How do we best understand and communicate the Old Testament? That’s the question that John Holdsworth sets out to answer in his book Lies, Sex and Politicians.
As the title suggests, and subtitle confirms, this is about Communicating the Old Testament in Contemporary Culture. Holdsworth seeks to place his book in the category of practical theology; that is, doing theology through communicating what the Bible says. He seeks to aim it at anyone who is interested in communicating the Bible, not just the academic, ordained elite.
Holdsworth begins by critiquing the traditional methods of exegesis, which he characterises as treating “Bible texts as if they were exactly like other historical documents”, by exploring the historical background, examining textual criticism (how and why the text ended up like it did) and translation issues. He argues that this assumes that objectivity is key, that ‘what really happened’ and identifying the original sources is very important, and that “there is one truth to be discovered”. All this, he argues, created the need for experts to interpret the texts in this way.
Instead, Holdsworth argues that treating the texts as literature, and using those critical methods has in some ways liberated Biblical studies. I’m happy with this so far (as an archaeologist I’m willing to use any appropriate technique from whichever discipline to analyse what I’m dealing with!), but Holdsworth then uses a post-modern (to over-simplify, focusing on the subjective) form of reader response criticism to argue that truths are not located in the past, but in the present as the texts interact with the audience. Although he is careful to argue that the text constrains the range of meaning possible, I think a far more appropriate understanding is that of critical realism (used by NT Wright, McGrath and others), with its understanding of different levels of reality and a focus on the different responses to the truths that the texts contain, rather than altering the concept of ‘truth’ itself.
Unfortunately Holdsworth does go on to explore the historical basis of the texts, discussing the different genres and the different approaches needed for them. He then further undermines his initial arguments on using literary approaches by using source criticism to argue that Genesis 1 is a later account of creation than that of Genesis 2-3. If he were taking his literary approach more seriously then dealing with the the final form of the text would have been more interesting. However he follows the well-worn path of discussing story and myth before arguing “to treat the creation accounts in Genesis as records of events is to denude them of their potential depth and power.” Massively overstating!
Writing a couple of years before Holdsworth, in his commentary on Genesis (in the Eerdmans’ Two Horizons series), James McKeown discussed the problems with source criticism (p8):
Although important questions remain about the origins of Genesis, source-critical studies of the book have reached an impasse and many have turned their attention to the final form of the text, since the hypothetical nature of the previous studies combined with the impossibility of proving or disproving the plethora have made further progress elusive.
After exploring various passages Holdsworth concludes that the Old Testament is a crafted theological document rather than a straight record of historical fact. Again, this a helpful point to make, but could have been made in a more helpful way; and isn’t one that is dependant on the results of source criticism to make.
However, Holdsworth does has interesting and helpful things to say about the texts, when he makes use of literary techniques. So, for example, his first textual analysis is of the Queen of Sheba visiting Solomon (1 Kings 10). After rather bizarrely claiming that this chapter “is actually of very little interest to a historian” (well, maybe, but certainly not to an archaeologist – evidence of long distance trade, luxury goods, etc!) he suggests the the author is making use of irony to highlight the gulf between Solomon’s lavish lifestyle and that of ordinary Israelites and to show that Samuel’s warnings (1 Samuel 8) of the problems with kings has come to pass. I thought that was an illuminating perspective on the text.
Holdsworth also has helpful things to say on the prophets. He discusses the various types of people now-a-days who might be called ‘prophets’, or said to be speaking ‘prophetically’ and relates them to the Old Testament prophets, as people who operated in public, who confronted power structures, who describe things as they really are, who describe God’s concern for things, and God’s actions in the world. He therefore sees prophets as reminders of God’s presence and interest, of how God acted in the past, as creators of social change, of resources for decision making, and as evidence for the contingent nature of human society. Above all, prophets were the people who held out hope.
Throughout, Holdsworth is concerned to make links between contemporary culture and the Bible. This is sometimes successful but sometimes his approach is too superficial to be properly enlightening. His examination of passages from Proverbs and Song of Songs is much less helpful than, for example, that of Rachel Held Evans in her book A Year of Biblical Womanhood in which she shows the contemporary significance and potential of these passages. Both examine Proverbs 31, a poem on the ideal wife. Holdsworth quotes it at length at the end of a section exploring the problems with patriarchy and sexism, but barely explores its meaning. By contrast Held Evans seeks to live it out, discuses its use, notes that it is given as a poem composed by the then Queen Mother, and concludes that it is a celebration of ‘women of valour’.
In short, I like the aims of this book and think it makes some valuable points and can be thought-provoking but is somewhat disappointing in not carrying these through more effectively