The Old Testament Is Dying
December 18, 2019

The premise of Brent Strawn's argument in The Old Testament Is Dying is that the Old Testament is a language. That is, it "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" (8).

The languages in which the Old Testament is written offer "a certain way of perceiving reality" (8), but more importantly the Old Testament "as a complex whole" provides a way of construing reality.

He quotes Stanley Hauwerwas several times: "To learn to be a Christian, to learn the discipline of the faith, is not just similar to learning another language. It is learning another language" (quoted p. 13).

That's the premise, and he makes it compelling. The argument is a dire one: Languages die. If the Old Testament is a language, it too is capable of dying. In fact, it is a dying language, and it's dying among the "native speakers," that is, Christians.

Fluency in the Old Testament, Strawn says, has collapsed. Languages "die because no one speaks them." The key signal of a dying language is that it is no longer spoken by children. If it's not passed on from parents to children, a language "can die as quickly as one generation, perhaps about twenty years" (70).

Instead of a fully developed language, a dying language becomes a "pidgin" dialect. Pidgins emerge from interaction between two languages, such as happened when English colonialists began to trade with Chinese. Both the dominant and the weaker group contribute to the formation of pidgin, but the product is another language, a "profound simplification" or "a least common denominator" language that allows communication between the two groups.

As a language dies, it goes through a process of "repidginization," as it "undergoes massive simplification and reduction, losing complicated inflections, huge swaths of vocabulary, and virtually all other nuances that mark a vibrant language" (69).

This, Strawn says, is what's happening to the Old Testament. Very few are fluent in the "language of Canaan," and most make do with "a few stock phrases or lexical items" (70). Christians don't know the Old Testament because it's an "endangered language"; what we do know we "mispronounce"; most of us know too little to "carry on a conversation" in Old Testament (78).

Too dire? Strawn makes a good case for his diagnosis. He points to the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, the Best Sermons series, the use of Psalms in mainline hymnody, and the wide gaps in the Revised Common Lectionary. These all point in the same direction:

"The first test [Religious Knowledge Survey] clearly demonstrated that a language must be practiced in order to thrive; the last three tests, which in principle revealed distinct opportunities for such linguistic practice [in Sermons, hymns, and readings] fail definitively at just this point" (56).

He blames New Atheists like Richard Dawkins who doesn't speak Old Testament but knows only a pidgin version. He also blames Dawkins's opponents, who know only pidgin Bible. It's pidgin v. pidgin. He blames modern Marcionites and "Happiologists" like Joel Olsteen.

When a language dies, the information encoded in the language dies with it (71-72). Strawn warns, "the process of repidginization . . . leads to a loss of nuance and efficiency in talking about Scripture." Conversation becomes harder, takes longer, and the possibilities of misunderstanding increase. He quotes Barth: "where the Christian church does not venture to confess in its own language, it usually does not confess at all" (74).

Strawn isn't merely a diagnostician. He also offers a "recommended treatment." Several times he returns to the point about children: The next generation needs to become fluent in Old Testament, or the language will die among us.

Strawn's book does a great job of showing why this task is so crucial, and offers some important suggestions about the way forward.

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