«1 Dry Bones Death as the Context of Preaching... it was full of bones... there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. ...»
Death as the Context of Preaching
... it was full of bones... there were very many lying in the valley,
and they were very dry.
Death is gwineter lay his cold icy hands on me.
hroughout the United States, many church buildings are surrounded by cemeteries like the Princeton Cemetery, suggesting that
the church engages in a ministry of life and death. Entertaining
self-help sermons or purely prosperity-gospel proclamations are insufficient when dealing with such weighty matters. One needs sermons fueled and powered by the Holy Spirit to create life and destroy death. Moreover, that image of congregations in the midst of cemeteries reveals that the preaching of the gospel occurs among the dead, in the midst of death.
In many ways, Death surrounds the church, attempting to intimidate it.
20 • DEM DRY BONES Death may be successful at times, causing sermons to die before they even reach the ears and hearts of the listeners due to the fear of preachers. However, reimagining preaching through the lens of Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones may help preachers face death with more courage, just like those musical sermons, the African American spirituals.1 Ezekiel and the Domain of Death Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones as the operating metaphor in this work reveals the pervasiveness of death in the preaching vocation. The historical backdrop of Ezekiel 37 is a situation of crisis for the “whole house of Israel” (v. 11). It is a collective crisis and death. Israel was already struggling in its relationship with God by deﬁling the temple and ignoring the holy nature of God’s sanctuary, causing God to call them a “whore” (Ezek. 9).
It is clear that “there was no honeymoon period” between God and Israel. 2 Eventually, the glory of God is removed from Jerusalem (Ezek. 10), indicating the correlation between the death of Israel, which is pronounced in this passage, and the absence of God. This gives God good reason to command Ezekiel to utter a diatribe and denounce the actions of Israel (Ezek. 1–24). If this is not enough despair, we hear from a Jewish fugitive that the city of Jerusalem has fallen (Ezek. 33:21), pointing to the historical fact that in 587 bce, the city of Jerusalem, the cultural, religious, and economic center of Jewish life, fell to King Nebuchadnezzar. Israel is in a multifaceted exile and thus it is no surprise that they say “our hope is lost” (37:11). Their dreams are “dashed by Babylonian brutality.”3 Yet, Ezekiel is called upon to “prophesy to these bones” (Ezek. 37:4), to proclaim a life-giving word to this community. It is important to realize that Ezekiel 37:1-14 is a part of the restoration discourses in this book, which reveal that “trouble don’t last always” for the people of Israel. In fact, this passage points to the full-blown restoration of Israel’s relationship with God in chapters 40–48 where there is a new temple and polity, and the diasporan Jews return to their land while the divine presence returns to the inner sanctuary of the temple. Indeed, the Jewish “clan, king, and cult would one day be revived.”4 This suggests an eventual holistic revival of Israel’s cultural and familial relationships, political and institutional structures, and religious systems. But this future hope is not the starting point of this vision.
This is Ezekiel’s third vision because “the hand of the Lord came upon” him (37:1), as it does with his other vision reports. The lifelessness DRY BONES • 21 and hopelessness of Israel is described with stark imagery. “The spirit of the Lord” (37:1) brings him to the valley of bones though it was believed that one could be contaminated by coming into contact with the dead (Num. 19:16-18; 2 Kgs. 23:14, 16; Ezek. 39:15-16). The spirit of the Lord brings him to the domain of death to preach. The spirit of the Lord did not give him a bigger car, bigger house, fancier jewelry, top-notch technological gadgets, more Facebook friends, or a better whoop than the winsome preacher down the block. The spirit of the Lord leads him to a “preach-off”
with Death. Tom Long notes that there is “the other preacher at a funeral:
Death.”5 But one does not have to go to a funeral to face death. Death is a part of life. Death is snooping around looking for its next victim, looking for ways to contaminate our existence with “little deaths.” Thus every time one enters the pulpit, the preacher squares off against death, surrounded by death. Even a quick reading of this text reveals that the most prominent image is the bones, which express physical and spiritual debility (Isa.
66:14; Job 21:24). The bones are described as “very many” and “dry” (v. 2), suggesting the vast experience of death by this entire “slain” people (v. 9).
“The valley of dry bones is the quintessential vision of human disaster...”6 Israel is indeed dried up and dead, which is why the “graves” image is used to depict their situation when the vision is explained (vv. 12, 13). If preachers are honest, our ministries take place at ecclesial graveyards because many of us are preaching in a valley of dry bones. Ezekiel demonstrates that to preach in the Spirit means to preach in the middle of death where there are very many dry bones.
Spirituals as Musical Sermons
Creation of the Spirituals The social context of the spirituals conﬁrms Ezekiel’s vision, but before investigating the speciﬁcs of that context, it is important to establish the spirituals as musical sermons, as preaching in their own right. Early accounts of the creation of the spirituals unveil their origin within the
preaching event. One ex-slave says:
Us ole heads used ter make them on the spurn of de moment, after we wressle with the Spirit and come thoo. But the tunes was brung from Africa by our granddaddies. Dey was jis ’miliar song... they calls ’em spirituals, case de Holy Spirit done revealed ’em to ’em. Some say Moss Jesus taught ’em, and I’s seed ’em start in meeting. We’d all be 22 • DEM DRY BONES at the prayer house de Lord’s Day, and de white preacher he’d splain the word and read whar Ezekiel done say—Dry bones gwine ter lib again. And honey, de Lord would come a-shining thoo them pages and revive dis ole nigger’s heart, and I’d jump up dar and den and holler and shout and sing and pat, and dey would all cotch de words... and dey’s all take it up and keep at it, and keep a-adding to it and den it would be a spiritual.7 In this case, the preacher’s presentation of a biblical text provokes the individual’s initial musical creation that the community then takes up as they “keep at it, and keep a-adding to it,” leading to the spiritual. In his study
on the chanted sermon, Jon Michael Spencer affirms this:
A perspicuous correlation exists between black preaching and the antebellum spiritual, for it is most probable that a substantial quantum of spirituals evolved via the preaching event of black worship.
Although it is likely that, apart from worship, slave preachers worked at composing pleasing combinations of tune and text to later teach their spirituals to their congregations, it is probable that the more frequent development was from extemporaneous sermonizing which crescendoed poco a poco to intoned utterance. This melodious declamation, delineated into quasi-metrical phrases with formulaic cadence, was customarily enhanced by intervening tonal response from the congregation. Responsorial iteration of catchy words, phrases, and sentences resulted in the burgeoning of song, to which new verses could be contemporaneously adjoined. Spirituals created in such a manner were sometimes evanescent, while favorable creations were remembered and perpetuated through oral transmission. 8 The creation of the spirituals through the extemporaneous musical sermonic delivery of preachers in conjunction with the congregational responses was apparently a common feature. Through the call and response of preacher and congregation, a song arose that I would argue is itself sermonic; musicologist Eileen Southern names this class of spirituals “the homiletic spirituals.”9 Other accounts suggest that the spiritual originated when a song leader was so moved by a preacher’s sermon that he or she interrupted the sermon by answering him with a song.10 Nonetheless, the spiritual was rooted in the preaching moment.
Many scholars take it a step further by even asserting, as Spencer does above, that slave preachers were probably the main creators and teachers of the spirituals. At least there is a “strong suspicion” that this is so.11 James DRY BONES • 23 Weldon Johnson, an early interpreter of the spirituals, refers respectfully to the creator of the spirituals as the “black and unknown bards” and does not equate the creators with preachers per se. Rather, he claims that the makers and leaders of song were a “recognized order of bards” who possessed “a gift of melody, a talent for poetry, a strong voice, and a good memory.”12 Despite this difference of opinion on the creator and teacher of these songs, there is agreement on the connection between the creation of the spirituals and preaching, though spirituals were also created apart from communal worship. Moreover, in his collection of poetry written in the manner of old-time folk sermons, God’s Trombones, Johnson reveals the natural overlap of preaching and spirituals when he describes his work and declares, “I have, naturally, felt the inﬂuence of the Spirituals,”13 though it was impossible to create the actual atmosphere that he experienced. He says that his sermonic poems would be best intoned because “the undertone of singing was often soft accompaniment to parts of the sermon.”14 John Work calls this musical accompaniment the “moan.”15 Others go beyond viewing the spirituals as mere accompaniment to the sermon. E. Franklin Frazier notes that slave “preaching consisted of singing sacred songs which have come to be known as the Spirituals.”16 Thus the spirituals were not only created in the preaching moment sparked by preachers’ musicality and congregational “talk back” or sung to “add momentum to the gospel”17 in its accompaniment, but the very nature of preaching “consisted of” singing these songs. Singing the spirituals was a part of what it meant to preach; thus even singing the spirituals counted as preaching. The spirituals were the word set to music and their composition by a preacher during a sermon has led some to call these types “preaching spirituals.”18 John Lovell asserts that “Many spirituals could qualify as sermons.”19 These songs were indeed “prayers, praises, and sermons.”20 All of this suggests a convergence between the singing of spirituals and preaching. The most profound sign of their union is the musicality of both.
One of the key traits of the spirituals as sermons is their musical essence.
African American sermons have historically been known to be musical because music and speech are inseparable as African traditions treat songs like speech and speech like songs. Henry Mitchell reminds us that the “languages of Africa are manifestly tonal.”21 There is a “proneness to sing” revealing “[their] natural self, which is a musical self.”22 This musical self is 24 • DEM DRY BONES poignantly revealed in what is known as the chanted sermon. According to Bruce Rosenberg, “the chanted folk sermon is never far from the spiritual”;
he views the chanted sermon as a “conﬂation of the prose sermon and the spiritual.”23 Their historical roots come out of the same soil. In fact, chanting preachers know themselves to be “spiritual” preachers as opposed to “manuscript” preachers. 24 This has to do with whether one uses a manuscript or not to assist in preaching, but it also suggests the equation of “spiritual” with a musical type of preaching, known as chanting, intoning, or whooping. The climax of a sermon that shifts to chanting is described in a 1932 essay: “With the coming of the spirit... the speaker’s entire demeanor changes.... His voice, changed in pitch, takes on a mournful, singing quality, and words ﬂow from his lips in such a manner as to make an understanding of them almost impossible. 25 This “singing quality” of the sermon is known as “giving gravey.”26 It is a spiritual way of preaching that is tonal and “sonorous,” making a sermon melodious.27 Thus the sermon sings and this is “spiritual” preaching. The chanted portion of a sermon is the most obvious convergence of song and speech, revealing that “preaching is musical.”28 In addition, though the most popular opinion is that the spirituals originated from the preaching moment, Rosenberg writes, “One is inclined to approach the origin of the chanted sermon by the circuitous route of the spiritual for several reasons. The sermons are repetitious in the same ways the spirituals are. And an extraordinary number of sermon lines come directly from spirituals.”29 From his perspective, the chanted sermon stems from the spirituals, which may be another reason for calling it “spiritual” preaching.
Regardless of the debates on the origins of the sermon and spirituals, there is a symbiosis between singing and preaching, particularly the singing of the spirituals and the intonation of sermons. This symbiotic relationship is demonstrated in numerous ways, including, but not limited to, performative dimensions, such as the “African call-and-response song style,”30 which is present in both singing and preaching. This convergence prompts Valentino Lassiter to assert, “The slave preacher...
worked much in the same mode as the singer of spirituals.”31 The cultural tradition of overlap between singing and preaching, song and speech, continues today. The “musical voice” of old-time black preachers, the voice of a trombone, permeates various contemporary African American preaching traditions. 32 Preachers may quote hymns or spirituals in their sermons, but they will also sing. Singers will also preach. Queen of gospel music and pastor Shirley Caesar captures in her own ministry the fusion of singing DRY BONES • 25 and preaching in an interview when she says, “I sing my sermons and I preach my songs.”33 Singing and preaching are different sides of the same homiletical coin.