I am not a sheep

sheepThese thoughts were inspired by this post, which I saw because it got “liked” by over 100 people on Google Reader and therefore showed up under “Recommended items.” In the course of describing a good sort of church, the author wrote, “It’s a place where sheep are shepherded.”

What is it with Christians and wanting to be sheep who get shepherded? This does not sound like a good thing to me. My primary understanding of the term “sheep” used to describe a person is, as Wikipedia aptly puts it, as “a pejorative term to describe those that will blindly follow others regardless of the consequences.” Definitely not a good thing.

But this blogger, Chris Anderson, and his many commenters don’t seem to take any issue with the term. It is one you do hear often if you hear a lot of Christianese. The word “pastor,” which I’ve heard more and more over the years in place of “minister” or “reverend” or “priest,” comes from the Latin word for shepherd. You know, like “pastoral.” A good pastor knows how to shepherd their flock, and so on. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a story of judgment in which the people are separated “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,” and you are supposed to want to be one of the sheep. (I guess if goats are the alternative, okay.) Anderson later says in the comments that his advice to families who have recently moved and are choosing a new church is, “Take your family where it will be shepherded well.”

If you have ever had to interact with sheep directly, you’ll know they are not the most brilliant of animals. Sure, they may not be as dumb as we assume, but I’ve seen them perfectly content to just stand there in the road, right in front of your car as you honk at it, staring at you blankly until you get out and push it out of the way. (And good luck if there’s a whole herd standing there.)

My point is, I’m not sure what’s so great about being a sheep. Given that they have a pretty universally negative connotation, at least in many English-speaking countries, I’m surprised that any (English-speaking) group would promote and embrace the idea of being like the animal. It’s almost as though they are already aware of and agree with the complaints that religion suppresses independent rational thought, but see that fact in a positive light. As though they are deliberately glorifying the idea of “people who tend to accept and follow everything at face value,” who do whatever they’re told “without processing it or doing adequate research to be sure that it is an accurate representation of the real world around them.”

But that couldn’t be true … could it?

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8 Comments

  1. The reason I use the term, along with most commenters, is that it’s a common New Testament way of picturing the church–saved by the atoning death of Jesus Christ, the perfect Shepherd (John 10:1-30), cared for by pastors/shepherds who teach them and warn them of false teachers/wolves (Acts 20:28-29; 1 Peter 5:1-4). The point is, we use it because it is a common biblical term, used in these ways to demonstrate the love of the Shepherd (Jesus Christ) for the flock, His willingness to lay down His life for us, etc. It was actually a pretty common and positive analogy in rural society. Even King David, the psalmist of Israel, was glad to say “The LORD is my Shepherd” and unpack how God cares for him like a lamb in Psalm 23, often quoted today at funerals, etc. So in Scripture, it’s not a pejorative term.

    The use of the picture in Isaiah 53:6 is fascinating. There, it is used negatively, to describe our wandering away like stupid, obstinate sheep—a picture of our sin. The imagery abruptly changes in Isaiah 53:7, though, where Jesus is pictured as a lamb of a different sort—one who willingly died as a sacrifice to save us from those sins and the judgment they incur. It’s a beautiful chapter, one of the most amazing in the entire Old Testament, and written almost 800 years before the Savior was even born!

    For more information on what Jesus’ death means, check out this 25-minute mp3:

    http://www.churchworksmedia.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/11/the-gospel.mp3

    Thanks for the discussion!

  2. I understand that the shepherd/sheep metaphor also has these other meanings where the shepherd cares for the sheep, and wants them to live well and be healthy and so on. I also admit it’s conceivable that in Judea 2000 years ago, sheep did not have this connotation of being gullible and stupid. (I think the passage you point out in Isaiah actually makes a good argument against that possibility, though.)

    The fact remains that there are lots of metaphors in the Bible for God’s love and protection, and not all of them portray believers as gullible, unquestioning, mindless followers. I think it’s an interesting PR decision that in a society where that connotation of “sheep” does exist, and pretty strongly, Christians are still perfectly happy to go with that metaphor instead of picking a more palatable one. After all, there are plenty of stories in the Bible that people are happy to refrain from discussing because they are grotesque to our modern sensibilities.

  3. Aristarchus

     /  May 14, 2010 at 11:06 am

    I think the sheep metaphor is actually appealing to people in a lot of ways. Yes, people don’t like being gullible, because they don’t like being tricked. But they also like the idea of there being someone in the sky who is so good/correct that you can follow them unquestioningly without danger of being wrong. The world is a scary place. People die for no good reason. It’s also for many philosophically unsatisfying. Without God, morals are things people have decided to care about, rather than inherently true. It’s easier to believe that your misfortune is a test and you will be rewarded for passing with eternal happiness than to believe you just got screwed by bad luck. It’s easier to have answers than not to have answers or (even worse) know that no answers exist.

    People therefore have an urge to turn off their rationality and join organized religion. However, they also have their worry about being tricked and doing something stupid. But religion doesn’t work if people are constantly questioning. People aren’t rational enough to all end up atheist, but they’d end up randomly all over the place – some small number as devote believers, others atheists, and tons of others believing all sorts of other weird versions of religion. A large religion only works if the followers think it’s ok not to question. It is therefore not just acceptable but necessary for the religion to actively promote this not questioning. Yes, the moronic sheep is a tough metaphor, but if you dress it up in enough pomp and history and art and so forth, you can remove the negative connotation for a lot of people. That’s exactly what they need. They need people to think that, at least in the context of this religion, being a sheep is good. It’s a bit counterintuitive, but it makes all the other more counterintuitive things so much easier to sell that it’s more than worth it.

  4. In my opinion (as a non-sheep) is that it’s not being a sheep that they’re proud of, but who their shephard is (god).

    Take, for instance, hired help (aka servants) of richer people. Stereotypically, maids, butlers, etc… don’t go out in public and brag about what they do; they brag about who they do it for: “MY Master is so-and-so…”

    Actually, typing this out and thinking of it this ways kind of explains some religious fanatics’ haughy attitude towards other religions and non-theists: If it’s a matter of whoever has the best “master” has the highest status, they see their god as being better than others’ gods, and having any master is better than not having one (a lot don’t seem to understand the idea of being your own master, hmmm).

    Anyway, just a thought.

  5. Craig, I think what you’ve said makes a whole lot of sense. Being a sheep to someone’s shepherd seems like part of the human condition, so you may as well get the best shepherd and stop focusing on the sheep part (or even glorify the sheep part, as Aristarchus suggested, which I like too). This idea really clicked for me when I remembered the line: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” (Or should I write: “The Lord is MY shepherd”?) It also may contribute to an explanation of why so many religious people accuse nonbelievers of worshipping Satan. After all, how could we be getting by without any shepherd? It must just be that we have a bad one.

  6. trueluminati

     /  June 11, 2011 at 5:07 am

    You are not sheep nor am I. I am that. For kicks and of course and the ultimate secrets of our existence you may wish to read the works of Bob Dobbs founder of the Church of the Subgenius. I wander the philosophical world in search of freethinkers. All that I’ve been able to find are sheep that think they are free because they’ve managed to make it out of ‘the box’ (think outside the box). None seem to notice that there’s yet another box which contains them along with the box that they used to live in. Steve_Almighty2000@yahoo.com would like to hear from those that understand that true freedom exists in the minds of the illuminated. Existence is punctuated with a question mark. Pax et Lux!

  7. @Chris Anderson There is a huge hole in that “shepherds caring for the well being of their sheep” metaphor you presented. A shepherd does not benefit from sheep living a long ripe life, and dieing from old age, and natural causes. The shepherd benefits from killing, using the wool for cloth, the meat for food, etc. I am repulsed by the idea that people can look at being a shepherded sheep a good thing. Shepherds care for their sheep in the same way a farmer cares for his cattle. They are an expendable commodity that serves more use when dead than alive.

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