“Pop Psalms and Power”
Text: Psalm 23
I couldn’t resist—I had to take Psalm 23 for my text today. It is permanently etched across my heart in the language of the King James Version of the Bible thanks to my mother and late great Whitney Houston. There were a fair number of movies, television shows, albums, and other forms of media I was prohibited from watching or listening to when I was growing up (and I didn’t get good at sneaking my way around to them until my later teen years). The pieces of pop culture that did make it through the filter I latched onto, doggedly committing to memory. Praise be to God, my mother was a staunch Whitney Houston fan. And in 1996 The Preacher’s Wife, starring Whitney and Denzel Washington made the cut. We even had the soundtrack. It’s mostly gospel music covered by Houston with the full backing of the Georgia Mass Choir and remains, to this day, the best-selling gospel soundtrack of all time. It’s Cissy Houston though—Whitney’s mother, a renowned gospel singer now in her eighties—who delivers an absolutely earth-shattering solo on the album’s rendition of the twenty-third psalm.
I know a lot of folks hold Psalm 23 in their hearts because they’ve prayed it through times of despair, many who cherish it because it was read at the funeral of a loved one. That is good. That is right. We read it in unison at my grandpa’s funeral in 2013, an experience that certainly shaped my own understanding of the words. That line (in the words of the KJV), “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” now always reminds me of the short walk with my grandma back to the car after she kissed my grandpa’s urn several times and, trembling but all on her own, reached up to place his ashes to rest in the columbarium at the VA cemetery. We watched together as the cemetery workers sealed his tomb. I remember loving those workers, who seemed a little uncomfortable about being in their muddy boots and pants for such a solemn event but were so reverent and skilled at their piece of the ritual. I loved them because that’s how I remember my grandfather walking through life: in spattered work clothes, with tremendous skill, instinctively in touch with whatever degree of reverence or levity a situation called for. In that short walk back to the car with my grandmother after his interment, me on one side and my dad on the other, literally holding her up—I couldn’t believe any of us were managing to walk at all. I had run out of emotions by that point. I had run out of words. I had run out of pretty much everything. “Yea, though—I walk.”
Still: beneath that memory of Psalm 23 lays the older one. The Preacher’s Wife one. I don’t feel silly or shallow about that, either. Pop culture deserves plenty of criticism but so do our scriptures. They may be divinely inspired and contain all things necessary for salvation but they’ve all been written by flawed regular people like you and me who, putting pen to paper, tried to capture within the confines of language and life experience some small piece of the truth of God. I sense this most acutely when I’m reading the psalms. There’s so much in the Psalter that mirrors back to us what weirdos we can be when we are in pain: prayers for the infants of our enemies to be murdered, prayers for God to remember that we are the most special and that probably everybody should stop laughing at us right now (and if they don’t—please smite them, ok? Great thanks bye). Yet within the same psalm, sometimes within the same single line, we also stumble across ringing truths. About life. About death. About oppression. About beauty. This is not very different from the range of human expression we encounter on Top 40 radio. We can always find degrading and violent themes in pop culture. But when we are being honest, we will admit to finding just as many of them in scripture.
So, too, then must we admit to the beauty and goodness and joy we find in both. And the particular gift of Cissy Houston’s cover of Psalm 23 on The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack, for me, is the way it communicates the joy of this passage. It is not a cheap joy. It’s the kind of joy you only get when you’re willing to labor for it, to sweat for it, to fight for it. I couldn’t have told you any of this when I was listening to the album over and over again at age eleven but I did understand, as I listened, that there must have been something more to life than I knew firsthand that made it possible for somebody to sing like this. From where I stand today I suspect that if there is joy echoing out of the twenty-third psalm, it is the kind you can only get from looking death in the eyes a few times and realizing: she’s there, and you will meet her yourself someday, but maybe not right now. So why not sing a little while you still have a body? Fear no evil. That’s not a promise that evil will keep its distance from you—that’s just some sage advice on what to do when it inevitably finds you. Some scriptures, like some pop songs, are mainly good for endurance. That’s ok. I need the twenty-third psalm at a funeral the same way I need loud hip-hop music at the gym: to literally, physically keep myself from falling down and giving up.
In Cissy Houston’s cover of Psalm 23 the choir starts out soft, low, and slow. The organ accompaniment is subdued. The words are sung true to the KJV translation until the third verse, when the phrase “he restoreth my soul” is repeated four times over, and then the soloist enters. There’s a steady rising and layering going on all this time, the organ swells and rolls, and it continues to build as the words move forward. When the singers arrive at “thy rod and thy staff” in the end of verse four, the words “they do comfort me” are repeated five times. When I hear the psalm sung this way, it seems plain to me that our longing for God’s restoration and comfort are only be satisfied when we ourselves build these things. Together. On earth as in heaven. The way the singers build the song. As often as we interpret Psalm 23 to be about God’s external control over our lives, God leading us, God making us do things—Cissy’s voice makes me wonder if the psalmist rather meant it to be a window into own God-given power. To be able to imagine a life green pastures, still waters, a spread table, a cup running over—and to imagine yourself or anyone else as deserving of those things, while fully confronting the broken promises of this world and your own bone-deep grief: that is power. That is glory. That is a joy this world didn’t give to you and this world can’t take away.