Dances With Films doc 'Cowboy & Preacher' puts focus on conservative pastor on environmental mission
Rev. Tri Robinson bucks evangelical orthodoxy with Biblically-informed campaign to preserve God's creation
In the 2015 film The Armor of Light, director Abigail Disney introduced viewers to Rev. Rob Schenck, a conservative Christian minister who unexpectedly took up the banner of gun control, much to the dismay of his fellow evangelicals.
It turns out Rev. Schenck is not the only conservative pastor to adopt a cause that most associate with the left. Rev. Tri Robinson, the evangelical minister at the heart of the new documentary Cowboy & Preacher, has become an unlikely environmental champion, making him an outlier in his faith community.
Environmental stewardship should be totally within the norm of every evangelical pastor’s work.
British filmmaker Will Fraser directed Cowboy & Preacher, which celebrated its world premiere Thursday at the Dances With Films festival in Los Angeles. Fraser shot most of his film on Robinson's ranch in Idaho where the retired pastor has adopted a conservationist approach to the environment. Rev. Robinson likewise convinced his flock at Vineyard USA in Boise to make environmentalism a key component of the church's ministry, in the firm belief that the Bible compels the faithful to be conscientious stewards of the earth.
Nonfictionfilm.com posed five questions to Fraser about his documentary, which he answered by email (we have preserved his British spellings).
How did you hear about Pastor Tri Robinson and his ministry?
Will Fraser: Tri was the first person I found when searching online for people involved in Creation Care. I looked at many others but he always struck me as the best figurehead for a film drawing together Christian and environmental ideas because not only is he an excellent communicator but he has put his ideas into practice in such multifarious and compelling ways -- church planting, programmes to help the community, international mission, evangelism and finally the wonderful eco-homestead/ranch he has created with his wife Nancy that is such a part of our film.
Pastor Robinson has made stewardship of the environment a central part of his ministry. How far outside the norm of evangelical preachers does that make him?
WF: Environmental stewardship should be totally within the norm of every evangelical pastor’s work but unfortunately most pastors ignore it and some seem to delight in going against it. This is because they feel antithetical towards a certain (and perhaps rather clichéd) view of the liberal environmentalist. Tri shows that you can get beyond this and maintain or even burnish all of your Christian moral positions while embracing environmental stewardship. We hope others see this and follow suit, so that this film brings transformative change.
How would you sum up the Biblical basis for asserting that Christians have a duty to protect the environment for future generations, or as you put it in the film, a "mandate for Christians to act"?
WF: Ultimately it’s about respect for what we have been given and awareness of our effect on other people. We are told that the two most important commandments are to honour God and to love our neighbour. Thus environmentalism fits squarely into inarguable Christian priorities. To put it the other way round, if we manifest contempt for creation and our neighbour, where does that leave us?
In the Book of Genesis, the Old Testament speaks of man having "dominion" over fish, birds, cattle and "Every living thing that moveth upon the earth." That precept has been used by some Christians to argue that mankind can do anything it wants with the environment. How and why does Pastor Robinson differ on that interpretation?
Tri points out, as is clear but often overlooked, that “with dominion comes responsibility.” The covenant of the rainbow in Genesis is between God and “every living thing”, this last phrase repeated seven times. Therefore it is presumptious to give ourselves [the right] to trash everything. Dominion IS stewardship. As we watch the destruction of the environment and its effect on other people, “all living things”, and also the grandeur of the world, it should be obvious why this is important.
How successful do you think Pastor Robinson has been -- or may be in the future -- encouraging the evangelical community to embrace what he calls "creation care," or a more "pro-environmental" activism?
WF: It’s been a long struggle with many setbacks because we are up against such entrenched ideas. But the great success of Tri’s church and its programmes, his homestead, his I-61 Network and the help, joy and fulfilment these have brought to many people show how this struggle is important and worth waging. Hopefully this film will move things forward further.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.