Friday, May 19, 2017

Greatest Best Seller of All Time? The Bay Psalm Book

Yesterday I began listening to the audio lectures of Professor Peter Conn on the theme American Bestsellers. It's a set of lectures in The Great Courses Series. If you're not familiar with The Great Courses, I strongly encourage you to consider checking them out at Essentially, the series was developed to give people an opportunity to hear great teaching on various topics that they may or may not have heard when they were in college and not paying attention, or perhaps failed to value because they had not had enough life experience to understand the significance of what they were learning.

The first lecture by Prof. Conn lays down the rationale for studying bestsellers. These are not necessarily the best books ever produced in America, rather they are some of the most influential, and for that reason worthy of our study. In this initial lecture he also points out the various ways bestseller lists have changed over time, whetting the appetite for what's to come in the series, including Thomas Paine's Common Sense, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Twain's Huckleberry Finn, and a host of other familiar titles, familiarity being the operative concept here.

Which is why the Bay Psalm Book seems like such an unusual first book to dissect, because I suspect very few of us today would add this to any bestseller list of any kind.

The reason Professor Conn selects this starting point is two-fold. First, the little volume could be found in a full one-third of the households in New England. And two, this book of Psalms reveals much about the character of these first settlers in America.*

Can you imagine if there were a best-selling Stephen King book that was in one-third of all homes in America today? That would be tens of millions of copies, and if read regularly it would be one highly influential story.

Professor Conn doesn't really suggest the Psalm book is the greatest. He only suggests in passing that a case could be made, albeit a weak one.

His lecture, then, uses the Bay Psalm Book as a lens to study the mindset of the Puritans, whose ideas were indeed influential.

The book was published in 1640, two decades after their arrival in what is now Massachusetts. The Puritan pilgrims had a number of idiosyncrasies, besides being a bit stiff as regards their devotion. One of the features of this volume is that it is a rigorous attempt at extreme accuracy with regard to translating the "Word of God." If you recall your history, the King James Bible was produced in 1604, and a beautiful translation it turned out to be, despite being produced by committee.

The Puritans, however, found the King James Bible to be a stumbling block. Its aesthetic features might tempt Believers to appreciate worldly literature more. This they deemed a bad thing.

This attitude brought to mind a story I heard in a lecture on St. Augustine, the most influential Christian writer of the first millennium. Augustine was an intelligent man and quite scholarly. He avidly studied Greek philosophy and was especially enriched by the beautiful writings of Cicero, beauty both in the concepts and the language, so much so that when he encountered his first Bible it was such a poor translation that he gagged on it. That is, if this book is really from God how could it be so poorly written?

In short, Augustine was put off by his first encounter with Christianity and he did not return to it for another ten years.

Alas, the Puritans had a mindset quite contrary to Augustine who once wrote "the gold of Egypt is still gold." The stilted translation they created was just the medicine they needed to keep them from becoming worldly. Professor Conn proceeded at this point to compare the beautiful language of Psalm 23 from the King James Bible with the clumsy verses of the Bay Song Book.

Translations do say things about the people. Prof. Conn talked about the Reformation's efforts to undermine Papal authority by means of translating the Bible into the language of the people. John Wycliffe was martyred for translating the Scriptures into Middle English, and a hundred years later the Tyndale Bible resulted in John Tyndale being strangled and burned.

Tyndale's translation took deliberate pains to undo the Catholic stranglehold on truth. He translated the words presbyteros and ecclesia as elders and congregation, as opposed to priests and church. This was a direct assault on the ecclesiastical systems that dominated Western Europe at the time.

All this to say I'm looking forward today to Prof. Conn's insights on another influential book from early American history, Thomas Paine's Common Sense.

For more, check out this Christianity Today article on the Bay Song Book.

Then wash yourself in Dylan's Slow Train Coming and get ready for Duluth Dylan Fest.

*By this we mean first European settlers, no the indigenous peoples who had already been settled here previously.

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