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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Through the Pistol Smoke Dimly: Psalm 23 in Contemporary Film and Song

Karl Jacobson

I. The cultural appropriation of Ps 23

To say that the 23rd Psalm is “beloved” or “well-known” is a bit of a soft-sell—and probably an unnecessary one. The psalm has been set to music, to canvas, and to memory. Frequently. But what continues to come as a surprise is the range of impact this psalm has. Psalm 23 is not just popular among the pious pew-sitters, to be found only in dusty old hymnals, or in the lyrics of the next generation of Christian song writers. Psalm 23 is equally popular among the popular—in songs you might actually hear on the radio or movies that aren’t released directly to DVD.

Here are just a few examples:

Songs

“Jesus Walks” by Kanye West
“Ganster’s Paradise” by Coolio
“The River” by Good Charlotte
“You’re Nobody ‘til Somebody Kills You” by Puff Daddy and Notorious B.I.G.
“Sickman” by Alice in Chains
“Love Rescue Me” by U2
“Sheep” by Pink Floyd
"Ripple” by the Grateful Dead
"Shadow of Deth” by Megadeth
“Jah Guide” by Peter Tosh.

Note the wide range of musical genres: from rap to reggae to metal to alternative to punk rock.

Films

Pale Rider
Rooster Cogburn
Full Metal Jacket
Jarhead
We Were Soldiers
Titanic
The Wicker Man.

Again there is variety in the genres of film that reference Ps 23—western, war, romance, and suspense/horror. The psalm even appears as the title for an episode of the television show “Lost” and in several frames of the graphic novel V for Vendetta.

To be sure, there is also considerable variety in the way the psalm is employed in these various pieces. Some are serious, others are not. One example of a fairly frivolous use of the psalm is repeated in the movies Jarhead and Full Metal Jacket; in both the psalm is employed in making a boast—in Jarhead it is Jamie Foxx (as Staff Sergeant Sykes) who says, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil; ‘cause I’m the baddest mother****** in the valley.” In other cases—indeed in most other cases—there is something more substantive in the appropriation of Ps 23. The issue is just what the substance of this appropriation is.

What is the nature of the reference? What is the use or purpose to which the psalm is put? What is happening that we are at once witnesses to and participants in? Before turning to a couple of specific examples of Ps 23 in song and film, I want to offer a general characterization of the phenomenon.

1. These references are an interaction with, or a re-writing of, Scripture--not the Scriptures per se.

In popular, mainstream (i.e., secular) media we do not typically find the psalm “as is” or largely unchanged (cf. Ps 40 as “40” by U2). There is little presentation or re-presentation of the psalm by itself. What’s more, it is the exception to the rule when the psalm is quoted or employed as flatly or uncritically “authoritative.” When Ps 23 is quoted, it is quoted and set in an entirely new setting—often in an altered form—and in remarkably atypical and surprising ways.

2. Most often, these references are, at least initially, a reversal of that which is expressed in the psalm.

Psalm 23 is usually categorized as a psalm of trust, one that express confidence in God. A psalm of trust is descriptive of reality and presents a particular theological world-view. But when one hears Ps 23 quoted or alluded to in contemporary music and film, the psalm of trust is (usually) argued with, struggled against, i.e. read/applied as untrustworthy. There is a suspicion of the trust that this psalm so confidently offers.

To borrow from the typology of Walter Brueggemann, the experience of the powerful note of trust sounded in Ps 23 is perceived as disorienting. In situations or settings that belie the value of a simplistic faith in things being better or different than they really are, the psalm and its almost overwhelming trust are not readily accepted. Disorientation, so it seems, resists formulaic or rote re-orientation.

As such, in both film and song, there is a relatively consistent struggle with the singular note of trust that Ps 23 appears to sound. One exception is the John Wayne classic Rooster Cogburn—in which Katherine Hepburn’s character (Eula Goodnight) hurls the cola of the psalm into the face of a would-be assailant like a weapon. Otherwise, Ps 23 is not generally received as a refuge or source of any kind of present help in trouble (Ps 46:1), at least not in an easy or naive way.

The psalm of trust can, and often does, meet with skepticism. And what’s more, this skepticism (and even outright disbelief) can express itself in anger or end up in despair if the sense of disorientation is acute enough.

In reflecting on the purpose of the psalm of trust, Walter Brueggemann has suggested:

The function of this kind of psalm is theological, that is, to praise and thank God. But such a psalm also has a social function of importance. It is to articulate and maintain a “sacred canopy” under which the community of faith can live out its life with freedom from anxiety. … There is a givenness to be relied on, guaranteed by none other than God.[1]

It may be that for some the disconnect of not experiencing or feeling this “givenness” will lead to the exact opposite of thanks to God expressed in praise. The serious problem of disorientation and ongoing tension between the psalm’s claim on its reader/hearer to share in its paean of trust and the reader/listener’s disconnection from such a social/theological possibility  may lead to a rejection both of the psalmist’s words and of God. The “sacred canopy” that Brueggemann describes is rejected as in effect a cover that is no cover, a freedom that is no freedom. a guarantee that is void of surety.

In post-modern, post-Christian American popular culture, one might expect just such an outright rejection of the psalm, but what many cultural engagements with Ps 23 provide is a vital ongoing social function of their own, a reversal of field that is in response to and in conversation with the social/theological function of the psalm. The tension of the dialectic between trust and lament is allowed to remain taut/tense. In fact, this tension is clung to, even insisted upon. By engaging the disorientation, by expressing a mistrust that is in tandem as well as in tension with the trust of the psalm, these cultural engagements wrestle with the problem of trust—neither letting go and walking away, nor refusing to be let go short of any result other than a true blessing.

3. The “interpretive encounter” with the psalm in a given song or film offers a unique invitation to work a reversal—or perhaps better a re-reversal—of the poem.

What one finds in popular music and film is not critical exegesis of biblical texts. These references are not, in some—maybe most—cases, even deliberate deliberation or reflection on the meaning of Ps 23. What we do find here is a kind of instinctual reaction.

These are “cultural happenings.” The use of the psalm in a given context gives rise to the experience, more than the critical exercise, of an interpretation. The interpretation of the psalm happens, and we who hear it or read it or see it, experience it.

One theory about the origin and nature of the trust psalm is that it arises out of the lament.[2] As has often been observed, there is in every lament some element of trust—however slight—usually at the end (e.g., Ps 12:1, 7). The psalm of trust is thus the element of trust taken to an extreme—usually with some acknowledgment of that which is lamentable (e.g., Ps 62:3-4, 5-12). This argument, that the trust psalm is derived from the lament psalm, is not entirely convincing. But there is something to be said for the clear fact that the genres of lament and trust tread a good deal of the same ground—both verdant and shadowed. In basic terms, the psalm of trust does two things:

First, it names reality and takes seriously the dangers that are very much a part of life: the valley of the shadow of death; the enemies that surround, even at the dinner table. Reality is not overwhelmed by the claims to trust.

Second, such psalms express trust precisely in the face of reality. It is while at table with those enemies that the psalmist trusts God to protect her. It is in the darkest reaches of death’s shadowy vale where the psalmist maintains that God is with him. And so, neither is trust overwhelmed by the present reality.

In almost every case where the psalm is taken seriously, contemporary films and songs wrestle with the interplay of lament and trust, the exhortation to confident faith and the argument of present reality. With these thoughts in mind, we now turn to turn to two specific examples of what I am describing: “Jesus Walks” by Kanye West and Pale Rider by Clint Eastwood.

II. Psalm 23 and Contemporary Song: Jesus Walks first Verse and Chorus

(Note: the appropriated portion of Ps 23:4 is bolded)

You know what the Midwest is? Young & Restless
Where restless (N*****) might snatch your necklace
And next these (N*****) might jack your Lexus
Somebody tell these (N*****) who Kanye West is
I walk through the valley of the Chi where death is
Top floor the view alone will leave you breathless Uhhhh!
Try to catch it Uhhhh! It's kinda hard
Getting choked by the detectives yeah yeah now check the method
They be asking us questions, harass and arrest us
Saying "we eat pieces of s*** like you for breakfast"
Huh? Yall eat pieces of s***? What's the basis?
We ain't going nowhere but got suits and cases
A trunk full of coke rental car from Avis
My momma used to say only Jesus can save us
Well momma I know I act a fool
But I'll be gone 'til November I got packs to move I Hope… (Jesus Walks)


God show me the way because the Devil trying to break me down

(Jesus Walks with me)
The only thing that that I pray is that my feet don't fail me now

(Jesus Walks)
And I don't think there is nothing I can do now to right my wrongs

(Jesus Walks with me)
I want to talk to God but I'm afraid because we ain't spoke in so long

1. Notice the shift.

West rewrites the psalm, melding the context of the psalm with his own: Ps 23:4—“As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” becomes in “Jesus Walks”—“As I walk through the valley of the Chi [Chicago] where death is.” West reshapes the language of the psalm to name his own reality directly and unequivocally. What this does, in an important way, is make clear that the “valley of the shadow of death” is not metaphorical—it is not someplace else or other; the valley of the shadow of death is actual, specific, right there in Chicago, a real place with real problems and real struggles of life and death.

2. Notice also the limited quotation of the Psalm.

Only the first portion of Ps 23:4 is quoted, and not even the full first colon; the crucial (and perhaps central) claim of the psalm, “for you are with me,” is missing.[3] The element of trust is effaced; only the struggle, the danger, the crisis in retained. For one who is familiar with the language of this most famous of the psalms, the move is striking. The use of the psalm draws into stark relief what is emphasized: lives that are defined—beginning to end—in terms of death, lives that are not life-giving.

So in another sense the “valley of the shadow of death” is metaphorical—West raps about hustlers, killers, murderers, drug-dealers and even strippers, and it is their lives and the consequences for all involved that he lays out in terms of the valley of the shadow of death. In direct reversal of the trust that overrides lament in the biblical psalm, here the “remnant” of lament, the “named reality,” is blown up and given pride of place.

3. The move that makes up the rest of the song is important.

Reminiscent of Jacob’s wrestling with God, West maintains the importance of the shepherd, praying fervently for Jesus—the one West sees as the shepherd of the psalm—to walk with him in the midst of his sin, the wages of which are, to coin a phrase, the stuff of the valley of the shadow of death. What is more, West evokes the ongoing social function that is part and parcel of appropriating the language of the psalm: he reverses the field from trust to lament, but in so doing he exemplifies and commends clinging to trust precisely in the face of the untrustable.

Trust, it is clear, can be difficult in the face of reality lived in the valley of the Chi where death is. In “Jesus Walks,” it seems to me, Kanye West is acknowledging this difficulty while at the same time seeking to trust and offering that trust as not only important, but essential—especially to lives lived mostly in shadow.

III. Psalm 23 and contemporary film: Pale Rider.

At the beginning of Clint Eastwood’s 1985 western, Pale Rider, a small settlement of prospectors and their families has been overrun by a villain who wants to use strip-mining to work their land. In an effort to get them to leave their claims so that he can move in on them, the villain has sent his thugs to drive them off using force. In one of the early scenes a daughter of the settlement kneels, smoothing over fresh earth of the grave of her dog, which had been killed in the attack. While there she prays. What follows is the version of the psalm the young woman recites, interspersed amid the cola of the psalm is her response:

Psalm 23 as dialogue—

 1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.  

he leadeth me beside still waters;

 But I do want.
 3 he restoreth my soul.    But they killed my dog.
 

4 Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I shall fear no evil;  

 But I am afraid.
 

for thou art with me;

thy rod and thy staff – they comfort me.

 But we need a miracle.
 

6 Thy loving-kindness and mercy shall follow me

all the days of my life, 

 If you exist.
 and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.   But I’d like to get more of

this life first.


1. Notice again that the quotation of the psalm is incomplete.

What is left out may not seem momentous—parts of verses 2 and 3 and all of 5—but the repetitious emphasis on the good that God does for the sheep is abbreviated; this may be a tacit rejection of the bold call to trust that the psalm makes. Further, the psalm’s central claim, “for you are with me,” is not left out or ignored, it is challenged.

2. What I find of particular interest is that the young woman makes of the psalm a dialogue.

The song of confidence and trust, which rings hollow in the face of death, is not allowed to have the only word. The psalm is made to be a conversation partner—no static theological monologue here, this film presses the psalm into honest and even contentious dialogue. Because the promise of the psalm does not fit reality, because it is an insufficient answer, of insufficient comfort, it is paired with question, with accusation, and yes, with lament.

IV. Conclusions—there and back again: Psalm 23 and cultural “exegesis”

The title of my paper, “Through the pistol smoke dimly,” is a reference in part to the genre of film that so often takes this psalm as inspiration for its characters—the western—and in part to a line from an old hip hop joint by Coolio (see footnote 3). Looking at the shambles of his life lived as an agent of death in the shadows, Coolio considers himself in light of those he is killing: “As they croak I see myself through the pistol smoke.…” And he seems to take from the psalm the possibility that another reality may exist. He says his prayers on his knees—for the afterlife, in the darkness.

Psalm 23 is immensely popular and powerful for a wide variety of readers and prayers. It has been a powerful inspiration for art, a vibrant metaphor for theological imagination, and a critical component of personal reflection on the relationship of God with humanity. I am arguing that this is no less true for the references and appropriations of popular cultural—i.e., the secular or at least not explicitly “religious” references—than for the various applications of “religious” traditions. Indeed, they are perhaps all the more important because they are not burdened by issues of orthodoxy or faithfulness or even propriety.

These references to and wrestlings with this great psalm of trust are illustrative of, and in a sense committed to, the present realities in our world, realities that demand to be acknowledged, realities in which trust may not be the leading voice, realities in which the transition from trust…to lament…to trust is paced out—evenly, naturally, inescapably, and above all appropriately—through the steps of the one who trudges through death’s dusky dale.

There is, in the various musical and theatrical encounters with Ps 23, an interpretive and pedagogical force that wrestles the psalm out of any flat or smooth reading and presses it into the service of disbelieving faith, seeking trust.

Karl Jacobson, Augsburg College

1. Walter Brueggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002), 18.

2.  Hermann Gunkel, An Introduction to the Psalms: The Genres of the Religious Lyric of Israel (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1998), 121. See also “Ps 23 deviates considerably more from the genre. It incorporates a confidence motif from the beginning. It lacks a complaint and petition. The occasional address to YHWH and the appearance of the enemies in 23:5 are what remains of the origins” (191).

3. Other examples of exactly this kind of quotation of Ps 23:4 are:

Gangsta’s Paradise, Coolio: As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I take a look at my life and realize there's nothing left
Cause I've been blastin and laughing so long that
Even my mama thinks that my mind is gone
I hate to trip but I gotta loc
As they croak I see myself through the pistol smoke…

The River, Good Charlotte: As I walk through the valley of the shadow of LA
The footsteps that were next to me have gone their separate ways

Citation: Karl Jacobson, " Through the Pistol Smoke Dimly: Psalm 23 in Contemporary Film and Song," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Jan 2009]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=796

 
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