The Hymns We Sing

The Hymns We Sing

Hymn #850
Title: In a Deep, Unbounded Darkness
Author: Anonymous, Chinese Origin, c. 1952. translated by Francis P Jones (1890-1975); adapted by Mary Louise Bringle (b. 1953).

In the spring of 1953, the initial translator of this text received an anonymous Chinese hymn. This hymn had reportedly been used by college students as a theme song at a Bible study institute during the winter of 1952-1953 in what was then called Peking. Jones made a four-stanza English translation, “Father, Long Before Creation,” for the China Bulletin, which he was then editing. The first three stanzas of this version were soon reprinted in Christian Century… In 2010, in preparation for its bicentennial in 2012, Princeton Theological Seminary approached the present adapter about creating a new version of the hymn. Accepting this commission, she enlisted a colleague at the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song, who provided her a literal translation of the Chinese characters to assist in the creation of a new paraphrase.

Although they both begin with allusions to the opening verses of Genesis, comparing Jones’s first line with the present one provides some insight into the differing approaches of the two paraphrasers: Bringle’s style is more descriptive and evocative, and her language is more fluid and alliterative. As she explained in the annotation of this text she provided to Princeton Seminary, the phrase “beyond all merit” in 1.3 “is intended to straddle meanings: it refers both to God, whose goodness exceeds any ascription of merit that we could devise, and to the fact that God’s embrace of us is made solely on the basis of grace, and not because of any foreknowledge of our deserving.”

The opening of stanza 3 was greatly influenced by the Chinese characters of the original text dealing with images of “mouth,” “boasting,” and “joy.” Bringle saw this as an opportunity to incorporate Pauline allusions: “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:4) and “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31). In the fourth stanza she provides specific examples of women and men from the Hebrew Scriptures who have known God’s steadfast love, yet in the penultimate line is able to bring the references to a fitting Christian resolution in the hope to share in the messianic banquet (Revelation 19:1-9).

-From Glory to God: A Companion by Carl P Daw, Jr.

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