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Reviews

The Worshiping Body: The Art of Leading Worship
by Kimberly Bracken Long,
Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. 130 pages.

An author usually hopes that everyone will be eager to read her message. At the same time, she has in mind the chief audience of the book. In terms of the local congregation, Long’s principal reader will often be the minister/pastor, since in many congregations the ordained minister is both preacher and worship leader (or, her preferred title, presider). Long, however, emphasizes over and over that any member of the body can potentially lead the service, and thus her intended reading audience becomes much broader.

In Long’s discussion the term body has several referents, especially the church as the body of Christ, and the physical bodies of the worshiping communities and of worship leaders. Underneath these referents lies the notion of the physicality of our faith and our worship. After two introductory chapters, subsequent chapters deal with “Eyes and Ears,” “The Mouth,” “The Hands,” “The Feet,” and “The Heart.”

Long does a wonderful job of combining the essence, the meaning, and the theology of worship with the deed, the expression, and the “doing” of worship. In Chapter 4, for example, she beautifully summarizes the fundamental role of the Word—God’s voice in Scripture, in revelation, and in Christ’s incarnation. Then she continues to show the importance of words and voices in our worship. This chapter is especially significant because of contemporary devaluations of voice. On the one hand there has been legitimate critique of traditional (Protestant) worship with its words, words, and more words and the absence of symbol and sight. At the same time our culture of communication has become so digitized that there is hardly room for our voices. Fully aware of these challenges, Long still speaks eloquently for the essential need for the voice in worship.

The Worshiping Body deserves careful reading and observance.

Accompany Them with Singing—the Christian Funeral
by Thomas G. Long,
Westminster Press, 2009.

Thomas Long’s book is chock-full of insights, ideas, proposals, plans, and methods as well as (necessary) rebukes and scolding. The two most frequent themes are, first, Christian community—baptism, congregation, church, body of Christ, worship, traveling together—and second, acknowledging, honoring, remembering, carrying, and anointing the body.

The role of the church is probably the most dominant motif, beginning with the role of baptism. Perhaps not many Christians would immediately recognize a transparent similarity between a baptismal service and a funeral service. Long does a wonderful job of making that connection clear (see pp. 79-82). He digs deep into Romans 6:3-5 to celebrate the unity of baptism, death, and resurrection.

Baptism also inaugurates a person into full entry into the body of Christ (the church, believers, the congregation) and therefore Long pleads over and over to have the congregation present at the funeral service and at the grave.

Community and worship also include a sermon: “The funeral wants to proclaim the gospel . . . ; this gospel is the assurance that death has been destroyed by the death and resurrection of Jesus” (p. 136).

A second major emphasis in Long’s book is attention to the body of the deceased. Here, Long’s argument is mostly a remonstration against the modern habits of minimizing the presence and the importance of the body. Closed caskets, banning the coffin from the church service, private committal services, cremation, discomfort about seeing the body—these contemporary habits and emotions have supplanted the customs of neighbors washing the body, physically carrying the body to the grave, and remembering the deceased as an embodied saint living in the congregation.

Long deals with the overt theological question about the nature of life after death. A favorite expression in “Christian obituaries” is “Susan is now safely resting in the arms of Jesus.” That’s certainly a comforting thought when we have just dug a hole and deposited Susan’s body in the ground, where, as Long says, “the water and the worms will have their way with the corpse” (p. 173). But many theologians do not believe that we can so neatly divide body and soul. And how does the resurrection fit into this?

Long admits that some of his proposals row against a strong current of contemporary social patterns. Since cemeteries are no longer in churchyards, we cannot carry the coffin from the funeral service to the committal service. Much of the funeral responsibilities have been assumed by the “funeral industry” that has taken over the duties of both the family and the church. (Long does not so much blame the funeral homes as the church for relinquishing its role.) He also has difficulty with the church’s tendency to de-emphasize the proclamation of Christ’s death and resurrection and instead to use the funeral as group therapy for those left behind. (He certainly recognizes the need for comforting those who mourn, but not as a substitute for a full-fledged gospel message).

Long has even stronger reservations about the church’s ritual and message being replaced by (open mic) stories. “If the biography of the deceased is the only sacred story we know how to tell, then death wins again. . . . Only the story of the resurrection stakes out a victory over death, and this holy script needs to be told and performed again and again at funerals” (p. 137).

Agree or disagree with Long—but do read the book.