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Old Testament headed to extinction, Emory theologian warns

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Elaine Justice

Brent Strawn does not seem like a scholar of ancient texts. The professor of Old Testament at Emory’s Candler School of Theology is firmly rooted in the present, moving between graduate courses in Hebrew exegesis, to guest lectures at local churches, to serving as resident religion expert for national news media. 

Strawn speaks more than one religious language, but he came to realize that one particular language, the Bible’s Old Testament, may be headed for extinction. His latest book, “The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment,” documents the decline of the Old Testament among Christians and other groups, the consequences of that and what might be done to counter it.

While some might not think of the Old Testament as a language, Strawn says that it functions like one. “The Old Testament, like any other piece of literature or art … is, or at least can be, a way of constructing reality, a way of understanding the world, a way of perceiving all that is, including ourselves," he explains 

Strawn’s thesis struck him while teaching a group of elderly Christians at a local church. When he asked what he thought was a fairly simple question about an Old Testament reference, the class admitted they didn’t know the answer 

“You know a language is in peril and dying if only the elderly speak it,” says Strawn. “But when even the elderly can’t speak it anymore, the language dies.”

And “if the Old Testament dies, the New Testament will not be far behind it,” Strawn writes in the book’s first chapter. “I believe that the data show that it is the language of scripture as a whole — not just that of the Old Testament — that is seriously threatened.”

As part of his diagnosis, Strawn looked at data from the widely reported 2010 study on religious literacy in the U.S. by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The study revealed that “large swaths of religious people — including Christians — are quite uninformed about even the most rudimentary details of their religion.”

Strawn attributes at least some of this illiteracy not only to the failure of religious education of various sorts to inform the faithful, but also to deficient worship practices. He investigated sermon collections from the 20th century, mainline hymnals published since 1985 and the Revived Common Lectionary.

All reveal that “the Old Testament is at a serious disadvantage, and is in fact in decline, or worse,” he says 

Atheists and 'happiologists'

With that in mind, it’s not surprising that Strawn finds that public discourse on the Bible also demonstrates its morbidity — from sources as diverse as New Atheist writers such as Richard Dawkins, to prosperity gospel gurus such as Joel Osteen.

“The way the Old Testament is talked about among New Atheists is emblematic of its decline,” says Strawn. He explains that among atheist writers such as Dawkins, Old Testament language has become pidginized, a phenomenon where two language groups come together. In order to facilitate communication between the two, speakers develop a greatly reduced language called a pidgin, as in “pidgin English.”

“New Atheists speak a pidginized version of the Bible; they get some parts right, but what they lack is the full language,” says Strawn. If one is more fluent in the Bible, however, “these arguments are simplistic and lacking awareness, but if you don’t know the full language, you can’t respond.”

“People who disparage the Bible typically only know the parts they dislike. But it’s equally true that some people love the Bible inappropriately — they only know their favorite parts,” says Strawn. He uses the term “happiologists” to describe prosperity gospel adherents who cling to some parts of scripture while ignoring others.

For happiologists such as Osteen, the issue is not pidginization, but creolization, says Strawn 

“Creolization is when a pidgin language grows up, mostly by acquiring native speakers,” says Strawn. “In the case of the happiologists, they get some parts of the Bible right, but they have expanded those bits and pieces to become the entire language — at the expense of all the other parts. The new version is a new language, related to the original, sure, but at least two steps removed from the original,” he says 

“You begin with a reduction of selected parts of scripture, then create a whole new language around that,” says Strawn. So, according to the happiologists, “if you have faith or say this or do that, then automatically spiritual blessings have to happen.”

“This just isn’t the case in the Bible at all,” he says. “All you have to know is the Book of Job to disprove virtually everything the happiologists promise.”

Consequences and how to counter them

Strawn says the loss of scriptural fluency has three predictable results. Stunted language learners either:

  • leave faith behind altogether;
  • remain Christian, but look to other resources for how to live their lives; or
  • balkanize in communities that prefer to speak something akin to baby talk — a pidgin-like form of the Old Testament and Bible as a whole — or, worse still, some sort of creole.

“But whichever option is chosen,” Strawn says, “the invariable end is that the language of scripture dies. And that has profound ramifications for Christian faith writ large.”

Strawn’s most chilling example of the consequences of Old Testament decline can be found in 20th century Germany and the anti-Semitic ravings of Adolf Hitler.

“The Nazis were able to enjoy success among German Christian groups in part because of widespread Old Testament illiteracy,” he writes. “Once the community of faith no longer sings the Old Testament, it is a short step to removing it altogether from pulpit, prayer and liturgy.

When that happens, the connection between the Jewish people and the Christian church is severed, he adds. “It is no wonder, though at the same time simply unfathomable, that when the death squads came for the Jews, the ‘German Christians’ looked the other way … and worse.”

Can the Old Testament’s decline be reversed? “What a language needs to survive is a group of people who speak it regularly and fluently and teach it to their children,” says Strawn.

“The key insight for saving the language that is the Old Testament, and maybe the only hope for its continued existence, is regular and repeated use."

Strawn offers a few other concrete suggestions about how to save the Old Testament, illustrating several of these by looking at the book of Deuteronomy as a model for second language acquisition.  The end result, Strawn hopes, will be religious people who are better versed in their sacred traditions and better equipped to engage in the complicated task of relating their faith to the real world and the public square.

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