Gunslinger Theology

By Martin Thielen

March 1, 2023

Over the past few months, with the help of Netflix’s original (but still operational) red envelope DVD rental plan, my wife and I have been watching some of the old “classic” movies from the mid-twentieth century. Selections so far have included:

  • The Wizard of Oz (1939)
  • Casablanca (1942)
  • It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
  • An American in Paris (1951)
  • 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954)
  • Spartacus (1960)
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Several weeks ago we watched the 1953 western classic Shane. In this film, a mysterious gunslinger named Shane arrives in a small Wyoming town. We soon learn that the community is engaged in a bitter conflict between a ruthless and murderous cattleman (and his hired henchmen) and the hardworking local settlers. Seeking to give up his gunslinging ways, Shane accepts a job working for one of the farmers. During his stay, he grows close to the farmer’s young son Joey, who idolizes Shane.

In the end, in order to protect his newfound friends, Shane is forced into a gunfight. Although he kills the evil villains terrorizing the town, he gets wounded in the process. In the final scene, as he mounts his horse and rides away from the small town, Joey cries out, “Shane! Come back!” But Shane ignores Joey’s emotional appeal and rides away.

What Happened to Shane?

Which raises the question, What happened to Shane? The film doesn’t resolve that question. I figured Shane had only been slightly wounded and left town to start a new life elsewhere. But my wife thought he must have died. She pointed out that in the final scene, Shane looked slumped on his saddle while riding through the town’s graveyard.

In order to resolve the question, I went online. I discovered that people have been debating Shane’s destiny for seventy years. Some believe, as I did, that Shane simply left town. Others, like my wife, believe he died. As one movie critic said, “The film leaves the question (did Shane die?) unanswered, although viewers can be found to support either side of the argument.” In the end, Shane’s fate remained, and still remains, unresolved.

And it wasn’t just Shane’s life-or-death status left unresolved in the film. Other major issues (including Shane’s feelings for the wife of his employer/friend) were equally ambiguous. As movie critic Roger Ebert wrote, “Shane wears a white hat and Palance (referring to actor Jack Palance who played a notorious hired gun in the film) wears a black hat, but the buried psychology of this movie is a mottled, uneasy, fascinating gray.”

“We See through a Glass Darkly”

Which, of course, is true of just about everything. Few things in life are absolute, certain, and unambiguous. Total black-and-white clarity, while common in many old Western movies, is rare in real life, including faith. Although some religious leaders proclaim cocksure, absolutist, and certain faith, that has never been my experience. One of the primary reasons I left conservative evangelical religion is because it offered too many answers, asked too few questions, and punished those who did.

A lot of religious people want faith to be absolute, with no uncertainties and no ambiguities, like a mathematical formula. For example, a few days ago, I received a brochure in the mail from a fundamentalist church. The brochure claimed that:

Truth is black and white; that is, it is objective and eternal, not subjective and fluid. . . . The truth about the truth is that it is unchanging, forever settled. What was true yesterday about spiritual things is true today and will be true tomorrow.

But for large numbers of people, including me, that kind of absolutist religion is not attractive, possible, or healthy. The fact is, we are not God. We do not know everything. As the apostle Paul once said, “We see through a glass darkly” (KJV). Therefore, black-and-white religion that has no room for uncertainty is both unhealthy and inauthentic. As one wise believer once said, “The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty.” Rather than resisting ambiguity, spiritually mature people fully embrace it.

“I Don’t Care Doctrines”

The vast majority of Doubter’s Parish readers understand ambiguous faith. I know, because I hear from such readers all the time. For example, several months ago, one reader told me that he has a list of “I don’t care doctrines.” He explained that his “I don’t care doctrines” are beliefs he considers nonessential and therefore not worth worrying about or arguing over. As I recall, his list included biblical literalism and the virgin birth.

Other reader’s “I don’t care doctrine” list would include things like the ascension of Jesus, blood atonement, a literal hell, and the second coming of Christ. People on the outer edges of historic Christianity might add the Trinity, miracles, a literal resurrection, a divine Christ, and a personal, supernatural, interventionist theistic God.

I like the idea of keeping an “I don’t care doctrines” list and commend it to you. However, I prefer holding a list of “I don’t know doctrines.” For example, I care deeply about the nature of God and the identity of Jesus. But I know little about either—far less than I used to when I was younger. However, at this point in my life and faith, knowing too little about God feels healthier than knowing too much.

I don’t have a specific list of recommendations to place on your “I don’t know” or “I don’t care” doctrine list. I’m still trying to figure out what to include on my own list. But I think it’s a good idea to hold a robust supply of these kinds of beliefs, if not on paper, then in our hearts and minds. Why? Because having them is an honest acknowledgment that our concepts about God are limited, sketchy, incomplete, and full of ambiguity—resulting in (much-needed) theological humility.

Which brings me back to Shane. As noted, the movie ends with young Joey crying out, “Shane! Come back!” Like Joey, many religious people in today’s volatile world want absolute, certain, black-and-white, simple, unquestioning, “old-time religion” to come back. But it will not. Instead, mature believers in the twenty-first century must learn to embrace a large amount of theological and spiritual ambiguity. And when they do, they will discover a far richer, more honest, and more authentic faith than they ever knew before.

[However, if you know definitively what happened to Shane, please let me know!]


To share this post, please click the appropriate icon at the bottom of the page. If you would like to communicate with me, feel free to send an email and I’ll respond as soon as possible. To receive my monthly newsletter (a brief email notification alerting you to new posts and other materials), please do so today. Thank you for your interest in Doubter’s Parish. Writing for you is a joy.