Is the Old Testament Dying? image

Is the Old Testament Dying?

A few weeks ago I sat in a room in Durham where around 100 Old Testament scholars and postgraduate students had gathered for the summer meeting of the Society of Old Testament Study. The first paper was presented by Brent Strawn, Professor of Old Testament at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University. As he was introduced, mention was made of his latest book The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment (Baker Academic, 2017). As you can imagine, in a context where most of the people present make their livelihood from or are at least devoting a large part of their lives to the study of the Old Testament, the idea that it might be dying left an air of unease in the room. Thankfully Strawn’s paper that evening wasn’t actually on the topic of the book, and so things soon became more comfortable again.

The book sounds like a fascinating piece of research. I haven’t had a chance to read it, but (as I’m grateful is often the case) you can get a good overview of its key points by reading and watching some interviews with Strawn, such as this, this and this.

Strawn’s basic thesis is that knowledge, understanding and good use of the Old Testament are waning; in short, the Old Testament is dying. He uses a helpful analogy to explore this by likening the Old Testament to a language. Languages help us make sense of reality, and the Old Testament has the potential to do the same. But languages can die, and so the analogy provides a useful way for Strawn to explore the possibility that the Old Testament is dying.

The book explores several different pieces of evidence to support this thesis, ranging from a US Religious Knowledge Survey to collections of 20th century sermons, as well as hymns and liturgy, concluding that all the evidence suggests the Old Testament is very unwell.

Strawn then explores how this demise can be seen more broadly, and it is here that he makes particular use of the language analogy. The process of a language dying is called repidginization because as the original language dies out the simplified version that is left is like a pidgin language. When languages repidiginize sometimes the pidgin version then develops into a new, but different, language called a creole. Creoles are completely regular – they remove all the complexities of the original language.

Strawn argues that the use of the Old Testament in New Atheism and in Marcionism, including its modern forms, is comparable to a pidgin version of the language of the Old Testament; they result from a very limited understanding of the whole. He then examines the use of the Old Testament by what he calls the ‘Happiologists’, preachers of the prosperity gospel, and argues that their use of the Old Testament is an example of a creole and has likely developed because they have only known a pidgin version of the Old Testament.

So, what treatment is suggested for this very sick patient? The final section of the book is dedicated to this, offering many reflections, but unsurprisingly the key point is: we need more of the Old Testament! It needs to feature as a regular part of our corporate and private walk with God. They say that immersion is the best way to grow in a second language, and the same is surely true with the Old Testament. Strawn also makes what I feel is a particularly important distinction here, noting that the key question is not just if the Old Testament is present, but how it is present. We need not just to hear and to use the text more, but to hear and to use it well. We don’t want to pick up the language with the wrong accent or with unhelpful colloquialisms. Getting this right will take some hard work, especially for those involved in teaching.

While at the SOTS gathering I had the opportunity to talk to Strawn about the book. His research is mainly focussed on an American context, so I was interested to know if he had any gauge on whether the situation is the same here in the UK. While admitting that any view would be somewhat anecdotal, his first thought was that the situation may actually be worse in the UK. But he later found me to say that he’d like to modify his answer: while he feels the situation is probably worse in the wider culture – biblical knowledge in the general population is probably worse in the UK than in the US – he felt that the situation within the church may actually be better than in the US. This, he observed, might make sense since the wider context would make churches more aware of the need to be proactive in teaching people the language of the Old Testament.

My perception – also based purely on anecdotal evidence from the contexts I’m familiar with – is that Strawn is probably right in his view on the UK situation and in the general thesis of the book. And those of us from churches who don’t follow an (acknowledged) historical liturgy and don’t use a lectionary (the use of which makes it harder to avoid passages of scripture which we find difficult!) are perhaps at particular risk here.

Strawn asked me if there was a general sense in the churches I’m aware of that the Old Testament is historically distant and therefore somewhat irrelevant. My perception is that this isn’t the case; I think the Old Testament is highly valued, but perhaps the problem is that this valuing is more in word than deed. And I wonder if this is rooted, not in a lack of belief in the Old Testament’s importance, but in a lack of confidence in how to handle it. Those in our churches who may have become very able in the language are now getting to the age of retirement or beyond and as we look down through the generations fluency and confidence begin to wane. We recognise that we only have a rudimentary grasp of the language, and so we stick to where we feel more comfortable (the New Testament, or perhaps better Paul and maybe the gospels), too scared to attempt to converse in a language we are not confident in. But as each year passes the language of the Old Testament becomes less and less understood and spoken by fewer and fewer people. Perhaps now is the time to act before the Old Testament ends up in a critical condition.

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