Wild West Preachers

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on September 28.]

So I watched Pale Rider for the first time. Clint Eastwood is great, as always. The Eastwood squint/glare is in full effect. He has no actual name in the film, but simply goes by “Preacher.” And he comes as an apparent answer to Megan Wheeler’s prayer over her dog’s grave, interspersed with Psalm 23. In fact, this is a religiously infused movie, down to the coincidence of Megan reading Revelation 6:8 when the preacher first rides into the small mining town.

The people in the mining town (the “tin pans,” as Coy LaHood calls them) respect him because he’s a preacher, and the LaHoods fear him for the same reason. Preachers are dangerous, according to LaHood, because he might give the people faith, and then the LaHoods will have no chance of running them off their mining claims.

But what kind of preacher is this? The first interaction he has is when he throws water on one of LaHood’s hoods and says, “You shouldn’t play with matches.” Then he takes a hickory club to the bad guys. Sarah Wheeler wants to know who he is, and she doesn’t want him in the house, since he is apparently a man of violence, perhaps some kind of gun-slinger. When he appears in a clerical collar, their reactions are drop-jawed silence and stuttering.

The unease, however, between his collar and his actions doesn’t go away. He dissuades Jaws—I mean, Club—with a sledge hammer between his eyes and between his legs. He throws dynamite into the LaHood’s mining works. He takes out all the deputies in the town with his revolver. And then he disappears into the distance.

Apparently, Eastwood has suggested that the preacher is actually a ghost. We see him match up the bullet holes in Stockburn’s body with those that Hull sees on his own back. So is he God’s avenging angel, sent back to answer Megan’s prayer? Is he the rider called Death on a pale horse, whom Hell follows after?

This is more Johnny Cash and “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” than Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino. Actually, in some ways, the Preacher is the reverse of Walt, who is a grumpy old man who sacrifices himself for justice, rather than the pious bringer of justice. I think he’s also the inverse of Jeff Daniels’ self-made preacher in Godless, who kills to take rather than to protect. In other ways, he reminds me of Robert Duvall’s Apostle, who takes matters into his own fists when it comes to protecting the church from Billy Bob Thornton’s antagonist.

It’s a fun movie, in the way that the Dirty Harry movies are fun. We long for justice, and if there’s someone who can carry it out without himself being subject to death in the end, we like it. The unreality of that has probably led to more movies where the “hero” dies at the end.

But though it’s finally only a side note, the dissonance between what people expect from a “preacher” and what they get is interesting to me. For example, I have never had a single person—ever—when they find out what I do, say, “Yeah, I was going to guess pastor.” I’m still not completely sure what it means that every person is surprised that I’m a pastor. Perhaps it means, at least, that they all have some pre-conceived image of what a pastor looks like, and I’m not it. But what does that mean? That pastors generally look a certain way? Ned Flanders, or something.

I may look like a hipster, but no one coming to my church is going to find any sort of post-modern innovation during Sunday morning worship. I understand that Lutherans are never going to be cool. And I’m fine with that, since “cool” changes every other hour. I don’t have the energy to keep up with that sort of nonsense. What are we, in high school again? (Yes, yes, we are.)

And that creates a sort of cognitive dissonance—not in me, but in those who expect that certain things will accompany the way that people look. But that’s part of the problem in American religion broadly: that church is about the man (or woman) standing in front of the congregation. I know the dissonance extends to the fact that I have numerous tattoos, which are (in the world, generally speaking) for people to look at, but I wear long-sleeved clerical shirts nearly every day. I get nervous if I draw attention to myself. I have earrings and a beard, so people have to say things like, “I’ve never seen a priest with earrings before.” I say, “Neither have I.”

People say strange things to people in collars. I’m starting to think that maybe a ghost preacher with a six-shooter isn’t the worst thing in the world: ride in, do what you came to do, ride out.

Anyway, sorry for that digression into my psyche. Go watch Pale Rider (or watch it again).

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