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«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. ...»

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Contemporary theorists of preaching affirm that singing is preaching and preaching is singing. One of the key homileticians to highlight the musicality of black preaching is William C. Turner. He writes poetically that during the climactic surplus of the sermon, the preacher becomes “an instrument—a flute through which divine air is blown, a harp whose strings are plucked by God.”34 This description is rightly musical as the preacher uses music to do the ministry of proclamation. Elsewhere, he calls the music of preaching “singing in the spirit.”35 In The Jazz of Preaching, Kirk Byron Jones also affirms the marriage between music and preaching when he writes, “Musicians play notes; preachers play words.

Sometimes they even sing them.”36 In his eulogy for pastor Sandy Ray, Gardner Taylor noted that it was difficult to determine whether in Ray’s preaching one “heard music half-spoken or speech half-sung.”37 This rich interplay of sung speech and spoken song has deep roots in the historical relationship between the spirituals and preaching. It is a continuous trend in many black homiletical traditions because music in many ways has been as natural as breathing. As noted earlier, for those culturally rooted in Africa, the musical self is the natural self, thus sermons that sing and songs that preach are religiously natural. Musicality as a common characteristic of black preaching fuses the spirituals to preaching and helps one begin to recognize the spirituals as sermons, too, sermons that can teach us about preaching today. However, the emerging parallels between singing the spirituals and preaching do not only consist of the obvious musical nature but the ways in which biblical texts are linked to contextual realities.

(Con)Textual Nature Another reason to claim the spirituals as sermons and as a helpful resource is the way they appropriate the Bible in a manner that speaks to concrete realities in life, conversing with both text and context. The strong parallels between the sermon and the spiritual include the following: “narrative technique, the picturesqueness and the concreteness, the emphasis on personal characteristics, the familiarity with the deity...”38 A part of the narrative technique is how the preacher tells the story of God to the people of God. Telling the story has been critical in African American preaching; Henry Louis Gates even claims “only black music-making was 26 • DEM DRY BONES as important to the culture of African-Americans as has been the fine art of storytelling.”39 Gates puts music on par with story and W. E. B. Du Bois asserts them as the same gift, a “gift of story and song.”40 A song tells a story, too, just like preaching. The spirituals are “story theology.”41 They proclaim a story of how black people came over a way that had been drenched by tears and blood. They reveal how those under harsh existential circumstances “got over.” The spiritual “You May Have All Dis World, But Give Me Jesus” represented the “narcotic doctrine” that the folk preacher instilled in those suffering under Pharaoh’s hand in slavery.42 The narrative messages, the stories, of the preacher and the spirituals were the same. They worked hand in hand as companions. The spirituals even “helped to shape and to tenor the message of the slave preacher.”43 The message was the same as singer and preacher told the story. Their hermeneutical lenses were similar, especially as they interpreted the Bible to help tell the story.

An important aspect of preaching is engaging the Bible as an aid to proclaiming the gospel. “Exegesis of the text” is critical for proclamation.44 The spirituals are no different in that they engage the Bible to help tell their story while they preach. Howard Thurman names the Bible as a key source for the spirituals. He says, “The Christian Bible furnished much of the imagery and ideas with which the slave singers fashioned their melodies.”45 A brief survey of spiritual titles reveals the importance of Scripture in the spirituals: “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” “Go Down, Moses,” “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?,” “Mary Had a Baby, Yes, Lord,” “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” or “Were You There When They Crucied My Lord?” Singing and preaching were significant means for conveying the story of the Bible. “Through the sermon, as well as spirituals and gospel songs, the Jewish and Christian Scriptures entered and shaped the imaginative world of African-Americans.”46 The spirituals, like hymns, function as midrashim. According to Tom Troeger, hymns are midrashic because “hymn writers combine the spirit and concerns of their culture with the resonance and depth of the ancient text.”47 The spirituals operate in the same way as they merge the concerns of the enslaved with the biblical story. For example, the spiritual, “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?,” says, “Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel, Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel, an’ why not-a every man.” They needed deliverance and this story spoke to their situation of oppression. Especially when it comes to the story of Jesus, the spirituals fuse into his story “their very own pathos.”48 DRY BONES • 27 Dey crucified my Lord, an’ he never said a mumblin’ word.

Dey crucified my Lord, an’ he never said a mumblin’ word, Not a word—not a word—not a word.





Dey nailed Him to de tree, an’ he never said a mumblin’ word.

Dey nailed Him to de tree, an’ he never said a mumblin’ word.

Not a word—not a word—not a word.

The piercing, blood flowing, and the eventual dying of Jesus in the Bible are their story. The spirituals reveal the Bible as a mirror of our existence to help tell the story, the good news in our concrete situation. However, if the spirituals only engaged the Bible, a text, they would not be sermons because preaching is not a mere reiteration of the text or pure exposition of a biblical text. Preaching as exemplified in the spirituals must also speak to particular contextual realities. Sermons should relate the Bible to life, interpreting Scripture in light of one’s Sitz im Leben (life situation). In other words, preachers should also do an “exegesis of the situation.”49 The spirituals do this by relating the text, the Bible in this case, to context.

One man tells how these songs were created in light of particular experiences of the slave. He says, “I’ll tell you; it’s dis way. My master call me up and order me a short peck of corn and a hundred lash. My friends see it and is sorry for me. When dey come to de praise meeting dat night dey sing about it. Some’s very good singers and know how; and dey work it in, work it in, you know; till dey get it right; and dat’s de way.”50 In this case, the spirituals created relate to the happenings of the day. They speak to the local experience of slaves as an attempt to minister to the surrounding needs of the community. The needs of a community should shape the sermon. Thurman says the slaves had “deep needs”51 and the spirituals were a sermonic attempt to meet those needs, regardless of the situation.

These songs were sung at work and leisure, to children, over the sick and dead, at praise meetings, and in other situations. “The very heart beats of life” were expressed through these songs. 52 These songs transferred from location to location and generation to generation, causing changes to songs and even sometimes to their interpretation based on the setting, dialect, and occasion. These songs were flexibly suited to the life in which they were sung as the soul of a people was expressed in the language of the people, the “mother tongue of the Spirit.”53 The vernacular articulation of the word is important for contextually sensitive preaching. The spirituals as folk songs, the sermons of a collective group, are the “painted picture 28 • DEM DRY BONES of a soul” in the “colors of music.”54 This soul-full music, this spiritual preaching, like typical sermons, is focused on the survival of a people, thus they pay close attention to the needs of the community. The soul that is voiced is communal, which suggests another key trait of the spirituals as musical sermons.

Communal Nature The spirituals, just like preaching, are not the sole property of one individual but represent the collective voice of a people. Preaching is a communal word. The preacher goes “to the pulpit from the pew,”55 revealing that the preacher is part of a larger community. The same is true for the spirituals. Dale Andrews notes, “The community participation common to black preaching has also produced similar worship traditions in black spirituals.”56 In both, there is a rich sense of communal participation or what Evans Crawford calls “participant proclamation.”57 Most obvious in this cultural tradition is the performance of the call and response between leader and community, as noted earlier. For instance, in the spiritual “Go Down, Moses,” as a leader sings, “Thus saith the Lord, bold Moses said,” the community responds, “Let my people go.” The call and response continues until everyone joins in on the refrain, Go down, Moses, ‘Way down in Egypt land, Tell ole Pharaoh, Let my people go.

Furthermore, what accentuates the communal nature of the spirituals as sermons is their unknown character, in terms of authorship and time and place of origin. In his poem to honor the creator of the spirituals, “O Black and Unknown Bards,” Johnson stresses that the bards are “forgot, unfamed,... untaught, unknown, unnamed...”58 There are no specifics about who specifically created the spirituals. This suggests that these musical sermons belong to the community and not any one individual. They are “unnamed” because the community trumps the individual in this case. The unknown character of these songs implies that they are communal musical sermons. Even if most spirituals were created by talented individuals, as some scholars suggest, 59 the community provides the dominant themes as these songs are passed along and altered from one generation to the DRY BONES • 29 next via oral transmission. Also, the spirituals were “originally intended only for group singing” because “Negro spirituals are not solo or quartette material.”60 These spirituals are “owned” by the entire community.

These are trademarks of folk music. As these songs travel across time, they reveal a type of consensus within a community regarding beliefs, patterns of behavior, and so forth. Lovell notes that “in folk music, the individual invents; the community selects. The racial character of a song, therefore, is due to communal choice, not communal invention.” Folk songs, just like folk sermons, “grow straight out of the needs of the people.”61 The folks matter in preaching and, particularly with a musical sense of preaching, music in African culture is about “the bond of fellowship” between humanity.62 People sing or preach with each other and not for one another. The spirituals, like preaching, are “folk art” and the preacher is a “folk artist” or a “recondite folksinger” who engages in “folk work.”63 The “folk” focus means that the spirituals as sermons are in tune with the local community and its needs to such an extent that these sermons are collective property. Musical sermons arise out of the communal heart. This collective heart was under attack in the particular context out of which the spirituals arose, revealing how death is a context of preaching.

Social Context of the Spirituals The spirituals, musical sermons, were forged in the flame of slavery, where the stench of death permeated life. These songs were literally a matter of life and death. James Cone reminds us that “No theological interpretation of the black spirituals can be valid that ignores the cultural environment that created them. The black experience in America is a history of servitude and resistance, of survival in the land of death. It is the story of black life in chains and of what that meant for the souls and bodies of black people.”64 This death-dealing environment is the root of black preaching and singing. It is the foundation of African American religiosity, “a path through the blood of the slaughtered.”65 Africans were stolen from their motherland to take “a treacherous, transatlantic journey of terror”66 called the Middle Passage to the mainland of the Americas, a supposed land of the free. But “Before the ships sailed, many leaped overboard and drowned rather than be enslaved. African women, heavy with child, plunged sharpened bamboo sticks into their bellies to kill the unborn rather than have it be born a slave. Many refused to eat or drink and sank into melancholia so deep they died on board. We never did like being slaves!”67 This is why 30 • DEM DRY BONES the spiritual rang out, “Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom all over me, an’ before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave, an’ go home to ma Lawd an’ be free.” This context of suffering was “the fires of purgatory.”68 Some were even literally burned and tortured to death on lynching trees as if they were not even human. The enslaved had every right to sing, “Nobody knows the trouble I see, nobody knows but Jesus...” The sorrow and grief were overwhelming due to the existential reality of brutality. Yet, Johnson insightfully declares, “It is strange!” that from these people enduring such harsh realities this “noble music sprang.” He attempts to paint a fuller picture of the sinful situation when he writes, “they were, suddenly cut off from the moorings of their native culture, scattered without regard to their old tribal relations, having to adjust themselves to a completely alien civilization, having to learn a strange language, and, moreover, held under an increasingly harsh system of slavery.”69 In other words, the spirituals rose out of a situation not only of physical death but of “social death.” 70 Separated from what was familiar, even family, the spiritual “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” was created.

Thurman says:

For the slave, freedom was not on the horizon; there stretched ahead the long road down which there marched in interminable lines only the rows of cotton, the sizzling heat, the riding overseer with his rawhide whip, the auction block where families were torn asunder, the barking of the bloodhounds—all this, but not freedom.



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