I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it again. I’m a fan of Westerns, and I’m a fan of Old West history. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Sacramento, California, which has its own Western pedigree as one of the chief Gold Rush towns. Mark Twain, who worked for the Sacramento Daily Union, once called it the “City of Saloons.” Maybe it’s because, through one branch of my birth family, I’m an eighth-generation Californian – the first in that line leaving the South as a 49er in search of gold. He was a failed and washed-up prospector who ended up becoming one of the chief pioneer printers in San Francisco. He was the first in my family to come West, though other branches were among some of the first settlers of Washington state and later settlers of Oregon. Maybe I like Westerns because one of my best friends grew up on a cattle ranch in Southwest Montana. While I have family roots in the South, the Midwest, and the Northeast, (thus, I suppose, filling Paul’s role as “all things to all people”) and have lived in California, Illinois, Missouri, Virginia, and Maryland, in many ways I remain a Westerner. I was born and bred in the West, and in a sense, the West made me. As a result, I guess I’m a fan of Westerns, not only because I’m an American and Americans, regardless of where they live, have overwhelmingly been fans of Westerns, but also because I’m from the West and a lot of my family is from the West.
As a result, and much to my wife’s chagrin at times, I’ve picked up annoying habits. It’s hard for me to leave Walmart without picking up yet another cheap paperback Western. I can’t help it if Louis L’Amour and the Johnstones have written more books than you can throw a stick at. As someone who likes books, we’ve got a whole bunch on Old West history. Never mind the copies we have of Western films, both American and Italian (Spaghetti Westerns are great as well). It’s not uncommon for us to watch Bonanza, Wagon Train, or any other of the many Western shows. I can’t help it. I like Westerns.
And yet, a distinction needs to be made. There’s a difference between the Old West of Louis L’Amour and the Johnstones, John Wayne movies and Wagon Train, and the actual Old West. There’s a difference between the mythic West and the real West. My Darling Clementine with Henry Fonda is a great movie, for example, but it’s not a historically faithful vision of Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Westerns often overlook the harshness and brutalities of actual Western life. Sure, Shane might have a couple of shootouts, and the Searchers might have a kidnapping, but parts of the West get glossed over for entertainment value. It wouldn’t be enjoyable to watch a movie on the Donner Party, or Mountain Meadows, or Wounded Knee. Even our heroes get scrubbed over and cleaned up. I’ve always admired Wyatt Earp (who taught Tom Mix and William S. Heart how to act like cowboys in the 1920s and was close friends with John Ford), but he was not necessarily a “good” or “family friendly” man. Don’t get me wrong, I love Westerns, but the American Frontier of the mid-to-late 19th century was a brutal and dangerous place. It wasn’t filled with the good Christian entertainment value of Bonanza or The Rifleman.
And so, it’s important to distinguish between the mythic, which makes for great storytelling, and the real, which is interesting to study. And at least regarding the West, the two are pretty far apart.
In history, I can only think of one person in whom the idealized view and the realistic view match, and that is in the person of Christ. The Wyatt Earp of My Darling Clementine is a far cry from the real Wyatt Earp of the West. But where Earp is sinful, Jesus in sinless. Where the West of Westerns is idealized, Jesus is the ideal. The psalmist tells us that “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man” (Ps. 118:8 ESV). In Christ, we have the “true myth,” as J.R.R. Tolkien once told C.S. Lewis before the latter became a Christian. Christianity is not the imagined myth of the perfect and idealized American West, different from the real historical West, but is the “true myth,” where the perfect and idealized perfectly matches the real and historical. Christ is not too good to be true, but is too good because He is true. We need not worry that the account of Scripture presents an idealized version of reality, because it is a faithful account of what actually happened recorded by eyewitnesses, and breathed out by the Holy Spirit, God Himself.
And so, I can enjoy Louis L’Amour’s books, Wagon Train, and Shane knowing that they’re not historically accurate but idealized. I can be disappointed that the Wyatt Earp of my youthful idolization was a hardened sinner like most, and yet rest secure in the knowledge that I will never face that disconnect with Christ, because Christ is exactly who He says He is, and like Thomas I will always proclaim: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28 ESV).