More about Ray Lewis and his Psalms 91 t-shirt

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So, GetReligion readers, I am happy to report that the Baltimore Sun team noticed the scripture reference at the heart of one of the biggest moments in the recent history of sports here in Charm City. I am referring to the fact — click here for the previous GetReligion post — that when, after Ravens personnel had ripped the jersey off his back, superstar linebacker Ray Lewis faced national television cameras and ran a victory lap of the stadium while wearing a t-shirt that proclaimed “Psalms 91.”

The Bible reference was featured at the end of prominent story about Lewis’ volunteer work, often faith-based, in the community. More on that in a minute.

The t-shirt drew its own short Sun online story which I didn’t see in the dead-tree-pulp newspaper, unless it merely missed the edition delivered at my house near the Baltimore Beltway.

The key question, of course, was this: Why this particular Psalm?

That raises, for me, an interesting journalistic question. How, precisely, are journalists supposed to know which part of this famous and complex passage of scripture inspired Lewis’ symbolic act if they didn’t dare to ask him that question?

Well — DUH! — you choose the most controversial motive, in this case noting that parts of Psalm 91 fit into the whole image of Lewis living as an angry warrior still haunted by the enemies who doubt his words and acts of repentance for his serious, serious errors in the past.

Thus, Sun online readers read:

… Curious minds wanted to understand what point Lewis was trying to make as he took a victory lap around the stadium wearing this particular shirt.

The psalm is known as the “psalm of protection.” It has a lot to do with vanquishing various enemies with faith and treading upon beasts under one’s feet. Here’s a key passage:

Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence.

He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge;

his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.

A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.

Of course, the biblical reference to treading on lions and serpents led the Sun team to the obvious National Football League connection — the need to tread on Colts, Bengals, Lions, Eagles, etc. It’s the playoffs, you know.

The actual news report — “Fans praise Lewis’ efforts on and off the field” — touched on a number of different projects that have drawn support from Lewis, especially a project to fight the spread of AIDS among African-Americans.

The faith themes in the piece came together at the end, including a quote from the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon, who is known for his work in tough, impoverished streets. At one point, he noted that the fact Lewis has spent a few days in jail does not offend many people on that side of the city.

Some observers find his speeches about redemption cloying and his over-heated rhetoric about leadership silly. Ravens fans eagerly awaited his dance before each home game; others mocked it. …

As Lewis left the field for the last time, he wore a shirt that read simply “Psalms 91.” Like other Bible passages Lewis has referenced, it is a vivid telling of triumph through difficult times. “You will trample the great lion and the serpent,” it reads.

“Ray’s story is ancient, and it is beautiful,” Witherspoon said. “It speaks to Baltimore.”

The reference to “triumph through difficult times” is solid, but, of course, frames Psalm 91 in sports-friendly terms. “Triumph” sounds better in the newspaper, perhaps, than more doctrinal words such as “repentance” and “salvation.”

But let me ask my main question again: How do journalists know what the Psalms 91 t-shirt was saying, for Lewis himself, without asking him?

Does this matter? Well, is he an angry, paranoid warrior or a thankful, repentant believer?

With that in mind, please read past the jump and note the full Psalm 91 text. If in the journalistic driver’s seat, which section of the psalm — speaking to journalists — would you have argued was most relevant as Lewis ran his farewell lap on Sunday?

Psalm 91

New International Version (NIV)

1 Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.[a]

2 I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,my God, in whom I trust.”

3 Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence.

4 He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

5 You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day,

6 nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.

7 A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.

8 You will only observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked.

9 If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,” and you make the Most High your dwelling,

10 no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent.

11 For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways;

12 they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.

13 You will tread on the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent.

14 “Because he[b] loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.

15 He will call on me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him.

16 With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.”

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia

    The article could have mentioned that the ubiquitous piece “On Eagle’s Wings” (sometimes humorously called the “yoohoo song”) is based on Psalm 91.

  • Julia

    This section seems to embody the main theme of the Psalm.
    Lewis is thanking God for his life so far – his life has turned out pretty well considering all the scrapes that could have destroyed him.

    If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,” and you make the Most High your dwelling,
    10 no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent.
    11 For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways;
    12 they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.

    Should have included the lyrics to “On Eagle’s Wings” mentioned in my earlier comment:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MvpjxfWrjzY


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