I was raised in a really nice Anglican parish, and I went to a lot of church camp type events, and learned that Jesus was my shepherd and I was His fuzzy sheep. This was, at least in part, the reason why I ceased to be a Christian when I reached the age of reason.
The shepherd image is unfortunate in the present age as most people have no actual experience of shepherds, or of sheep. The sheep and the shepherd thing was an image that worked really well in an agrarian, semi-nomadic society living in the sheep-belt of the ancient world. It works less well for people today.
Here’s the thing. In the Bible images, everyone is a sheep. You’re a sheep, I’m a sheep, everyone’s a sheep. If you follow Christ, you’re a sheep that follows Christ. If you follow Nietzsche, or Marilyn Manson, or Barack Obama instead, you’re still a sheep. If you go off by yourself and get stuck somewhere in the wilderness and eaten by wolves, your a dead sheep. In this metaphor, sheephood is pretty inescapable. You can’t even get out of it by pretending to be a wolf.
Also, in this metaphor the shepherd is a little odd. This is a disinterested shepherd who does not eat mutton. A shepherd who would willingly be torn apart by wolves in order to save the sheep. The sheep under His care are absolutely safe. They are taken out to green pastures, they are led beside still waters, they are restored, body and soul. If they go through the valley of the shadow of death, they don’t need to worry. The shepherd has been that way before and knows the safe way through.
People listening in the first century AD could see, from the outset, that this was a wacky shepherd. The literary device of juxtaposition was being used. There was something like a reverse irony – irony in the service of undermining cynicism, rather than irony in the service of undermining trust. The irony of a shepherd who was more interested in sheep than stew pots.
The ironical fact about post-modern types who think that they are rebels – the lone sheep who have wandered off from the herd in order to protest their sheephood and try to attain to something loftier – is that they are part of an absolutely massive herd. There is no one easier to predict, market to, stereotype, categorize, index, file, stamp, erase, or number than the sheep who thinks that it is a lone wolf.
This is why the mass media is so hard on Christianity. Real Christianity, I mean, not the market-friendly, mass-produced Christianity that votes Republican. Why do you think that you’re constantly being told to go off on your own, to be an individual – and then being told exactly how to be an individual? The marketing gurus and psycho-social engineers know exactly what will happen. They have your image in their computers. They know what you’ll buy, and where you’ll shop. They know that sheep are most easily picked off when separated from the herd.
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