Penpoint Vol. III:6 (October, 1992) Covenant Media Foundation, 800/553-3938

Back At the Movies: The New Cowboy Theology
By Dr. Greg Bahnsen


Readers tell us they enjoyed the theological commentary on the movies which we published last year -- an analysis of the trend in the movies to deal with the subject of the afterlife (April, 1991).

So Penpoint has gone back to the movies, curious about any new patterns or trends in the cinematic world, the "world" which gives so many people in our culture the looking-glasses through which they perceive and interpret the real world.

The results were disturbing because of a particularly vicious and irresponsible picture of female villains which seems to be "Hollywood's latest central-casting prototype" (in the words of Entertainment Weekly).

It is a dark tribute to the women's liberation movement that females are finally getting their "due" as movie scoundrels, right up there with the worst of male fiends and reprobates. The ladies come off looking pretty frightening and vicious at the movies, killing unsuspecting men (always men, notice) with an ice pick (Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct), a dumbbell (Kim Basinger in Final Analysis), an ax (Rebecca De Mornay in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle), or stiletto heels (Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female). Last summer even Batman's love-interest (Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman) brandished a whip and razor-claws.

Get the point? Women can be ruthlessly violent. But that is not what is especially disturbing about this trend at the movies. After all, God's word tells us about human depravity, and it does not exempt women in its judgment against sin.

What is disturbing is that the vicious potential in women is not really faced in the movies today but instead psychoanalyzed, with the result that these women villains do not turn out to be internally wicked (the Biblical perspective), but rather severely traumatized (the pop culture perspective). What causes their horrible behavior proves to be alcohol psychosis, or a miscarriage, or the suicide of a husband, or the death of an identical twin, or the childhood loss of parents, etc. We don't have sinners here, but (as E.W. put it) "Psycho Babes."

Theologically speaking, a far more accurate outlook on human character can be found in Clint Eastwood's recent Western, Unforgiven. (How could a theologian ignore a title like that?)

Clint Eastwood is, to belabor the obvious, a superstar of Western movies, right up there with the king of them all, John Wayne. He has starred in them (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) -- many of them -- and he has directed them as well (The Outlaw Josey Wales). He is in a unique and authoritative position, if anyone is, to slay the stereotypes and hackneyed themes of Hollywood Westerns. And he has marvelously done so in his brooding and beautifully shot movie, Unforgiven. This is the anti-myth counterpart to his High Plains Drifter, not to mention dozens of other cowboy movies over the years.

Some time ago cowboy movies stepped out of the early genre (Red River, High Noon, Rio Bravo) and attempted to achieve some kind of high concept -- neurosis (Duel in the Sun), existentialism (The Shootist), satire (Blazing Saddles), science-fiction (Back to the Future III), social-psychology (Young Guns), self-parody (Silverado), and even revisionist Indian interpretations (Dances With Wolves). But none of these later entries has achieved the forceful unraveling of the Western stereotype which we find in Unforgiven -- because none of them went to the heart of cowboy legend to correct its "theology" (its theological view of man).

Twenty-five years ago it was already evident that Western movies had moved beyond the simplistic outlook that there are "black hats and white hats" -- the idea that the world is divided into good guys and bad guys. Reflecting the relativism of the 60's culture and counterculture, in the movie Westerns it now seemed everybody wore a "gray hat." There were no heroes in a pure -- especially morally pure -- sense; there were simply men of action or inaction. Clear and confident moral assessments were unavailable. (The movie counterpart to the political myth of moral equivalence between East and West.)

Because of this ambiguity, the cowboy theology of recent movies surely seemed at odds with a Christian view of the world and of life. Yet the earliest cowboy movies (black hat/white hat) were at odds with Christian theology in their own way too, being facile about the universal depravity of mankind and suggesting a kind of "Lone Ranger Self-righteousness." (Appropriately, the masked rider was pure, yet his identity unknown to anybody!)

But now the new "cowboy theology" represented by Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven is a rebuke to both the black/white and gray theologies of his predecessors. By a coincidence of movie-release timing, it is also a strong antidote to the "psycho babe" rationalizations of last summer's movies, which could not honestly deal with the evil within man(kind).

The movie opens with a prostitute having her face viciously slashed by an angry, knife-wielding patron. When the town's sheriff does not punish the abuser for hurting the girl, but simply assesses a fine to be paid to the brothel's owner for damage to his "property," the other prostitutes collect money and advertise a reward for anyone who will kill the man. A young wannabe bounty hunter who calls himself the "Schofield Kid" takes up the task and goes to a legendary killer, William Munny (Eastwood), to enlist his help.

But there is nothing stoic, heroic or even tough about Munny once he is found. Indeed, he no longer has his physical prowess with a gun, nor the angry temper to use it. He is a washed up hog farmer whose wife, now deceased, had coaxed him into reforming his lifestyle. The young bounty hunter is obviously disillusioned with the aging, retired gunfighter. Munny resists the invitation to go out killing again, until he realizes how much his children could use the reward money.

As the story unfolds we are introduced to a number of characters, each with their own unlikeable personal defects or veniality (especially the wily, egotistical and unprincipled town sheriff, played by Gene Hackman). None of the living characters in this Western is a good guy (or good girl) when all is said and done really, and moreover, nobody turns out be forgiven at the end (remember the movie's title).

The theological highpoint of the movie arrives after the young bounty hunter has killed the man with the reward on his head (while he was unarmed in the out-house). It turns out that this was the very first person the younger man had ever shot and killed. As he nervously rehearses and talks over what he has done with Munny, he is overcome with guilt and begins to weep. Pulling himself together emotionally and trying to justify what he has done, the young man refers to the murdered man -- the prostitute's abuser -- and says, "Well, he deserved it." Clint Eastwood stares straight ahead with a grimace, steely squint in his eyes, and then mutters, "We all deserve it, kid."

This is an admission, to use our previous metaphor, that all men wear black hats. There's no good guys and bad guys. There's no shades-of-gray relativism. The bottom line is that everyone deserves to die -- everyone is, in one way or another, guilty and polluted down deep -- a theme which is reinforced from beginning to end in this soul-searching story.

That is not an upbeat message. But it is theologically accurate. "There is none righteous; no, not one," wrote the Apostle Paul (Romans 3:10). Yes, we all deserve to die (cf. Romans 6:23). Our problem is not that we have been traumatized (like the psycho babes), but that from within we are unclean and in rebellion against God -- all of us, and in all aspects of our lives.

Unforgiven had no good news, but this is where the gospel begins: facing our depravity honestly. Within Christianity that is not a step toward despair, but the first step toward God's forgiveness. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).