Cowboy Churches & Wrestling for Jesus             

Scene One: You’re driving through Eastern Texas, and somewhere between Austin and Houston you see your first Cowboy Church. You think it an oddity, then there’s another and then a third. You suspect a trend. The churches are humble places, one has a Baptist Churches of America sign next to it. Later you type into You Tube “cowboy churches” and find a world of world you never knew existed. Worship services taking place in rodeo arenas with processions not of incense and finery but horses and waving flags. Music is not from organs or pianos but recordings of country western music. The gathered are dressed in jeans and cowboy shirts. The preacher rides in on a Palomino. He wears a Stetson. 

Scene Two: While waiting to see Micky Roarke in The Wrestler at the Bijou, you peruse a table of flyers. Several are labeled “Wrestling for Jesus.” Thinking it some kind of tie in, throughout the movie you keep waiting for Micky Roarke’s character to be born again or have some kind of religious conversation. Instead, the movie ends on a downer.  Again you turn to the online world to make some sense of what you’ve found. On one site, Blogger Mark Driscoll gives us a glimpse at the world of Christian wrestling, which turns out to be quite a phenomenon: “I’m struggling to find something profound to say about this,” says Driscoll, “so I’ll just stick with this: I believe that God calls and equips each of us to minister to others, making use of our unique interests, skills, and personalities. Maybe that call leads you to go to seminary, wear a nice suit, and preach the Word to a church congregation each week. And if you feel called to don a skintight wrestling outfit and deliver piledrivers to illustrate the Gospel, well, I certainly won’t stop you. (And even if I tried, you could probably have me in a full nelson in about three seconds, anyway.)” Further investigation reveals that Wrestlers for Jesus seems to have started with a group of twelve men, based in South Carolina, who travel around putting on matches with all the violence and thrill of anything you might see on Pay for View. They’ve inspired other groups, such as the Texas Christian Wrestlers Federation, which will be in Paris, Texas, on the 22nd of this month. That would be something to see. Says wrester for Jesus Curtis Curtis Stone, he was once like Mickey Rourke’s character in the Wrestler, was immersed  in the lifestyle traveling the Deep South and as far north as Chicago and New York. “We were making 10, 20, 30 bucks a night,” he said. “You would have to wrestle Friday in Corpus, Saturday in San Antonio, and Sunday in Houston just to make a couple hundred bucks, having to wrestle four or five times to make that much, four or five guys in a car.” Meanwhile, to make ends meet, Stone still collected money for drug dealers. In 1987, he had an epiphany. After an especially tough day on the streets, he came home to a distraught wife who thought he might have been seriously hurt, or worse. He remembers: “For the first time in my life I started weeping, and I didn’t understand why. …  From that day on he decided to be a better person. From then on, he only wrestled for the glory of Jesus

Scene Three: You’re in Salt Lake City for the annual convention of our 1,200 Unitarian churches. On one afternoon you make the pilgrimage to the Church of Latter Day Saint’s temple at the city center. Of course, the temple is closed to all non-Mormons, but they’ve prepared an elaborate visitor’s center to introduce you to their faith. As you wander through the elaborate, life-sized dioramas, trying not to take too much notice of the incredible whiteness all those historical figures of Middle Eastern origin, you at least feel a sense of awe for the creative inspiration that surrounds you. An artist friend has come with you who’s company actually fabricated the mannequins on display, and she points out the details, and tells you how they made the hands so lifelike, the faces so alive. Then a center, circular staircase catches your eye. Painted on the walls of this gradually sloping spiral are stars and far away galaxies such as you might see through the Hubble telescope. The incline pulls you heavenward toward a center chamber lit from above, with lights all shining on a central statue towering in the center of the room. Hands stretched outward as if to embrace the cosmos surrounding him, you again marvel at the imaginative power of humans to imagine the unimaginable. You think about the artists who first conceived of the room, trying to sell to their conservative church board the idea of this room painted with purple swirling galaxies and yellow orange stars. Then the painting of your creation with all the ladders and assistants filling the room as the painting is accomplished. Then the fabrication of the central statue. The artist shape his face and body, sculpts the folds of his robe, polishes the finished work until it gleams. As a visitor you arrive many years after his completion. You call him, “Cosmic Jesus.” 


These three scenes illustrate just a few of the boundaries of humanity’s capacity for religious imagination. Religious imagination is one thing, more than any other I think, that has kept me in this pursuit of the religious life. The paintings of Michelangelo.  According to the Catholic encyclopedia, artistic expression has always been associated with the life of the church. From the time of the Catacombs it has been used in ecclesiastical ornamentation, and for centuries after Constantine, religious art was the only form of living art in the Western world. Until the Renaissance the church exercised a monopoly on art, and secular painting in Europe dates only from around the 16th century, and only took the lead in the 19th.  It may therefore be said that throughout the first and second millennia, the history of painting has been that of religious painting and religious imagination. It is our attempt to capture something felt but not seen, a force in our lives that we know is there but that we know will never be known. 

In our first reading this morning we heard a dialog between the character Jurgen and Koshchei, the god who created things as they are. At the beginning of Cabell’s novel, Jurgen falls down a kind of rabbit hole in search of his wife who has been kidnapped. As the story progresses Jurgen finds himself taking part in several myths — from Arthur’s round table to a brief marriage to the Lady of the Lake, from accidentally killing Achilles to a brief stint in hell. When he finally catches up with Koshchei, or God, he gets the feeling that God has as little control over events than Jurgen. God spun things into existence and then does nothing more than “contemplate the spectacle with appropriate emotions.” In the end Jurgen doesn’t even know if his experience was real, but that is the point of it: the cream of the jest – that we cannot ever be sure. 

We can never be sure, and so we create. We paint and write and fabricate images of the divine to be enacted on the stage of a wrestling ring, or a rodeo arena, or a museum. Paul Tillich writes in his book Theology of Culture that religious symbols “open up a level of reality, which otherwise is not opened at all, which is hidden…. Religious symbols open up the experience of the dimensions of this depth in the human soul…. And if new symbols are born, they are born out of the changed relationship to the ultimate ground of being, i.e., to the Holy” (59).  Thus, these expressions of religious imagination allow us to participate more fully in the world, with both the seen and the felt expressions of creation. James Luther Adams in his book On Being Human Religiously, writes that artists are capable of grasping and depicting in imaginative fashion the various dimensions of the human condition. In doing do they point us in the direction of something universal, or articulate some peculiar perspective or vision of life, form, or color (139). 

Certainly, cowboy churches, wrestlers for Jesus, and Cosmic Jesus would all fall into Adam’s category of a peculiar vision of religious expression, and the theologian here uses the word “peculiar” in its true sense: as something beyond or deviating from the usual or expected.

Imagineers of Soul

I would say that what we are seeing now is that the creative energy that used to be applied only to fine art, in painting, architecture, and sculpture, and are using it more freely to shape communities of worship themselves.  This is a reasonable outcome in our culture that values freedom of expression so much. It may also be the thing that keeps religion in America from going the way of religion in Europe and even Asia, to a quaint backdrop more fitting for past generations than the present. 

The question for us is what creative expressions are appropriate for liberal religion. The wrestlers and cowboys for Jesus are mainly conservative Christians, and much of the most innovative forms of worship are found in independent, fundamentalist churches. Mainline protestant churches seem mostly trapped in nineteenth-century liturgies. Our own worship life continues to have more in common liturgically with the Puritan services of Plymouth than with the contemporary worship that is capturing the imagination of younger Christians. Attend an emergent church worship, for example, and you’re likely to see young people dancing to punk rock or trance-hop music — actually enjoying themselves. The problem with church is that eventually these creative expressions wind up fixed in time, slowly becoming more and more dated and irrelevant.  In speaking with our younger attendees, I’ve heard that when they come to church it is less for the inspiration they find than the community they experience. When I speak with parents with young children about why they’re coming to church, they say it’s for the community, and rarely do I hear how much fun they’re having in worship. I wonder what it would mean to capture both a spirit of imagination and a spirit of community in the same place at the same time. 

In our second reading today, the Rev. Christine Robinson articulated such a vision, or at least a starting point for one. She says that people come to church to quench a thirst, find meaningfulness, to have an authentic experience, or in a more traditional  religious language, to connect with mystery, to see themselves,  sub species eternitatis, to deepen their souls. She laments that often theme park designers have a better understand of what people yearn for that worship leaders. Perhaps, she muses, we could take a cue from Disney’s “Imagineers” and look for ways that we can capture people’s hearts, not just their minds — ways to inspire their creativity, not just intellectual curiosity. 

No song in our hymn book better captures this longing than our first hymn, What Wondrous Love Is This? The song is cast in that moment of discovery, the moment of awe and inspiration when one realizes the root of our longing. It is for connection with others. “What wondrous love is this, oh my soul, oh my soul? It is that wondrous love that will pick us up when we fall, when we are sinking beneath sorrow’s ground. Not to sorrow’s ground, beneath it. That is very, very low. And then the hymn invites us to sing. To sing to Love, to All Friends, with thanks unto the end. We will sing.  And so our challenge remains before us. Where will our religious imagination take us? Shall we remain fixed in an historical time, or shall we sing a new song to the love we feel between us, to a hope we have known so long, to a new expression of creativity that reflects who we are today. I doubt that we’ll be wrestling for Emerson, or donning cowboy hats for Servetus, or constructing a hall of the Cosmic Chalice. But I can imagine us going deeper and deeper into this faith of ours, together, so that we may awake to those creative expression that are authentic to who we are. What wondrous love will we find, brothers and sisters? What wondrous love is this?

This entry was posted in Sermons. Bookmark the permalink.