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Tuesday, June 6, 2017

"The Old Testament is Dying" (Brent A. Strawn)

TITLE: The Old Testament Is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment (Theological Explorations for the Church Catholic)
AUTHOR: Brent A. Strawn
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017, (336 pages).

It all began at a Bible class the author was teaching. When asked about Old Testament references to Jesus' words, his class responded with a blank. People might have claimed to believe the Old Testament as canonical scriptures. Unfortunately, their lack of knowledge and interest are disconcerting. For some, they would even say that "Old Testament is dead." Author Brent Strawn lists four 'hard data' reasons why it is not dead but dying. First, many are increasingly religious, yet religiously illiterate. Using a Pew Research Center data, evangelicals and mainline Christians score poorly in their religious knowledge. They are not even familiar with the big stories or details of fundamental truths of the Bible or their historic faith. A majority (over 80%) do not even know about the Reformation! This is disconcerting because such basic things are not even recalled correctly. Not only that, in a secular age where it is becoming unpopular to talk about religion in public circles, even religious people hardly talk about their faith. The second concern is about sermons. Based on collections of best sermons, there is a trend that shows us most preaching focus on the New Testament (four out of five). Not only that, whatever Old Testament texts quoted are not dealt in much detail relative to the New Testament passages. Among Old Testament passages, most popular are the Psalms, Genesis, and Isaiah. There is a general preference for familiar passages too. It comes as no surprise that unfamiliar passages from the Old Testament are taken up by professors or scholars of Old Testament, so-called experts. Strawn has high praise for preachers like Walter Brueggemann who preaches often and brings to life OT passages. Third, the use of hymnody based on Psalms may look encouraging at first. On closer look, the way many hymns had been phrased is a misrepresentation of what the psalms mean in their original contexts. Some writers pick and choose the types of Psalms used and are not familiar with what the Psalms actually mean when taken as a whole. According to research from W. Sibley Towner, contemporary use of the Psalms in hymns tend to be selective and functional. It is more about what works rather than what the Psalms are saying to us today. Being selective of some also means being neglectful of others. Indeed, it is worrying when man tries to take God's Word and manipulates it to mean more of what man wants rather than what God means. Misrepresentation leads to misinterpretation, which in turn will lead to misapplication. Fourth, Strawn examines the Revised Common Lectionary, the supposedly last bastion of hope for a more even coverage of both the Old and New Testaments. He also finds several things wanting and imbalanced in what is supposed to be a balanced work. Some readings are easily omitted by users. Certain weeks are focused on New Testament readings and preachers often for various reasons choose New Testament passages from the lectionary.

Just like a dying language, the Old Testament languages are increasingly unfamiliar with a modern audience with new linguistic skills. In linguistics, the pattern is that any dying language would go through a process of "repidginization" which are several steps away from the original and happens at the tail end of a language life cycle. Through oversimplification and reductionism, the original loses its former levels of inflections and nuances. When that happens, not only is there a loss of communications skills, there is also a loss of cultural understanding. Essentially, when the generation most familiar with the language die out, so does the language. From languages and linguistics, the author also highlights three further external factors contributing to the demise of the Old Testament. There is the challenge of the New Atheists who often ridicule the Old Testament for the "outdated" laws and stories. The lack of contextual understanding increases the perception that the Old Testament is no longer relevant for our modern age. Then there is the "Marcionites Old and New" that behaves like the early century Marcion, who caricatures the Old Testament as a "false, anti-godly" book when compared to the New Testament. Strawn highlights the rise of the "Happiologists" or the New Plastic Gospels that creates a whole new realm of understanding the Bible from the perspective of happiness, like Joel Osteen. Such prosperity gospel misinterprets the Old Testament and creates a whole new "Happy Testament."

Thankfully, Strawn's diagnostic chapters are accompanied by some recovery strategies. If nothing is done, the OT will die out in terms of disuse and misuse. We can record it. We can multiply the number of speakers of it. We can provide reasons for speaking it. Using the preservation of Hebrew is a case in point. Strawn points out that it is possible to learn to speak it as a "second language." He brings readers through bilingualism and "code-switching." He also anticipates objections to his thesis that the old testament is dying. Like how can canonical texts ever die? He shrewdly distinguishes the levels of understanding the canon: the perspective from religious bodies and the perspective from laypersons. He uses the state of the Apocrypha as a case in point, that language dies out for lack of use. There are ways to save the Old Testament. Through repetition, regular use, re-training, we can definitely revive the greater use of this ancient canonical texts.

Saying that the Old Testament is dying is definitely a bold statement. Strawn backs it up well with statistics, observations, plus others, especially from a cultural and a linguistic standpoint. His first few chapters that outlines the states of decay is particularly poignant for Church leaders, pastors, and preachers in general. he is spot on when he notes how many people claim to preach from the whole Bible but in practice, choose mainly the New Testament texts. Even the use of the Old Testament is limited to choice verses and popular passages. Most parts of the Old Testament are never truly preached upon for various reasons. Churches that preach only one testament over the other is like walking on just one leg. Hopefully, with this book, readers can be awakened to this important matter to learn to re-activate the use of the other leg. Lest it becomes too late for the succeeding generations. While he makes a powerful case to argue how the Old Testament is dying due to neglect and lack of use, it avoids the reasons why people are doing just that. Reasons such as the ones mentioned by Craig Blomberg about the external barriers in his book entitled, "Can We Still Believe the Bible?" where he addresses the doubts and skeptics surrounding the reliability of the Bible. Many of the difficult issues include the need to explain the brutal genocide and violence that are attributed to a good God. For example: If God is so loving, why did He order the killing of so many people in the Old Testament books of Judges and Joshua? Perhaps, it is partly addressed or alluded to in the segment about the Fall of Man. For a book of this nature and size, readers will have to supplement themselves with other questions. Having said that, as far as Strawn is concerned, the issue is not about the reliability of the Bible but the lack of Old Testament literacy. For that reason, I applaud the effort and recommend this book for all. Long live the Old and New Testaments.

Brent A. Strawn is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology. His research interests include near Eastern iconography, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the legal traditions of the Old Testament, and theological exegesis of Deuteronomy, Psalms, and biblical poetry. He is also ordained elder of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Baker Academic and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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