“Riders of the Purple Sage” and Patriarchy Done Right

Patriarchy. It’s a hot button topic lately, from the Sherlock special “The Abominable Bride” to Progressive commercials. To say the least, it’s getting a bad wrap, which is understandable on some level. If you look up the definition on Google, you’ll see that it’s “a system of society or government in which the father or eldest male is head of the family and descent is traced through the male line.” In other words, the man is the leader, the one making the decision at the end of the day. And people these days find such a thinking antiquated. Further, they see the abuses of women and children committed by men benefitting from a patriarchal society and (over)react by calling for the structure’s downfall.

But a Christian seriously looking at the Bible should pause before joining the chorus for the demolition of patriarchy. Yes, the abuses should be condemned, but is the whole structure bad? What are we to say of the obvious patriarchal overtones running through the Bible? It seems like God Himself established patriarchy! So now what? How do Christians approach a topic of growing concern without contradicting their own written beliefs?

Personally, I’m going to point to an old cowboy Western novel for a good example of patriarchy. The novel is Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey.

This is considered by many (chiefly, older people) to be a classic Western, a work that established many of the tropes that would be used and re-used (and overused) in Western books and movies that came in the following decades. It centers around Jane Withersteen, a Mormon woman who owns the ranch that helped establish her small Mormon community. When we meet her, a storm is brewing. She’s turned down becoming one of Elder Tull’s wives and employs “Gentiles” (non-Mormon folk) to work for her. Then comes Lassiter, a gunman widely known and feared by the Mormons, who joins Jane in stemming off the oppression from the male leadership in the town.

From that synopsis, you can easily see patriarchy done wrong…and in the name of religion, too! But what struck me about the novel was that it didn’t look at this horrid example and denounce patriarchy. Rather, it showed how men can lead right and well. Jane is a strong woman, conflicted between religious duty to the Mormon church and doing what she knows is right in the face of the leadership telling her otherwise. Lassiter becomes her rock, the one place she can stand firmly on or hide safely in. Lassiter doesn’t try to subjugate her to his will, he’s never deceptive in his intentions (unlike Jane for half the novel) and even goes to work for Jane, allowing her to call the shots. But it’s clear to see that her ultimate chance for survival rests in Lassiter.

And this can be a picture of patriarchy done right. The man respects the woman and lets her be strong where she can while the woman respects the man and lets him lead and fill in the gaps. There’s a chemistry between Jane and Lassiter, one that I’ve found in my own marriage. Jane helps soften Lassiter into being more compassionate, while Lassiter helps toughen Jane’s skin to the realities she refuses to acknowledge. The two work together and trust each other.

So how does this show the value of patriarchy? It paints a picture for us of a man and woman working together and complimenting each other. At the end of the day the man leads and the woman lends her support, but the man doesn’t abuse his power, he respects her. Nor does the woman try to foil the man, she accepts his love and trusts his direction.

And they don’t try to force each other into boxes they weren’t meant to fit in. A sub-plot involves a man whom Jane tried to tame and who eventually realizes that he lost what made him distinctly a man. While stuck in a canyon, he slowly becomes more of a man, a better leader. During that time he’s nursing a woman back to health after he accidentally shot her. That happened because she was being paraded about like a man. She, too, starts to find who she is as God intended her to be.

All this to say that patriarchy has its obvious pitfalls, just like any other structure or institution that you will find or could develop in this world. But it can be done right, as this novel, I think, shows. Men can (and should) lead women in a loving way, respecting their strengths. And women can let men lead, trusting their judgment and keeping them honest. After all, as Paper Route sang, “It takes two to make a leader, but one has to follow.” And from a biblical point of view, God designated the man to lead, and from what I’ve seen, women are happier when that’s done well.

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