The Trail

The Trail

In Environment, Theologyby Keith SanfordLeave a Comment

The Trail is a song of comfort for difficult times.
It gives new words to a familiar hymn and provides a modern, progressive interpretation of the 23rd psalm.

The Trail

A song of comfort

Words and musical arrangement by Keith Sanford. Performance includes Keith Sanford on drums, percussion, keyboard synthesizers, and vocals.

The tune is Resignation (the tune for, My Shepherd Will Supply My Need), an anonymous melody found in Freeman Lewis' Beauties of Harmony, 1828.

A Familiar Hymn from the 1820s

No one knows who wrote this old folk melody, but the first written record appeared in the United States in the 1820s. This was the time in history when, across the southern states, Native Americans were being driven out, and slavery was both expanding and becoming crueler. It was the time when a wave of religious enthusiasm, often called the “Second Great Awakening,” swept across the country bringing camp revival meetings and the growth of many diverse churches and religious ideas. At that time, people in the United States consumed about three times the amount of alcohol per person as we do today, and it was around that time when white men began painting their faces black to perform racist songs and skits in “minstrel shows.”

The melody itself was first published in a “shape-note” hymnal, a type of hymnal used at the time where shapes were placed on notes to make them easier for singers to read. The original words are rarely used today, but after a few decades, the melody was given the name, “Resignation,” and it was paired with words written by Isaac Watts based on the 23rd Psalm. This arrangement became the hymn, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” which may be familiar to many people today.

A progressive interpretation of the 23rd psalm

As I write this, the world is coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the 23rd psalm seems particularly relevant. However, I find this psalm to be most meaningful when I think about it from the perspective of a progressive type of theology.

The song, The Trail, takes the old folk melody, “Resignation,” and pairs it with new words which are based on a modern, progressive interpretation of the 23rd psalm.
What is a progressive interpretation of the 23rd psalm? “Progressive” could refer to a viewpoint that is not bound by tradition and open to new ideas, and there are two ways in which the words for The Trail could be considered progressive. First, it understands God more as a source of beauty and goodness than as a source of power and control. As discussed on the page titled, “How music for a progressive faith is different from other religious music,” most Christian music focuses on the power of God, including how people should respond to a powerful god (for example, with obedience and worship) and what people get from a powerful god (for example, mercy and salvation). A progressive alternative is to place more emphasis on how God is a source of goodness and beauty. As the world is facing the COVID-19 pandemic, God may be a profound source for finding a beauty that still permeates the world, and God may not so much be a miraculous power capable of stopping the crisis (or a power that, for some reason, is choosing to allow it). Compared to a perspective focusing on the power of God, a perspective that understands God as the presence of beauty in the universe is less likely to clash with modern science, and it is possibly more likely to be a source of great inspiration. It leads not so much to the selfish seeking of God’s favor and mercy (or to prayers for God to end a crisis), but to the seeking, experiencing, and promoting of beauty on earth. This may be an especially good thing to do as the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic.

The second way that The Trail is progressive is that it uses contemporary metaphors to talk about God. This perspective assumes it is impossible for humans to understand God fully, completely, or perfectly, and that the only way we can describe God is through metaphor. We can use metaphors to describe what God is like, but we cannot define God in a way that is perfectly accurate. There are components of God that far exceed human comprehension, and so any time we attempt to define God, we are certain to be partly wrong. Thus, seeking God is a process that involves the use of metaphor, and the metaphors that best move people toward God, that produce the most inspiration, are likely to change across time and place. Metaphors that were meaningful 2000 years ago may be less meaningful today. Thus, while there is still much beauty to be found in ancient metaphors, it may be especially valuable to explore new metaphors. (Again, for further discussion, see “How music for a progressive faith is different from other religious music.”)

For example, in The Trail, the lyrics never use the word “God.” The lyrics do not refer to God using metaphors that refer to sex or gender (such as “he”), or that refer to authoritarian forms of government (such as “king,” “lord,” or “master”). And, although the original words for the 23rd psalm use the metaphor of God as a shepherd, the song does not use this metaphor either, in part because this is not a common present-day occupation, and it may lack meaning for many people. Instead, the song uses the metaphor of, “feeling a touch upon my hand,” a touch that both inspires and gives comfort. This is a metaphor intended to be meaningful for people today and intended to describe the experience of encountering something divine – a type of beauty that is wrapped into the world, into the universe, and into human life.

Themes in the 23rd Psalm

The song, The Trail, is an interpretation of the 23rd Psalm, and it draws from four specific themes that can be found in this psalm. (The full text for the 23rd Psalm is printed at the bottom of this post.)

The first theme has to do with facing things that are frightening or evil.

The song refers to, “valleys dark and low / Where shades of death may chill the skin and nothing there will grow.” Similarly, the 23rd psalm refers to a passage through dark valleys and it alludes to the presence of evil and the existence of enemies. Possibly the best-known translation of this psalm is the King James version, which refers to “the valley of the shadow of death,” and it is interesting to note that this is somewhat of a mistranslation of the text. The best translations of this psalm do not say anything specifically about death. At the same time, the line about “the valley of the shadow of death” provides a vivid and inspiring metaphor about facing frightening times of crisis. The key reason why this psalm is widely known may have to do with the potency of this particular metaphor. Importantly, metaphors can be meaningful regardless of whether they are found in the original text or merely inspired by the text. Thus, as the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be meaningful to consider metaphors about dark valleys (which are found in the 23rd psalm) as well as metaphors about shades of death (which were not originally part of the psalm). Both types of metaphor may capture the feelings and experiences of many people.

The second theme has to do with a type of journey where there is a powerful awareness of something divine.
The Trail uses a metaphor of walking along a trail to describe life’s journey, and as mentioned above, it uses the metaphor of a touch on the hand to describe an awareness of something divine – something that is close, present, and guiding. Similarly, the 23rd psalm talks about being led on a path, about walking, and about God being present.

The third theme has to do with gaining an abundance of something.
The 23rd psalm talks about not having any needs or wants, about feasting at a great table, being anointed with oil, having an overflowing cup, and experiencing goodness and mercy. Notably these metaphors allow us to interpret the meaning of this abundance in different ways. Is the psalm referring to a material abundance of wealth and possession, or to something else? On the one hand, it seems likely that the people who originally wrote and sang this psalm were, indeed, thinking of material abundance – or at least, this may have been part of what they had in mind. On the other hand, if we focus on God as a source of beauty, then it becomes more meaningful to consider, not an abundance of material wealth, but an abundance of beauty in the universe. Accordingly, The Trail focuses on this type of abundance, “To see the splendor, oh, so vast, there’s nothing more I need.” In other words, The Trail is about experiencing an abundance of beauty, goodness, and mystery in the world.

The fourth theme involves the use of peaceful imagery.
For example, the 23rd psalm talks about green pastures and still waters, and it talks about God providing comfort. Similarly, The Trail speaks of meadows, mountain streams, clear water, and stars lighting up dark skies. Drawing from these images, and drawing from the abundance of beauty found in the universe, the song talks about finding rest, experiencing goodness, and having hope.

Thus, during those time of crisis when we walk through dark valleys, we might still experience an awareness of something divine; we might still find an abundance of beauty in the universe, and we might still be able to draw from peaceful imagery. On the one hand, it would certainly be an oversimplification to suggest that we can always do this, or even to suggest that we always should try to do this. Sometimes the immediate need is to fight a crisis. Sometimes pain demands our full attention. Sometimes it is good to focus on experiencing and accepting feelings of anxiety or grief. (For a discussion of how both "good" and "bad" emotion can move us toward God, see the song, “Kaleidoscope.”) But, at those times when we can catch a glimpse of that beauty woven into the fabric of the universe, then taking time to experience that beauty is certainly a good thing to do. Sometimes when we walk through dark valleys, this can be a source of hope and comfort. And even more importantly, it can be an inspiration to rise, to engage with the world, and to promote goodness as best we can.

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