The Bible In the News

Psalm 23: From Funerals to Soccer Fields

The Bible In the News

Leonard J. Greenspoon looks at the modern fortunes of the phrase “The Lord is my shepherd” in his column The Bible In the News.

“The Lord is my shepherd,” the opening words of Psalm 23, have provided a sense of comfort and tranquility to millions over the centuries. In keeping with this, we learn (from The Toronto Star) that this expression is among “the focus words Harvard University’s [cardiologist and mind/body healer] Herbert Benson suggests to elicit the relaxation response” in Protestants, Catholics and Jews. Along these same lines, the entire psalm is often recited or sung at funerals. However, “hymns now make up only 35 percent of funeral music” (as chronicled in the British publication The Express). According to this analysis, mourners are at least as likely to hear “‘My Way’ by Frank Sinatra or Shirley Bassey, and Bette Midler’s ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ as they are to send off their beloved to the words, ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’” An Australian publication (The Daily Mail) puts what I would term a positive spin on these developments: “Pop songs are putting life back into funerals as traditional hymns and requiems are replaced by chart-topping hits.”

Typically, the distance between a church and a soccer field is thought of as vast—except in this column, where we juxtapose the most disparate contexts. Thus it is that a rough-and-tumble soccer team (is there any other kind?) has adopted “The Lord’s My Shepherd” as its theme song. As chronicled in the Birmingham Evening Mail, “The new anthem for West Bromwich Albion fans was being given an operatic airing … The Baggies recently dropped its traditional run-out theme tune, ‘The Liquidator’ because of the obscene chanting by supporters … The unholy row has now turned full circle—with the club putting forward the much-loved hymn ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd,’ or Psalm 23, as a new fan favourite.”

This change caused some controversy off the field and some success on it. But the latter was far from consistent. Even with their “new holy trinity” of players, West Bromwich Albion was described as being “in need of a miracle” in a game against United. More pessimistically, it was admitted that “they didn’t have a prayer” (all of these assessments come from a story in The Herald of Glasgow).

At least, we might hope, there is one place left—the church—where the reciting or singing of “The Lord is my shepherd” retains its status as an oasis of certitude in a world decidedly otherwise. Alas, that is not always the case. Consider this scene: a Sunday evening service at St. Martin and St. Meriadoc Church in Camborne, Cornwall. As the vicar recalls, “We were having a songs of praise evening in which the congregation choose their favourite hymns and they chose ‘The Lord Is My Shepherd’ … Just as it was finishing I could see [three teenagers, one male and two females] had had enough, and they moved out at some speed, and at that point a lady who was sitting in front of them realised her handbag had been taken.” The vicar set off after the would-be robbers, calculating that he was among “the youngest and fittest people there.” Upon successfully restoring the handbag to its rightful owner, the service continued and “there was a fair amount of hilarity” (all of this is narrated in a story from London’s Daily Mail, which incorporated the expression “Runaway Church Thieves Didn’t Have a Prayer” as part of its headline). Say what you will, it appears that the Lord was indeed shepherding his flock, or at least this small portion of it, that evening.

Based on Leonard J. Greenspoon, The Bible in the News, “Psalm 23: From Funerals to Soccer Fields,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2011.

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