Last week I read a fascinating book called The Old Testament is Dying (2017, Baker Academic) by Brent Strawn, an Old Testament professor from Candler Seminary at Emory. I found I couldn’t stop reading it once I started, partly because it’s so engagingly written, but partly because of its pastoral implications.
Strawn uses a couple of guiding metaphors to organize his book. The first is that of a patient. The book diagnoses the Old Testament’s sorry state of health among the general public as well as (more worryingly) among Christian believers, exposes several “signs of morbidity” and then wraps up with a few chapters of “recommended treatment.” The diagnosis is hard to argue against, both from the data he shows and from personal experience. As a pastor, I’ve heard many people tell me they don’t know what to do with the Old Testament. Moreover, as a reader, the Old Testament retains much of its strangeness even after reading it fairly constantly for my whole adult life. There are corners (perhaps whole rooms) of the Old Testament that might as well be labeled “Do Not Enter” for all of the church’s engagement with them. As Strawn shows, our hymns and songs don’t draw very fully on the OT, and we rarely read it at any length or with any consistency in our public worship. And I wonder how many pastors, over the course of a ten-year ministry, would be able to say that they had even preached from a quarter of the books of the Old Testament? To hear Christian communities describe themselves as “New Testament churches” is not at all uncommon. We simply neglect the Old Testament.
Strawn’s second guiding metaphor explains why this is a problem. He suggests that the Old Testament (and by extension, Scripture as a whole) is like a language, the language that God’s people are intended to speak. (He doesn’t mean to suggest that speaking what has been described as “Christian-ese” is desirable, but that the life we “speak,” the language we know about God, etc., gets its full articulation from the whole Bible.) Due to lack of use, the language is dying. There are few competent speakers, and the language the church is learning is an incomplete one, comparable to two linguistic phenomena, “pidgins” and “creoles.” Pidgins are formed most commonly in trade situations. Speakers of one dominant culture and one subservient culture need to communicate, so an abbreviated language develops that is simplified and does the service it needs to do for their purposes, though it isn’t a full language and doesn’t have native speakers. Creoles are languages that develop in a later stage, when pidgins grow and acquire native speakers. A creole is thus two removes from its original “parent languages”. Strawn argues that our slimmed-down knowledge and understanding of the Old Testament, together with our dominant cultural presuppositions have turned our functional OT into pidgin and creole forms. We are missing out on the full picture of the Old Testament, with the results that we don’t have a full understanding of what God wants to say to us or intends for us, and we don’t have the full language that would allow our reading of the New Testament to be anything but distorted.
I’ve been thinking over both my own understanding of the Old Testament and my use and communication of it as a pastor. On the personal front, I feel that I am due for some extended study of the Old Testament, perhaps beginning with a big book (or series of books) like John Goldingay’s three-volume Old Testament Theology, or on the other hand by doing more extended study in some of those parts I should know more intimately than I do (for instance, I have spent a lot of time thinking about Genesis, but not so much on Deuteronomy, even though Deuteronomy is by all accounts one of the most important books of the OT). So I’m working at planning to do more of that. For the past several weeks we have been reading through 1-2 Kings as a family in our Bible reading time after supper, which has been a wonderful experience, allowing us to talk about things about both God and people that just don’t always come up.
In terms of the church, there is also more work to do. Our church is small, and has lots of keen Bible readers in it, but much of the OT still feels unfamiliar to many or most. In terms of preaching balance, I’ve tried to go back and forth between Old Testament and New Testament, but there are still major holes, sections I’ve never preached on at any length (apart from Isaiah, for instance, I have hardly given any Sunday morning attention to the prophets — not counting the stories in the first six chapters of Daniel). Midweek Bible study has provided a chance to explore some of the places we haven’t yet. This year, that group has gone through studies on both the Psalms (leading us to consider the many ways we can and should pray our lives to God) and Ecclesiastes (giving us an opportunity to discuss things like old age, dying, consumerism, the way life doesn’t always work out as expected), prompting Tyler recently to say that the Bible study group “needs to spend some time at the back of their Bibles again.” I’m thrilled that this is the situation–it’s not a common problem for church Bible study groups to spend more time in the Old than the New Testament–but the truth is there’s lots more there to attend to if we want to attain what Strawn might call full fluency in our language.
Thinking on Christian culture and learning as a whole, you have to commend the interest many people recently have in wanting to fill out our understanding of the whole Bible. But this is most often done by focusing on “the big story” of the Bible, which privileges the narrative parts and still tends to create a functionally limited Old Testament language. It’s a start, but Strawn would again want us to see this as a proper case of us using “motherese”–baby talk with a plan to expand toward full fluency. In other words, yes, learn the big story, but make sure you move on to the many other voices in the Old Testament that fill out the pages.
So now we’re coming up to Advent, and I’m thinking we need to use this time to look at some parts of the Old Testament that don’t merely predict or “point to” Jesus coming but hint at something of how God worked with his people in the OT that is still reflected in the New and what has happened in Jesus. I’m not sure how successfully we can do it, but I hope it is at the very least another beginning for us to hear the Old Testament in its own integrity as well as how it speaks to us as people who know Jesus and the chorus of voices that witness to him in the New Testament.