The Theology of Fly Fishing

Dr. Ron J. Allen, Professor of Preaching and Gospels and Letters at CTS will be leading a team of 25 theological scholars on the sixth annual Theology/Fishing Retreat, August 4-8, in the Bighorn Mountains of northern Wyoming. The idea for the annual retreat evolved from a fishing trip Don Sarton, former president of the Christian Church Foundation and Doug Goodwin, pastor of First Christian Church in Sheridan, Wyoming, took. Dung the retreat, the conversation turned from flies and casting to theology. Sarton suggested to Goodwin, “We ought to invite men to come and fish with us and talk theology.” As he prepares for his summer adventure, Dr. Allen shared a bit about the retreat.

Q. What is the goal of the retreat? 
Dr. Allen: The main goal is to give ministers an opportunity to be together in an evocative context to engage in significant theological matters. Each year, the group invites a different resource person who thinks with them about a distinct group of theological issues. Many clergy in congregations and other ministry venues are hungry for substantial theological dialogue, especially about foundational matters. The format is fairly informal, including presentations from me and plenty of conversation among participants.

Q. What are some discussion topics?
Dr. Allen: This year’s discussion will focus on the main theological themes from the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. For example, we’ll consider the meaning of the Realm of God, how it comes to be, and what is the role of Christ. We’ll also explore the significance of the Ascension, the work of the Holy Spirit, the life of discipleship, the witness of the church, the relationship of the church and Caesar, and the second coming.

One of my theories is that Luke-Acts is a giant chiasmus with the ascension of Jesus as its center. A chiasmus was a familiar literary device in antiquity in which elements of a text were arranged in parallel fashion, like a giant V. You can imagine passages in Luke making up one side of the V, and parallel passages from Acts making up the other side. The gospel of Luke tells the story and the significance of the birth of Jesus to the Ascension, while the book of Acts draws out the implications of the Ascension for the continuing story of the church. The story starts with the birth of Jesus at the top of one side of the V, reaches the Ascension at the center, and then follows the book of Acts from the center of the V to its conclusion at the top of the other leg. This way of thinking is quite provocative for preaching and teaching. For example, the story of the resurrection is parallel to Pentecost. This means that the Spirit is the continuing power of resurrection at work in the church and world.

Q. Where does fishing fit into the agenda?
Dr. Allen: We will have theological discussion in the morning and in the late afternoon and into the evening. During the day, most everyone will go fly fishing. I will try it at least one day, but, despite my father’s most ardent efforts, I never learned to enjoy fishing. I will hike, visit a Native American community, and try to make progress on a writing project.

Q. Do you see any relationship between fishing as it was depicted with nets in the Bible and fly fishing?
Dr. Allen: I do not see any relationship between fly fishing and the kind of fishing represented in the Bible. Perhaps the most well-known reference to fishing in the Bible is Jesus’ call to the disciples to fish for people (e.g. Mark 1:16-20; Matthew 4:18-22; Luke 5:1-11). We often have a romantic view of such fishing, but the background and context casts the activity in a sober light.

In all three gospels Jesus has just announced the coming of the Realm of God, by which he means that God will destroy this present, broken, evil world (with its idolatry, sin, scarcity, sickness, injustice, violence, and death), and God will replace this old age with the new world, the Realm of God (an unending time of recognizing the living God, reconciliation, abundance, health, justice, peace, and life). Jesus is God’s agent in effecting the transition. According to all three gospels, to be a part of the new age, one must repent and become a part of the movement towards the coming Realm.

When the gospels depict Jesus calling the disciples to fish for people, the gospels invoke Jeremiah 16:16-18 and Ezekiel 47:3-10. In Jeremiah, God calls fishers and hunters to announce that destruction is about to befall Israel because of Israel’s sin. In Ezekiel, the prophet sees people fishing from the Dead Sea because God has sent fresh water from the door of the temple across the desert to renew the sea and to make the wilderness blossom. Jesus calls the disciples to engage in these tasks in their later time. The fishing of the disciples involves announcing that the renewal of the Realm is upon the world and that to be a part of that renewing community, people must repent and join its movement which means embracing God and living toward reconciliation, abundance, health, justice, peace, and the things that make for life.

Fly fishing, of course, is renewing for the people who do it but is not such a great thing for the fish. In fact, in the strict sense, fishing may not be the best way to talk about the work of discipleship today as fishing implies a one-way relationship between people fishing and fish, with the fish often coming to an unhappy end. In recreational fishing today (making use of a hook), even if those who fish throw their live catch back, the fish has often been wounded by the hook.

Q. How remote is the location? Will you be completely removed from technology?
Dr. Allen: The retreat is about 100 miles west of Sheridan, Wyoming. The original part of the lodge is built of logs cut from the mountains. While the lodge is remote, it does have intermittent internet connection. I would have serious withdrawal symptoms if I were cut-off from the internet for a long period of time.

"Fly Fishing on the River Severn" Image by Kasper Sorensen

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