12 Nov 2011

A review: the Canadian Reformed Book of Praise, 1

Although I have had this collection in my possession for some months, I am only now getting round to reviewing it. Now that I have completed a first draft of my manuscript on authority, office and the image of God, I will offer my own thoughts on the new edition of the Book of Praise: Anglo-Genevan Psalter.

The Canadian Reformed Churches originate in a tragic 1944 schism within the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland, which post-war Dutch immigrants brought with them to Canada and the US. As far as I can determine, this small denomination is the only English-speaking church to sing the Genevan Psalter in its entirety. The Canadian Reformed could have followed the lead of the Christian Reformed and Free Reformed Churches and adopted the 1912 Psalter, with its regular metres and familiar hymn tunes, but they deliberately chose to stick with the Genevan tunes.

This led to the production of the Book of Praise, a title shared, incidentally, with the psalter and hymnal of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Its subtitle, "Anglo-Genevan Psalter," will likely confuse the historian of metrical psalmody, who will expect in vain to find therein the collection produced by the Marian exiles from England in 1561. But a google search will quickly set her straight.

This new collection is described as the "Authorized Provisional Version," suggesting that it still requires final synodical approval following a period of trial use in the congregations. The copy I have has a black flexible binding that is somewhat sturdier than paper. Its size is 8½" x 5½" x 1 1/8", making it bigger than its 1984 predecessor, which measured only 6½" x 4½" x 7/8". This makes for a larger, easier-to-read font. Unusual for liturgical books in the English-speaking world, it contains only the melodies, with a treble clef on the first staff only, replicating the visual layout of the old Dutch psalters and borrowed from the Dutch Liedboek voor de Kerken.

A major difference between the two editions is that the 2010 BOP abandons the liturgical use of the old second-person-singular pronouns (thou, thee, thine, &c.) in reference to God, nearly two generations after most other English-speaking Christians had done so. That the 1984 held onto this usage undoubtedly reflects the influence of the Revised Standard Version, which remained the denomination's preferred Bible translation until it was replaced two decades ago by the New Revised Standard Version. (The RSV's mixed use of contemporary and 17th-century pronouns was never consistent and made for some bizarre readings. But that's another subject.)

In virtually every way the 2010 BOP is superior to the 1984 edition. Compare the following first stanzas of Psalm 25. First the 1984:

Unto Thee, O LORD, my Saviour,
I lift up my waiting soul.
O my God, in Thee I trusted;
Let no shame now o'er me roll.
On my enemies be shame,
Oft without a cause transgressing;
But all those who trust Thy Name
Honour with abundant blessing.

Now the 2010:

LORD, for you my soul is longing;
O my God, in you I trust.
Do not let my foes disgrace me;
stop the taunts of the unjust.
All whose hope is in your name
you will honour with your blessing;
traitors will be put to shame --
those without excuse transgressing.

The first version was written by Samuel G. Brondsema in 1931, while the revised version is by William Helder. The latter is more straightforward, flows more easily from the lips, and reads better as well, insofar as it removes the unnecessary upper-case letters that visually break up a sentence (although the meaning of the final line is somewhat ambiguous). More of the psalm is expressed in the first stanza of the 2010 version than in the 1984, though the total number of stanzas in each is the same at 10.

In some cases Helder has improved on his own previous versifications, as seen in the somewhat stilted opening of Psalm 1 from 1984:

How blessed is the man whose walk is not
In evil counsel which the wicked plot . . .

Compare this to the 2010 version, which reads much more smoothly and naturally:

How blest is he who shuns the path of sin,
who spurns the counsel of unrighteous men . . .

Another addition to the 2010 BOP is the incorporation of the superscripts above each Psalm, e.g., "Of David. A maskil" for Psalm 32. Most liturgical psalters omit the superscripts, apparently assuming that they are unnecessary for worshippers, who would not be reciting or singing them in any case. (At least one Bible translation, the New English Bible, left them out altogether, although its successor, the Revised English Bible, put them back in.) The editors of the BOP perhaps judged that, if the superscriptions are part of the inspired text, they should be included in even a metrical psalter. But in the absence of explicit mention in the introduction, one is left to speculate on this.

More to come on the BOP. Stay tuned.

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