Tag Archives: Bible Translation

Bible Sunday: Hear, Read, Mark, Learn, and Inwardly Digest!

Book_of_common_prayer_1552Hear, Read, Mark, Learn, and Inwardly Digest! These five glorious verbs, deepening as they follow one another in intensity of engagement, come altogether in one of the most justly famous collects in The Book of Common Prayer; the collect traditionally set for the second in Advent, and now used, in the new common lectionary for this Sunday, the 23rd October: Bible Sunday Here’s the whole collect:.

BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

This is surely one of the best, and most Biblically rooted prayers about reading the Bible ever! here is a brief reflection on each of these petitions followed by a Sonnet about reading the Bible:

Hear:

When it comes to our reception of scripture this collect starts where most people, at the time of its composition would start; with hearing! Most people weren’t literate, and though the reformers had made sure a Bible ‘in a language understanded of the people’ was set in every church, most people had to hear it read aloud by someone else, and of course the King Jmes Translation was made to be read aloud and not a verse of it was passed until it’s phrasing had stood the test of being read aloud, until it was something sonorous and memorable.

Read:

But of course we go on from hearing to reading, as so many of those first auditors did, for the translation of the Bible into English was the single greatest spur to the growth of literacy in the English-speaking world and Bible translation remains to day one of he great drivers of literacy and education with all the good that follows.

Mark:

But we cannot rest with reading, we must learn to mark. Mark here means more than simply ‘pay attention’. It means to make a mark, not only in the outward sense of marking up or underlining and annotation of passages, but inwardly to mark, to let the scriptures themselves underscore in us those passages which are marked out by God to make their particular mark in us. We all know such passages, the ones that, in a given reading seemed to have been marked out for us particularly.

Learn:

Marking, and being marked in turn, is of course the beginning of learning. Now learning by rote, done by itself for no reason probably does no good, but learning by heart can sometimes be a pathway to learning in and through the heart. I will never forget when, as a newly-ordained curate, I was called to the deathbed of a very old lady in one of those dreadful ‘care homes’ She was suffering equally from dementia and neglect and the nurse told me that she couldn’t speak three words of sense together. At a loss as to how to pray I began to recite the 23rd psalm, in the Prayer Book version. Suddenly I became aware of a voice beside me, faint at first but growing stronger. It was the old woman joining in through laboured breath. I had a strong snse that the person speaking these words was not the wandered old lady but the little girl who had learnt them all those years ago. We made it to the end of the psalm together and she died peacefully as  I was saying the Gloria. ‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever’ were the last words on her lips.

Inwardly Digest:

But there is more than that, the last petiton is the deepest. The prayer that we should ‘inwardly digest’ the scriptures has roots in a profound and ancient way of reading, still preserved by the church in the name ‘Lectio Divina‘. You can see its earliest roots in Jesus words to Satan, themselves a quotation from Scripture: “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God”. We are to live on, and be sustained by scripture just as we live on and are sustained by bread, to take it in daily till it becomes transformed into part of the very substance of who we are, giving us new strength.

After the prologue, the first sonnet in my sequence Sounding the Seasons; seventy sonnets for the Christian year, is called The Lectern, and it is essentially a hymn to scripture written in response to this collect and what the collect reveals about reading scripture in church. Here it is. As usual you can hear it by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.

The Lectern

Some rise on eagles’ wings, this one is plain,
Plain English workmanship in solid oak.
Age gracefully it says, go with the grain.
You walk towards an always open book,
Open as every life to every light,
Open to shade and shadow, day and night,
The changeless witness of your changing pain.
Be still the Lectern says, stand here and read.
Here are your mysteries, your love and fear,
And, running through them all, the slender thread
Of God’s strange grace, red as these ribbons, red
As your own blood when reading reads you here
And pierces joint and marrow…
So you stand,
The lectern still beneath your trembling hand.

Geoffrey Barnes about to read the poem 'The Lectern' at the lectern for which it was written

Geoffrey Barnes about to read the poem ‘The Lectern’ at the lectern for which it was written

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Hear, Read, Mark, Learn, and Inwardly Digest!

Book_of_common_prayer_1552Hear, Read, Mark, Learn, and Inwardly Digest! These five glorious verbs, deepening as they follow one another in intensity of engagement, come altogether in one of the most justly famous collects in The Book of Common Prayer; the collect for this coming Sunday; the second in Advent. Here’s the whole collect:

BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

This is surely ne of the best, and most Biblically rooted prayers about reading the bible ever! here is a brief reflection on each of these petitions followed by a Sonnet for the Second Sunday in Advent:

Hear:

When it comes to our reception of scripture this collect starts where most people, at the time of its composition would start; with hearing! Most people weren’t literate, and though the reformers had made sure a Bible ‘in a language understanded of the people’ was set in every church, most people had to hear it read aloud by someone else, and of course the King Jmes Translation was made to be read aloud and not a verse of it was passed until it’s phrasing had stood the test of being read aloud, until it was something sonorous and memorable.

Read:

But of course we go on from hearing to reading, as so many of those first auditors did, for the translation of the Bible into English was the single greatest spur to the growth of literacy in the English-speaking world and Bible translation remains to day one of he great drivers of literacy and education with all the good that follows.

Mark:

But we cannot rest with reading, we must learn to mark. Mark here means more than simply ‘pay attention’. It means to make a mark, not only in the outward sense of marking up or underlining and annotation of passages, but inwardly to mark, to let the scriptures themselves underscore in us those passages which are marked out by God to make their particular mark in us. We all know such passages, the ones that, in a given reading seemed to have been marked out for us particularly.

Learn:

Marking, and being marked in turn, is of course the beginning of learning. Now learning by rote, done by itself for no reason probably does no good, but learning by heart can sometimes be a pathway to learning in and through the heart. I will never forget when, as a newly-ordained curate, I was called to the deathbed of a very old lady in one of those dreadful ‘care homes’ She was suffering equally from dementia and neglect and the nurse told me that she couldn’t speak three words of sense together. At a loss as to how to pray I began to recite the 23rd psalm, in the Prayer Book version. Suddenly I became aware of a voice beside me, faint at first but growing stronger. It was the old woman joining in through laboured breath. I had a strong snse that the person speaking these words was not the wandered old lady but the little girl who had learnt them all those years ago. We made it to the end of the psalm together and she died peacefully as  I was saying the Gloria. ‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever’ were the last words on her lips.

Inwardly Digest:

But there is more than that, the last petiton is the deepest. The prayer that we should ‘inwardly digest’ the scriptures has roots in a profound and ancient way of reading, still preserved by the church in the name ‘Lectio Divina‘. You can see its earliest roots in Jesus words to Satan, themselves a quotation from Scripture: “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God”. We are to live on, and be sustained by scripture just as we live on and are sustained by bread, to take it in daily till it becomes transformed into part of the very substance of who we are, giving us new strength.

After the prologue, the first sonnet in my sequence Sounding the Seasons; seventy sonnets for the Christian year, is called The Lectern, and it is essentially a hymn to scripture written in response to this collect and what the collect reveals about reading scripture in church. Here it is. As usual you can hear it by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.

The Lectern

Some rise on eagles’ wings, this one is plain,
Plain English workmanship in solid oak.
Age gracefully it says, go with the grain.
You walk towards an always open book,
Open as every life to every light,
Open to shade and shadow, day and night,
The changeless witness of your changing pain.
Be still the Lectern says, stand here and read.
Here are your mysteries, your love and fear,
And, running through them all, the slender thread
Of God’s strange grace, red as these ribbons, red
As your own blood when reading reads you here
And pierces joint and marrow…
So you stand,
The lectern still beneath your trembling hand.

Geoffrey Barnes about to read the poem 'The Lectern' at the lectern for which it was written

Geoffrey Barnes about to read the poem ‘The Lectern’ at the lectern for which it was written

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Pictures in a Landscape; A Review of The Lion Classic Bible

The Lion Classic Bible

The Lion Classic Bible cover

After an interlude of poetry posts, I want to return in this post to my theme of translation, sparked by the celebrations of the 400th anniversery of the King James Version of the Bible. At the heart of that effort was a desire for openness and availability. The introductory epistle spoke of “removing the cover from Jacobs well” so that people could come and draw deeply of the waters for themselves. That effort to make something fresh and available is not confined to the meticulous translation of the exact wording of a sacred text, vital and primary as that effort is. It also applies to every telling and retelling of the mysterious and ever-fruitfull stories contained in the Bible.

Every parent who tells their children a Bible story in language they know their childen will understand, is also ‘uncovering the well’, and maybe dipping down to a depth their children cannot yet reach to lift up story-shaped a cup of that living water thats just the right size for their children to enjoy. Of course these tellings and retellings are not a subtitute for the source from which they are drawn, but more like a series of tasters and appetisers whch will prepare for a lifetime of encounters with ‘the real thing’.

So its important that when a book of ‘Bible Stories’ is published they should be told by someone who both understands the art of story telling and also knows that their stories are not a ‘definitive’ version, but rather an evocation, an invitation to love and grow into a reading of the Bible itself. By that meaure this Lion Classic Bible is a real success. Andrea Skevington has achieved a clear, compelling, and elegant story-teller’s voice. Though she simplifies things for her young audience she also knows when to elaborate and explain and at all times she seems alert to the need to invite and evoke an imaginative response. For a child’s imagination will often apprehend in a Bible story more than an adult’s cool reaon ever comprehends. So for example in her version of Genesis, ‘dividing the waters of the firmament’ she has:

‘..separate the blue above from blue below. so the wide expanse of sky unfolded shining and full of light’

This is lovely both because it has the child’s sense of pleasure in simple colour and yet with that slightly more ‘grown up’ language of  ‘the wide expanse of sky unfolded’ she is lifting her young listener up into a wider and higher region, linguisticly as well as imaginitively.’

Young listener, is a key term here. These retellings are clearly designed to be read aloud (as indeed the KJV was) and they seem to have been shaped on the tongue, for clarity, and simplicity, but also for their evocative sound and resonance. Here for example is her description of the ‘mighty rushing wind’ at Pentecost:

“It started with a sound- a sound like the wind – but this was no gentle harvest breeze. This was a shaking and a roaring: a sound of power whooshing and roaring about the house, rattling every door and shutter. The sound seemed to come down from heaven itself, and filled the house as the wind fills sails.”

This is fine writing. All the assonance of sound, power, about and house are working in her favour, and the choice of the onomatopeic ,but also child-like and celebratory ‘whoosh’ is excellent. Then she follows through all the exciting ‘whooshing’, with the phrase ‘down from heaven itself’ and the telling simile of wind in the sails, a power to move and change, which together bring out the theological depth of the event she is describing.

This book is also superbly illustrated, something of a feature of Lion’s childen’s books. As with Andrea Skevington’s text, Sophy Williams’ illustrations whilst attractive and colourful, are not at all cartoony or condescending, (a fault with many childens Bibles). Like the text, these illustrations work with the imagination to open out into mystery, rather than close down possibilities. Jacob’s lader for example, perhaps one of the most vital and numious symbols in the whole of the Old Testament, and an image that Christ applied to himself in John’s gospel, is beautifully done. I love the balance of light and shadow, the sense of mysterious purple night as well as the gold light from the angels wings that also seems to glimmer as gold dust on the ground at Jacob’s feet. But best of all here is the beautiful, spiralling, living trunk of the tree beneath which Jacob sleeps,whose top we cannot see, half lit by Heaven’s light and half shadowed by our world. That seems to me a profound image which will help readers ultimately to apprehend something of the mystery of Gethsemane and the cross.

These lovely pictures which are scatterd through the text as well as given full pages seem a good image with which to summarise the role of such a retelling as this.

This collection of well-told stories are to the text of the Bible, what pictures are to a landscape; evocative and well wrought glimpses that invite you to leave the gallery and set off on your own for some adventures in the mysterious terrain from which the pictures were drawn.

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2011 and the Gift of Translation

This year brings us to a great anniversary, which will have special significance for St Edwards, the church I serve in Cambridge. 2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible, and two members of the team who made this great translation were members of St Edwards. But our connection goes deeper, for it was at St Edwards, three generations earlier, that people like Bilney, Barnes and Latimer, our three Martyrs, had grasped that the gospel needed translating in the deepest sense, not simply translating out of one language into another, but translating out of paper, and out of ritual, out of the past, translating into people’s lives in the here and now.

Indeed I believe that the very process of Translation goes to the heart  of the Chrsitian Faith, because for Christians the Word of God has already made the greatest translation of all, the translation we have just celebrated at Christmas! The eternal Word, whom we could never have known or even apprehended, has translated Himself into our flesh and blood, translated eternity into time, and translated Love into action. For Christ’s followers the sayings of Jesus, the stories of His life enshrined in the scripture, only have their meaning when they are translated into the realities of everyday life, into ordinary conversation and action.

This perpetual and self-renewing translation has always been part of the life and work of St Edwards, and it has always been controversial! F D Maurice, for example, was pilloried for translating the gospel into social action, inclusion of women, education for the poor, and for moving away from the punitive and judgemental mindset that infected the church of his day, but in St Edwards he found a place where he could flourish and a community that would support his work. So, even as we celebrate a great treasure from the past and think of all the good that has come from 400 years of the KJV, we will be looking ahead to the future and seeing how to continue St Edwards historic mission to be a place where an ancient faith gives rise to new understandings and fresh expressions.

So during the course of this year I shall be posting to these pages some reflections on passages in the KJV whose language and phrasing I have found especially helpful but I will also be posting some more general reflections on translation itself, the translation and re-translation of secular as well as sacred texts. I will post some of my own translations of   other people’s poetry  and also some comments on the translations that have been made of my poems and other writings into different languages. To read what you have written when it is translated into a new language can sometimes be a very enlightening experience. Indeed the poet John Donne believed our own transition from earth to Heaven will be, thanks to Jesus Christ, a kind of translation. I’ll leave the last words of this post with him:

‘All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.’ (John Donne Meditation 17)

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