Saturday, February 16, 2008

If I had words ...

... to make a day for you
I'd give you the morning
golden and true
I would make this day
last for all time
and fill the night deep in moonshine
-- Farmer Hoggett, Babe

For an assignment for my pastoral counseling class, we've been asked to write a paper describing our metaphor for pastoral or Christian care. Of course, we've been inundated with shepherd images. Twenty-third Psalm this, Feed my sheep that, you know. You've read it (or you haven't, but you're not missing anything).

Quite honestly, I've got no real love for the shepherd metaphor. Nothing really against shepherds; I know they're cowboy-like -- the real kind that work for next to nothing in crappy conditions, the kind that get that for a job because it's either what their family does, or there's no other job in the world that they can get, or they are the kind of person who really does love the life. Think the protagonists in Brokeback Mountain and you'll have more of an idea of what the image of shepherd means to me. Or the shepherds in the deleted scenes of Monty Python's Life of Brian. Or the shepherds in Jill Paton Walsh's Knowledge of Angels. Or the shepherd in The Alchemist. Or the shepherd in the short story Pecado de Omission de Ana Maria Matute. Wow, I just realized that there are lots of movies and books that feature shepherds.

Anyway, but in christianity, we romanticize shepherds to make the 23rd Psalm imagery work; yes, the shepherd is a good one because it overturns the idea of what a messiah was supposed to be back in that day. But the thing I just can't get past is that the shepherd-sheep relationship is typically hierarchical, a top-down affair in which the bleating little shit-covered mincing piles of fluff are managed by a person with a staff and sling/gun that may or may not actually give a damn about them. And, for all the verses about the shepherd loving the sheep so much that s/he'll leave 99 to go look for the lost one -- at the end of the day, the sheep are a commodity. They will be eaten, shorn or sold, and the care that they're given is primarily based on the price that they will fetch.

As far as pastoral/Christian care metaphors go, that doesn't do a lot for me. Considering all the evils that people in power do in church (men to women, women to women, adults to children, one religion or denomination to the other) I think I've had enough metaphors that are rooted in power. Maybe it's OK that in the end it's God that eats, shears or sells us, for whatever those metaphors might mean to God, but I'm not a fan for applying them to a human being.

So it occurred to me that maybe we need less shepherds and more sheep-pigs.

If you haven't seen the movie Babe, you should go out and rent it immediately. It was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1995, and it's so good it'll make you cry. The sheep-pig, I realized upon another viewing of the movie to confirm my notion of refashioning the shepherd metaphor to include a cuddly little oinker, shows a different view of the shepherd-sheep relationship, even from the movie's opening line:

This is a tale about an unprejudiced heart, and how it changed our valley forever.

Instead of sticking to the barnyard script of dogs have one purpose and sheep another, the ousider Babe befriends both sheep and sheep dogs, and becomes a sheep-pig and herds to sheep by treating them not with aggression or intimidation, but with respect and kindness. This, in turn, catches the attention of Farmer Hoggett, who comes to treat his piggy prodigy with the same love and regard and upends the wisdom of the world to a new, inclusive idea.

If you think I'm pushing the image just a tad, check out what the director, George Miller (you know, from the Mad Max movies) said about the theological dimensions of the film:

I must say that Babe is much closer to a Christ figure than Max. Particularly in Babe (dir. Chris Noonan), he does change the established order. In fact, in Babe, Pig in the City, he's much more a Christ figure because he turns the other cheek. He goes to save from drowning the one who was about to kill him. But in Babe, he relinquishes his self-interest in order to save Farmer Hoggett [James Cromwell] and to help fulfill the dream for Farmer Hoggett and to show that a pig can, indeed, be a champion sheepdog. He does it in part for himself but it's mainly for the farmer. Yes, he's closer to Christ— not that a pig should be Christ but he's more Christ-like than Max!


So that'll be my pastoral metaphor, not the Good Shepherd, but the Good Sheep-Pig. And it brings me to what I really meant to post about all along, that the above quote came from the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, which along the Journal of Religion & Film is one of my new favorite academe places to visit. If you're interested, I'll post the paper after I get it back. But what's your metaphor for Christian care? Let me know. Or, what's your favorite shepherd movie or book or story? Or your favorite movie/book that seemingly doesn't tie into a spiritual message but you've done it?

8 comments:

Kirsten said...

For pastoral care metaphor, how about wilderness guide? Haven't thought it through--just the first thing that popped to mind. But it feels appropriate. And no sheep involved.

Erudite Redneck said...

Wow. I'll have tot hink about what kind of pastoral metaphor I might come up with.

In the meantime, I watched "Cars" -- the racing cartoon movie -- again the other night and it made my eyes leak. Again. It's a classic tale of the kind of personal redemption that comes when one is drawn kicking and screaming outside of oneself. In this case the self is a proud race car. :-) (Daytona 500 is on! The ERs are racin' fans.)

Erudite Redneck said...

Maybe a pied piper in the distance. And I do mean: "One, such as a leader, who makes irresponsible promises." Because let's face it, the promises are irresponsible, although maybe "outlandish" is a better word for what I mean. I think maybe that's what "shepherd" meant, actually, as in one who leads sheep. Nowadays, we, I, anyway, tend to imagine sheep in enclosures and the one of 100 being one who escapes, when I think it probably meant one that got off track. I will think of the pied-piper metaphor more. :-)

Erudite Redneck said...

Having pondered it, I find myself returning to the original "shepherd." ...

He "leadeth me beside still water," for example, clearly refers to an open range. And I think that's what's lost on us now in the metaphor. We hear "pastoral" and we, or I, think "pasture" in the modern sense: again, something under fence, something enclosed. And that couldn't have been the original sense.

Thinking about the notion of sheep as commodities: That, too, is a modern concept. The fleece was something that went into the very fabric, if you will, of life, and as such is a fine metaphor for the fruit, the product, the good, that comes, ideally, from following the Good Shepherd.

That it's "traded," in the purely commercial sense, is something modern as well. Then, I think, it was something bartered for other things that were, also, the fabric of life -- not something traded for monetary gain in the sense we understand it now.

Farm boy. Get land-grant colleges to offer the M.Div. :-)

Rather than a new metaphor, we need to put the original back in its full context.

But then that wasn't the assignment.

Just something to think about. And, thanks for giving it to me to think about. :-)

HapaThealogy said...

Kirsten: Wilderness guide :D that's like a literal shepherd for people! Wilderness guide gets you through the forest, leads you to the clean water, shows you the best places to snap your photos, and keeps the bears away from you. And hopefully teaches you something, too as she spins tales about how she came to love nature. I like it.

ER: You know -- Cars is the one Pixar movie I haven't seen. The only reason I ever wanted to see it was because I know the Sheriff is a Route 66 scholar who writes on the Old West, and that intrigues me, but I just couldn't get excited. Your endorsement nudges me toward actually giving it a chance.

Pied piper seems rather sinister to me, although there may be something in there.

And as for the shepherd -- well, I think you're saying what I was saying. You are right, commodity is a modern word, so I'll refrain from putting that in the paper, but your examples of bartering and the sheep being used for food or clothing or necessities of life still puts the value of the sheep on what it does for the shepherd, not for the sheep itself. I'm trying to look at this from the sheep's perspective (because, you know, in that metaphor, we're the sheep! Baa.) The sheep-pig loves the sheep because they're inherently lovable and stands nothing to gain from their value as meat, fleece, bartering currency or anything else. The sheep-pig just loves the sheep. I'm not sure what fruits the sheep get. Yes, I know sheep die if they're not shorn, but that's what humans did to them over lifetimes of breeding. The shepherd is responsible then for keeping the sheep alive, and I guess the sheep get an idyllic life. But the fleece is shorn to benefit the shepherd more than the sheep, as is the nice quiet life. That kind of puts domesticated sheep above value of wild sheep.

Which is not to say that the shepherd might not, either, but I'm thinking back to my FFA-acquainted days in high school where the kids learned their lessons early not to name the animals because it was going to end up on the table sooner or later. It is quite possible that the shepherd does love the sheep for its sheepness, and suffers when the sheep ends up on the table or gets traded away. The sheep-pig definitely does, but then, the sheep-pig might get eaten itself, and the shepherd doesn't face that danger. "That's called cannibalism, children, and that's rather frowned upon." So the sheep-pig still comes at the issue from a wholly different perspective than the shepherd, it's more able to truly understand what the sheep are going through. Rather Christ-like when you think about it, because the sheep-pig is the bridge between the sheep and the shepherd.

Sorry, I was rambling there, I'm still working out the metaphor and I'm liking it more, goofy as it is.

Funny, I never thought of sheep in a pasture. All the literary/film examples I cited above show the shepherd moving the sheep over great tracts of land, instead of from pasture to pasture. Maybe Brokeback Mountain was kind of like that because the sheep began in the pens, but they moved them out to the open mountain range.

Anyway, thanks for challenging the metaphor, it gave me a chance to think about it some more. :)

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

My first year in seminary, I had to write about my vision of the Christian life, and I used Mother Abigail from The Stand. I quote from the section of the book where she is contemplating the necessity of moving from the land, what the land has meant for her, and the reality of God's call and its incessant nature. I still find that one of the most Christian passages in contemporary fiction. Exile, land, God's call, God's promises - even a plague or two. It's all there. Along with a healthy dose of God's grace and presence in the midst of trouble, failure, even horror.

drlobojo said...

What a shepherd represents changed drastically between the herding world of David and the Hellenistic
Levant world of Jesus.
Jesus had to the be the "Good" shepherd because shepherds at that time were among the local low lifes. The Gospel writers needed the metaphor so they used it anyway. Question is did they need the metaphor to tie Jesus back to old Hebrew texts or to the newer Hellenistic Mysteries. Was it Jesus as the good shepherd David or Jesus as the good shepherd Apollo (a.k.a. in the syncretism as Osirus-Dionysus).

As for pastoral metaphors for modern America, I would chose the female Elementry School Teacher.
She is there every day, she feeds you, wipes your nose, gives you hugs, tells you right from wrong, keeps you learning, keeps you safe and protects you from bullies, smart and knows everything, is kind and gentle, and replaces mommy for 6 to 8 hours a day. Even if she isn't all those things the kids see her that way, as do most adults in their memories. It is the one consistant example of order, care, and love shared across this culture (unless you went to a catholic school). That's my pastoral metaphor.

HapaThealogy said...

Firstly, I thank you all for your contributions to my project! It gave me a lot of food for thought. In fact, it gave me too MUCH food for thought, because I realized that the metaphor for pastoral care and counseling was a broad one. There's a lot, and for the longest time just one word didn't sum up for me what it meant to be a Christian caring for another person.

But one hit me last weekend. While I was browsing through the Journal of Religion & Pop Culture, I came across on article about the show Northern Exposure. I've never really watched Northern Exposure, but my husband LOVES it and has been trying to get me to watch it for years. I'd watched about a season and a half in the past, and as I read the article, it occurred to me that one episode in particular summed up what it meant to give someone care.

Episode 2.2, "The Big Kiss," where Ed goes on a quest for his parents, and Chris loses his voice to beauty.

So my metaphor became "Cicely, Alaska," or, rather, "Community." Because a pastor must be many things to be helpful (true in any job), a pastor creates a safe space for the work of healing, and a pastor affirms the identity of the person in need. All the things that happen in community, and especially in Cicely, Alaska.

So thank you all for your contributions, you're included in the metaphor, as all of ya'll are in community.

And yep, Lobojo, that's a super question on the shepherds. I'ma gonna ask my NT prof about that ..