Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Things In Life That Don't Really Matter

Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at things in life that don't really matter.

This quote by Francis Chan appeared in a blog post I was reading earlier. Being a student of theology, it makes for chilling reading. The blog post was about the new radicals, who -- as my upcoming history of evangelicalism essay may or may not show -- are discovering the Anabaptist roots of evangelicalism.

The Chan quote got me thinking about the film A River Runs Through It, which in turn got me thinking of radical Christianity (aka Christianity). Allow me to explain.

A River Runs Through It is a film about succeeding at something that doesn't really matter. Specifically, it is about excelling at fly fishing. For a Presbyterian minister and his two sons, "there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing". Fly fishing was an art to be practiced and perfected. The film centres around this art form that, at its most excellent, is a vehicle of the glory of God. The father passes his love of fly-fishing to his two sons, and lives to see the younger son surpass him in skill. After his death, the eldest son has these words to say:

Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.

Fly fishing may seem to qualify as one of those things "that don't really matter", but this film tells a different story. To succeed at something as meaningless as fly fishing is to feel the joy of creaturely existence. Fly fishing may bring meaningless pleasure, but, as Terry Eagleton has argued, this is precisely the kind of pleasure that God gets from his creation. To excel at fly fishing is to be joined to the very life of God.

I don't write this simply to say that Chan is wrong. (Which he is. Our greatest fear should have nothing to do with ourselves. Our greatest fear should be God.) There is a link between all of this and radical Christianity. This, after all, is a Christianity that might point us to passages such as the one where Jesus calls Peter to abandon his fishing rod in order to become his disciple.

The message here is to leave aside fishing for the sake of the kingdom. The message of A River Runs Through It, on the other hand, is that fishing is very much at home in the kingdom.

The question to ask is, when Jesus disarmed Peter did he disarm every fisherman? Or perhaps more pointedly, is the successful evangelist/minister/author-speaker-blogger more worthy of honour than the Christian who makes beautiful pottery or excellent coffee for the glory of God? Are the former pursuits more meaningful than the others? A case could be made for this argument, but a case could equally be made for its opposite. The saving of souls, for example, is not an end in itself. Rather, people are brought into the kingdom so that they can enjoy the beauty of fly fishing in the light of the glory of God. Salvation will only begin to make sense to us when we learn to excel and delight in the things that don't really matter.

In short, the world needs meaningless practices. Our salvation depends on them.

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