Tri Robinson, an evangelical preacher in Idaho, is a personality rarely seen in any media: a thoughtful intellectual who is filled with the fire of his faith. Robinson does not see a conflict between his deep faith in God and his love of the environment. As an active and influential environmentalist he honors the role of steward of the Earth: the home he believes was gifted to humanity to enjoy, but also to care for.
The question that arises very quickly when viewing English filmmaker Will Fraser’s documentary Cowboy and Preacher is “who is this film for?” Deeply religious fundamentalists will be offended by his challenge to the primacy of human dominance granted by divine charter. Godless liberals, on the other hand, will find the religious trappings of Robinson’s church off-putting. While everyone would benefit from seeing this film, it does not have a particularly clear target audience.
When people of faith begin to talk about the complexity of the universe in scientific terms, they alienate their base, at least in the context of the current public conversation about morals and belief applied to society and politics. Robinson is working to mitigate the effects of climate change. Typical fundamentalist doctrine is that science stands as an opposing philosophy, and for those interpreting their faith literally, it does. Robinson is going to be viewed with suspicion among the faithful.
The source of Robinson’s passion for the environment comes from living close to the earth. Lifelong cowboy, rancher, and explorer of wild country, he has skills and comfort with the mountains of Idaho most people would find unusual and oddly old-fashioned. Robinson thrives in the wild and is deeply attuned to nature.
At the start of the documentary Fraser travels from England to Idaho and meets Robinson. They have some fun with the British city boy as he is gently introduced to the Western landscape and lifestyle of roping cattle, rearing animals, and growing food.
“…thoughtful intellectual who is filled with the fire of his faith…“
American fundamentalism has an ugly face right now, associated (accurately or not) with Trump and the alt-right: the church apparatus and ceremony in Robinson’s ministry are going to set secular viewers’ teeth on edge. As an apostate son of a preacher-man myself, I struggled with it as well, but there’s something different about Robinson that seemed to mitigate my skepticism. At first I couldn’t articulate what it was. I had to figure that out.
As an exercise in metaphorical abstraction, I tried a thought experiment: whenever Robinson referred to God, I substituted “order.” Is Robinson really envisioning a deity as the oversimplified all-in-one-philosophy economy-package Gandalf-like “Sky Wizard” with bad manners that most believers do? Or is he really evolving an epistemology of respect for the order of nature in the context of human interaction, and then layering that onto a traditional understanding of divinity? With his razor sharp intellect, it seems possible that he is saying “God” when he means “Physics.” Or, at least, his concept of a deity doesn’t require magical thinking that conflicts with environmental or any other science. Another culture might call him a Shaman with his mix of spiritualism informed by practical knowledge.
Of course, the un-romantic cold hard facts version of the relationship between life and Earth is that we are here because it is here. We’re fine tuned to live here because these are the conditions that we evolved in, containing everything essential to our existence. We were made for the Earth, not the other way around. Environmentalism from that point of view is obvious: it behooves us not to destroy the conditions that make it possible for us to live.
The documentary beautifully and intelligently presents a conceptual rhetorical middle ground between two extremely polarizing ideas: liberal environmentalism vs fundamentalist conservative Christianity. This style of rational, meaningful exploration of the world from apparently opposing perspectives is sorely missed in the current environment of demands loudly declaimed via social media sound-bite attacks.
Cowboy and Preacher (2018). Written and directed by Will Fraser. Starring Tri Robinson.
8 out of 10