Cowboy Religion and Orthodoxy

Cowboy Religion and Orthodoxy

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My cousin Patrick was a cowboy. Actually, he wasn’t a real cowboy, because we grew up in town, and when he worked he was a truck-driver and repaired outboard boat motors. But he dressed like a cowboy, talked like a cowboy, and spent too much time in cowboy bars. Some of his best friends were real cowboys. So over the years, he is the one who introduced me to cowboy religion.

“Pilgrim,” he would say, sounding a lot like John Wayne, “there ain’t but two things you have got to know. One is, there is a God. And the other one is, you ain’t it.” That pretty much sums up cowboy theology, except for what happens when you die. About the afterlife, cowboys and cowgirls say, “When I die I hope I’ll go to Texas,” because they are not too sure if they will be allowed into heaven.

Even so, many cowboys go to church on Sundays; and if they don’t, they still pray a lot and don’t mind talking about God—when they talk, which is seldom and slow. Until recently, cowboy music reflected this piety, and some of the theology is not too bad. Orthodox Christians can learn from it, and a whole mission field for Orthodoxy is the cowboy and cowgirl world.

Everyone who listens to old-time country music knows that Johnny Cash, once he got saved, sang openly about his Christian faith—something he got from his mother-in-law, Mother Maybelle Carter (“Keep on the Sunny Side”). But it may be less known that an entire course was once taught at a Protestant seminary in Texas on the theology of Willie Nelson songs.

To Willie, we could add many of the country singers of my generation or a little before, including Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Kimmie Rhodes, and Billy Joe Shaver, who sang, “You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ” in public. Some songs, like “Lines” by Waylon and Kimmie, or Emmylou’s “Lovin’ You Again” (written by Roger Ferris) take a little figuring out. They are about prayer, once you think about it. Of course, Emmylou’s whole album, “Cowgirl’s Prayer” was about prayer; maybe that’s why it didn’t get a lot of play on the radio.

The tradition of singing about Christian faith goes ‘way back. In the old days, it did get played on the radio. Hank Williams haunted us with his sorrow and his faith. Some of the most beautiful hymns ever recorded were produced by the velvet-voiced Jim Reeves (“Welcome to My World,” “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”), and Red Foley (“Peace in the Valley,” “Just A Closer Walk with Thee,” “It is No Secret What God Can Do,” and “He Bought My Soul at Calvary”). Red, who gave his life to Jesus Christ through the witness of Billy Walker just a few hours before passing away, with Hank Williams, Jr. by his side, was father-in-law to Pat Boone. In his later years, Pat Boone became more or less a full-time evangelist, and his daughter Debby’s recording of “You Light up my Life” was about Jesus Christ.

One of the most powerful moments in country music that I can remember took place in the old colosseum in Austin, Texas. Tammy Wynette was singing, and the cowboys were going wild—money on the stage, whooping it up, and generally getting out of hand. Stagehands and ushers tried to stop it, but they couldn’t be heard over the noise. Then Tammy motioned with her hands for the band to stop, and quietly began singing the Lord’s Prayer. In moments you could hear a pin drop, cowboy hats came off, and then gradually, the entire auditorium joined in. It was a sacred time, like going to church—the kind of thing that would be hard to do in our politically-correct world today.

So what exactly is cowboy religion? Apart from the idea that there is a God and we ain’t it, cowboy theology tends to place everything in the hands of an almighty but compassionate Judge who will make things right in the end. There is a strong sense of the immediate presence of God, whether you’re in the saddle or at home or even at a bar. Prayer is spontaneous and honest. Everybody is equal before the Maker—there are no denominations here. The important question is whether Jesus “can forgive a sinner like me.”

Naturally, theological statements are fairly simple. A sentiment I heard a lot while working as a small-town pastor was, “If I don’t drink too much, the Old Man Upstairs treats me pretty good.” The trick, though, is to reflect every now and then on what we are doing, not just on what is happening up in Heaven. Orthodoxy is Orthopraxy, which is really a cowboy idea: you’ve got to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. That idea opens up a whole new topic, like how many times people ought to get married in a row, if they want to live a truly good life.

What else can Orthodox Christians share with cowboys? Well, for one thing, we could try to be around where they are. Jesus did that. Once, a lady I knew wanted to introduce me to her cowboy friend, so we went into the local bar and domino hall. “Jake,” she said, “I want you meet the preacher.” Suddenly the cussing stopped, the whole saloon grew quiet, cards and dominos froze in mid-air, and old men held their breath to see what would happen next. Jake turned around, slowly pushed his sweat-stained cowboy hat onto the back of his head, and looked me up and down. “Preacher,” he asked, “what in hell are you doing in a place like this?” I answered, “I came to talk to you about Jesus Christ. What in hell are you doing in a place like this?” There was applause and laughter all around, and I had a roomful of new friends. After that, Jake came to church.

There are plenty of cowboy churches out here in the West, but I’ve never seen an Orthodox cowboy church. Even so, I’ve found that cowboys like to hear about ancient Christianity, before there were denominations and such; and they would be open to a Divine Liturgy now and then. The problem is, you find cowboys at rodeos, stockyards and in the country, not in big cities back East with large Orthodox populations. It’s an idea, if any bishops out there are listening.

For another thing, we could teach about the Holy Trinity. Cowboys talk about “the Man Upstairs,” and often you hear the phrase, “God and Jesus.” A refinement might be to point out that Jesus is God, the second Person of the Trinity; and that there is a Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If that seems ‘way too complicated, just poke three sticks into the campfire so that they are all burning together, and ask whether there is one fire, or three. They’ll get the idea.

Something else is the Body of Christ. Cowboys are loners; everybody knows that. The point of Church is to bring people together. A lot of cowboys might be shy about that, but overcoming this sense of alone-ness is part of finding salvation. That’s why we share Holy Communion out of the same cup. And families and children could gain a lot if cowboys spent more time with them, especially at prayer. We share our hardships honestly so that we can pray for each other and meet together at the foot of the cross—or, as the Orthodox tradition emphasizes, by the campfire at the edge of the lake, with the Risen Christ.

The question of suffering is also central. Heartbreak and hardship, famous subjects of nearly all country-western songs, are not the times when God has abandoned us. They are the times we can draw closest to the crucified Lord. God understands. Willie has skirted the edges of this with a little irony (“Too Sick to Pray”), but the fact is that the Lord Jesus prayed on our behalf long before we felt like we needed to. He got there first.

Finally, cowboys and cowgirls could stand to hear a lot more about grace. They worry about forgiveness of sins, and sometimes try to make up for the past by doing good deeds. But salvation is less about good deeds than about how much God loves us and has already forgiven us. Of course, if the story of grace gets around enough, there might be fewer songs about mama, my dog, pickup trucks, losing a girlfriend, dying, or being in jail; and a little more about finding joy in the little things, walking hand-in-hand with the Great Shepherd of the Sheep.

Personally, I would like to see more of the Orthodox message around. Some cowboys are convinced that preachers are just sending them to Hell, and they probably are. It is time for Orthodox Christians to bring the Good News of eternal life, which starts right here on the range.

Fr. Brendan is a Texan who once had a little country trio, spent time in Nashville, and now lives ‘way out West in Utah—where there are still real cowboys and cowgirls, rodeos and ferriers (the guy who shoes your horses).

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Fr. Brendan Pelphrey

Fr. Brendan Pelphrey, a former Protestant pastor and missionary, has been a priest in the Greek Archdiocese since 2000. He has taught in a number of universities in different parts of the world, including Hellenic College in Brookline, MA. His academic degrees and publications are in the fields of Philosophy, Comparative Cultures, Christian Dogmatic Theology and Patristics, New Testament, Christian Medieval Mysticism and Christian Mission.