“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
I learned Psalm 23 by heart in the King James Version before I could read it in the Bible. Many young people raised in Christian families memorized this psalm for one of the Christian education events of a local church: Easter play, Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, talent shows. I learned it in my grandmother’s kitchen, standing tall, annunciating each word with precision. Just hearing the first line of the psalm evokes these childhood memories, and I feel a level of emotional and spiritual nostalgia as each line is read.
While Psalm 23 holds emotional sway for me, I’m well aware that it lacks the subversive relational power that it held for its original hearers.
While many of the lessons of the psalm are timeless—God cares, provides, protects and offers rest—I fear that contemporary society over-spiritualizes what it means to be a shepherd in ancient Israel.
I can only imagine living in a rural society and hearing about God in words that relate to my everyday life. God is a shepherd—dirty, smelly and slingshot-carrying. God corrals us, watches us mindlessly eat, and listens to our ceaseless bleating. Rather than being ensconced in ermine with a scepter and aides, God has a thankless, but necessary, farmer-job.
The theologian Sallie McFague is well known for highlighting the use of metaphorical language in theological construction.She indicates that parables and religious language often spoke to the context of its hearers in a way that was subversive, fresh, and illuminating of various qualities about God. A shepherd God is one such metaphor that shows God’s identification with common people while also making clear statements about God’s relationship to the world.
The innovative suggestion that a God we cannot know can be understood in terms with which we have great intimacy and understanding is the core concept of using analogy to speak of God. On the other hand, metaphors can become models.
McFague notes that some metaphors lose the quality of “God is like” and actually become entrenched systems for conceiving of the relationship between God and the world. Thus God is no longer like a parent, but not exactly—as metaphorical language would imply—but is a Father, ontologically speaking. As a feminist, McFague suggests language that might counteract the turn of this particular God metaphor into a model–language that could be more meaningful to women: God as mother, lover, and/or friend.
Drawing from McFague’s analysis, I wonder about whether a twenty-first century urban dweller like myself can find meaning in a phrase like, “God is my shepherd.” What do I know about sheep and meadows?!
Likewise, I am part of a generation that knows something about new media. What if we thought of God in metaphors with more direct relevance to our everyday lives? A couple of years ago, I tried this idea with my theology students, asking them to re-write the 23rd Psalm with an image more familiar to them:
God is my website designer, I shall not…
(Originally published with The New Media Project here)