The Holiness of Beauty: Paraphrasing the Psalms – An Interview with the Rev. Dr. Carl P. Daw, Jr.

How did you begin writing hymns and psalm paraphrases?

When I was a seminarian at Sewanee, my liturgics professor, Marion J. Hatchett, was the chair of the text committee for The Hymnal 1982, and since I didn’t know that this was the sort of committee to which one was appointed – in all my experiences of committees to that point volunteers were welcome – I approached him and said, “I hear that you’re on the text committee; I’d like to work on that.” Fortunately, he did not tell me that I was an upstart (he likely assumed that, as a PhD in English, I would at the very least know how to punctuate). Instead he said to me, “Well, actually, we’re having a meeting in Nashville in a few weeks. Why don’t you come along and see what you think.” Of course, what was really happening was that they were seeing what they thought of me. Apparently, I was not completely useless, since they invited me to keep coming. Bit by bit, I’d help out with the revision of a few lines, then a stanza here, a paraphrase there. The first time I wrote a hymn on my own was because we had the tune Bridegroom by Peter Cutts, but found that the old words were just not salvageable. So I was asked to write a hymn text to fit that tune. The resulting hymn was “Like the Murmur of the Dove’s Song” – my first hymn. That’s how it transpired that I worked my way up from revisions to paraphrases to hymns of my own. Why do we need new paraphrases of the psalms today?

A great danger with psalm translations – as with anything that we sing or do in church – is the possibility of making one text into an idol, such that it seems it cannot be changed. It has been said about church architecture that anything in the worship space that cannot be changed becomes an idol. This is true also of what we sing in worship. So it’s valuable to have different psalm paraphrases, as well as different tunes to pair with psalm and hymn texts, because these different versions will enable us to notice new things that we might not have seen in the familiar version.

A key example of the difference a paraphrase can make comes from that familiar paraphrase of Psalm 23, “The King of Love my Shepherd Is,” by Henry Williams Baker. The interesting thing about Baker’s translation is how it is so clearly influenced by the Oxford and Cambridge movements: it’s like a pre-Raphaelite version of the psalm. You can see this influence particularly when you get down to the lines that ordinarily read, “You anoint my head with oil and my cup runs  over.” For those phrases, Baker uses very churchy words: “Thou spread’st a table in my sight; thy unction grace bestoweth; and O what transport of delight from thy pure chalice floweth!” With words like “unction” and “chalice,” he very definitely gives an ecclesiological slant to the psalm. This is a classic example of how a paraphrase can provide a very particular perspective on a given biblical text.

This is the great power of paraphrases: they give us the ability to interpret the psalm text, giving it a kind of immediacy and application that it otherwise might not have had if we simply read a literal translation. Paradoxically, the more immediacy we can give a psalm paraphrase, the more that paraphrase contributes a sense of timelessness to the psalm. The paradox is that each paraphrase can be located at the time of its making, but the whole chain of paraphrases connected with one psalm adds to the sense that its timelessness continues into the present day.

What is your process when you write a new paraphrase for a psalm?

One of the first things I do is write out a prose paraphrase. How would I say this now if I were simply trying to express what the psalm says? Then I try to look for what I call “bridge” words: words that connect with the psalm as we have received it, but also that connect to events and concerns in contemporary life. So, for example, a word in a psalm about an unjust king might become “tyrant” or even “dictator,” depending on the scansion. “Unjust king” doesn’t connect to us now in the way that “tyrant” or “dictator” does, because (alas) we have recent examples of these latter words that make the immediacy of the idea far greater for us. Similarly, a phrase like “the poor” may not be as immediate for us as “homeless.” I try to find a phrasing that is true to the intention of the psalm, but that communicates immediacy to audiences now. Biblical translators call this mode of translation “dynamic equivalence.”

In paraphrasing for “dynamic equivalence” and immediacy, do you ever worry about losing the power and familiarity of the older psalm translations? 

One possible problem with traditional biblical and liturgical language is how we tend to take it as a kind of unit – a chunk of language – rather than having a sense of the various parts and how they fit together. Imagine taking down a wall and having five bricks that are mortared together: if you just take them down as a chunk, you don’t have an experience of the individual bricks. So too, in much traditional biblical language, like the King James translation, whole phrases act for us simply as linguistic units; we don’t see the texture of the language anymore, because the language has changed a great deal since those translations were completed. In such cases, the language can become an impediment to understanding. This is how we can get dangerously close to treating language as an idol of sorts: enshrining a text in one version, to the point that it feels unchangeable.

The alternative to revering one version of a text as an idol is to see each version as an icon. John Baldovin, who often comes to the Monastery, has a very fine article distinguishing between idol and icon in talking about liturgical language; I think that distinction applies to the language of hymns and psalm paraphrases as well. If we can see through the language into what it is trying to talk about, rather than looking at the language itself, then we’re getting closer to the intention. A psalm paraphrase is useful because it can, in fact, increase the transparency of a text that may have been opaque to us before. To be able to see through the language to what the text is talking about is really quite valuable, and paraphrases in contemporary language can help us do that.

Do you think about tunes when you work on psalm and hymn texts?

When I work on paraphrases, I usually start out by seeing what sort of meter the words will naturally fall into. Then, after I get a stanza together, I look for tunes that might work with that meter. This process ensures that the latter part of the paraphrase will be informed directly by the tune. Once I have settled on a likely tune, I try especially not to write against the tune, so that, for instance, during a series of ascending notes, the words might say something about lifting up, which would be appropriate, as opposed to a phrase like “from the depths.” At the very least I try not to work against the music to which the text is going to be sung.

How does chanting the psalms, like we do at the Monastery, add to the experience of the texts?

Chanting the psalms emphasizes the timelessness of them, especially in the space of the Monastery Chapel. There is a kind of sonic memory that is evoked by hearing those sounds in that space, which, to me, communicates a sense of transcendence that doesn’t come by singing ordinary ditties from our culture or reading the texts on their own. Chanting the psalms here opens a door to a memory we didn’t know we had. Among other things, chanting the psalms seems larger than any one person or any one community or any one time, and so it invites us to be part of that timelessness.

And the prayer book translation of the psalms chanted at SSJE is a fine vehicle for this timelessness, because it was created specifically for singing. You can see the difference if you compare it with the RSV or NRSV or NIV or any other recent translation. The psalms may have similar meanings in those versions, but the way the words fit together – the scansion and stresses – lends an inherent musicality to the prayer book translation. While there may be translations that are more absolutely correct than those in the prayer book, the prayer book gets the ideas across in a more beautiful way. Literalism is one kind of truth; but beauty is another. Anglicans are often criticized for turning the phrase “the beauty of holiness” into “the holiness of beauty” (and we can go awfully far out on the limb about aesthetics), but I am not sure that that is all bad. After all, God is the first critic, saying of the Creation, “That’s good. That’s very good.”

The Reverend Dr. Carl P. Daw Jr. is an Episcopal priest, writer, and hymn writer who served as the Executive Director of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada from 1996 to 2009. He teaches as an Adjunct Professor of Hymnology in the Master of Sacred Music program at Boston University School of Theology and acts as the Curator of the Hymnological Collections in the STH Library. Hope Publishing Co. has issued four collections of his hymns, and he collaborated with Br. Kevin Hackett on the two-volume A HymnTune Psalter. He is a regular worshiper at the Monastery Chapel. 

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