The Old Testament is Dying

A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment

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Brent A. Strawn
Theological Explorations for the Church Catholic
  • Ada, MI: 
    Baker Academic
    , March
     2017.
     336 pages.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780801048883.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

According to The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment by Brent Strawn, Christians in the US face a reduction in biblical literacy that reflects a profound crisis. Christians are losing their knowledge of, and interest in, the Bible as a whole. The problem is most dire in relation to the Old Testament (OT), but as the OT recedes, the New Testament (NT) is sure to follow. Strawn means his title literally. The OT is indeed dying—and when it dies, it will be almost impossible to resuscitate, and the death of Christianity is quite likely to follow.

Strawn centers his argument about the loss of the OT on a powerful analogy. He suggests we should think of the OT as being similar to a language. This analogy is especially relevant when we think about how languages die. Like other languages, Strawn suggests that the OT “can be a way of constructing reality, a way of understanding the world, a way of perceiving all that is, including ourselves” (8). And, like other languages, the OT can die. Strawn suggests that it is indeed dying. However, this reviewer finds it problematic that he never explains what a “living OT” has been in the life of the church, or what it would be like today. So, there is no baseline from actual human experience that would help us evaluate his claim that the OT is “dying.”

To provide evidence for the pending morbidity of the OT, Strawn summarizes a 2010 survey of Americans that provides “a large-scale empirical analysis” of their religious knowledge (20). The survey indicates a profound lack of knowledge of the Bible in Americans, across the spectrum from atheists to fundamentalist Christians. Strawn also analyzes various volumes of “Best Sermons” and finds that the OT gets little attention. He then looks at the use of the Psalms in church hymns, noting a selective pattern of usage that ignores the bulk of the Psalms. Finally, he discusses the Revised Common Lectionary that many Protestant denominations use. He believes this lectionary is overly selective in the attention it pays to the OT.

Strawn offers an interesting and persuasive analysis—as far as it goes. Clearly the OT is marginalized in Christian America. And surely that marginalization has problematic consequences for Christianity. Strawn seems to imply that there is a close correlation between having knowledge of facts about the Bible and having a “living OT.” He does not discuss the reasons for the lack of knowledge of the Bible. It could be that the Bible was simply not ever alive for Christians in the United States, that whatever knowledge large masses of people had about the Bible was not particularly useful, leading to a diminished awareness of it as Christianity became less culturally dominant.

In the middle section of the book (“Signs of Morbidity,” chapters 4 through 6), Strawn goes deeper into his analysis of the Old Testament’s demise with an examination of three different manifestations of the problem—the influence of (1) the New Atheists (focusing on the work of Richard Dawkins), (2) “Marcionites” (discussing both Marcion himself [“the arch-heretic”] as well as “the New Marcionism” seen in the writing of Adolf von Harnack), and (3) the “Happiologists” (with special attention paid to Joel Osteen).

Strawn’s critique of these three influences is sharp and seems to be accurate. However, it also appears that he focuses on obviously problematic perspectives that are the equivalent of low-hanging fruit. He ignores seemingly deep-seated and significant factors in the marginalization of the Old Testament in Christianity. Part of the problem with Strawn’s critique is that, when he focuses on these three influences, he makes the problem more external to mainstream Christianity than is helpful. All three influences are from the outside of the theological core that is taught in seminaries and reflected in publications and church rituals. His analysis would have been more helpful had he looked closer at the center of American Protestant and Catholic Christianity.

Though the overall tenor of The Old Testament is Dying is pretty despairing, Strawn makes an effort to provide a positive agenda for restoring the Old Testament to life—even if he is not hopeful of its potential success. However, his agenda seems tepid given the dire consequences that he warns of with the impending death of the Old Testament—the very viability of the Christian faith (e.g., 167).

Strawn provides four “positive recommendations” (chapter 9) that do little to provide an energizing vision for reversing the death cycle. These include: (1) us the Old Testament regularly; (2) seminaries should rethink their curricula and pastors should have constant immersion and practice in “speaking Old Testament;” (3) in teaching in congregations, pastors should be intentional about communicating the language; and (4) people must learn to be “bilingual,” being skilled at switching between the language of faith and the other language we are native to (220). These four recommendations give the impression that the key to overcoming this terrible problem American Christians face is better seminary education and more effective pastors (note that Strawn himself is a seminary professor). He also notes this will be a long, gradual process (241)—a conclusion scarcely in tune with the urgency of his critique earlier in the book.

I appreciate The Old Testament is Dying for its call for a serious effort to appropriate the Bible’s message. It is a provocative stimulus to thought, and it helps to remind us of the problems that arise when the Bible is marginalized. However, as a guide to recovery, it is a bit of a disappointment.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ted Grimsrud is Senior Professor of Peace Theology at Eastern Mennonite University.

Date of Review: 
June 12, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brent A. Strawn is Professor of Old Testament at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia. He has authored or coedited numerous volumes, including The World around the Old Testament, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Law, and What Is Stronger than a Lion? Leonine Image and Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East. Strawn also serves as coeditor of the Old Testament Theology series and is on the editorial board of Catholic Biblical Quarterly and Journal of Biblical Literature.

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