Lies My Preacher Told Me: An Honest Look at the Old Testament

Written by Brent A. Strawn Reviewed By Larisa Levicheva

This book is aimed at laity and addresses several popular misconceptions about the Old Testament. Brent Strawn is a professor at Duke University and the author of many books, including The Old Testament is Dying (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017). Strawn borrows the idea for this book from James Loewen (Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong [New York: Simon & Schuster], ix), and argues against intentionally propagating erroneous beliefs about the Old Testament. The volume consists of twelve chapters, including the Introduction, Ten Mistruths about the Old Testament (with discussion questions at the end of each chapter), the Conclusion, and suggested reading for further study.

In the Introduction the author points out that erroneous beliefs about the Old Testament come from people’s ignorance or superficial knowledge about the issue. Well-meaning preachers and Sunday School teachers spread “mistruths” about the Old Testament rather than intentionally lying about God’s word as “lying implies intentional misrepresentation of the truth” (p. 1). Yet, these mistruths are hard to expose and get rid of because they are “far more insidious and intractable than a bald-faced lie” (p. 2).

“Mistruth 1” addresses the belief that the OT is “someone else’s mail” (p. 3); that is, these books were not written with Christians in mind, and, therefore, have little to say to contemporary believers. The author debunks this mistruth by pointing out that the New Testament writers saw the OT as “their own mail” and believed that everything said to Israel was appropriate and applicable to Christians (p. 7).

“Mistruth 2” exposes the belief that “the Old Testament is a boring history book” (p. 7), which comes from a lack of familiarity with the OT material. Strawn argues that history writing was different in the ancient world, and the biblical writers were much more interested in theology—the way God acted in and interacted with the world he created (p. 16). The OT has a lot more to offer than boring history to those who are eager to read and learn.

“Mistruth 3” deals with the idea of the OT as “permanently obsolete” (p. 19). The author addresses several erroneous beliefs contributing to this mistruth and demonstrates how ignorance and/or lack of familiarity with the OT material creates a wrong understanding of the OT’s insignificance for the Christian life. Using examples of Jesus’s words about the OT’s importance and Marcion’s heresy, Strawn demonstrates the OT’s relevance for contemporary believers (pp. 27–28).

“Mistruth 4” examines the idea of the God encountered being “really mean” (p. 31) due to instances of God’s wrath. To undermine this mistruth, Strawn proves the continuity of God’s nature and actions in both testaments, which is foundational to the orthodox belief in the unity of the Trinity. Divine wrath is aimed at injustice and sin in the world because God cares about his creatures (p. 37).

“Mistruth 5” addresses the belief that the OT is “hyper-violent” (p. 41). While the OT has instances of graphic human violence, the author avers that they do not make the OT “violent.” The creation story and the visions of the future in the OT portray peace and the absence of conflict. Strawn reframes the issue of violence and human inclination for it in both testaments, acknowledging its presence and encouraging serious wholistic engagement with difficult biblical passages (p. 52).

“Mistruth 6” deals with “unhelpful historical assertions,” like authorship of the biblical books. Examining the attribution of the Psalms to David, the author argues that the meaning of the text does not depend on its authorship but on the text itself. While the historical background is important, it is erroneous to attach too much significance to it (p. 63).

“Mistruth 7” exposes the idea of the OT not being “spiritually enriching” (p. 65). Lack of knowledge of the OT material in comparison to the NT texts results in one’s inability to find spiritual enrichment in those books. Examining the words of the Apostles’ Creed, Strawn brings to the fore the significance of spiritual enrichment found in the OT texts (p. 71).

“Mistruth 8” address the lack of the OT’s practical relevance for Christian life. Lack of familiarity with the OT as compared to the NT contributes to this belief. The practical relevance of NT texts is usually connected to exhortations and admonitions, as found in the words of Jesus and Paul. Strawn debunks this mistruth by providing examples of both, and many other instructions from the OT law, prophecy, and wisdom and thus reframing the concept of biblical relevance for contemporary life (p. 82).

“Mistruth 9” examines the idea of the OT Law being “a burden, impossible to keep” (p. 83). The author exposes this belief by defining the OT Law and the theological considerations of God the lawgiver (p. 85) and providing the testimony of the OT writers, who profess their delight and joy in God’s Law (p. 86). The OT Law is essential as a means of maintaining the right relationship between God and his creation (p. 90).

“Mistruth 10” investigates the idea that the OT is “all about Jesus” (p. 93). Using several NT passages, Strawn demonstrates “the sufficiency of the OT all by itself” and its relevance to Jesus (p. 97). He clarifies that the entire bible includes more material than just “about Jesus” as it also talks about God the Father, the Holy Spirit, and the community of the faithful. Strawn states that the OT is “a primary witness to the God that Christians know as Triune: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (p. 103).

The Conclusion reinforces the idea that “truth about Scripture matters” (p. 105). Neglect of the OT has led to anti-Semitism, misunderstanding of God’s justice and mercy, and a general watering-down and over-simplification of the biblical message. Mistruths and “half-truths” hinder the church’s mission of preparing Christians to do God’s work in the world (p. 108).

This book boldly, and with good humor, addresses deep-seated erroneous Christian beliefs about the OT and provides ways to critically engage them. The discussion questions at the end of each chapter make this volume a good option for a group study at home or church, although the closed-ended questions limit the freedom of readers’ reflection on the material as they presuppose what readers should think. Nonetheless, this book provides a healthy corrective to common misconceptions about the OT and offers a good perspective from which to approach the text.

Larisa Levicheva

Larisa Levicheva
Wesley Seminary, Indiana Wesleyan University
Marion, Indiana, USA

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