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Evangelical Pastoral Bliss

June 4, 2008

In the age of Adobe Photoshop, artists and entrepreneurs can make the most pedestrian of connections between faith, feedom, politics, and God’s sovereign plan, all the well-worn motifs of evangelical devotional art. Consider the spate of pastoral panaceas that surfaced just after the September 11, 2001 attacks on America’s freedom. Each of these artworks unify modern terrorism with the biblical pastoral tradition and indiscriminate patriotism and are thus highly marketable to America’s evangelical church-state.

The image below, “World Trade Center, Psalm 23” is an amalgam of the pre-attack World Trade Center, the 23rd Psalm inscribed on a silhouette that takes the unmistakable shape of a church, and a flag of the United States (the image, ready to be framed, is available at AllPosters.com). At an initial glance, the connection between these three entities and events might not seem strange. People usually read the 23rd Psalm in times of mourning, loss, and turmoil.

Yet what aspect of the pastoral motif does this image hope to evoke? Is it the elegiac sadness that accompanies the pastoral epiphany, Et in Arcadia Ego (roughly, “even here in the garden there is death)? Of course, Manhattan is hardly the symbol of American Arcadia, even though many people have likened the skyscrapers of NYC to the majestic forests of God’s creation. Or, does this image simply seek to forge a connection between the biblical “valley of the shadow of death” (as the Authorized Version freely renders it) and the pain associated with the terrorist attacks? Either way, I find it interesting that the function of the biblical pastoral, a promise of eternal repose in the house of the Lord, gets exercised at this moment, a symbol of death.

Another similar image, of which I cannot find the title, creates an interesting contrast between the pastoral’s praise for the country and the city’s locus of economic and political clout. Raymond Williams famously dissected the relationship between the city-country dichotomy, and he proved that the concentration of wealth epitomized by the city depends on the control of the countryside and the extrapolation of labor and resources associated with it.

So, I guess it should not be a surprise that the quintessential symbol of the countryside in the Jewish and Christian traditions, Psalm 23, gets juxtaposed with the modern world’s quintessential symbol of the city, the Manhattan skyline that is dominated by the twin towers. Many people have made the argument that this symbolic meaning is the precise reason why the towers were attacked in the first place.  These images are complex, for I cannot figure out exactly what they attempt to do.

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