Today I had the grave misfortune of encountering on Hemant Mehta's Friendly Atheist blog a video of a very small, rather unformed human being with not much grasp of her language or the subject matter to which she applies it babbling complete nonsense. To wit, here is a two-year old "reciting" the 23rd Psalm:
For contrast, such as it is, here are adults with enough education to edit and post a video themselves, who ought to know better, bleating the same nonsense:
The image of the child reciting the Bible, knowing nothing of what she says other than that it meets with the approval of her doubtlessly beaming parents is a very good one when trying to picture what religious life is like for the regular believer. They know nothing of what they say: if they stopped to think about the words escaping their lips or those of their children, they would be utterly aghast. Yet they say them because they at believe (I think sincerely and really) that the book is true, that it contains great wisdom, and that there is in none of its verses an error; that it is authoritative, certainly in matters of ethics and the "meaning of life;" and that it is good for families, edifying for individuals, and concordant with a well-ordered society to read the words and to pronounce belief in them.
For those who cannot stand either video long enough to see it through to the end, here is the short text of Psalm 23, as it appears in the King James interpretation:
1The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
Lets take it line by line, and really think about the message of this horrifying and stultifying pseud-mantra means as the text holds itself out.
I described the "adult" rendition of the Psalm as "bleating" in deference to a point made by Christopher Hitchens in one of his many discussions with John Lennox, about the imagery that prefaces Psalm 23- that of the shepherd, which verse 1 uses to describe God. Try to de-mingle the claimed goodness and holiness of God from the concept of the shepherd; take the shepherd alone. What do shepherds really lead sheep around for? To fleece them, or to kill them. This small girl and these chanting adults together claim that the universe is governed like a for-profit butchery, with the most pristine of butchers in charge. And he starts by taking away your wants and your drives- you shall not want, because of how verse 2 says you are treated.
Verse 2 says what this particular shepherd does to his flock- he recognizes their innate servility and, as such, leads them into stultifying slumber, exploiting their love of servility by having them sleep where they eat. He is fattening them up. They are being bred and raised for slaughter, and the shepherd has him right where he wants them.
When I read the third verse, I think that this really is how a sheep would excuse, or at least explain, the behavior of the shepherd- no no, you see all this fleecing and butchering is really edifying, because the shepherd's embrace is so wide and so warm. This is sheep apologetics; this is metaphysical masochism at its worst. In what other realm of discourse would we praise such sloth? On who else's lips but the reciters is the willing submission to passivity at the hands of a butcher considered so virtuous? This is one of the Bible's most celebrated passages; believers everywhere love Psalm 23.
The next verse holds the crux of the simile: thy rod and thy staff comfort me. Totalitarian states could learn a thing or two from this. How much easier is slaveholding when the slaves are glad of their chains? This latter image is Islamic, that is, "of the slaves of Allah," but the Bible is trying its best to capture the same attitude of utter, puerile submission, the rank rejection of human duties, solidarity, work, striving, of life itself. Paul's New Testament style is utter rejection of humanity and the world; Christ himself has men deserting their livelihoods and families because of the spirit of the image of the pacified sheep patiently awaiting his ultimate fate.
Recall, of course, that slaughter is the ultimate of the Christian and the non-Christian alike. As the man said, sooner or later God will cut you down. And it will come much sooner if you are a sheep lying down for a shepherd.
I just love verse 5. Take it how you like, the image is perfectly consistent with the sinister shepherd happily marinating his sheep before serving it to his enemies. If you were a sheep, would you really want to be in a room full of your enemies, with a professional sheep-fleecer/killer adding various spices to you until you are literally brimming with luscious oils? It makes much more sense in the context of verse 6, the sheep reassuring himself, to himself, as he surveys his salivating foes: "Surely this will turn out alright."
And sheep you are. This is the perversity of the general attitude of reverence the Bible enjoys: you can get people to happily, in a feeling of comfort, narrate a story in which the narrator plays the part of a sheep being served, fattened and marinated, to his enemies. Not only that, but it can draw them to take absolute delight in their tiny children likewise narrating it. The children don't know what they're saying, and neither do the grown-ups, but the children have the excusable handicap of being neurologically incapable of resisting any behavior that invites the fawning adoration of their parents. The adults should know better.