Sing, pray, preach: Houston Chronicle's Cowboy Church story masters twang, could use more religion

I really wanted to like the Houston Chronicle's front-page story Sunday with the giant headline "Cowboy Church."

To some extent, I guess I did.

I mean, the art of a bull rider's cross tattoo was striking, and I'm always impressed when a major newspaper gives such prominent play to a religion feature. 

Of course, this isn't the first time a big paper has discovered a cowboy church. It happens every so often (past examples here, here and here.) In my Associated Press days, I had fun with a feature on a West Texas school that trained cowboy preachers.

But even though I found the Chronicle's story interesting and colorful (with the talented writer incorporating an appropriate amount of cowboy twang), something seemed to be missing. I read it once. Then again. And then again, still not sure exactly what weakness I was sensing. 

Finally, it hit me. 

Let's review a bit of the story and see if you notice the same thing I did. I'll share more of my thoughts in a moment.

First, though, here is the lede:

WALKER COUNTY — A definitive East Texas twang rounds out the corners of each and every word sung in this church. It’s as if someone handed a cowboy a guitar and requested a hymn.
Which, to be fair, is about what happened.
It’s a little past 5p.m. on a Sunday in late February, and most of the people sitting in the blue stackable chairs facing the church choir were kicking up dirt with their cowboy boots out back just afew minutes ago. That’s the whole crux of Branded for Christ Church: Raise Cain in the rodeo ring for two hours, then head inside for an hour of drawling amens.
This time of year, with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo just days away, cowboy culture becomes pseudo mainstream throughout the city. But here in this church, where young riders pray for the chance to one day make the cut for the Houston rodeo, the Christian cowboy lifestyle is as authentic as the dirt finish on the bull riders’ Wranglers.
In the eyes of Bubba Miller — Pastor Bubba, as he’s known around here — there’s God in that dirt.
“The Bible says, ‘What greater love does a man have than to lay his life down for his brother,’ ” Bubba says, looking over at a bullfighter named Daniel. “And just awhile ago, you saw a kid get bucked off a bull, and Daniel steps in and lays down on top of that kid to take the hooking for the bull rider.”

A little more color from later in the piece:

Later, inside the prefab church, little cowboys lift one hand up toward heaven as the band sings. It’s the same way they lifted one arm back in the chutes, preparing for their rodeo rides, but now they’re reaching for a different kind of glory, as the band wraps up its last song.
Coleman is on the keyboard; it’s a skill he’s picked up through the church, where Tammy’s father also is teaching him how to play steel guitar. A black dog wanders the aisle before settling in for a short nap on the rug spread out in front of the lectern where Pastor Bubba is about to begin his sermon, after tithes are given.
Bubba walks up to his spot at the front of the room, leather boot soles clapping against a poured concrete floor. His black cowboy hat remains perched atop his head, only to be removed in the moments he asks members of his congregation to bow their heads in prayer.

Those sections give you a nice flavor of the Chronicle's piece.

Here's what I figured out was bugging me — and maybe it's just me: The writer talks about singing hymns but never mentions any specific hymns or words from the songs. What exactly are they singing? What songs is the band playing? 

Similarly, reference is made to prayers, but readers don't get to hear any of the words lifted up to God. What does a prayer at a cowboy church sound like? What exactly do those praying ask of God? The story says that "young riders pray for the chance to one day make the cut for the Houston rodeo," but I wonder if that is poetry on the writer's part or if there are really prayers offered along those lines at the cowboy church service.

Finally, readers catch glimpses of Pastor Bubba's sermon and hear various phrases from it ("We need to feel committed to doing what God’s called us to do, how God’s called us to do it"). But again, I'm curious: What Scriptures does he quote? How does he relate Jesus' life to rodeo?

All in all, the Chronicle masters the twang side of this story. I just wish it had delved a little deeper into the religion. That might have helped move beyond some of the more cliché aspects of the piece and give it a more real feel with a few surprises along the way.

As always, I am open to opposing viewpoints. By all means, read the story yourself and let me know what you think. Comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion.

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