The Old Testament is Dying. A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment by Brent A. Strawn
Brent A. Strawn is Professor of Old Testament at Emory, a University founded in 1836. He works in the Chandler School of Theology; one of 13 seminaries of The United Methodist Church. Its is “to educate faithful and creative leaders for the church’s ministries throughout the world”. The weaving of faithfulness and creativity is an undertone within “The Old Testament is Dying”.
Strawn uses the analogy of linguistics to explore the current state of engagement with the Old Testament. His case is that the Old Testament can provide a kind of grammar for constructing, perceiving, and understanding the world and ourselves. He uses this analogy to the full, creatively stretching it out and playing with it. Part two of the book explores the New Atheism, new versions of the heresy of Marcionism which reject the Old Testament completely as not gospel, and the prosperity gospel, or the “happiologists” like Joel Osteen. New Atheism and Marcionism he sees as Pidgin versions of the true language of the Old Testament. The theology of the happiologists he sees as a Creole language which he describes as at least two steps removed from the original language of the Old Testament. This section is playful, creative fun which had me both laughing and thinking hard.
The assertion of this book is that, like any other language, the Old Testament can die and Strawn uses a good eighty pages of faithful and traditional empirical data to prove that it is in the final stages of a fatal illness if not already dead. Last year I ran a series of Bible Studies on the Psalms with Readers. I was surprised by how few churches in the diocese I serve in regularly used the Psalms in worship. So, I had already got the message that the use of the Old Testament is in decline. Lots of data can be hard work and I would have welcomed some engagement with the audience’s experience at this point in the book, especially bearing in mind that the intended audience are academics and professionals.
This book comes alive with a blend of creativity and faithfulness in the final three chapters. Strawn’s explanation and use of Deuteronomy, particularly chapters 31 and 32 is stunning and exciting. He takes Moses’, Josuha’s and Josiahs’s treatment and use of the Torah in Deuteronomy as a case study for how to enable the acquisition of a second language so that it is embodied and enacted. In the final chapter he offers five concrete ideas, based on what he has gleaned from his case study, to save the language of the Old Testament.
There are two things the conclusion of this book has provoked me to think more deeply about. Firstly, those fluent speakers who want to learn from scripture, not just learn it, have to find ways to deeply understand scripture as a whole, not as the Old Testament separated from the New Testament. For those of us responsible for curricula this has profound implications. Secondly, scripture offers nothing less than the power to resist the dominant culture around us, to recognise what is good in it and to re-describe the world.
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