What do Christians do with the Old Testament, with its weird laws, brutal violence, and unpredictable God? Some are confused by it, some are afraid of it, and some simply ignore it. Our confusion, fear, and avoidance of the Old Testament has led to a severe problem. Like a doctor examining a patient, Brent Strawn examines our Old Testament habits and makes a dire diagnosis that supplies the title of his new book: The Old Testament is Dying.
Strawn’s analysis is divided into three sections. The first two focus on the problem (Part 1: “The Old Testament as a Dying Language” and Part 2: “Signs of Morbidity”), while the final section offers a solution (Part 3: “Path to Recovery”). Strawn’s grave assessment should cause great concern to any who believe, along with Paul the apostle, that all Scripture is divinely inspired and profitable for teaching (2 Tim. 3:16). But his suggested treatment should be a source of great hope.
A Disappearing Language
Strawn bases his diagnosis on empirical data from a 2010 Pew Forum survey (inspired by Stephen Prothero’s 2007 book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t). In addition, he draws on patterns of Old Testament usage in popular sermons, hymns, and songs, and in the Revised Common Lectionary (a daily Bible-reading plan used by certain Protestant denominations). Despite widespread claims of religiosity among the US population, Strawn’s evidence strongly suggests that most American Christians are relatively ignorant of basic truths about the Bible, particularly the Old Testament—and that trends in sermons and worship are contributing to the problem. For the most part, the Old Testament is ignored, and even when it isn’t, only a narrow selection of familiar texts are read, sung, or taught.
To convey the severity of the problem, Strawn uses two helpful metaphors (medical and linguistic), and terminology from these realms permeate the book. While the book’s title emphasizes the medical analogy (the Old Testament as dying patient), the linguistic analogy plays a larger role in illustrating the book’s point. Strawn conceives of the Old Testament as a language that has been disappearing due to neglect and avoidance by the church. When people fail to learn the language in its full complexity, they end up essentially recreating it in a simplified, pidgin form.
In the middle of the book, Strawn looks at the problem from a different angle by focusing on three problematic groups: New Atheists, Marcionites, and “Happiologists” (Joel Osteen–types). New Atheists like Richard Dawkins misrepresent the Old Testament with flat, overly literal readings. Strawn insightfully points out some of the problems with Dawkins’s use of Scripture. Despite what Dawkins claims, Genesis 19 (an account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah) doesn’t present Lot in anything like a positive light. And while Genesis 22 is a difficult text, it is abundantly clear that Abraham was being tested and that ultimately God did not want him to sacrifice his son.