of growing up and rebellion and family and finding oneself and the contrast and comparison of the two brothers and their father all weaved intricately and beautifully around the common thread (and love) of fly fishing. The first chapter beings,

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. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.

The narrator goes on to explain how while growing up he and his brother spent their Sunday afternoons between the morning and evening services studying The Westminster Shorter Catechism. Before being allowed to hike the hills with their father as he “unwound between services,” they would be tested by him, “But he never asked us more than the first question in the catechism, ‘What is the chief end of man?’ And we answered together so one of us could carry on if the other forgot, ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.’”

Like the Presbyterianism of Maclean’s upbringing, The Twelve blog and Perspectives magazine from which it originates is nourished in another particular Reformed culture—often, although not limited to, an historical Dutch Reformed orientation and its subsequent institutional progeny. Admittedly, I am myself a product of such cultivation, educated in a Reformed Church in America college and seminary and ordained as an RCA minister. And too, I come from some Dutch stock (although mine were of a Mennonite variety generations ago). But my faith formation took place as a child and young adult in a Presbyterian congregation and it is from that context that I approach what it means to be reformed. So when the author Maclean invokes his own Presbyterian formation it is relatable, comforting, and maybe even a little elucidative.

In one instance he shares, “As a Scot and a Presbyterian, my father believed that man by nature was a mess and had fallen from an original state of grace.” Maclean communicates sometimes stereotypical descriptions of his familial and cultural roots in the staid manner becoming of his people, and yet as a storyteller he’ll then nonchalantly betray an even deeper or more profound truth and reality behind the description. Further in the same paragraph including the line above he concludes with, “Unlike many Presbyterians, he often used the word ‘beautiful.’” It is in those moments and elements that Maclean is able to most aptly convey the reformed identity of his characters’ makeup and conflicts. I think he most eloquently delivers it in this line: “My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”

There are certain things that to me epitomize Reformed: an intelligent and biblical high view of scripture, the sovereignty of God, a strong understanding of sin—that whole total depravity thing, and probably most importantly, grace. But in these last few months I’ve been pondering and wrestling with and enjoying especially the artistry of grace—both God as divine Artist, and we as art practitioners, particularly practices of grace. That grace is something that one not only receives but that one practices and does.

Today, I wanted to blog about justice. What does it mean to do justice; to stand for justice; to embody justice? Especially, I wanted to work out issues of power and privilege. I’ve been thinking a lot about the gender dynamics related to the Herman Cain campaign. Seriously. I’ve also been thinking about the power dynamics in the recent Penn State and Syracuse child abuse allegations. As well, today is World AIDS Day—there are a number of issues related to justice there! Finally, December 1st is the anniversary of Rosa Parks sitting down in a certain bus seat and decidedly not moving when being told to do so. Concerns about justice abound, and I hope to discuss and converse these concerns on the Twelve as we progress. But first, I needed to understand for myself how justice was reformed.

So, I wonder for you, how do you pursue such issues or practices of justice from a reformed perspective? How, if in any way, does a reformed worldview enhance or enliven your approach? Reformed theologically? And I suppose, underneath the surface of my wonderments, is the question about the role of justice—practicing it and fighting for it—also from a culturally reformed perspective. Especially since, as it relates to issue of power and privilege, communities from a culturally reformed backgrounds tend, in a North American context, to have quite a bit of it—power and privilege, that is. So, what up with all that?

And somehow, Norman Maclean and fly fishing and A River Runs Through It has helped me formulate my own understandings.

“So you too will have to approach the art…Presbyterian-style, and, if you have never picked up a fly rod before, you will soon find it factually and theologically true that man by nature is a damn mess. …Then, since it is natural for man to try to attain power without recovering grace, he whips the line back and forth… Power comes not from power everywhere, but from knowing where to put it on… all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy. So my brother and I learned to cast Presbyterian-style…”


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