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OT in the celebrity era

19 October 2010

Anthony Phillips considers how to avoid being ‘arid’


Lies, Sex and Politicians: Communicating the Old Testament in contemporary culture
John Holdsworth
SCM Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

THE racy title may disappoint some readers. This is no exposé of sleaze, but a serious study of how best to communicate the Hebrew scriptures to audiences largely unfamiliar with them. Holdsworth’s concern is for practical or pastoral theology.

Holdsworth maintains that for many students the traditional critical study of the Bible has become “arid”. Rather, he believes a more profitable approach to the texts is to use the critical tools familiar to students of literature. His sympathies lie with canonical criticism: it is the final text that matters, and what it does to the reader. “Experts are no longer needed in the same way.”

The novelty of Holdsworth’s approach is found in the way he embraces contemporary culture as a means of getting to grips with the Old Testament. The cult of celebrity, the way news is presented — fact and interpretation plus a degree of creativity — reality television, soap operas, and wayside flowers after a death are all appealed to. This results in some lively applications of given texts to modern situations, and the recognition of many links between the legalistic and narrative sections of the Old Testament and contemporary media and society.

Most elements of the Old Testament are discussed, and each chapter ends with a suggested follow up as to how issues raised in the text can be linked more easily to different aspects of contemporary culture.

But, ironically, Holdsworth cannot entirely avoid traditional biblical criticism. For him, the exile is the defining moment for unders­tanding the Hebrew scriptures. The Jewish diaspora resulting from this event in which everyone had suffered some trauma needed documents that would establish identity. But could this not be true of the new Davidic-Solomonic state?

And what effect did the annihilation of the northern kingdom of Israel have on the Ju­daean theologians in Jerusalem? Could their assessment of this catastrophe have led to the blind alley of Deuteronomic covenant theo­logy from which the Priestly theologians had to rescue Israel by reasserting her election, as seen in the foreword to their work in the ac­count of the creation of the sabbath? The stages by which the Old Testament reached its canonical form, and its variant theologies, may also be relevant to contemporary culture.

There is much in Holdsworth’s book which is lively and refreshing. He is, of course, right to highlight that there are “real dangers” “if we fail to distinguish between fact and literary constructs”. Certainly, both preacher and teacher can learn from his entertaining approach, even if perhaps the experts cannot quite so confidently be put to one side.

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of the King’s School, Canterbury.

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