PHOTO COMPILATION: “Chester Higgins’s Life in Pictures”: Chester Higgins Jr. (b. 1946) is an American photographer whose work focuses on everyday Black life; “it is inside simple moments where I look for windows into larger meaning,” he says. He was a staff photographer for the New York Times for more than four decades, and his work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. This heavily illustrated New Yorker article is a good introduction to his oeuvre, in which religious belief and practice feature prominently. I found out about him through the photography compilation book Standing in the Need of Prayer: A Celebration of Black Prayer.
>> “El Shaddai” by Victory: On January 27 singer-songwriter Victory Boyd, who goes professionally by the mononym Victory, released her latest single, “El Shaddai.” El Shaddai is an ancient Hebrew name for God whose original meaning is unclear but which is often translated into English as “God Almighty”—although “God of the Mountains,” “the Full-Breasted God” (referring to God’s nourishment of God’s children), or “the All-Sufficient One” have also been posited. Its first appearance in the Bible is in Genesis 17:1, where God tells Abram, “’I am El Shaddai; walk before me, and be blameless.”
Read the lyrics in the YouTube video description.
>> “Come Unto Me” by Take 6: A friend recently introduced me to the American a cappella gospel sextet Take 6. Formed in 1980 on the campus of Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, and still active, they incorporate sophisticated jazz harmonies into the tradition of Black gospel “quartet” singing. They are featured on Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing soundtrack and have won ten Grammys.
This 1988 performance for a Heritage USA TV spot features the group’s six original vocalists: Claude V. McKnight III, Mark Kibble, Mervyn Warren, David Thomas, Cedric Dent, and Alvin Chea.
LITERARY EXCERPT from The Color Purple by Alice Walker: This short passage from Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel is taken from a conversation between the protagonist, Celie, and her friend Shug, about pleasure, gratitude, and grace. Shug refers to God as “it” (“God ain’t a he or a she”), and her statement about the necessity of enjoying God’s good creation and being open to surprise provides the source of the title.
I’m embarrassed to say that although I saw and really liked the 1985 Steven Spielberg film adaptation of The Color Purple, I’ve never read the book! I plan to rectify that before December, when another film adaptation—of the 2005 stage musical based on Walker’s novel—is coming out, directed by Blitz Bazawule. It stars Fantasia, H.E.R., Colman Domingo (Euphoria), Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures), Danielle Brooks (Orange Is the New Black), Jon Batiste, and more.
VIDEO: “Ethiopian Gospel Book”: In this six-minute instructional video, Dr. Beth Harris, executive director of Smarthistory, and Kelin Michael, a graduate curatorial intern of manuscripts at the Getty Museum, explore an early sixteenth-century Gospel book from Ethiopia. They discuss the book’s historical context and the formal qualities of its paintings, including the flatness of the figures and the colorful interlacing. They focus on a full-page illumination at the front of the Virgin and Child enthroned between two archangels, but they also touch on the book’s canon tables and its portrait of Saint John the Evangelist.
Psalm 91 (Psalm 90 in the Vulgate) is a psalm of protection, commonly invoked in times of hardship or before embarking on a journey. It conveys the sheltering presence of God, using the metaphor, tender and intimate, of a mother bird who cares for her fledglings, shading them under her wings and lifting them up out of danger. This image recurs throughout the Psalter and the Bible at large (see Pss. 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 63:7; Exod. 19:4; Deut. 32:11).
Let me quote the psalm in full, using the King James Version, whose poetic quality cannot be beat:
1 He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.
3 Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.
4 He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.
5 Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;
6 Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.
7 A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.
8 Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked.
9 Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation;
10 There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.
11 For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.
12 They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.
13 Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.
14 Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name.
15 He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honour him.
16 With long life will I satisfy him, and shew him my salvation.
The righteous will be protected, sings the psalmist, from sickness and attack, whether by arrow or by wild animal. Because of the psalm’s specific mention of plagues, or “deadly disease,” it became especially popular during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, we know from experience that some of these statements cannot be taken at face value. Physical harm does befall those who love God. Believers were among the “ten thousand” (and more) felled by the most recent raging pestilence. It’s wrong to conclude that this was a result of their lack of faith.
Biblical scholar J. Alec Motyer clarifies that “the promise [in Psalm 91] is not security from but security in.” That God looks after us is an absolute principle, but the Bible makes clear that no one is immune from suffering. Still, we can trust in God’s grace and strength and ultimate deliverance, and entreat him for specific protections. Bodily salvation won’t come in full until the new heavens and the new earth are ushered in, but we are kept spiritually in the shelter of our loving God.
That doesn’t mean Psalm 91 is a lie; it is poetry, and poetic language is often not meant to be literal. The assurances are still worth praying. God does often intervene on our behalf.
The ancient Jewish community at Qumran near the Dead Sea, through whom the oldest manuscript fragments of the Hebrew Bible come to us, referred to Psalm 91 as a “psalm against demons,” and it is thought to have been used by that community in exorcisms. Jewish midrash interprets many of the listed threats as veiled language for demons, and there is Christian precedent for that interpretation as well. In Luke 10:17, Jesus’s followers marvel that “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!,” to which Jesus affirms that yes, “I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will hurt you”—language very similar to that in Psalm 91.
In the Late Antique era, both Jews and Christians wore the words of Psalm 91 on amulets, to attain or simply feel God’s guarding power. In the church it is traditionally sung or recited during Compline services and on the first Sunday of Lent (in Matthew 4:6 the devil manipulatively quotes verse 11 in his temptation of Christ in the desert).
This psalm has also influenced popular culture, as from it comes the concept of guardian angels (vv. 11–12).
Below I have selected fifteen musical settings or adaptations of Psalm 91 from diverse sources, including homophonic and polyphonic choral works, songs in indie folk and soul styles, a Puerto Rican hymn, a Nepali bhajan, and more.
For each I have embedded either a YouTube video or Bandcamp track, and if a Spotify link exists, I’ve included it at the end of the description. If you cannot see these music players in your email client or RSS feed reader, open the post in your browser.
This is a curation, not a collation, meaning that I’ve intentionally picked these songs from among hundreds of options, for both excellence and variety. I tried to limit the list to ten and just couldn’t, but I thought twenty would be too overwhelming, so I compromised by choosing fifteen with five honorable mentions. I’ve added almost all twenty to a YouTube playlist (the Sister Sinjin song isn’t available on that platform), if you prefer to listen that way.
1. Gregorian chant performed by Harpa Dei: Born in Germany and raised in Ecuador, siblings Nikolai, Lucía, Marie-Elisée, and Mirjana Gerstner form the sacred vocal quartet Harpa Dei. Here they sing Psalm 91 in Latin in the medieval plainchant tradition. Subtitles are provided in Spanish and English.
For a plainchant in English, albeit of verses 4–5 only, see here.
2. “Psalm 91” by Victory Boyd: This is probably my favorite of all the selections. Victory Boyd is one of seven musical siblings, and before she started her solo career, she was a member of the vocal-harmony sibling act Infinity Song. Her voice is gorgeous, as is this simple musical setting she wrote, conveying both the vulnerability and confidence present in the psalm.
3. “Psalm 91” by Poor Bishop Hooper: Every Wednesday since January 1, 2020, married couple Jesse and Leah Roberts, who record music under the alias Poor Bishop Hooper, have been releasing a new psalm-based song for free download as part of their EveryPsalm project. Handling them consecutively, they have just eight left to go! They made a live video for “Psalm 91,” which shows them playing their own piano four hands accompaniment. [Spotify]
4. “Qui habitat in adjutorio altissimi” (He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High)by Josquin des Prez, adapted by Laurel MacDonald: Josquin des Prez (pronounced “joss-can day pray”) was a highly influential Franco-Flemish composer of the High Renaissance. In 1542 he wrote a setting of Psalm 91:1–8 in Latin for twenty-four voices (SATB ×6)—that is, six distinct soprano parts, six distinct alto parts, etc.
Inspired by this choral motet, in 2007 composer and video artist Laurel MacDonald worked with longtime associate John Oswald to create qui, a sound installation of twenty-nine voices singing an adaptation of des Prez’s “Qui habitat” in twenty-nine languages over twenty-nine speakers, for the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. MacDonald revisited the project in 2010, creating the short video “XXIX” (below) with twenty-one of the original qui singers, each singing in the language of his or her personal heritage. They weave a complex tapestry with interlocking threads of Krio, Spanish, Korean, Hungarian, Hindi, Greek, Finnish, English, French, Italian, Latin, Zulu, Xhosa, Sesotho, Georgian, Russian, English, Tamil, Hebrew, Swahili, Japanese, and Arabic—a multilingual declaration of God’s protective power.
To hear Josquin des Prez’s motet as originally conceived, click here.
5. “Your Wings” by Lauren Daigle: Lauren Daigle is one of the most popular CCM (contemporary Christian music) artists of the past decade. Two-time-Grammy-winning and with two platinum records, she is often compared to Adele in terms of her vocal style—soulful, rich, in a husky register. In April 2020 she released on YouTube a stripped-down, “social distancing” version of her Psalm 91–based song (written with Jason Ingram and Paul Mabury) from Look Up Child, with just her and a piano. You can get a sense of her strong stage presence from the video; here she hits the melody with both her voice and her body—bouncy on the verses, smooth on the refrain! [Spotify (studio version)]
6. “Whomsoever Dwells” by Sinéad O’Connor: “Whomsoever Dwells,” written with Ron Tomlinson, is one of nine Hebrew Bible–based songs that appears on Sinéad O’Connor’s stellar 2007 double album, Theology. (Thanks to Art & Theology reader Koen Desmecht for introducing me to this!) The acoustic performance below—from November 8, 2006, at The Sugar Club in Dublin—was released on disc one, subtitled “The Dublin Sessions,” and features guitars, fiddle, harp, and low whistle; the same song, arranged for a pop-rock band and recorded in a London studio, is on disc two. (I much prefer the acoustic version.)
“Theology is an attempt to create a place of peace in a time of war and to provoke thought,” O’Connor said. It is very “personal” and “emotional.”
7. “El que habita al abrigo de Dios” (Those Who Dwell in the Shelter of God) by Luz Ester Ríos de Cunaand Rafael Cuna: This 1943 hymn from Puerto Rico is a versification of Psalm 91 in Spanish by Luz Ester Ríos de Cuna, with music by her husband, Rafael Cuna (1907–1995). I learned of it from the bilingual hymnal Santo Santo Santo: Cantos para el pueblo de Dios (Holy, Holy, Holy: Songs for the People of God). Here it’s performed by musicians from Iglesia Central del Movimiento Misionero Mundial en el Perú (Central Church of the World Missionary Movement in Peru) in Lima. Their names are not given.
8. “Denn er hat seinen Engeln befohlen” (For he shall give his angels charge),MWV B 53by Felix Mendelssohn: Early Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn, a Reformed Christian with Jewish ancestry, wrote this setting of Psalm 91:11–12 in German in 1844 for Berlin Cathedral, where he was serving as Generalmusikdirektor (royal composer of church music). It is for an unaccompanied eight-part choir, but he later reused it with orchestral accompaniment as movement 7 of his oratorio Elijah.
9. “No Harm Befall You (Psalm 91)” by Sister Sinjin: Released on the 2022 compilation album Joy to the World (Psalms 90–106) from Cardiphonia Music, “No Harm Befall You” was written by Elizabeth Duffy and is sung by her and Kaitlyn Ferry, who make up the Indianapolis folk duo Sister Sinjin. Their harmonies are a hallmark of their music.
10. “Psalm 91” by Sharyn:Sharyn (pronounced “sha-REEN”) is a Ugandan-born, London-based gospel/R&B singer-songwriter “whose mission is to spread the gospel through adventurous, original, and engaging music,” she says. She wrote “Psalm 91” during the height of the coronavirus, as that scripture passage is one she would read again and again as a source of comfort amid the uncertainty. “This song is an affirmation and a reminder of who God is, what He can do, will do and has done,” she says. “Never forget that God is faithful and his promises are the greatest form of protection we can ever have. His promises are your armor and shield.” The recording features Calibleubird on backing vocals. [Spotify]
11. “Shelter Me” by Buddy Miller: In a 2010 episode of PBS’s Soundstage, country-rock artist Buddy Miller performed a set with other Americana greats Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, and Patty Griffin, including this original song (written with Julie Miller) from his 2004 album Universal United House of Prayer. “Shelter Me” is about not being scared in the face of disaster or war, for God is our hiding place. The song could apply to Psalm 57 just as well, which addresses the same themes as Psalm 91 and even uses the same language of sheltering under the wings of the Almighty. [Spotify (studio version)]
12. “Underneath the Shadow” by Tom Wuest: This is one of twelve quiet, sparsely instrumented songs that Tom Wuest recorded with his wife, Karen, which were written as their two young sons fell asleep. They all “draw their lyrics from the psalms and from our family’s joy in and meditation upon the good creation of God,” he says. Fitting indeed for meditation, “Underneath the Shadow” comprises just three simple lines: “Underneath the shadow of Your wings / We dwell underneath the shadow of Your wings / Hidden close to Thee, we find rest.” [Spotify]
13. “Mero Saransthaan (My Shelter)” by Suraj Khadka: A Nepali adaptation of Psalm 91, this bhajan (devotional song) from 2021 features traditional instruments from the Indian subcontinent: sarangi (vertical fiddle), bansuri (bamboo flute), and dholak, madal, and tabla (drums). Thanks to Dr. Paul Neeley at Global Christian Worship for alerting me to this one.
14. “Lang en gelukkig (Psalm 91)” (Long and Happy) by Psalmen voor Nu: Founded in 2002, Psalmen voor Nu (Psalms for Now) was a project in the Netherlands to set all 149 psalms (they combined Psalms 42 and 43) in Dutch to music, a task they completed in 2014 with the release of their eleventh album. Seeking “to introduce as many people as possible to the beauty and power of the psalms,” the team comprised some twenty theologians, poets, and composers, plus a band. They wanted the texts to be understandable and the melodies modern and singable. This particular song from the project was written by Liesbeth Goedbloed (words) and Roeland Smith (music) and released in 2013. It has a smoky nightclub vibe. I’ve copied the lyrics below. [Spotify]
 Als je bij de Allerhoogste woont, mag je in zijn schaduw slapen. Als je zegt: ‘De Hoogste is mijn huis. mijn God, ik kan op u vertrouwen’, dan mag je in zijn schaduw slapen.
 Het is God die jou bevrijdt van de dood, de zwarte dood. Hij dekt je met zijn vleugels toe. Ga maar slapen. Je bent moe. Zijn trouw zal jou beschermen. Dan kun je slapen, dan kun je slapen. God waakt over jou. Dan kun je slapen.
 Voor de angst die elke avond komt, hoef je niet meer bang te wezen, ook al spookt de zwarte dood weer rond, al sloopt een ziekte alle mensen, jij hoeft niet meer bang te wezen.
 Ook al komt de dood dichtbij, vallen duizend mensen om, toch zul jij altijd veilig zijn wat de rest ook overkomt en slechte mensen krijgen, durf je te kijken, durf je te kijken? hun verdiende loon. Durf je te kijken?
 Jij zei ooit: ‘Mijn God, u bent mijn huis. Geen ziekte komt de drempel over.’ Die ellende gaat je deur voorbij, sinds je dicht bij God ging wonen. Geen ziekte komt je drempel over.
 Zijn engelen staan klaar. Ze dragen je op handen. God stuurt ze met je mee. Je stoot je nergens aan. De leeuw, de draak, de adder jij loopt over ze heen.
 Want je houdt van mij, zegt God, en die liefde maakt je vrij. Ik dek je met mijn vleugels toe, omdat jij weet wie ik ben. Je kent mijn naam en roept me. Ik kom je redden, ik kom je redden. En ik antwoord jou: ik kom je redden.
 In de zwartste nacht blijft ik bij jou. Ik red je en ik geef je leven. Deze keer is alle eer voor jou. Ik zeg: Ik ben voor jou een zegen! Voor jou een lang gelukkig leven!
[Outro] Lang en gelukkig, lang zul je leven, lang zul je leven, lang en gelukkig, lang zul je le ven! [source]
15. “In Him I Will Trust” by Sherri Youngward: Covering Psalm 91:1–5, this is one of sixteen psalm-passage settings by Bay Area singer-songwriter Sherri Youngward. For more, see her two Scripture Songs albums.
>>Black Art: In the Absence of Light (HBO): Directed by Sam Pollard, this ninety-minute documentary is an excellent introduction to the work of some of the foremost Black visual artists working in the US today. It opens by discussing the landmark 1976 exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art, the first comprehensive survey of such. Curated by art historian and artist David C. Driskell (the main voice of the documentary), the exhibition, which opened at LACMA, showed the public that there is a lineage and a history, starting with early Black American artists like Joshua Johnson, Robert S. Duncanson, Edward Bannister and extending forward to artists like Romare Bearden, Charles White, Alma Thomas, and others. The exhibition inspired a whole new generation of Black artists, many of whom were encountering the work of their artistic forebears in person for the first time.
A range of contemporary Black artists are interviewed: Kerry James Marshall, Sanford Biggers, Jordan Casteel, Faith Ringgold, Richard Mayhew, Radcliffe Bailey, Kehinde Wiley, Amy Sherald, Hank Willis Thomas, Glenn Ligon, Fred Wilson, Carrie Mae Weems, Kara Walker, Theaster Gates, Betye Saar. So are several Black curators, art historians, and collectors, like Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean, and Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, “the focal point of African American cultural and artistic production” since 1968 and “one of the most important institutions that we have,” as Weems says in the film. Another interviewee throughout is Maurice Berger, an art historian (who is white) and longtime voice against racism in the art world.
Both Driskell and Berger died of coronavirus while the film was in postproduction, and it is dedicated to their memory, as a postscript reads.
You can watch it for free, regardless of HBO subscription status, through March 17. HBO has also published a curriculum and art-making activities as supplements, which you can find at the link.
>> The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song (PBS): Written, hosted, and co-produced by Henry Louis Gates Jr., this two-part docuseries premiered February 16. It’s impossible to separate Black religion, politics, and culture, so the documentary weaves them all together over the course of four hours, showing how for centuries the Black church was the epicenter of Black life and exploring its role in the twenty-first century. I think it does a great job overall of avoiding an overly simplistic narrative.
The Black Church “traces the 400-year-old story of the Black church in America, all the way down to its bedrock role as the site of African American survival and grace, organizing and resilience, thriving and testifying, autonomy and freedom, solidarity and speaking truth to power. The documentary reveals how Black people have worshipped and, through their spiritual journeys, improvised ways to bring their faith traditions from Africa to the New World, while translating them into a form of Christianity that was not only truly their own, but a redemptive force for a nation whose original sin was found in their ancestors’ enslavement across the Middle Passage.”
You can watch online for free; just download the PBS Video app, or visit YouTube: episode 1; episode 2.
SONG: “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” performed by Victory Boyd: WOW. Such a beautiful interpretation of this classic hymn. Victory writes, “I’m continually inspired by this song and how it was written in the 1800’s by 2 brothers both African Americans that saw and experienced great affliction in this Country… yet they still had hope. They still had a song of freedom on their lips and they encouraged EVERY voice to join in and sing alongside them this song of freedom. Recorded LIVE at The Secret Place.” [HT: SALT Project]
“As a Catholic priest and son of Italian immigrants, I bear the religious and ethnic burden of ancestral crimes perpetrated on the first inhabitants of the Americas,” Giuliani once said. “Many have been converted to Christianity, but in doing so some find it difficult to retain their indigenous culture. My intent, therefore, in depicting Christian saints as Native Americans is to honor them and to acknowledge their original spiritual presence on this land. It is this original Native American spirituality that I attempt to celebrate in rendering the beauty and excellence of their craft as well as the dignity of their persons.”
ALBUM: Hymns by Paul Zach: Released February 5, this new album by Paul Zach comprises eight of his favorite hymns plus two originals, with vocal contributions by Liz Vice, Page CXVI, Leslie Jordan, Taylor Leonhardt, and The Sing Team. There has been a lot of experimentation in the hymns genre among recording artists, but what Zach gives us is something quiet and pared-down, which is exactly what I like. And as I’ve said before, Zach’s voice is so wonderfully expressive. He’s a joy to listen to and to sing along with. Below is the opening track, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” followed by Zach’s gorgeous setting of Psalm 23. The album is available on iTunes and Spotify.