Will Marcion win after all?

In his recent book, Princeton Theological Seminary professor Brent Strawn makes a provocative case that American Christians are in imminent danger of losing the Old Testament—and with it much of the substance of Christian faith.

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Drawing on a variety of evidence, Strawn argues that we are losing our grip on the OT, making it comparable to a dying language. He bases this assessment on a survey of religious knowledge among Americans, an analysis of the content of sermons, the way the OT is used (or not used) in hymns, and the highly selective use of the OT in the Revised Common Lectionary. He concludes that American Christians’ faith is subsisting on a drastically reduced diet of Old Testament.

Pursuing the linguistic analogy, Strawn looks at how the use of the OT has become “pidginized”—its use reduced to a very basic, almost childlike “vocabulary”—and “creolized”—combined with other non- or sub-biblical thought-and-language systems. In the first category, he places the New Atheists, who often deploy a radically simplistic understanding of the OT in their anti-religious polemics. They latch on to a few verses supposedly demonstrating the barbarism and immorality of the OT and its God, without bothering to understand the Bible in all its complexity. The problem is that many Christians are themselves so devoid of OT knowledge that they can’t muster effective counterarguments.

Strawn sees this “pidginized” understanding of the OT at the root of the church’s recurrent temptation toward the arch-heresy of Marcionism. This is what’s going on, for example, whenever the “mean,” “violent,” “judgmental” God of the OT is contrasted with the “tolerant,” “peaceful,” “forgiving” God of the New Testament/Jesus. The historical Marcion took this to an extreme in seeking to explicitly excise the OT (and large swaths of the NT) from the Christian canon, but neo-Mariconite tendencies are at work whenever (often well meaning) preachers, teachers, liturgists, etc. elide or omit large portions of the OT (especially certain “troubling” passages) from Christian worship, prayer, and education.

Like nature, theology abhors a vacuum, and the void left by the OT is often filled by sub-biblical and sub-Christian discourse. This is what Strawn compares to linguistic creolization—snippets of biblical language are grafted on to another belief-system, resulting in new hybrid that loses much of the biblical substance. The clearest example of this is the prosperity gospel, where quasi-biblical language and concepts are combined with a debased form of American civil religion/capitalist ideology.

Languages can die, and once they do, it’s extremely difficult to resurrect them. As with a dying language, American churches suffer from too few competent “speakers” of the OT, and based on the available evidence they aren’t doing a great job of making new ones. If use of the OT continues to trail off, it may soon be too late to bring it back.

Strawn’s key point of emphasis is that Christianity without the Old Testament front and center isn’t actually Christianity at all, at least not in any sense continuous with the earliest Christians. Many Christians have too long treated the OT as, at best, a kind of preface to the NT. Strawn maintains, on the contrary, that it has its own integrity for preaching, teaching and worship, and–considering that it makes up the vast majority of Christian scripture–that it should have a much more prominent place than it currently does. (To show how this can be done, he highlights Walter Brueggemann as one of the few prominent Christian theologian/preachers who draws primarily on the OT.)

As a course of treatment for this perhaps fatally ill patient, Strawn offers several recommendations: lectionaries that make fuller use of the OT in worship; sermons that preach primarily, if not exclusively, from the OT readings; hymns that reflect a more biblically-based theology, as well as more use of the psalms in corporate worship; and Christian education that teaches people to wrestle with the full scope of scripture.

One may wonder if even these steps would be enough if the problem is as deep and pervasive as Strawn has suggested. Of course, even these actions are unlikely to be taken if church leaders aren’t facing up to the problem. Getting Strawn’s book into as many of their hands as possible would be a good start. The Old Testament may be dying, but we have it on good authority that God is in the resurrection business.

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