Movie Commentary: A River Runs Through It

This blog will utilize a diverse range of media in which it uses to understand the world we live in from a Christian perspective. One of these mediums is film. Sometimes I will comment on a film and how it shows the rejection of Christianity in our culture, but sometimes I will comment on how film has been used to portray a certain Christian narrative to our culture.

A classic film that reveals brilliantly the Christian mind and way to a world that needs to see it and hear it is the film A River Runs Through It. I want to briefly comment on this film and how it displays a strong Christian worldview and message. For those of you whom have not seen it, I hope this commentary encourages you to watch it; and for those whom have children this may be a film to show them when they get to the right age, probably before teenage years, so that you can discuss it with them and use it as a tool for dialogue concerning the Christian life.

And I also want to give a spoiler alert that this commentary speaks directly to the content of the film, so if you have not seen it you may want to wait to read this until afterwards, unless you are the kind of person that doesn’t really care about knowing what is going to happen anyway.

In A River Runs Through It, the River functions as a sort of Garden of Eden, a place where man communes with God in rest. In this way it symbolizes salvation. The father is then rightly a minister and agent of God’s salvation. He brings his sons to God’s rest and teaches them how to remain there. The foolish methodist Neal represents a person in need of God’s salvation. A person born outside of the church who is being called to salvation. But he does not even make it to the river, because his foolishness ensures he remains away from the river. He is a fool, not only a disordered person, but a blind person. The river is only a tale he is able to make up. It is only something he pretends to desire when in reality he wants nothing to do with it.

Paul, however, is more complicated. He is someone born in the church. Someone who knows of the rest of God, and has experienced God’s grace. Even someone who has a love for God. But he is tempted to do things that would take him away from the river. He wants to be at the river, and the river is real to him. But there is an inward inclination that leads him away from the river, away from the very calling and grounding that God has for him. In this way, and this way only he is like Neal. Neal and Paul share one characteristic, an inward inclination that draws them away from God’s path. Ultimately, Paul dies away from the river he loved. Though he excelled when at the river, his inward inclination led him away, and ultimatley he died a fool’s death, meaning his end is the same as the implied ending of Neal, though the path there was a different one.

Norman, represents a man who is placed into the church when born and who remains there. Though he has his flaws and his temptations, he is stable and abides like a wiseman in God’s rest and salvation. He may miss out on some of the debachuery of Neal, and some of the thrill and license of Paul, but ultimately he is able to continually remain at the place he most desires to be. His inward temptations and inclinations are overcome by wisdom, perserverance, and obedience. God placed him in the river, and gave him a father and a guide to help him to see how to remain there, and he listened. And in the end, he reamined with God, and had the strength to fish in the river.

The movie makes the point that Life is not a piece of art. It is not something to experience in a moment. If that is how life is taken then life itself will be lost. One will give up eternal rest for a moment of expeirincing a deep profound thrill. A river continues to run, steadily and streaming throughout all life. One who will live in the river must be the same way. And here is Paul’s downfall. He didn’t live like the river. He participated in it, but he did not become it. And thus he left it and died outside of it. But Norman, dwelt and remained in the river, he became the river.

The movie ends holding out some possible hope for Paul: The hope of faith. The hope that since he was part of the river at one time, that somehow he will come back to it. That since he loved the river, perhaps he will be allowed to take part in it again. Or if not, then at least he left his footprints in the riverbed. At least his memory still lingers there, and he had some partaking of it. But this is only a hope. His end may speak to something else, and theologically, it may be that his end is even worse then Neal’s. For though Neal never knew the river, Paul knew it and left it. It may be that Neal is able to know it someday, and that Paul is forever kept from it since he willfully left it. There is no being sure either way. No assurance can be offered to either for all we can tell as men is that neither man is now in the river.

But one thing is sure. Life is not a piece of art. It is a story. A story has a beginning, a middle and end. It has many roads to go down, and many crossroads where choices have to be made. There are trials and errors, victories and accomplishments. Relationships and careers. Friends and lovers. There is growth and there is danger. There are parts of it where art can be experienced, but only as a part of life, and not as the basis of it. There is life and death, and there is rest and unrest. The one who would live life rightly and properly is the one grounded in the very rest he seeks. The one who not only desires the river, but remains there and grows in it, rejecting all things that would take him away from it. The one who takes the river with him in his heart, so that even when physically far away, the river runs through his heart.


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