Ted Grimsrud—March 15, 2019
I was in college, back in the early 1970s, when a new translation of the Bible—The New International Version—was first published. The NIV has gone on to be quite popular and is widely used, especially in evangelical settings. The New Testament by itself was first published. I don’t remember how I even knew about this new translation, but I bought a copy as soon as I learned about it.
There were a couple of things about this new Bible that were noteworthy. First of all was how readable it was. After I had my conversion experience when I was 17, I was nurtured in a congregation that insisted using on the King James translation. I found the KJV difficult to read. Perhaps I justified defecting to this new translation by telling myself that I had been unfaithful in my Bible reading and getting an easier to read version would help me better carry out that core obligation.
The second noteworthy element was that this NIV New Testament looked like a regular hardback book. That is, the paper was not super thin like most Bibles. The print wasn’t extra small. The text came in paragraphs, not individual verses. It did not have two columns on a page, but only one. The cover wasn’t leather but was like regular hardback books.
Not long after I got my NIV, I visited my home church. My friend Richard was shocked when he saw it. “It’s just like any other book!” he cried. He wasn’t a judgmental guy, but he did seem pretty disapproving at first. As we talked a bit, he kind of relented and granted that if it helped me read my Bible more, that was a good thing.
I have often thought about what Richard’s comment said about how we were taught to think of the Bible. It was revered, something special, indeed our Holy Book. Maybe part of the appeal of the KJV was that it clearly was unique in our experience of reading—the language was different, more difficult. You had to work to understand it.
By now, I am pretty sure that even those in Bible Baptist congregations don’t use the KJV anymore (though I am not sure about that). And, paradoxically, the widespread use of translations such as the NIV, that are seen as theologically “sound” (unlike the New Revised Standard Version—widely used among ecumenical congregations and in non-evangelical academic settings) but also use much more contemporary and accessible language, has corresponded with what appears to be an across the board reduction in biblical literacy among all types of Christians and in the wider society.
According to Brent Strawn’s alarmingly titled book, The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment (Baker Academic, 2017), this reduction in biblical literacy 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, but as the OT recedes, the New Testament 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.
Understanding the Old Testament to be (Like) a Language
Strawn centers his argument about the loss of the OT on a powerful analogy. He suggests we should think of the OT as being very like a language. This analogy is especially relevant when we think about how languages die. Throughout most of the book, as it turns out, Strawn walks right next to the line between treating the notion of the OT as a language as an actual analogy and as a literal reality.
At at least one point, he writes, “the language that is the Old Testament,” without using “like” (p. 159). He also uses “The Old Testament Is (Like) a Language” as a section heading (p. 6) and later writes, “the linguistic analogy of the Old Testament as (like) an analogy” (p. 176). The use of parentheses around “like” may be a clear indication that he actually wants to communicate that the linking of “OT” and “a language” is actually stronger than a simple analogy. In any case, the entire book draws on the language motif in discussing the OT.
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” (p. 8). And, like other languages, the OT (understood in this sense) can die. And Strawn suggests that it is indeed dying. However, I think it is problematic that he never does explain what a “living OT” has been in the life of the church or what it would be like today. So, we don’t have a baseline from actual human experience that would help us evaluate his claims that the OT is “dying.”
To provide evidence for the pending morbidity of the OT, Strawn summarizes a 2010 survey of American people that provides “a large-scale empirical analysis” of their religious knowledge (p. 20). The survey indicates a profound lack of knowledge about the Bible for American people 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 and notes 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. However, because we don’t have a baseline for what an “alive” OT would be, it’s difficult to know how significant these various pieces of data are. 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 it was because the Bible was not ever alive for Christians in the United States and 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.
Why is the Old Testament “dying”?
In the middle section of the book (“Signs of Morbidity,” chapters four through six), 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”] and “the New Marcionism” seen in the writing of Adolf von Harnack), and (3) the “Happiologists” (with special attention to Joel Osteen).
Strawn’s critique of these three influences is sharp and seems to me to be accurate as far as it goes. However, it also seems to me that he is focusing on obviously problematic perspectives that are the equivalent of rather low-hanging fruit. He mostly ignores what seem to me to be more deep-seated and significant factors in the marginalization of the Old Testament in Christianity. At this point, his failure to provide a clear description of when the Old Testament actually was alive is telling.
I actually think that the problem goes back to the early generations of Christianity. The inter-related emergence of Christianity’s close connection to the Roman Empire (and continued close connection with later empires) and of creedal theology that places doctrine at the center both had deeply problematic effects on mainstream Christianity’s relationship with Judaism and with the Old Testament. The problems that Strawn identifies (New Atheism, New Marcionism, and “Happiology”) are genuine and contemporary. However, I am not sure that the Old Testament has ever been very alive, at least not since the time of Constantine and the creeds.
Part of the problem with Strawn’s critique when he focuses on these three influences is that he makes the problem more external to mainstream Christianity than is helpful. All three influences are at least somewhat from the outside of the theological core that is taught in seminaries and reflected in publications and church rituals. His analysis would have been much more helpful had he looked closer at the center of American Protestant and Catholic Christianity.
Restoring the Old Testament to life
Though the overall tenor of The Old Testament is Dying is pretty despairing, Strawn still does make an effort at providing a positive agenda for restoring the Old Testament to life, even if he is not hopeful of its potential success. However, his agenda seems pretty 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., p. 167).
Strawn provides four “positive recommendations” (chapter nine) that do little to provide an energizing vision for reversing the death cycle. These include: (1) Use 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 (p. 220; though he does not actually say what this native language is here).
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 (p. 241)—a conclusion scarcely in tune with the urgency of his critique earlier in the book.
What does this all mean?
I go back to the question: Do we have a time and place when the Old Testament was truly alive within Christianity? I tend to think that while Strawn gives us a decent sense of contemporary problems, the actual problem is much deeper, long-term, and closer to the theological heart of Christianity. I would start with the 4th century and analyze the impact on Christianity of supercessionism, anti-Judaism, Constantinianism, and creedalism. Perhaps we can find a way to construct a living appropriation of the Old Testament that would remain at home within the mainstream Christian tradition, but I think in light of those various early developments, we would have to do some serious scrutiny of the tradition to do so.
After all, we have quite a bit of evidence from the past 2,000 years of a Christianity that showed little awareness of key elements of the Old Testament story—note key dynamics in “Christian” societies such as Crusades, nationalism, slavery, militarism, economic injustice, and many others.
I believe that a “living Old Testament” would be one that inspires the practice of prophetic faith. This is not something Strawn writes much about except for a few brief allusions. One recommendation I would make to Christians who would like to find a living Old Testament would be to have a study group that would read together Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, The Prophets—a genuinely inspiring guide with profound insight into the OT’s portrayal of God’s “pathos” (passionate love) and its call to healing justice.
I also found myself thinking of Alasdair MacIntyre’s book, After Virtue, when I read Strawn’s critique of how we are losing the language-like Old Testament. MacIntrye offers a powerful critique of contemporary Western culture (as of the 1980s; I’m sure he’s agree the problem is even more acute now) and it’s loss of a useful moral language. Strawn doesn’t reference MacIntrye, but surely he would find the latter’s analysis compatible with his own. MacIntyre, though, has a different kind of prescription. MacIntyre suggests the best approach is to learn from St. Benedict in the 6th century and try to create communities that do know how to speak morally (or, in Strawn’s terms, to speak Old Testament) in order to keep the practice alive and be ready for future opportunities to have a wider influence.
Certainly the Bible has to be a central resource for Christian communities that seek to embody Jesus’s way in our difficult contemporary world. Its message of God’s healing love and its consistent critique of idolatries that lead to injustice and its vision of radical peacemaking are essential. However, simply calling for paying more attention to the Bible will not go very far unless we also have communities that read the Bible in a liberative way and put into practice what they learn.
I appreciate The Old Testament is Dying for its call for a serious effort to appropriate the Bible’s message. It’s 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.
[This is the next in a series of blog posts under the rubric of “Looking West” that will include reflections on numerous issues of our current day—politics, theology, memoirs, spirituality, and what not. An index for the series may be found at “Looking West.”]