Catherine Madsen. The Bones Reassemble: Reconstituting Liturgical Speech. Aurora, CO. The Davies Group: 2005. Pp. 204.


This is a powerful book about liturgical language in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Madsen begins with a sharp critique of modern liturgies such as are found in most liberal churches and synagogues: “The [egalitarian] revisions call attention to themselves with a kind of smug pride (we know enough to use this nonsexist locution, we know that calling God a king is benighted) … forcing every congregant artificially into taking one of these sides…. But the very thing liturgy is meant to reduce is self-consciousness…. The self that knows what it thinks, and is chiefly set on making a public statement to the rest of the congregation, hears only its own voice” (5). The critique, however, is broader than egalitarian language. It contrasts modern liturgies which “reassure us that there is no need for acute attention” with older liturgies whose purpose was “to disturb and awaken” the person using the liturgy. Older liturgy “stammers”; it repeats itself; it evokes the numinous; it alludes, and does not make suffering explicit.

            Chapter Two is a dialogue with speech theorists, child psychologists, philosophers and others on the nature of language. There is, for instance, the “private speech” of children which is without the intent to communicate, without an audience, which contrasts with “social speech.” Prayer is closer to the “private speech” of children than to the “social speech” of adults. Liturgy is a form of public “private speech,” one that is spoken and listened to by many while still being deeply private (39). Metaphor is the scaffolding between feelings, thoughts, and insights (55); its rhetoric is crucial to liturgy and its exclusion from much of modern liturgy is to be regretted.

            Chapter Three is a dialogue with Tyndale, Bacon, Steiner, and others on translation and the use of language. Classical writing captures the personality as it emerges; it does not state facts. Classical translations and liturgy prefer strangeness to intelligibility, and understatement to explicitness (74, 102). Classical literature was written to be heard; modern liturgy is intended to be read (85). The purpose of liturgy is not to make an argument but to describe the move from one state of consciousness to another as one progresses through the text (97).

            Chapter Four is a chapter on what liturgy could be. It is the most powerful of the chapters because Madsen contrasts the “affective thinness” of modern liturgies with the profound speech of survivors of sexual and physical abuse. Having done some work in both areas, I confess that I had never appreciated the depth of the contrast between the two types of language. The words used by survivors are always strong, powerful. They are on the edge of human experience. They deal with suffering and trouble, with hurt and pain. They are always narrative. They confront. How shallow most of modern liturgy seems by comparison! It is like mother’s day cards (131). It “sheds sentimental tears but does not weep” (116).

            So what could modern liturgy be like? First, it must never lose the link between religion and extremity in human affairs (115). It must “recreate the rawest states” of human experience (116). Second, liturgy must preserve allusiveness yet it must repeat, over and over again, the story of trauma and salvation because the repetition of culture overrides the repetition of trauma (116, 138). It must “rehearse both trauma and cure” as in the recitation of the akeda or the crucifixion (141). Third, liturgy must always maintain emotional presence (129). It must maintain “stillness in the midst of turbulence” (116). Fourth, liturgy must be sensitive to the “other’s exigent need.” It must create and review the “trauma of ethics” (144). Madsen summarizes the task of modern liturgy as follows: “Avodah [worship] at its most urgent arises as an antidote to the woundedness of avdut [slavery]” (141). It could not have been put better. As one who has tried to do this for the post-shoah Jewish liturgical tradition,[1] I deeply appreciate Madsen’s insights and urge liturgists to heed her advice.

            The book concludes with a meditation on the kaddish and the eucharist. Madsen concludes that no blessing interprets itself. Good liturgical language allows for multiple, as well as for very private readings of very public texts (137-38).


This appeared in Reviews in Theology and Religion, 13:2 (2006) 197-99.

[1] David R. Blumenthal, Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Louisville, KY, Westminster / John Knox: 1993) chapter 18. See also 297, n. 21, for my suggested emendation to the Christian Lord’s Prayer where, however, the text should read: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Ask forgiveness of us, as we ask forgiveness of those whom we have wronged.”