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First, there is Good Friday

28 March 2013

Spirituals can make the point well, says John Pridmore


Messenger: white angel, from a fresco of the Myrrh-bearing Women, in the Monastery of Milaseva, Serbia,c.1235, which appears inChoose Life: Christmas and Easter sermons in Canterbury Cathedralby Rowan Williams. This includes Lord Williams's new introduction to these 22 meditative sermons (Bloomsbury, £10.99(£9.90); 978-1-4081-9038-8)

Messenger: white angel, from a fresco of the Myrrh-bearing Women, in the Monastery of Milaseva, Serbia,c.1235, which appears inChoose Life: Christma...

Dem Dry Bones: Preaching, death and hope
Luke A. Powery
Fortress Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT602 )

WE LIKE to say that the gospel is good news. The claim is only partly true. Luke Powery's passionate study of the spirituals, sung by the enslaved black people of America, tells the larger truth, that to preach the good news one must preach the bad news, too.

Christianity insists on the inescapability of suffering, pain, sorrow, and death: the realities that the slaves knew only too well. Much contemporary preaching would have it otherwise, guaranteeing you health, wealth, and happiness if you become a Christian. (There are conditions, of course, including the requirement that you donate generously to the church whose pastor may need a larger jacuzzi.) Such "candy theology" is the grotesque mutant of Christianity peddled by American televangelists and by countless churches in poor places that preach a "prosperity gospel". There were many of the latter in Hackney, where once I worked.

It would be a bad mistake to categorise Powery's fine book as yet another study of African American spirituals. Primarily, this is a homiletical work, a theological consideration of what must take place if we are to preach authentically. Spirituals, heard as "musical sermons", yield an understanding of preaching which is unevasive about the certainty of death and all the "little deaths" that daily afflict us. Such preaching is true to "the whole gospel in its gory glory". Powery suggests that his book is work not done before. It is certainly un- likely that it has ever been done as well.

Much is made of Ezekiel 37, the passage that both inspires a thrilling spiritual and provides the title of this book. Dry bones - death - are the necessary context of preaching. But if death is the necessary context, the animating Spirit (staying with Ezekiel 37) is the divine reality that enables the preacher to speak - or to sing - hopefully. "There is" - despite it all, through it all - "a balm in Gilead." Spirituals integrate death and hope. To be sure, we need to listen to them sung to sense how this synthesis is achieved, but Powery's expert analysis of their lyrics goes a long way to showing how the slaves' valley of death was illumined by hope.

And this is what true preaching must always be. The great biblical themes on which the spirituals linger - above all, the death of Jesus ("the death-threat to death", as Powery calls it) and an eschatology that, for all its aching longing for the other side of the river, is yet a "future present hope" - must still fire the preacher's heart and words.

Powery starts writing his book in a library whose windows overlook a cemetery. He ends his book by recalling another one, the cemetery in which he buried his ten-year-old niece. He does not duck death, as do the prosperity evangelists about whom he barely contains his anger. Like Augustine, he contends that death, literally and figuratively, is "the pillow, the foundation, for Christian proclamation".

Readers - may there be many - of this important book may reflect that it is not only the sharp-suited evangelists who promote the heresy that Christian allegiance benefits you materially. There are less crude ways of telling lies.

The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.

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