Reviewed by D. Jeffrey Mooney
Know anyone who speaks Hunnic? Probably not, since Atilla and the boys failed to put the vast majority of their language into writing. Why would they? They torched most of Europe and ample segments of Asia and humiliated the mighty Roman Empire. They would be around forever. Right? Wrong. Now, regardless of their power, glory, and dominance at one time, no one knows how they spoke to one another or navigated culture because their language is dead and gone. Brent Strawn, utilizing a linguistic analogy, describes the tenuous state of understanding and interaction with the Old Testament in a similar way. By language of the Old Testament, he does not mean Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, but the substance of the message of the Old Testament. He argues that the Old Testament, like all dying languages, is undergoing various states of pidginization and creolization, the two steps of the death of any language.
Strawn defines Pidgin as a severely reduced idiolect of a language that includes reduced syntax and vocabulary to communicate (baby-talk to the original language speakers). Pidgin languages are tailored for specific pragmatic needs, like trade, usually have short life-spans, and typically result from contact with another “language” that is imbued with cultural power of some type, whether sociopolitical, socioeconomic, military, or cosmopolitan. The stronger language with cultural authority (superstrate) slowly dissolves the original language (substrate). Then, “with enough time, enough speakers, and enough expansion, a pidgin could become the dominant, if not the only, language of a people group or area. In such a scenario, the language in question would no longer be called a pidgin, not even an expanded pidgin, but something else altogether, something new and different: a creole.”
The creole, according to Strawn, takes on a life of its own in time. It begins to develop its own syntax, adds or creates a new level of vocabulary, and, at some point, graduates from pragmatic necessity to the primary language used throughout the culture. Eventually, a creole will be indistinguishable from any other “full” language. This, according to Strawn, is deeply relevant for the Old Testament specifically and for the Bible at large. The Old Testament, like a disintegrating language, is dying. Strawn demonstrates the morbidity of the Old Testament in seven current scenarios: statistics on Religion in the US, “best sermons” predominantly designated by mainline Protestantism, modern worship Hymnody, the Revised Common Lectionary, the advent of the new atheists, the new Marcionism, and the Word of Faith movement, properly caricatured as the “Happiologists.” This review will briefly survey each.
Religion in US:
Strawn demonstrates the rift between the popular statistical claims of the rise of religion in the US and the deficient knowledge of the basic language of that religion. A popular 2010 quiz by the Pew Forum found that Americans correctly answered 16 of 32 basic religious knowledge questions. Among the findings: Only a slim majority (55 percent) knew that the Golden Rule is not one of the Ten Commandments. Stephen Chapman, professor of Old Testament at Duke Divinity School notes that “The Old Testament has often had a more insecure place with the Christian tradition, . . . even when the Old Testament is known, what’s known is a simplified version.” Interestingly enough, and consistent with Chapman and Strawn’s thoughts, the best scores on the 2013 quiz were not the people who learned “the language” at home and church but in the classroom. Generationally the findings were distinct, as well. The older community was more capable in answering questions than the young. This, according to Strawn, is a problem because dead and dying language’s last practitioners are always the elderly and the academic.
This is a general survey of 879 sermons, predominantly from mainline Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, with a Jewish Rabbi included. Forty-nine percent of the sermons were from the NT and 21% from the OT. However, even when the Old Testament appeared in the sermons, it appeared wrenched form its natural voice, a pidginesque sermon. Further, Strawn expresses selectivity concerns in text choice for sermons. “Not only do a disproportionate amount of sermons come from the “big three” books of Psalms, Genesis, and Isaiah, but even these sermons typically come from very well-known and, dare one say, overused texts.” Lastly, once again, the dying language’s last enthusiasts seem to be the academics. The Old Testament sermons on the list were often preached by experts in the field.
Hymnody and the Psalter:
This section is perhaps the most important portion of the book for most readers and leans on Sibley Towner’s brilliant essay, “’Without our Aid He did us Make’: Singing the Meaning of the Psalms.” Strawn expresses significant concerns for contemporary Hymnody (one might insert “worship music” into every occurrence of hymns, or hymnody). The hymns typically chosen and sung are at variance with the Psalms of Israel. Roughly 40% of the Psalms are laments (this number goes higher of course depending on how interrelated one takes Thanksgiving Psalms, which share common elements with laments). This number stands in stark contradistinction to the limited emotional range of contemporary Hymnody. Towner lucidly comments:
A persistent preference for praise in psalm-singing impoverishes the emotional range of worship, depriving worshipers of access to a source of hope that grows out of suffering. . . Put in commercial terms, in the competitive denominational marketplace of the twenty-first century, somber doesn’t sell. We prefer to sin and repent, lament and die in silent privacy.
The Revised Common Lectionary:
The trends represented in both sermons and hymnody above also appear in the Revised Common Lectionary. The RCL is more balanced than what we saw in the “Best Sermons” series and in contemporary hymnody, but the results are still rather mixed. While it broadens the range of scripture better than the sermon series and far better than mainline hymnody, it still does so with a “greatly reduced menu.”
Strawn exposes the heart of the major problem with the arguments of the New Atheists, namely that they are not interacting with actual readings of the OT but only pidginized readings of the OT. In particular, Strawn notes Dawkins’ obvious sophomoric level understanding of the Bible, highlighting his reading attempts in both the Old Testament and New Testament as clear illustrations of his limited “vocabulary.”
Marcion and His New Followers:
Strawn helpfully provides some common Marcionisms at the beginning of this chapter along with a concise but thorough bio of the heretic. This may be the most practical chapter for professors, who deal constantly with the inadvertent (or advertent) vilification of the Old Testament. Strawn shows the disastrous results of von Harnack’s, Marcion’s most significant biographer and adherent, acquiescence to Marcion and the subsequent use of Marcionism in the rise of the Third Reich. He also demonstrates the inconsistency between Marcionism and the first century Christians who wrote the NT, all of whom perceived Jesus to be consistent with the story begun in the OT.
If the work of both the New Atheists and Marcionites contribute to the pidginization of the Old Testament, the “Prosperity Gospel Movement” in America, represented here by Joel Osteen, presents a creolization of the Old Testament; a complete rejection of the original language and the expansion of the pidginization represented in the previous two signs of morbidity. Osteen proves thoroughly illustrative for Strawn. Theologically, Osteen presents a different deity than the Old Testament, providing his hearers a “lapdog,” “decidedly unfree,” who is “subject to every human whim, as long as that is positive.” Linguistically, Osteen presents new rules – faith as the catalyst for moving God to work on your behalf, and new lexical items – most distinct is the concept of individual declaration as the personal power to recreate reality. Strawn also justifiably includes Hendrickson’s much touted for a season, Prayer of Jabez, which is little more than a poor excuse for the original language (Old Testament) or prosperity gospel creole.
While Strawn presents the reader with a grim a diagnosis, he also provides a realistic hope. Realistically, the revival of the Old Testament will be demanding and limited, but certainly doable. Strawn provides five ways forward that can save the language of the Old Testament. Strawn makes the obvious point, that “the Old Testament must be used—extensively and regularly… in formative moments of Christian practice and education.” He states that serious training in the Old Testament must be core and lifelong pursuits. Strawn contends that this effort must have as its goal bilingual capacity, that is, the speakers must be able to know the ideological language so well that they can move back and forth from their own cultural ideology to the one in the Old Testament (and New Testament) fluently and smoothly. He argues for a “bothness” type of treatment for Old and New Testaments, resulting in reading both primarily in their own skin. Strawn says the Old Testament, if it is to survive, needs to be sung, memorized, and taught to children in serious ways. Some of the emphases here will be controversial but not new. Other ways forward are simply practical, sensible, and will be universally embraced.
While I would recommend Strawn’s book to any Christian leader, it does have some limitations. For example, Strawn does not focus much, if any, attention at all on conservative evangelicalism (though they do appear in the U.S. survey section). It is also interesting that the huge cultural movement in music fails to find its way into Strawn’s analysis. I think both entities would benefit from interaction with Strawn’s conclusions. I also hope the future holds fruitful discussions between Strawn and works like Bergler, The Juvenilization of the American Church and Christian Smith, Souls in Transition, to determine the points of overall cohesion and relationship between the significant cultural realities addressed by each scholar. That said, whether you have read Bergler or Smith, you simply must read Strawn. If he is right, the Old Testament is in trouble but certainly a language worth saving.
Jeffrey D. Mooney is Professor of Old Testament Interpretation and Theology at California Baptist University and Senior Pastor of Redeemer Baptist Church, Riverside CA.