Captive to the Bull

Photo - David Webber
Photo - David Webber

The young cowboy looked like death warmed over. His face was pale, his eyes sunken into black holes, his walk revealing constant pain and his facial expression locked somewhere between terror and dread. That's not what made him stand out though. Lots of rodeo cowboys look just like that, particularly before getting on their ride. What made this guy stand out were his superstitious incantations, which made him a bull rider.
Most bull riders go through a series of incantations in word and deed, prior to sitting down onto their bull for their eight-second ride through hell. They usually show up early, which seems to me odd because the bull riding is always the last event of any rodeo. This fella began by putting his riggin' bag at a particular spot against the chute fence. He then emptied it and placed each item in meticulous order. First came his boots, followed by his spurs, chaps, leather gloves and his bull rope. Next he fussed with spacing each item just the right distance apart as he placed them on the ground. When he had everything just right he began to pace back and forth covering the whole width of the area behind the chutes. His pacing was slow and methodical, almost like he was counting each step. Each time he paced past his bucking riggin' he would adjust each item on the ground again, presumably to make sure it was in just the right spot. Then he would mutter a few words, cross
himself and continue the procedure. This went on for at least a couple of hours, through the other rodeo events which he seemed to ignore.
After the last go-round of calf roping, the bull rider stopped his pacing and began to put on each item of his gear. Again, the order was meticulous and methodical. First came boots, then the spurs, the gaudy coloured rodeo chaps and then the leather riding gloves. Next came the rosining of the bull rope and working it in with the riding glove, which was accomplished with the meticulous care of a concert violinist tending to his bow. And then a series of simulated rides, one hand grabbing the imaginary bull rope, the other, the balance hand, lifted high in rodeo rider fashion. Each simulated bull jump was accomplished in a kind of slow motion dance that looked like it was choreographed by a cross between Michael Jackson and a tai chi master. About that time, the bull was run into the chutes to be rigged for the ride. Certain words were said, the man crossed himself again and began dressing the bull for the show.
I thought all this strange until I realized that most of the other bull riders were doing very similar things. Not one of them spoke to the other; each was in his own head. However, it became clear that there was much more than mental preparation going on. What I was observing appeared to be a rite of incantations, and of deep superstition. And it was all woven into what looked to me like a kind of religion.
Linda, Chelsea and I had been hanging out behind the bucking chutes at the Roe Lake Rodeo all afternoon. Rodeo is in our blood and we love going, not so much for the animal action but to connect with all the cowboy types. They are wonderful folks, people of our roots, a down-to-earth group. Bull riders are a little different from all the other people who live under the shade of a Stetson. In my experience, religion woven together with superstition plays large in the lives of quite a few bull riders, at least in the part that embraces the rodeo event.
As we drove out of the rodeo grounds late in the afternoon, my mind was pondering the way religion and superstition so often get woven together. As we trucked home to the murmur of Ian Tyson's Cowboyography on the CD player, my mind shifted from considering the bull rider to my own practice. Upon honest reflection, I realized that in many ways I was a lot like the bull rider. Superstition seems to leak into my life too, often getting mingled with my faith.
Webster's dictionary defines superstition as "a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation." Superstition attributes spiritual or even magical powers to human action; stuff that I do or don't do, things I say or don't say, even what I think or don't think. It includes everything from countering bad luck by throwing salt over my left shoulder if I spill some, to believing in the special power of certain words uttered in a special way, often with good religious intent as in some ritualistic prayers perhaps.
As we motored towards home, and as I reflected on how I had often woven superstition into the fabric of my faith, I came to the stark realization that there is absolutely no room for superstition in the Christian faith. Superstition is what I do to try and magically control how things happen. Faith is a leaving of things completely to God to control how things happen. Like religious legalism, fear and a craving for some kind of human security often drive my superstitions. To quote Helen Keller: "Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing."
Hmmm! It would seem that me and the bull rider need to break the superstition cycle and get on with enjoying the ride, or in Keller's words, the adventure. And superstition is really an ever-deepening enslaving cycle. I think that was the Apostle Paul's point when he was teaching the Colossians about superstition and speaking against the false apostles that were promoting superstition as kind of add-on to Christian faith. Paul wrote: "If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!" (Col. 2:20-21) Commenting on these verses John Calvin wrote: "(Paul) most admirably describes the progress of false apostles. The way in which superstition begins is this: they forbid not only to eat, but even to chew gently; after they have obtained this, they forbid even to taste. This also being yielded to them, they deem it
unlawful to touch even with the finger."
A day at the rodeo watching bull riders and bulls ended up teaching me a deep spiritual principle. Like religious legalism, not only is superstition a dangerous, seductive and captivating cycle that is in opposition to a liberating Christian faith, it ends up rendering one captive to the bull.
End note: At the end of this particular day the score was bulls 10, bull riders 0.


About David Webber

Rev. David Webber, now retired, was the founding missionary of the Cariboo house church ministry in British Columbia. He has written four books.