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Seeing With New Eyes

William R. Handley, associate professor of English at USC, tells us, “No American writer in the first half of the twentieth century sold as many books as did Zane Grey, whose work had a major influence on the development of the Western. Among the fifty-six Westerns Zane Grey wrote, one of his earliest, Riders of the Purple Sage, is still the most popular; within a year of its publication in 1912, it had sold one million copies. Considering the formula it shaped, however, it is a surprising book: the villain is a Mormon polygamist, and while there are shoot-ups, the central hero, Lassiter, gives up his guns and learns to love a child and believe in God. Indeed, the novel’s most curious characteristic, if one approaches it with expectations that later Westerns have raised regarding the genre, is that it is intensely concerned with religion, marriage, and family, the very things the cowboy hero of Hollywood film so often want to escape.”

Right about now, you may be thinking, “So what? I’m not interested in Westerns. I don’t like that genre of writing and I don’t like those kind of movies.” My aim in the rest of this article is to use this Western to help us see what we can learn from works of fiction.

First, novels often deal with current issues. So you can find out what people are thinking in our culture by reading many of the more popular novels. Notice that Riders of the Purple Sage is “intensely concerned with religion, marriage, and the family.” To top it off the villain is a “Mormon polygamist.” These were the hot issues of the early 1900’s –especially Mormonism. Utah joined the Union in 1896 and Mormons were popularly viewed through their polygamous practices at that time. So it was common for them to be viewed as villains. Handley concludes, “When Grey published his novel, he helped revive and resolve an old American fear in a manner that would ensure the disappearance of Mormon villains from the Western formula after 1920.” You will have to read the book to see how he does that!

Second, works of fiction can remind us that the “good old days” were a lot like our day. Today we often look back at the 1800s and early 1900s, at least up to 1960, through rose-colored glasses. We think, “I wish I had lived then. Things were much easier for Christians.” Zane Grey shows this perception is incorrect because characters in his novel want a Christianity without church or creeds. In others words, they see churches and creeds as the big problem with Christianity. All we need to do is get rid of these two items and Christianity would be just fine.

Isn’t it funny that you still hear these same ideas today? The common charge against the church is that it is full of hypocrites so why get involved? You also hear how creeds are just ideas of men and we really don’t need doctrine. What do you see when you look at the book of Acts? The church is on almost every page. Those who are being saved are added to the church and the church is worshipping, serving, taking the gospel out into the world, and dealing with internal and external problems. The church is right at the beginning of it all in Acts 2.

We still suffer from a misunderstanding of creeds today. They are summary statements of the core beliefs of Christianity. Biblical scholars point out that there are passages in the New Testament that are most likely creedal statements of the early church. Consider 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James and to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as one abnormally born.” Philippians 2:6-11 is another probable example of a creedal statement.

I encourage you to look at works of fiction with new eyes. Use them the way we were reminded this past Sunday of how Paul saw the people of Athens. “I see that in every way you are very religious . . . I even found an altar with this inscription” (Acts 17:22-23). What are you “seeing” when you read the novels of our culture?

Elder Jim Gordon