Michael Maher, a Catholic lay minister, was touring museums in Florence two years ago when his week of Renaissance art–which included a visit to Michelangelo’s David–brought on an epiphany. “Why,” he wondered, “did they decide that all these biblical characters should be nude?”

Word Made Flesh, which opens this weekend at Bailiwick Arts Center, is the product of Maher’s reflections on how the sacred is expressed through the human form in art. It’s an attempt to express that sanctity through theater–rather than through statuary and frescoes–by using passages from Scripture to create a piece that begins with Genesis and draws on psalms, proverbs, and parables to articulate the relationship between God and humanity. Three men and one woman portray Moses, David, Solomon, Job, Isaiah, Paul, Jesus, and John by speaking the text as a series of monologues. They do so nude.

“Why is everybody on the Sistine Chapel naked?” asks Maher. “It’s because the human form is a reflection of God.”

He knows there are people who might take offense at biblical passages being spoken by naked actors, but, he says, “there should be no conflict between these words and human sexuality….The human form expresses the total human experience, which includes our sexuality but is not totally about our sexuality.”

Maher says he aims to explore both the intersection of religion and visual art and the ways in which people find spiritual meaning in human sexuality and human experience. The text of his script is culled from passages that are both familiar and provocative, such as Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd…”) and the Song of Songs.

“There are some passages that evoke strong emotions in me, but they’re not necessarily good emotions,” Maher says. “But I realized my objective was not to make the audience comfortable….What I would hope is that some people would go to this and start thinking, ‘Wow, some of these words do hold meaning for me,’ who would not otherwise have done so.”

He decided early on to refrain from editorializing and let the texts speak for themselves. “There’s a reason why they’ve stuck around for thousands of years,” he says. “They’re beautiful words. Unfortunately, I think sometimes the way [they’re] spoken is a little dead. People hear that churchy voice and the next step is the Cecil B. De Mille Ten Commandments voice.”

A 34-year-old native of Kansas City, Maher has been affiliated with Loyola University’s ministry since 1996. He’s not a priest or a member of a religious order but works there as a chaplain. After college he considered the priesthood and attended an Indiana seminary for one year before deciding instead to study religious education. His research focuses on sexuality–homosexuality in particular–and Catholicism. His first book, Being Gay and Lesbian in a Catholic High School: Beyond the Uniform, was published last year by Haworth Press.

Word Made Flesh is his first play, and he finds it fitting that it will share its Bailiwick space with the musical revue Naked Boys Singing! “We find God in the human experience and Naked Boys Singing! is part of the human experience,” Maher says. “There were people who found God in the death camps. If you can find God in the death camps then certainly you can find God walking down Belmont Avenue.”

Word Made Flesh opens Saturday, February 9, at 3 at Bailiwick Arts Center, 1229 W. Belmont. Performances are at 10:30 PM on Fridays and at 3 on Saturdays and Sundays through March 10. Tickets are $15; call 773-883-1090.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): ohoto/Jim Newberry.