Jesus Up, Puss

P.B. Wombat

Issue 12 * Summer 2003

The March 11, 2003 edition of USA Today reports on a new approach to religious faith in certain churches: worship based in the values and mores of the American West. "Straight-shooting emphasis on Christianity spurs a growing trend," reads the headline (Grossman D1). A church named, with no needed irony, "Cross Trails" is reported to baptize new believers "in an 8-foot circular, blue plastic horse trough" (Grossman D1). This is a trail to belief that is stripped-down, back-to-basics, a religious attitude that reflects the lives of the ranchers and farmers it appeals to. Cathy Lynn Grossman writes:

This is cowboy church - straight-shooter, sinner-saved-by-grace theology throwing a rope out to the lost, the lonely and those who long for an unvarnished faith. No fancy duds. No politicized preaching. No denominational hair-splitting. It's come as you are in spirit, spurs and Stetsons. It's bucking bulls and plumbing Bibles in a dusty arena or dropping a hard-won dollar in a boot on the back table after a punchy sermon. (D1)

The notion Grossman sculpts in her article is part Frederick Remington, part Sea of Galilee. Indeed, "[f]undamentally, it's an attitude, whether you ride a bronc or a computer keyboard" (Grossman 1D). The cowboy church movement seems to cut in on a growing herd of believers in America who seem to think that the values of the church as it should be are undermined by the very urbanity, the very sophistication that has come to characterize modern life and popular culture. They seek their solace in The West, in a picture - however mythological it may be - of a simpler way of life. This is a phenomenon, after all, that exists simultaneously with ranchers who hang cell phones where their six-shooter used to be, who use multi-tools to mend fences and all-terrain vehicles to run down stray livestock.

It is an attitude more than anything else. But that attitude is not without some provenance. Grossman quotes pastor Perry Smith, the leader of Living for the Brand, a cowboy church next to the fairground arena in Athens, Texas: "The cowboy walk in life is parallel with the lifestyle of Jesus - doing right and living by your word" (D2). Likewise, cowboy churches themselves seem to be fulfilling the same roles that Jesus did to his followers. The cowboy church movement, for instance, packages its message especially for its audience, much in the same way Jesus used parables because "they seeing see not; and hearing they know not, neither do they understand" (Matt. 13.13). Grossman writes: "The International Bible Society publishes mini-copies of the New Testament packed with photos and testimonies for target readers . . . and, of course, there's The Way for Cowboys" (D2). Every cowboy enjoys a good yarn, after all, and taken together with The Word, the fabric of the Cowboy Way gets sewn.

In back of all this there appears a difficult question, but one that I aim here to answer: Was Jesus a cowboy? Scripturally, as well as in terms of attitude and lifestyle, the answer is a resounding "Yep."

The evidence given so far in terms of parallels only reinforces other indications. Not only are these churches fulfilling the role of Jesus, they harken back to the very life of Christ himself. Grossman again quotes Reverend Smith: "From 7 to 8 p.m., we buck. Then we feed everyone a good meal . . . . The bulls and the chow are all provided by volunteers. We get up to about 250 people who come to buck or watch" (D2). And here is King James' account of Jesus feeding the multitude:

But Jesus said unto them, They need not depart, give ye them to eat. And they said unto him, We have here but five loaves, and two fishes. He said, Bring them hither to me. And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass and took the five loaves and two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude. And they did all eat, and they were filled: and they took up the fragments that remained twelve baskets full. (Matt. 14.16-20)

Jesus' "bucking" was the bucking of the authorities of his day, the bucking of what were then current theological trends toward the powers-that-were and away from the common man and woman, away from the downtrodden who most needed faith and redemption. Grossman quotes another cowboy pastor, Gary Morgan: "We get people who haven't been [to church] in 30 or 50 years. They've got issues. They may have a divorce, a child in jail, a drinking or a drug problem" (D2). In other words, they are exactly the sort of person Jesus ministered to as well:

And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. (Matt. 9.10-12).

It is from the common folk that Jesus gathered his disciples as well, from fishermen and others who worked hard for their living, whose lives were grown directly from the landscape.

In the agrarian imagery Jesus used to make his points we see the Cowboy Way again reflected. In Matthew 6.26, for example, Jesus talks of "the fowls of the air," that "they sew not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly father feedeth them." And in Matthew 7.6, Jesus says "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you." And in Matthew 8.20: "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head." And Matthew 7.15 gives us this: "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves." Jesus continues in chapters 9 and 10 of Matthew to put The Word in agrarian terms, terms of the workman and the farmer, mentioning "[t]he harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few; / Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest" (9.37). And in Matthew 10.10, Jesus is says that the "workman is worthy of his meat," and in 10.16, "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves."

This is faith through agriculture; not only is the message pitched in terms of those who work the land, it implies the very holiness of those acts, the very godliness of those who perform them. Beyond the current trend toward "re-packaging" The Word, looking at The Word itself we see it does not need repackaging: it already was a cowboy church, but the fact of social change caused us to miss that fact, to downplay the very agrarianism of Christianity.

The West as a place of refuge and a direction from which arises redemption serves both the life of Christ and the history of the cowboy. The wise men travel west from the east to behold the newborn Christ-child, fulfilling, in their own way, the imperative of the American frontier. They travel west to meet the New World, the New Eden opened up by the nascent saviour. The West is opportunity, openness. It is, in other words, Heaven on Earth, sought by pilgrims and entrepreneurs alike, both types of people wise men in their own ways. The West called loudly to the cowboy, driving him forward in his instinctive, inchoate wisdom just as he drove his herd once he arrived there. Jesus, as the New Adam in his New Eden, also seeks refuge in The West, in Egypt, moving south and west as the cowboy did escaping the Pharisees of the eastern seaboard:

And when they [the wise men] were departed, behold the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. (Matt. 2.13)

The West, though, is a wild, an unruly land, a desert, a wilderness. This can be said of America's Great Desert, the prairie: standing here in the middle of Kansas, I can see the tan and russet grasses of the rolling hills, denuded, nearly, of trees, the brown dirt falling away where the land has been lashed and eroded by rivulets, creeks ("cricks" we call them here) that give hard angles to the land's undulations. It is truly a wilderness, no matter how plumbed and bound with power lines. Above all, it's good for growing grass, and early ranchers knew this. The cowboys came here to move those herds and found God: "For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet E-sa'-ias, saying, THE VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, PREPARE YE THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT" (Matt. 3.3). And the cowboy heard his call, and, behold, drive down any road in modern Kansas and you'll find it straight, plotted, in fact, on the Jeffersonian grid: one intersection every mile.

The wilderness, as much as it's a place of refuge for the cowboy and for Jesus, is also a place for temptation. Gary Morgan's flock understands this quite well: not even the fact of a cowboy lifestyle can save you from worldly ways, not even a redemptive landscape is a guarantee against the treacherous Tempter: "Then was Jesus led up of the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil" (Matt. 4.1). Frontiers produce, as well as piety, frontier justice, a reaction to the openness of the land. Free of the constraints of a society built up around him, the cowboy also feels free from responsibility. Jesus' unique position as the Son of God allowed him all power and freedom to do as he liked as well as he was free from the constraints of the laws of nature: "Again, the devil taketh up to an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them / And saith to him, All these things I will give thee if thou wilt fall down and worship me" (Matt. 4.8-9). Out here in The West where all seems possible, where the heavens make up fully half of the world around us, we must be ever alert to temptation. Jesus, ultimately, shows us the Cowboy Way: "Then Jesus saith unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, THOU SHALT WORSHIP THE LORD THY GOD, AND HIM ONLY THOU SHALT SERVE" (Matt. 4.10).

A simple message, to be sure, and one of the two commandments that Jesus focuses on as he strips faith down to its fundamentals, just as the cowboy churches attempt to do now. The contemporary Pharisees, the urban churches, have cluttered the theological landscape with legalistic dogma, the religious equivalent of McDonalds restaurants and Starbucks outlets. Jesus contends with the same problem:

Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, THOU SHALT LOVE THE LORD THY GOD WITH ALL THY HEART, AND WITH ALL THY SOUL, AND WITH ALL THY MIND. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, THOU SHALT LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR AS THYSELF. On these two commandment hang all the law and the prophets. (Matt. 22.35-40)

And so, no frills, Jesus sets us straight. Deriving the rest of the law and the prophecy from those two is akin to the cowboy whose ingenuity and industry recreated the range with an essentially limited number of tools: a rope, a Bowie knife, a skillet and six-gun if he was rich or lucky. To put it in the words of Robert Harris, founder of Good Company Rodeo Ministries and former rodeo rider, "We study, we eat and then we sort and pin cows" (qtd. in Grossman D2).


Work Cited

Grossman, Cathy Lynn. "Cowboy Church Rounds 'Em Up: Straight-shooting Emphasis on Christianity Spurs a Growing Trend." USA Today 11 Mar. 2003: D1-2.