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Is the Old Testament dying? Maybe, but less so for African-Americans and Mormons

First Published      Last Updated May 18 2017 12:07 pm

Brent Strawn was teaching at a Methodist church in Atlanta when he asked his class to identify the origin of Jesus' well-known cry from the cross — "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"


The Emory University professor of the Old Testament was stunned.

How could it be that these mostly older adults, faithful lifelong churchgoers, didn't know that Jesus was quoting directly from Psalm 22?

That's when it dawned on him: The Old Testament is dying.

That realization, now a book by the same name, argues that many contemporary Christians have lost biblical fluency and no longer can speak the language of more than half their sacred Scripture.

It's not unusual for scholars to talk about the Bible as a language, but Strawn may be the first to look at it as a dying language.

"If the Old Testament is [like] a language, then like any language, it can be learned and spoken, or conversely, can be forgotten and die," he writes.

Strawn explains how dying languages revert to a pidginlike form, with limited vocabulary and an even more limited sentence structure. The New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, often speak this broken language, Strawn says, picking the most extreme passages to support their arguments that the Bible is immoral or contradictory without bothering to understand the whole.

Eventually, Strawn writes, a dying language may become a creole, an entirely new language formed from the contact between an older language and a new one.

For Strawn, purveyors of the prosperity gospel, such as Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar or "Prayer of Jabez" author Bruce Wilkinson, have repackaged Old Testament stories and themes to such a degree that the text is no longer recognizable; indeed, it's an entirely new language.

But is the Old Testament really dying, and is there more than anecdotal evidence to prove its demise?

Yes, says Strawn, whose book examines sermons, hymns and weekly lectionary readings in mainline Protestant as well as Catholic churches.

Strawn analyzed 879 sermons published in collections called "Best Sermons," and found that 21 percent of those sermons were devoted to lessons from the Old Testament. As for lectionaries, heard in many churches each Sunday morning, the Revised Common Lectionary omits seven books of the Old Testament and severely underrepresents 13 others, Strawn writes. Contemporary worship songs fare no better at inculcating scriptural knowledge.

His conclusion? The patient is experiencing death throes, and churches and their leaders are largely to blame.

Other scholars say it's important to point out exceptions. Some groups, such as African-Americans and Mormons, strongly identify with Old Testament stories. The liberation from Egypt in the Book of Exodus and the capture of the Promised Land in the Book of Joshua are significant stories to each group, respectively.

And there's some evidence that younger Catholics know more about the Old Testament today than their elders did growing up in the days before the Second Vatican Council when Mass was celebrated in Latin and the Bible rarely studied among laypeople.

That said, it's entirely possible the overall decline of religious adherence across the West has affected Bible knowledge. As more Christians and Jews abandon sanctuaries to join the swelling ranks of the unaffiliated — now about 23 percent of the U.S. population — Scripture fluency may be fading.

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