Words Made Flesh

God’s Word and words made flesh in preaching and worship matter.

Communication and not the noise of slogans or the repetition of cliches is becoming more and more difficult. . . speech is in danger of perishing or being perverted in the amplified noise of beasts. . . .There is therefore it seems to me every reason why we should attempt to cry out to one another and comfort one another insofar as this may be possible, with the truth of Christ.

Thomas Merton, Seeds of Destruction (1964)

Donna Giver-Johnston frames many of the chapters of Writing for the Ear, Preaching from the Heart (Fortress Press, 2021) with quotes like this one from Thomas Merton. As I prepare to teach a worship and preaching course to divinity school students this fall, I am reflecting on the noisiness and wordiness of today’s world. What Merton observed in the 1960s rings true today. Life-giving communication does indeed seem to be “in danger of perishing or being perverted.”

How do we listen through and in the noise for God’s voice, the divine voice that in beginning spoke light into the night and whispered life into human souls? And how do we speak words of Gospel comfort and truth that stir people’s weary hearts and heal their sound-fatigued spirits?

While Merton’s insights about the looming danger of his time magnify the importance of clear and authentic preaching for ours, this is not my primary reason for teaching worship and preaching in 2022. I am energized about exploring preaching and worship with my students because I cherish the sacred opportunity to hear the tone and timbre of God’s voice in their voices as they preach for the first time or explore new aspects of their proclaiming vocalizations. I also delight in the persistent beauty and power of homiletical and liturgical embodiments of God’s Word to heal, inspire, and transform.

God’s Word and words made flesh in preaching and worship matter.

This is the mysterious wonder of worship as a ritual act of hearing and embodying God’s Word proclaimed. In worship, we hear God’s Word spoken. We also encounter God’s Word come to vivid life through color, texture, movement, sound, smell, and taste. God’s Word comes alive to worshipers in everyday-sacred actions bread-breaking, blessing, baptizing, and anointing. Through worship and preaching—as it happens in churches and on social media platforms and in hospices and at bedsides and gravesides and countless other unexpectedly sacred places—we “cry out to one another and comfort one another. . . with the truth of Christ.

And that truth—that Gospel speech–sings through the noise to change hearts and worlds.

Words Made Flesh

In us.

God’s love
made skin and bones
muscle and marrow
hands and hearts
God’s words.
In us.

No more speeches or spin doctors,
debates or diatribes—no–
God’s nouns and adjectives and verbs
made alive
incarnating belonging
in us.

Words made matter,
planted in salvaged soil
savored and saving
in us.



Brief Book Review: The Women’s Lectionary

The Women’s Lectionary:
Preaching the Women of the Bible throughout the Year
By Ashley M. Wilcox

Who should read this? Ashley Wilcox intends this lectionary as a resource primarily for preachers and urges them to take a year to focus on women in the Bible and feminine images of God. I suggest that many others — catechists, teachers, Bible study groups, and anyone wanting to learn about and reflect upon the stories of women in the tradition — would find this volume thought-provoking and enriching.

What’s the main point? This volume is a lectionary based on women in the Bible and feminine images of God. The texts follow the liturgical calendar and may also appear in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year D, or other alternative lectionaries. The author includes commentaries for each text, which offer background, suggestions for preachers, and questions that could be used not only by preachers but individuals or small groups for reflection and discussion.

Why is this book significant? The author lifts up and probes the stories of the many inspiring and influential women of Scripture, women whose stories are too often overlooked, misinterpreted, or omitted in lectionaries. She also explores images for God that can lead Christians to deeper reflection and relationship with the Sacred.

Kudos. Kudos to Ashley M. Wilcox for asking a poignant question, “What if the church took one year to focus on the stories of women in the Bible?” What if…?  The Women’s Lectionary helps us to imagine the “what if.”

Wilcox, Ashley M. The Women’s Lectionary: Preaching the Women of the Bible throughout the Year. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2021. 294 pages. $45.00. ISBN: 9780664266196.

REVIEWER: Anne Koester
Anne Koester is Senior Compliance Specialist,
Protection of Minors Policy Manager,
and Adjunct Instructor of Theology at
Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

In This Issue: Yale Journal of Music & Religion 7, no. 2 (2021)

The Yale Journal of Music & Religion (YJMR) is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal publishing scholarship on sacred music in all its ritual, artistic, and cultural contexts across a range of methodologies.

Liturgy and Musical Inculturation in a Post-Apartheid South African Catholicism
Austin Chinagorom Okigbo
There is a developing trend within mainstream South African Churches to incorporate styles of traditional African music and cultural elements in liturgical functions. This is happening in places where such ideas were hitherto unwelcome because mission churches witnessed the denigration of indigenous African cultures by Europeans during the eras of both colonialism and apartheid. Inculturation Theology underscores the current drive for liturgical transformation. It comprises a part of Black Theology in South Africa, which developed as an intellectual framework for liberation during the time of the anti-apartheid struggles. Using the ethnographic study of the cultural mass at Emmanuel Cathedral in Durban, I suggest that through liturgy and musical inculturation, modern Zulu Christians are reinventing their indigenous cultural forms, which previously had been suppressed in the mission churches. I argue further that Zulu Christians use the process of liturgy and musical inculturation to articulate their religious experience as African people, as well as fulfill their aspirations to maintain their Christian heritage without losing their African and Zulu identities.

Bodies of Silence, Floods of Nectar: Ritual Music in Contemporary Brahmanical Tantric Temples of Kerala
Paolo Pacciolla
The Tantric concept of sound (nāda) as universal life-force has seen worldwide diffusion over the last few decades but such a fame does not reflect academic interest in the impact of Tantra on music. Indeed, while a number of essays have been written to demonstrate the contribution of Tantrism to the evolution of Indian religions and culture, its contribution to music has been left largely unexplored.

The word Tantra refers to a pan-Asian religious phenomenon spread over numerous centuries and including a wide number of sects having different and even opposite philosophical and theological approaches which may be addressed from the perspective of the concept of the body. In fact, the divinization of the body or the understanding of the human body as the major Tantric metaphor of the cosmos and its processes is the most important uniting factor of such diversity. The tradition of Brahmanical temple Tantrism practiced in contemporary Kerala, with its own map of the body, interior practices and rituals including music, helps an understanding of the concepts and ideas embedded in Tantric ritual practices and musical forms. It adopts the human body as the model for temple architecture and also for musical forms and intends the ritual activity as a re-enactment of the process of enlightenment.

By adopting a multidimensional approach including ethnography, musical analysis and textual sources, this article studies how ritual music is structured and attributed meaning in the Brahmanical temple Tantric tradition of contemporary Kerala. It reconstructs a narration behind the contemporary ritual procedure associated with the pouring of water and other substances (abhiṣeka) on the icon of the deity and argues that the ideas embedded in compositional forms mirror and complement such narration.

The Dance of Ādi Śakti: The Goddess in the Songs of Bharati and Nazrul
Achintya Prahlad
C Subramania Bharati (1882-1921) and Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) were significant poet-songwriters of the Indian freedom struggle. Their works explore a wide range of themes – political, philosophical, romantic and devotional. Both poets were educated in rāga music, which is prominent in many of their songs. Bharati wrote in Tamil, while Nazrul wrote in Bangla. It is highly unlikely that they read or were influenced by each other’s works. However, one finds several similarities in their poetry, especially the importance given to the goddess Ādi Śakti in her various forms, Kālī in particular. The goddess plays a major role in their national consciousness; yet, they are not sectarian in their approach, and believe strongly in an inclusive Indian nation. Both of them criticize caste and patriarchy, and turn the worship of the goddess into a revolutionary act. Neither was confined to one religion or to the worship of only one deity, or to one genre of poetry. Bharati, a Tamil Brahmin, challenged the supremacy of his own caste. Nazrul, who was from a Muslim family, sang songs of Islamic and Hindu devotion alike. The goddess occupies a special place in both their hearts. Crucially, both poets used religious imagery propelled by music to convey their progressive and liberationist ideals to a large public. My work is a comparative exploration – the first, to my knowledge – of their songs on the goddess. I choose three broad aspects of the goddess: the beauty within the terrifying; the goddess as a child or daughter; and the goddess of the nation. Through these, I examine points of convergence in their poetry, the musical interpretations of their works, the influence of their contrasting cultural backgrounds, their views on women and caste, and how the goddess inspires them to contribute to the struggle for a free India.

Sermon and Song: A Musically Integrative Homiletic
Catherine E. Williams
For centuries the interdisciplinary dyad of sermon and song has been in the toolkit of effective preachers. Yet scholarship on conjoined preaching and singing has been relatively sparse, despite the abundance of strong biblical, historical, and cultural warrants for its effectiveness as a means of proclamation. Seminary students have been known to graduate without ever seeing the synergistic combination of sermon and song in a preaching syllabus. With the help of musical analogue Theme and Variations, this essay illustrates a variety of ways this preaching method works for musical and “non-musical” users alike. It highlights the spiritual and cultural value of this blended form of preaching to communities of color, particularly in Black preaching traditions. Ultimately the article shows the need for preachers and teachers of preaching to more honestly engage with the values and needs of increasingly diverse students and congregations by giving the homiletical dyad of sermon and song a more conspicuous place among sermonic methods taught in seminaries and practiced in pulpits.

Nadia Chana reviews Kirin Narayan, Everyday Creativity: Singing Goddesses in the Himalayan Foothills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

Carolina Sacristán Ramírez reviews Andrew Cashner, Hearing Faith: Music as Theology in the Spanish Empire. Studies in the History of Christian Traditions 194. (Leiden: Brill, 2020).

Brief Book Review: Claiming the Call to Preach

Claiming the Call to Preach:
Four Female Pioneers of Preaching in Nineteenth-Century America
By Donna Giver-Johnston

What’s the main point? Donna Giver-Johnston uses the hermeneutical framework of feminist scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza to focus on the experience of nineteenth-century American women who claimed the call to preach. The author examines the ways in which their call was shaped by their social, cultural and religious location and suggests how the experiences of these women can inform the conversation in the twenty-first century about women’s call to preach.

Why is this book significant? It urges Christian communities to listen anew to the actual experiences of women and honor their claim of the call to preach.

What will most inspire you? The fascinating and powerful call narratives of Jarena Lee, Frances Willard, Louisa Woosley, and Florence Speaking Randolph. They were women who acted with wisdom, courage and perseverance.  Thank you, Donna Giver-Johnston, for telling their stories.

Kudos. The author skillfully draws upon history, theology, practice and stories of struggle and success. She weaves together various threads, which makes this book a compelling read and one that invites reflection and discussion in both academic and pastoral circles.

Next steps. Giver-Johnston writes that through this volume, she hopes to “extend the conversation and enliven the dance.” This is a remarkable invitation. We need to listen to the stories of women who know the call to preach and lift up these narratives to inspire and persuade and we need to provide avenues for people to encounter the Mystery of Christ in the stories and preaching of women. We have for too long overlooked these call narratives and the vital need for the voices of women who are called to preach to be heard.

Giver-Johnson, Donna. Claiming the Call to Preach: Four Female Pioneers of Preaching in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. 321 pages. $99.00. ISBN: 9780197576373.

REVIEWER: Anne Koester
Anne Koester is Senior Compliance Specialist,
Protection of Minors Policy Manager,
and Adjunct Instructor of Theology at
Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.