Left to my own devices pt. 1

(. . . continued from here . . .)

Just as in music, there’s an element in poetry that can defy explication, yet come to roost in our souls.  poetrymusic

Poetic elements may come into play in Christian worship through song, of course; but also in certain spoken prayers — and, perhaps unexpectedly, in a limited cross-section of scripture passages.

In general, when words are formed and combined with attention to what I’ll call “poetic sensibilities,” it’s not as though the meanings of the individual words are altered, I don’t suppose, but the effect of the whole is enhanced — and possibly given a communicative edge.  This enhanced whole is what I experienced recently through a poetically sensitive apprehension of Philippians 2:6-11.  (For my first reference to the ISV rendering of this text, click here, and page down to the big, centered words.)

When the ISV or another version or person a) tries to reckon with the “poetic X factor” in an ancient text and b) achieves something relatively poetically viable, something deep within me is satisfied, enriched . . . as long as there has been no overt violence done to a more exegetically derived reading of the text.

Here, I must mention a couple of scholars’ recently articulated low opinions of the place of certain word sounds in human communication.  One mentioned that alliteration appears to be more common but confessed not having seen many instances of rhyme and assonance in ancient Koiné Greek.  The other scholar basically confirmed that impression.  Although neither of these trusted men was saying, “Nope.  No validity at all to assonance and rhyme, Brian,” neither of them knew of much significance.  I’ve read a thing or two that suggested the contrary, but I take at this point that a solid majority believes that rhyme had little or no place in Koiné Greek.

Yet people hear ​and respond to ​oral inflection​.  

​My 5-year-old hears puns and makes a pun on his own once in a while.

Entire languages are known as “tonal”​ — a trait indicating that the meaning of a word may be changed by the mere alteration of a pitch level or pitch pattern.  ​

It is my half-baked, general linguistic theory that the way things sound can make more difference than one might think — whether change in inflection of pitch or intensity, or relationship of sounds in proximity.

Check this verse from an alliterative poem (with updated English spellings) from the 14th century:

A fair field full of folk || found I there between,
Of all manner of men || the mean and the rich,
Working and wandering || as the world asketh.

It seems ​​logical​, ​given huma​n nature​,​ that ​at least a number of ​human ears​ — those attached to the heads of “aural learners,” maybe? — would respond not only to alliteration but also to rhyming or assonant syllables.  Think of how it feels — and here, all you completely left-brained readers must earnestly try to put on your friends’ right-brained hats — when you come to the end of this couplet:

For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above
To bear it to dark Calvary.

Here, the word “Calvary” completes the rhyme with the (omitted) line that comes just before my quotation:  “… has a wondrous attraction for me.”  In this instance, the power of the poetic element of rhyme eclipses the poor marriage of music and words in the phrase “bear it to dark Calvary”:  the triumphant, positive pitch pattern of the melody is almost repulsive in its ironic depiction of “dark Calvary.”

See what power the sound of words (and the sound of music) can have?  Imagine the infinitely better ultimate result when meanings of words and phrases are better combined with rhyming and assonant effects!

So, I am not giving up on this just yet.  I’ve now posed this question of two other biblical scholars and one linguist, and I have additional variety and breadth now.

To be continued . . . 

Old Christian Hymns

An old hymnal called Christian Hymns (three editions) was used in my parents’ early history in the South.  This blog is not about that book, nor is it about any other hymnal per se.

There’s a common misunderstanding in Christendom:  that a “hymn” is an older Christian song or a song from a hymnal.  This blog is not about that fallacy.  (See Song Book Content or Hymns — definitions, and one good example for more on this point.)

This blog is, however, about early Christian hymns.  Gary Collier has recently shared a more or less commonly known, neat listing of apparent hymn texts that appear in our New Covenant scriptures:

  1. Phil 2:6-11
  2. 1Cor 13
  3. Rom 3:24-26; 6:1-11; 8:31-39; 11:33-36
  4. Col 1:15-20
  5. Eph 1:3-14; 1:20-23; 2:14-22; 5:14
  6. Titus 3:4-7
  7. 1Tim 3:16
  8. 2Tm 2:11-13
  9. Heb 1:3
  10. 1Pet 1:3-5; 1:18-21; 2:21-25; 3:18-22

While not all of these texts qualify as hymns “proper” from a lyrical standpoint, the fact that they have been identified as a) poetic, b) lyric, and c) likely to have been sung by early believers is significant.  I will not attempt to comment on all of these but will begin with the first in the list.

In Philippians 2, Paul gives no hint that he is quoting from an external source.  The inherent Christology (≈ word about Jesus’ nature and person, His Christ-hood) is very direct:  e.g., the name that is above every name is lavished upon Jesus.   This name is not “Jesus,” despite all those worship songs that link “Jesus” with “name above all names.”  Rather, Gary Collier and others have asserted that YHVH, God’s divine namewhich is now tantamount to KURIOS (LORD)—is that name.

The International Standard Version has shown great care in rendering this and other poetic passages in English poetic form.  I would like to share a sample here, and I may share a musical setting of this soon, too.

In God’s own form existed He
and shared with God equality,
deemed nothing needed grasping.
Instead, poured out in emptiness,
a servant’s form did He possess,
a mortal man becoming.
In human form He chose to be
and lived in all humility,
death on a cross obeying.
Now lifted up by God to heav’n,
a name above all others giv’n,
this matchless name possessing.
And so, when Jesus’ name is called,
the knees of everyone should fall
wherever they’re residing.
Then every tongue in one accord,
will say that Jesus the Messiah is Lord,
while God the Father praising.

Scripture taken from the Holy Bible: International Standard Version®. Copyright © 1996-forever by The ISV Foundation. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED INTERNATIONALLY.  Used by permission.

Addendum, a week after initial composition of this blogpost:

For two different reasons, I floated questions about this Philippians 2 “hymn text” to two different internet groups.  And for multiple reasons, members of each group were somewhat critical of this ISV rendering.  Perhaps I have been too quick to gravitate to the ISV attempt here.  Perhaps my standards are wishy-washy when it comes to translation.  Perhaps my standards are too low when it comes to poetry.  Still, I applaud what I take as a fine intent of the ISV folks to render poetry poetically.