Book Review: The Old Testament is Dying by Brent Strawn

“The world only exists out of the merit of the discourse found when small children study.”
–Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 245:7

“Welcome, OnScript superfans–and now we know that includes Dr. Brent Strawn,” the podcast host began. (OnScript is a podcast on the Bible that invites Biblical scholars to talk about their work.) At the end of the podcast, the host light-heartedly quizzed his guest, asking him to identify where a couple Biblical quotes came from. The guest identified the first correctly: “Then the king told his attendants, ‘tie him, hand and foot, and throw him outside into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” (Matthew 22).

Unfortunately, the guest, an Old Testament scholar, misidentified the next quote as coming from Jeremiah: “Within three days, Pharoah will lift off your head and impale your body on a pole, and the birds will eat away your flesh.” The host graciously commended his guest’s “excellent guess,” admitting that the host himself “did not get this one” either. Feel free to color me a bit disappointed, considering the quote comes from a fairly pivotal point in the Joseph narrative (which, granted, contains many pivots). The guest easily identified the passage from the New Testament, but the Old Testament passage was a swing, and a miss.* The sad irony was not lost to me as I recalled the brief mention of Brent Strawn at the beginning of the podcast.

The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment by Brent Strawn (Baker Academic, 2017) sounds the alarm for the disuse, decay, and eventual death of the Old Testament. He begins by showing how little Christians (as well as Americans in general) know of the Old Testament and how the Old Testament takes a back seat in many church services. I found none of the book surprising, though much of it made me uncomfortable–which is to say that Strawn is an honest writer.

The book is based on a series of lectures Strawn gave at the Nazarene Theological Seminary in 2012. Although he expands on these lectures, he makes an effort to keep the conversational tone of his lectures alive in his book. By my counts, he succeeded. As someone who enjoys long conversations that go late into the night, I have this book to blame for keeping me up late.

The Old Testament is Dying is a book of practical theology, and Strawn has made it fairly accessible by explaining scholastic backstories in his footnotes and generally giving clear explanations. This book is a must-read for Bible scholars and educators, theologians, and congregational leaders. It also provides a needed clarion call for laymen who want to raise their children “in the way,” and in my (very personal) opinion it would make a great gift for an expecting couple. The book focuses on the Christian community in the US, though religious Jews may also find this interesting and perhaps see parallels within their own communities.

Strawn presents his main innovation by treating the Old Testament as a language. He performs a sort of visible sleight of hand by calling the Old Testament a language while quickly admitting that this equation is really an analogy. In his section “The Old Testament Is (Like) a Language,” Strawn writes, “the Old Testament itself is a language, or, to back off ever so slightly, very much like a language.” He straddles this line, which proves useful throughout the book in his diagnosis and recommended treatment for the Old Testament. The analogy points to an important way of reading and living out the Old Testament: “Just as language–preverbal, nonverbal, and verbal–allows us to make sense of the world and ourselves, the Old Testament provides (or can provide) a kind of grammar for constructing, perceiving, and understanding the same” (Strawn, 8).

Strawn makes a convincing case of the Old Testament’s imminent death. He tends to push his points to the degree of lacking subtlety, but this may be the only appropriate approach. Still, at times, it can take out the fun of reading between the lines.

He begins his diagnosis with some empirical data from Pew. Aside from this, however, the data he presents lacks rigorous methodology. Strawn is upfront about this: “Apart from the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, the data I discuss below are not based on polls, and so the results are far more anecdotal than statistical” (19). Nevertheless, he makes an effort at showing the different ways in which the Old Testament is (or is not) present in the lives of religious Americans. He examines the use of the Old Testament in a large swath of sermons. Then, focusing on the Psalms, he looks at the Revised Common Lectionary, mainline hymnals, and contemporary Christian music. Importantly, he focuses not only on whether the Old Testament is present in such cultic materials, but how. Though they lack rigorous methodology, these surveys still shed light on the more institutional mainline traditions, and the data certainly reflects what many Christians experience: watered-down and oversimplified representations of the Old Testament.

Strawn uses his linguistic analogy to dub such simplified understandings of the Old Testament as pidgins. Pidgins form by the contact of two languages. The Old Testament seems to be the recessive (substrate) language in its pidginized form. Widespread pidginization of a language points to the substrate language’s death. In some cases, pidgins become creoles, entirely separate languages formed by native speakers of pidgins. Once a language has become a creole, the original language is dead to the speakers of the creole. Using this analogy, Strawn diagnoses the Old Testament as a dying language.

A diagram showing the process of pidginization and eventual creolization.
Diagram taken from page 61.

Three important cases serve to warn of the Old Testament’s impending death. In all three cases, Strawn takes on a polemical tone, carefully analyzing and then lambasting 1) the New Atheists, 2) Marcionites, and 3) prosperity preachers for their misunderstanding of the Old Testament. Beyond his polemics, however, lies his more important point: that these three case studies are signs, or symptoms, of the Old Testament’s approaching death. The New Atheists speak a pidginized version of the Old Testament. These atheists speak the pidgin often in response to the overly-“literal” (and thus overly-simplified, and also pidginized) understandings of some Christians. Using Richard Dawkins as his primary example, Strawn masterfully shows that the New Atheists (and their Christian opponents) have no grasp of the Old Testament’s complexity.

The second-century heretic Marcion and his modern admirer, Adolf von Harnack, show how easily the Old Testament can be thrown away when one has not mastered the language of the Old Testament yet desires a cohesive religious text. Von Harnack and other scholars lay the foundation for the Positive Christianity of the Nazis and the harrowing indifference of the twentieth-century German church: “once the community of faith no longer sings the Old Testament… the ontological connection that exists between Israel and the church is thus severed” (128). In this case, the death of the Old Testament in twentieth-century Germany contributed to the slaughter of Jewish communities.

The last case study, on the prosperity gospel, hits closest to home. Strawn analyzes the creole that Joel Osteen speaks, a fully-wrought language separate from the Old Testament. This language formed from the union of American consumerism (the superstrate) and the Bible (the substrate). A generation of prosperity preachers (such as Osteen and Joseph Prince, who are the same age) grew up speaking the pidgin of the (false) prosperity gospel as their native language, fleshing it out into a creole. This creole continues to spread into even younger generations of (typically megachurch) preachers and their congregations. (See here for some potentially good news on this front.) The spread of this creole will kill the Old Testament as people learn to speak a new language in the Old Testament’s stead.

As new languages, creoles use simple, easy-to-learn grammatical rules. Old languages, on the other hand, pick up idiosyncrasies through eons of use, adding complexity, like an aged wine. This also makes old languages more peculiar, requiring a greater deal of respect to learn. The replacement of the Old Testament with what Strawn calls the “New Plastic Gospels” will sound the death knell of the Old Testament.

Part of Strawn’s diagnosis for the Old Testament’s death argues that its categorization as a living language must come from its use “by a living language community” (163). Otherwise, like Latin, it can still be taught, but cannot be considered fully alive. This all makes sense, but perhaps this is where the linguistic analogy becomes shaky. One could argue that the users of the Word do not keep it alive, just as they did not give it its life in the first place. Rather, God’s revelation brought it to life, and He can keep it alive by directly revealing it to the otherwise illiterate. This does not mean that we may sit back in sloth, but we can and must look to God to keep His revelation alive. In fact, Strawn hits the nail on the head a couple pages later: “perhaps the Old Testament, like the Hebrew language itself, can be resurrected, and not solely through human effort. Indeed, those who know the language [of the Old Testament] know that resurrection does not depend on human effort at all” (165). Nevertheless, Strawn does argue that canonization alone does not protect a scriptural language from death, reminding us that the Old Testament Apocrypha used to be part of the Old Testament canon.

"Your quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail, to the ruin of all. Yet hope remains while all the Company is true." --Brent Strawn, The Old Testament is Dying. (Actually Galadriel, in The Fellowship of the Ring.)
Just to be double clear: this quote is nowhere to be found in The Old Testament is Dying. It comes from Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. It’s a pity Strawn does not sport Galadriel’s hair.

How can we reverse this troubling trend? Strawn gives both obvious and wise answers. Like any language, students of the Old Testament must expose themselves to it through constant repetition. Although no one is born speaking the language of the Old Testament, the goal must be native proficiency. It is thus imperative for students to begin learning the Old Testament at an early age. At first, a motherese such as simple Sunday School lessons will suffice, but a progression beyond these lessons must lead to a deeper understanding of the many nuances in the Old Testament. We must always work towards a fuller understanding of the Old Testament through generational improvement.

Christians can and should read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, but this should not replace reading the Old Testament in its own context. After all, the Old Testament came before the New, and without the ability to read the Old Testament in its own context, one cannot attempt to understand the language of the New Testament! Strawn pinpoints the root of this problem in an inclination to distinguish the two Testaments by “an Old Testament deficiency, something the New Testament sets right, definitely improves upon, supersedes” (223).

Two things bugged me as I read The Old Testament is Dying. The first was the nagging possibility that the best modern speakers of the Old Testament have nevertheless inherited a creole of the original. After all, the language of the Old Testament has changed over the years with new contexts and receptions. Thankfully, Strawn addresses this concern when he points out that change is evidence of life, and change in the language does not mean creolization (204, 231, 233). In contrast to creolization, continuity is key for a changing (and living) language to retain its identity.

The second thing that bugged me was the example of King Josiah’s reforms. As I read his book, I kept wondering why Strawn did not bring this up. Happily, he does in the penultimate chapter, where he looks to Deuteronomy and Josiah as blueprints for reviving our commitment to the Word. He gives an especially beautiful study of the instructive song in Deuteronomy 32. A theme throughout The Old Testament is Dying is the importance of keeping the memory of the language alive through song. Songs can outlive the rest of the prose text because of their memorability. Songs can point us back to the text in which they are found and serve as reminders of our obligation to the rest of the Old Testament.

While the cultic materials Strawn studies are largely centered about the mainline protestant churches,° Strawn still gives attention to other traditions, granting a broad view of the Old Testament’s condition in North America. Still, one major limitation of The Old Testament is Dying is the geography it covers. Nothing substantial is mentioned of the churches in Africa and Asia, which could present a very different picture. It is true that the prosperity gospel is being exported to communities in Africa and Asia. But many congregations in these continents still put a heavy emphasis on living in the language of the Bible, despite lower literacy rates. (I am reminded of my Chinese grandmother, a lifelong factory worker; when she passed away, the closest object to her head was the Bible.) I would be interested in seeing a follow-up study on the possibility of looking outside the Western world for the continuation of a thriving Biblical literacy. Strawn also did not discuss Orthodox Christianity, which maintains strongly supersessionist theology and, it seems to me, a Biblical literacy more or less limited to liturgy.

If you are looking for light reading material, look further. Strawn becomes quite the Jeremiad, and he fills much of the book with depressing reports. Nonetheless, an energizing hope can be found in its last chapters, where Strawn gives his recommended treatments. We must allow Strawn’s book to inspire us to study the Bible anew, to converse and live with one another in its beautiful, life-giving language. Let us hope that The Old Testament is Dying heralds the beginning of a renewal in Biblical literacy, and that it does not become the death rattle of the Old Testament.

Still looking for some light material? Alright, I see that you did indeed “look further,” as I instructed. Check out this comedic relief by Josh Tyra:

* I do not mention the guest’s name here; he is a serious scholar with real expertise, and I do not want you to think otherwise because of this anecdote. (To learn about the podcast guest, listen to the full podcast.) I myself have had a similar experience. At the University of Oxford Chabad, the husband of a visiting scholar from Israel asked a group of us to identify where in the Tanakh lies the clause, “Beat your plowshares into swords.” Despite misgivings that this was prophetic language, I guessed “Judges.” The scholar smiled and graciously commented, “good guess”–but, of course, no cigar. The scholar’s husband continued, “I did not get this right either. I am saying this because it shows that we do not know our Tanakh. The quote is from Joel.”

° In my experience, Black churches involve much more of the Old Testament in their services, compared to white mainline protestant services. Even so, the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey gave disappointing numbers.


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