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The monthly Sing For Joy newsletter contains a letter from the program's host, Pastor Bruce Benson, along with a listing of music selections for each program and the corresponding scripture readings. If you'd like to receive a complimentary subscription, fill out our online request form to subscribe.

October 2019 Newsletter (Year C)

Pastor Bruce Benson

Rhythm Lessons

This time of year, one often hears the word "rhythm" not just in the music teacher's studio, but in ordinary conversation. The rhythm of school, we say, resumes; the metronome of the seasons ticks again as autumn colors spread across the land; daily life and church life settle into new rhythms, summer giving way to fall activities and schedules. None of these rhythms is the sort to make you tap your toes as if life itself were musical. And yet ... there seems to be something ineradicably musical about life.

Perhaps it is that we all have a life-giving drum beating faithfully in our chests, and the slower but equally vital rhythm of breath. Or is it the regular rise and set of the sun, the annual bloom and fade of wild flowers, or maybe the daily renewal of family love, like a familiar refrain that makes the heart glad.

In his brand-new book, The Art of Bible Translation, Robert Alter devotes a chapter to literary rhythm. I would summarize the chapter this way: 1) Translating rhythm from one language to another is excruciatingly difficult. 2) Most Bible translations fail to take rhythm seriously. 3) The rhythm of biblical language matters.

Alter argues that translators generally settle for translating the basic meaning of words — an admirable goal. But communication is more than that; it involves a complex reality we all know and recognize even when we don't fully understand it. Context matters, inflection matters, the character of the speaker matters, word play matters, rhythm matters. Of that list, rhythm is perhaps the least understood because often we experience rhythm unconsciously rather than consciously.

Well, that is not true, of course, with most hymns. They make us very much aware of rhythm. An index in the back of most hymnals even tells you the meter, that is the rhythm, of all the hymns in the book. Long Meter, Short Meter, Common Meter, and a host of others.

The Common Meter often used

In hymnody and song

Is recognizable and clear

And helps you move along.

A line, four iambs long, comes first

Then one with only three,

Then do that same thing one more time:

It works! as you can see.

But Alter's concern is primarily with biblical prose. It too can have rhythm, and when it does, we sense it, we feel it, even when we don't consciously identify it. Such rhythm, Alter suggests, elevates a story or passage from mere declarative prose into art. And art speaks to us in a different way. For lack of a more precise description, let's just call this way a more spiritual way. This makes me want to ask if perhaps music can make up for what a translation lacks. To put it another way, might our impulse to set the Bible to music, and sing it, be something the Bible itself embraces? That is, music does not distort the Bible, making it more artful or evocative than it already is; rather, music does what literal translations cannot do — allow the Bible to sound like the song of life it wants to be. Feel the rhythm; sing for joy!

Peace be with you,

Bruce Benson

Pastor Bruce Benson

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Lanterns in Boe Chapel

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Eugene Benbow

Mary Helen Detmer

Jennifer Anderson Koenig


Fred Albert

The Rev. Roger Bruns, on the 40th anniversary of his ordination as pastor in the Lutheran Church (ELCA)

Audrey Shadburn

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