Beyond “sounding brass”

I encounter a new translation of St. Paul’s famous ode to love from First Corinthians. (“If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love…”)

Weddings provide many pleasures for the guests, but few of them are literary. Cranmer wrote a great wedding liturgy, but it sounds archaic to the contemporary ear, and jars at several places on contemporary sensibilities and opinions. (This isn’t an instance of “political correctness” in the pejorative sense: Unless the couple really intends that the the man should cherish, but not obey, his wife, while the woman should obey, but not cherish, her husband, why should they, just for tradition’s sake, promise at such a solemn moment something they don’t actually intend? Even ritual words ought to have meanings.)

One standby of the modern roll-your-own wedding service is St. Paul’s ode to love from First Corinthians: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, but have not love … ” (Full text at the jump.) In mildly modernized versions of the King James translation (with “love” substituted for the Elizabethan “charity”) it’s marvellous prose, and according to a statistic I just made up no more than 2% of the attendees at the average wedding will know, or be bothered by, the fact that the Apostle is writing about agape (roughly, goodwill or altruism) rather than eros. But the passage is now used so regularly that it lacks novelty; it’s in the awkward stage between the zest of freshness and the comfort of tradition.

So I was pleasantly surprised, attending a friend’s wedding, to hear what was recognizably the same passage in what were, to me, new and quite compelling words.

After the service, I had a chance to ask Fr. Gerald Caprio, who officiated, which translation he was using, and he modestly admitted he had done the job himself (from the original Greek, no less).

With Fr. Caprio’s permission, then, here it is, with the lines rearranged into free verse, more or less as I heard it. (Note: The first triplet translates 1 Cor. 12:31; the chapter break conceals the fact that Chapters 12 and 13 make up a single discourse.)

Be ambitious for the highest things,

and I will show you a way

that is better than any of them.

If I speak with human eloquence

and the eloquence of angels as well,

but speak without love,

I’m little more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

If I have a gift for prophecy –

knowing and understanding all of life’s mysteries,

and if I even have faith great enough to move mountains –

but am without love,

I am nothing.

If I give away to the needy all that I possess,

and even become a martyr

– but am without love –

I gain nothing.

This type of love is always patient and kind.

It is not jealous.

It is never boastful or conceited.

It is neither possessive nor selfish,

and is not easily offended.

It takes no pleasure in the failings of others,

but gains satisfaction only when truth prevails.

This love knows no limit to its endurance,

no end to its trust,

no fading to its hope.

It will outlast anything.

It is, in fact, the one thing that still stands

when all else has fallen away.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13, from the American Standard Version:

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal.

And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

And if I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profiteth me nothing.

Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not its own, is not provoked, taketh not account of evil; rejoiceth not in unrighteousness, but rejoiceth with the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall be done away; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall be done away.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

7 thoughts on “Beyond “sounding brass””

  1. SFIK, the Hebrew 'ahab, "love", in say Leviticus 19:18 is as generic as the English term. St Paul and the hellenized Jews of Corinth would surely have been aware of this, and may have been less than totally committed to questionable Greek distinctions. A religious interpretation of the Song of Solomon requires the wide reading. (Corrections welcome.)

  2. I was recently at a catholic wedding for a dear friend. I was astonished to hear the priest burst out, right around the part of the service that was all about love, into a hysterical denunciation of the "ACLU and Hollywood" because they "don't know what love is" and they "try to push their definition of love" onto the rest of us. Listening to the totality of the sermon, which I did very closely, revealed an odd mix of new age lingo on love, sexual and non sexual, with the bureaucratic imagination of the church in which the individual lovers' needs are subsumed beneath the church's needs. So every instance of free will choosing to love on the part of the marrying couple were bracketed by admonitions to remember that theirlove is only an instance of jesus's love for the church and of the church's love for them. Similarly, whatever they do is not done for its own sake but for the sake of these other entities.
    Despite my love for the two people getting married, I found the service itself kind of chillingly totalitarian in its rhetoric.

  3. I've had my bellyfull of Catholic wedding ceremonies. My ex's family is Catholic and I must have attended at least a half-dozen of them. I'm uninterested in hearing "I am the way and the truth and the life" from a preist's lips ever again. Nothing like making the invited guests feel welcome.

  4. I had the words from Ruth at my wedding…even though I'm an atheist (my wife's a believer.)
    Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God:
    Ruth 1:16 KJV
    I'm a bit of a communitarian, so I like the "thy people/my people" stuff

  5. From the version of Cranmer's wedding service that my wife and I used, the part that stands out most to me is the ring-giving promise:
    With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee honour, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow; in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
    It's quite an oath.

  6. I love that translation. It has the tone of contemporaneous speech and the resonance of eternity.

  7. I love that translation. It has the tone of contemporary speech and the resonance of eternity.

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