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Blog / The Old Testament Is Dying: An Interview with Brent A. Strawn

The Old Testament Is Dying: An Interview with Brent A. Strawn

Brent A. StrawnThe Old Testament constitutes the majority of the Christian Bible and provides much of the language of Christian faith. Are churches and Christians dangerously neglecting it?

Bible Gateway interviewed Brent A. Strawn (@brentstrawn) about his book, The Old Testament Is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment (Baker Academic, 2017).

How is the Old Testament like a language?

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Brent A. Strawn: My book employs a linguistic analogy that sees the Old Testament as a language or very much like one. By this analogy I mean the Old Testament (but the New Testament as well, and the Bible as a whole) can be used as a kind of grammar through which we perceive, understand, and negotiate the world, just as we do with our native tongues. “What is that over there that we just saw?” Or, “What was it that we just experienced?” We respond to such questions, and many others like them—every other question in fact!—by means of language. The Old Testament is analogically like a language in this sort of way: it, too, can be used as a way to understand and evaluate reality or lived experience.

Of course the same could be said for almost every human artifact we can think of, especially in artistic modes: a movie, for instance, or a poem, song, or novel. All of these come with implicit “grammars”: each in its own way, whether comprehensive or not, is a way of understanding and interpreting the world, and it commends that understanding and interpretation to us as readers or receivers.

Now if the Old Testament is (like) a language, a couple of other things follow. One is that it can be learned and spoken well, even fluently, and, as a result, thrive; or it can be spoken poorly, haltingly, and eventually die. Each of those options (and others in between) are possible parts of any language’s life-cycle.

How do languages die?

Brent A. Strawn: Most simply, languages die when their last speaker dies. The most telling datum that a language is endangered and facing extinction is when only the elderly speak it because that indicates there are no younger people using the language—particularly people of child-rearing age who might actively pass on the language to their children. Children are crucial for the survival of any language since they have remarkable capacities for language acquisition.

In the process of linguistic decline one can trace a serial deterioration of the language from the older, fluent generation, to the subsequent generation that knows only some of the language (probably only in passive modes once they’re adults), to a third generation (and beyond) who know almost nothing. After that, the language is extinct.

This process of deterioration is what linguists call repidginization because the language that survives following the death of the fully fluent generation is increasingly simplified and reduced, lacking complexity and nuance, and thus looks more and more like a pidgin language.

A word about pidgin languages is in order since it helps explain this concept of repidginization. Pidgin languages are contact languages created to facilitate communication between two language groups. A pidgin language is a massively simplified amalgam of the two distinct languages of the groups who need to communicate with each other. A pidgin can be thought of as the offspring of the two groups—the linguistic child of those original languages, if you will—but the two parents did not contribute equal DNA. One group is always stronger somehow (more money, more guns, both!) and so contributes more DNA (grammar, vocabulary, etc.) to the pidgin.

In any event, a pidgin language is a fantastically reduced thing; pidgins suffer in every aspect of language: grammar, syntax, lexicon. So, for example, Russenorsk, a now-extinct pidgin that was spoken by Russian and Norwegian traders, comprised only 300 words and had only one preposition (which had to do the work of both “in” and “out,” for instance). The famous Russian novelist, Dostoevsky, could not have written his novels in Russenorsk. That pidgin just couldn’t have done the job.

So, once again, as languages move toward death, they repidiginize, which means they reduce to ever more simplistic and reduced versions of themselves. In this process, they end up losing—slowly but surely (and in some cases, drastically)—almost the entirety of the grammar, syntax, and lexicon of their original form.

Why do you say the Old Testament is dying?

Brent A. Strawn: For several reasons. The Old Testament Is Dying outlines at least seven topics that I explore in detail. Some of these are empirical or semi-empirical studies, others are more anecdotal. The seven are split into different chapters in my book.

In chapter 2, titled “Initial Testing,” I put the patient that is the Old Testament through four tests: the US Religious Knowledge survey, a study of a series of best sermon collections in the 20th century, the place of the Psalms in mainline hymnody, and the use of Old Testament in the Revised Common Lectionary. In each instance the Old Testament is shown to be very, very sick. It underperforms or is underutilized or is neglected, if not censored.

Next, in chapters 4-6, I discuss the Old Testament’s morbidity in larger, more public arenas and discourses: the New Atheism, Old and New forms of Marcionism, and in the prosperity gospel, especially as exemplified in the writings of Joel Osteen.

I discuss all of these seven topics in considerable detail in the book, but, for me, proof of the Old Testament’s decline is found in the facts that:

  1. many Christians know very little of it
  2. many Christians “mispronounce” the few parts they do know (the Old Testament is all mean, for instance, or all happy) and
  3. many Christians can’t carry on a coherent conversation in the language of Scripture.

The last point could be contrasted, I suspect, with how many Christians would have no problem discussing their favorite episode of a TV show they recently binged, or the names of their favorite sports stars or football coaches, and so on and so forth. But ask them to identify their favorite chapter in Jonah or Ruth—or Matthew or 1 Peter—and I suspect you’d get the oddest of looks (and responses!).

What did you learn from the results of the US Religious Knowledge Survey?

Brent A. Strawn: The main takeaway from this survey is that atheists and agnostics along with Mormons and Jews outperform every demographic of Christian surveyed, whether white, African American, or Hispanic; Catholic, mainline, or evangelical. There were seven Bible questions in the survey and five of them were multiple choice. They were not particularly difficult in my opinion, but I’m a Bible professor! In any event, as but one example of the disappointing results this study revealed, only 66% of the Christians surveyed could correctly identify the first book of the Bible as Genesis.

There are no doubt problems with the survey—and we can’t tell, since the survey was the first of its kind, if religious knowledge is up or down overall—but what it does tell us is that Christian groups lag behind the other groups surveyed. I used this study as the first of my four initial tests to get a baseline and also because it’s a truly empirical study. Needless to say, the results were profoundly demoralizing, revealing real gaps in basic religious knowledge and, probably, a correlate failure in various religious education designed to impart such knowledge.

What are some Old Testament lessons, passages, stories, etc., that you believe Christians should know to be “fluent in Old Testament”?

Brent A. Strawn: I think fluency ultimately involves functional, if not comprehensive, mastery and so can’t be reduced to just “some” parts of the language—or in this case, just some parts of the Bible. Of course even fluent speakers of a language are capable of learning new things: new words, new verbal forms, new metaphors and images, and, analogically, the same would hold true for Scripture. In any event, I believe fluency is a lifetime project and this is especially true for the oldest and most difficult of human languages.

Certainly Scripture and the life of Christian faith qualify as an old and difficult language! I think, therefore, that fluency will take a long time, but its goal is mastery. For that reason I don’t want to list a few biblical stories here and there. Even so, the literature on language acquisition does indicate that we build upon small units as we move our way to larger and more complex stages of grammar. That means people need to know basics, for sure—the Bible “hits,” as it were—but eventually they must move on to greater and greater nuance, especially as they age, develop, and mature in the faith. Otherwise, they’re stuck in a case of arrested development: 50-year old Christians, for example, with a fifth grade faith. As Paul said, there’s a time to put childish things behind us!

You say the problem is how the Old Testament is present, read, and preached from in churches (as in sermons, hymnody, and the lectionary). What do you mean?

Brent A. Strawn: There’s a difference in mind between if-present and how-present. If-present asks: is the Old Testament present at all in sermons, song, and Scripture reading? That’s one important thing. And of course I argue that the Old Testament must be present in all of those places and far more than it has been of late (and for a long time).

But there’s also the question of how the Old Testament is present in these things. If the Old Testament is just a foil for a New Testament passage, for example, or if the Old Testament example is only preached so as to beat up on Israel or if the Old Testament is read but not really engaged or plumbed for its depth, then the Old Testament is present but not in a healthy way.

As I say early on in The Old Testament Is Dying, my diagnosis is that, for many Christians, the Old Testament has ceased to function in healthy ways as authoritative, canonical Scripture in their lives. Cheap and shallow instances of how-present will not do, therefore, even if the if-present is there. What we need are the best, most substantive and thoughtful uses of the Old Testament in formative moments of Christian faith and practice. So, yes, the Old Testament must be present, but how it is present is equally crucial.

Why is it vital that the Old Testament “language” be reclaimed by Christians?

Brent A. Strawn: As one of the epigraphs of my book I use a quotation from an old German theologian, Wilhelm Vischer. It goes like this: Tell me what you would strike from the Old Testament and I’ll tell you what defect there is in your Christian knowledge. I really believe that. It’s thus vital to reclaim the Old Testament or else our Christian knowledge will be forever flawed.

Furthermore, if the Old Testament dies, the New Testament isn’t far behind, even if it takes a little bit longer for that to happen. All of the problems that face the survival of the Old Testament, that is, also pertain to the New Testament. According to the Anglican divine, John Donne, “the two testaments grow one Bible.” What that means is that the Old and New Testaments are in this together—for better and for worse.

Briefly explain how you apply pidginization and creolization to your book’s message.

Brent A. Strawn: As I mentioned in an earlier question, pidiginization is the process that produces a reduced contact language. In The Old Testament Is Dying, the examples I discuss from New Atheism and the heresy known as Marcionism (which is still with us) are examples of that. In both cases, a more dominant language has impinged on a weaker one (in this case Scripture) and reduced it to a shadow of itself. Now it must be pointed out that Marcionism and the New Atheists get some things right about the Bible—that’s to be expected in a pidgin language which retains some of its weaker parent’s “genes”—but they fail miserably when it comes to understanding the entire, rich, and complex (!) language of Scripture. By definition a pidgin is not a rich, complex language but quite the opposite. It’s also crucial to point out that only those who have a better grasp on the whole are able to respond to the threats posed by the reductionistic languages found in Marcionism and the New Atheism.

Creolization is a different, but related phenomenon. Creolization is the linguistic process in which some pidgins survive and grow up to become new, thriving languages. The key word, though, is “new.” Creoles are languages that have a pidgin as their immediate ancestor, but pidgins are too reduced to function as real languages for lots of people for very long. More grammar is needed, more vocabulary, and so forth. Creoles are languages that are rounded out—created, in no small way—by people who had a pidgin as their first language. The rounding out that happens in a creole is entirely regular: no irregular verbs please! The linguistic expansion that takes place in creolization makes a creole vastly different from its pidgin forebear (which, in turn, was also very different from its original parents). A creole is thus at least two (large) steps removed from the two languages that started the whole process.

In my book, I argue that creolization applies to the prosperity gospel and preachers like Joel Osteen. In my judgment, this movement has grown up on a pidgin: a greatly reduced language that treats the Bible as if it’s primarily about me and my health, wealth, and related types of flourishing—excepting all other evidence to the contrary (for example, that the life of faith frequently involves suffering, for instance, or sadness, grief, sorrow, even depression; compare Psalm 88). That fantastically reductionistic view of the Bible has then been creolized into a fully regular language.

“Name it, claim it,” is a perfect instance of such creolization. In so many prosperity thinkers’ opinions we have the power to say things that will, in effect, cause God to do something in return (or not as the case may be!). But that’s to make the free almighty God of Scripture into nothing more than a lapdog that comes whenever we call. That’s a gross misrepresentation (a creolization, really) of the Bible. How do I know that? Because I’ve read the Psalms and Job and Ecclesiastes—and also the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ suffering in the garden and on the cross.

Who was Marcion, how is his heresy resurfacing, and how should it be refuted?

Brent A. Strawn: Marcion was a heretic of the second century. He was the first, perhaps, to say the Old Testament was dying, but in his judgment it deserved to die. He wanted to put it out of its misery. So he eliminated the Old Testament from his “Bible,” but, in so doing, he had to throw out a good bit of the New Testament as well. (As I said, the destinies of the two testaments are inextricably linked!)

The early heresiologists like Tertullian and Irenaeus responded to Marcion. They knew the entire language of Scripture better, in my judgment—they were more fluent, in the analogy—and thus were able to expose the deep and profound errors that Marcion’s pidginized mini-New Testament manifested. So, once again, in the case of Marcion, Vischer’s point is well made: if you strike something from the Old Testament, there will be a cost to your Christian knowledge. Marcion’s heresy was not just that he didn’t like the Old Testament. In no small measure it was precisely because he disliked the Old Testament that he ended up misunderstanding God, creation, and Jesus Christ. No small things those!

I don’t think Marcionism has ever fully died out. It rears its ugly head every time someone contrasts “the God of the Old Testament” with God (or Jesus) in the New Testament, or anytime someone characterizes the Old Testament as mean and wrathful and the New Testament as positive and merciful. Such characterizations are actually caricatures; or, using my linguistic analogy, they are cases of pidginization. As if the Old Testament didn’t abound in God’s goodness, mercy, and steadfast love! Or as if the New Testament didn’t know the sting of divine judgment and wrath!

Marcionism has negative consequences in a whole host of ways, therefore. In the 20 century its most gruesome manifestation was in the way German Christians saw fit to support the Nazis and their “final solution” which saw the murder of millions of Jews in the holocaust. Doris Bergen has shown that the Nazis were able to play on widespread biblical illiteracy among many German Christians and how they systematically outlawed preaching on the Old Testament, reading from the Old Testament, and, finally, singing songs based on the Old Testament. When these things are gone (and they correspond to three of my four initial tests I conduct in chapter 2 of my book), Christians no longer have a working ability in the language of the Old Testament. And without that, they can be easily seduced into thinking that anti-Semitism (or other iterations of racism) might be right. But a full working knowledge of the language of Scripture can prevent us from such horrific pidiginization-unto-death, a death that may not be simply a matter of human language but of human life, and of the worst, most inhuman kind.

What are your recommendations for saving the Old Testament as a language?

Brent A. Strawn: I have four or five in the book, but the most important is the first on the list: we need far more Old Testament than we’ve been getting. We need regular and extensive use of the Old Testament at and in formative moments in Christian practice and education including (no surprise) in sermons, songs, and Scripture reading—in both public worship and private devotion.

This is not particularly novel or insightful, I realize. It’s, instead, entirely commonsensical. This is how people learn languages and practice them: by using them all the time. A snippet of some random passage followed by a 15-45 minute reflection on God-only-knows-what (often not the snippet!) once a week on a Sunday morning is insufficient to fund a Christian life—a Christian life that will make much difference at any rate.

A further rider to this most important recommendation is to make our use of Scripture memorable. If we remember Scripture, it’ll function like a language through which we can perceive, understand, and negotiate the world. If not, we’ll remember something else: a song or movie or comment from our favorite political pundit. So we need to memorize more Scripture and also get it in our brains and on our tongues in other ways—by songs, for instance, that set Scripture to music. We need a lot more Christian music that is Scripture, in my opinion, and far less Christian music that is not Scripture.

A final point that I’ve already mentioned and that I discuss at many points in The Old Testament Is Dying is that children are crucial.

We learn languages initially and learn them best when we’re young. One can learn the language of faith at any age, to be sure, but if my linguistic analogy has any explanatory power, it suggests that there are ideal windows of opportunity for such learning and for some people it may be too late to expect much fluency, whether due to age, ability, or interest.

Whatever the case, whatever our age, languages are first learned, and fluency gained, via language immersion in a linguistic community; typically a family with primary caregivers. The church can function as such a community with various individuals, not just the ministerial staff and not just one’s own biological parents, serving as linguistic caregivers. But we mustn’t neglect the importance of the family proper—not just the church family or family of God.

I recall one of my professors, one of the world’s authorities on the Psalms, saying he first learned the Psalms at his mother’s knee (quite literally). Or one can read in Stanley Hauerwas’ memoir that he believes he’s a Christian because his mother read the story of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1.

These are two examples among countless others but they receive further, empirical support from the work of Christian Smith and others on the national study of youth and religion in America, as well as from the Religious Knowledge Survey where one of the indicators for scoring higher was if one discussed religion on a regular basis with family. Less soccer and softball practice, especially on Sunday, and more Scripture, is in order. Unless, that is, the parents’ primary goal is to raise up athletes who will be able to hold their own at the company picnic festivities when they get to middle-age.

What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?

Brent A. Strawn: This is an impossible question for a Bible professor! I can give you my top five books of the Old Testament easily enough:

  • Exodus (the fundamental salvific act in all of Scripture)
  • Deuteronomy (the preeminent articulation of covenant and law)
  • Psalms (irreplaceable in the life of faith)
  • Amos (key to understanding the wrath and judgment of God) and
  • Ecclesiastes (proof that the life of faith is truly capacious and includes a remarkable range of doubt, even crabbiness).

I can also give you some texts that I deem particularly important, especially to my own thinking about and theology of Scripture:

One would be Jacob’s wrestling at the Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-32), which indicates to me that we will not always come away from our encounters with God unscathed. Indeed, proof of walking with God might be in the limp we have or the scars we bear thereafter.

Another important text for me is Eli’s remark to Samuel after hearing the bad news about the future of his family: “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him” (1 Samuel 3:18). That expresses a certain resignation, perhaps, but also recognition of who God is, especially vis-à-vis who we are, which also holds true for another of my other favorite texts, Ecclesiastes 5:2b, which reads, “God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.”

As a fourth and final text (I could go on all day!), how about Job 2:10b: “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” That text shows me that I’m not dealing with a lapdog or Santa Claus but with something—Someone!—far more important and far more dangerous than that.

Again, I could go on and on with this question and add some “nicer” texts, but one of the signal contributions of the Old Testament to Christian Scripture in my judgment is precisely the honesty it reflects, and these four texts capture some of the brutal honesty that the biblical authors convey to us and model for us with regard to the realities and difficulties of the life of faith.

Bio: The Rev. Dr. Brent A. Strawn (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary) is chair, Hebrew Bible Course of Study (PhD), Laney Graduate School; director, Doctor of Ministry (DMin) Program, Candler School of Theology; professor of Old Testament at the Candler School of Theology, Graduate Division of Religion, and Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies, Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia; and senior fellow, Center for the Study of Law and Religion. He has authored or coedited numerous volumes, including The Old Testament Is Dying, The World around the Old Testament, Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Law , and From Whom No Secrets Are Hid. 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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