Auden, the Psalms and Me: A hot new book about liturgy?

Treasure hunters in the Episcopal tradition: In this movie still, Nicolas Cage and Harvey Keitel visit Trinity Episcopal Church in the Hollywood thriller National Treasure.

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By DAVID CRUMM
ReadTheSpirit Editor

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Hey! Psst!
Wanna buy a hot new book about liturgy?

We are, indeed, recommending an intriguing new book on this often-ignored topic. And, we admit this may seem like an eccentric idea. After all, when was the last time you spontaneously started discussing “liturgy” with your friends? Perhaps … never?

Search that word—”liturgy”—in Amazon under “Books” and the thumbnail results form a mosaic of our love-hate relationship with the idea of following a traditional cycle of prayers. Among the prominent attempts to encourage people to embrace liturgy, we find:

  • Shane Claiborne’s and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s Common Prayer: Liturgy for Ordinary Radicalsfrom 2010, in which these progressive evangelicals offered a fresh collection of prayers and readings.
  • Pope Benedict XVI’s attempt at reviving a deeper appreciation of the Mass in his 2014 volume, The Spirit of the Liturgy.
  • Tish Harris Warden’s The Liturgy of the Ordinarya creative evangelical approach to this basic concept from 2016—although, to be fair about this, Warren’s book actually redirects our attention to what she calls: Sacred Practices of Everyday Life.

Pretty quickly in those search results, Amazon displays a list of heavy-duty books about Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican liturgy. The most impressive books in recent memory about reviving a practice of daily prayer—the wonderful series created by Phyllis Tickle—doesn’t even show up right away in that search for “liturgy.” (Please note: If you’ve ever wanted to start Phyllis’s cycle of daily prayer, now is a great time to order her Christmastide volume.)

Given that steep climb to market liturgical books, then—this week, we send out an enthusiastic salute to the folks at Church Publishing (an official arm of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States). Just in time for the holiday gift-giving season, these folks have produced one of my own favorite “finds” of this publishing season: J. Chester Johnson’s Auden, the Psalms and Me

Johnson is better known as a widely published poet, “and it also is relevant to this story that I’m a member of the Episcopal church,” Johnson said in an interview. He belongs to New York’s historic “Trinity Wall Street,” chartered in 1697 by King William III. In popular culture, Trinity was the site of a major scene in National Treasure (2004), starring Nicolas Cage.

Perhaps that reference to a treasure hunt isn’t too far fetched. In his new book, Johnson summons his own literary talents to weave an engaging story that circles around and around his central subject, touching on a host of spiritual and historical references along the way.

“Other than the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer is the most commonly referenced work in the English language in terms of the phrases it introduced into our way of describing the world,” Johnson said in our telephone interview. “The Book of Common Prayer is a spiritual, historic and literary monument in Western culture, even if the many gifts this book gave to us now are taken for granted. There is a direct link between this book and the Elizabethans like Shakespeare who lifted so much from its pages and transformed and transferred its words into our larger culture.”

Johnson leads us on an exploration of those connections through the specific story of Auden’s interest in the American revision of the book, a lengthy process that unfolded in the 1960s and 1970s.

WHAT’S THE STORY?

W. H. Auden

Here’s the short version:

Did you know that the world-famous poet—who millions of tourists now find honored with a plaque in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner—played a key role in the creation of the current Book of Common Prayer used in Episcopal churches on a daily basis? Well, he did. Auden played a brief but passionate role within the editorial team producing the current version. Auden’s main concern was awakening church leaders to the timeless power of Divine language to draw together truly Cosmic forces.

“It takes a while to explain why Auden cared so much about this. That’s quite a story,” Johnson said. “But you can start to appreciate his interest by considering his family. Both of his grandfathers had been Anglican clerics. He had been a very active choirboy himself. His mother remained very high church and had a lot of influence on him. Auden really wanted to bring his own personal ear as a poet and his own deeper associations with the liturgy to this project.”

In two paragraphs, that’s the main narrative thread that connects the covers of Johnson’s book.

Johnson has a valuable viewpoint because he also worked with the Book of Common Prayer team, in that era, so he is able to tell the story in a vivid way. On that level, this book has an archival value in preserving a key chapter in Auden’s biography. But that’s not really the reason to buy this book. In pop culture, Auden doesn’t have the rabid following of the Beatles or Bob Dylan, whose every new book, film and audio clip goes viral.

THE POWER OF THE LANGUAGE

So, why buy this book for yourself or for small-group discussion? Because, in these pages, Johnson awakens our interest in the power of language and liturgy—and that’s true whatever our religious tradition may be! He charts for us a circular pilgrimage toward the mysterious intersection between human language and the sacred. Along the way, his chapters are packed with rest stops where we encounter a host of remarkable figures who similarly struggled with this mystery.

Among the people we meet is the frequently overlooked Inkling: Charles Williams, the one-time friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Where does Williams fit in this new book? Auden loved his work. In fact, once a year, Auden would pull Williams’ Descent of the Dove off his bookshelf and reread it. That particular Williams book is so dense—almost poetic in some passages—that it makes sense for a fan of that volume to read it more than once. Williams’ goal in Descent is to lay out an overview of Christian theology and history with a focus on how God’s Spirit connects all things in the Cosmos.

That is how Auden viewed the liturgy of the Eucharist in particular, as invoking and entering into God’s Cosmos across time and space. This placed such a high expectation on what the Book of Common prayer could achieve that Auden, at one point, even advocated turning the English liturgy back into Latin to regain some of that ancient language’s authority and evocative power.

Of course, as Johnson points out in his book with grim humor, if the founders of the English Reformation had been alive and in power today—they would have eagerly burned Auden at the stake for proposing such an idea! Latin, indeed!

FROM ‘TENDER MERCIES’ TO ‘HEART’S DESIRE’

J. Chester Johnson photographed by Jonathan Barth. Used with permission.

Johnson takes us back centuries to the earliest era of the English Reformation, not to relish in the drama of Henry VIII’s court, but to the throw a spotlight on the monumental writing and editing by Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, the originator of the Book of Common Prayer. Millions of Americans are familiar with tales of Cranmer, at least from hit TV series such as The Tudors. But Johnson focuses on Cranmer’s literary brilliance and Johnson also takes time to introduce the lesser-known Myles Coverdale, who produced the first complete printed translation of the Bible into English.

Why should we care? Isn’t this merely trivia, perhaps fit for the “Extras” disc on future DVD sets of The Tudors?

Well, Johnson is ready for that question and quickly convinces us that this deep dive into history is worth far more than esoteric footnotes. In the section of Johnson’s book that you are most likely to want to share with friends or in small-group discussion, Johnson provides examples of the many ways this Coverdale-Cranmer connection wound up affecting the rest of English literature and culture to this day.

That’s right. These guys had a direct impact on centuries of English writing—and on things you’re likely to say, today. There are pages of examples. Here is one short excerpt:

Through Cranmer’s and Coverdale’s work on translation and the creation of the Book of Common Prayer, numerous memorable phrases in the English language have come or have been derived from Coverdale’s Psalms. To acknowledge only a few, consider: “gray-headed,” “apple of my eye,” “poor and needy,” “tender mercy/mercies,” “softer than butter,” “heart’s desire,” “saving health,” “put to shame,” “strength to strength,” “green/greener pastures,” “green as the grass,” “corners of the earth.”

Just, for example, the use of the phrase “greener pastures,” which we frequently include in normal speech, harkens back to Psalm 23: “He shall feed me in a green pasture.” Or the “distant” or “four corners of the earth”—again, going back to Coverdale in Psalm 95: “In his hand are all the corners of the earth.” Of course, we poets and writers owe him a ton of gratitude for sprucing up and enriching our native tongue with phrases like these, which we have often stolen without the slightest hint of attribution or acknowledgment.

Now are you seeing an opportunity to discuss “liturgy” with friends or in your small group?

Have you glimpsed the treasure at the end of this literary hunt?

One more suggestion: If you’ve read this far and you’re curious about Johnson’s work, consider visiting his Amazon author page, where you will find a brief bio and links to some posts related to his publishing projects and personal appearances. You’ll also find a link to his 2017 volume of longer poems, Now and Then.

“My most recent book before that had been the 2010 publication of St. Paul’s Chapel and Selected Shorter Poems,” Johnson said as we concluded our interview. “I have also written longer poems over the years and they had been published here and there. Now, those longer pieces have been published into this new compendium, Now and Then. As I look back over 2017, this has been an important year for me.”

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Care to read more?

Looking for more great reading? Perhaps shopping for holiday gifts? Please take another moment to explore our own ReadTheSpirit Bookstore as well.

 

 

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