Reading with Genre, not Anxiety

dracula1stThe classic novel Dracula follows an interesting format, outlining the story of the vampire through clippings from newspapers, letters sent between people, diary entries, and the like. They are roughly arranged by date, in an effort to cobble together a fantastic tale about the evil and supernatural Count. The book ends with Johnathan Harker, a character in the story, talking about how hard it is to prove that the events that are chronicled in the book are actually true, since many of the sources originally gathered in evidence have not proven to be authentic. The novel ends in resignation about concrete evidence, but instead roots proof in the life of those who survived the event. The implication, of course, is that the story of Dracula is true, even though the story is wild and the evidence is elusive. So, is the book fiction or non-fiction? I think we can all easily agree that it’s fiction.

Over the years I’ve taught a number of courses on Biblical interpretation, from lay-level courses to for-credit courses that apply to a certificate. As I’ve taught these courses, there are always some who have trouble coming to terms with how to read scripture. They tend to think that, with only minor exception, everything in the Bible is meant to be taken literally. The Bible, they believe, is a book of important history, with little time for communicating in ways other than “the facts”.

There are tons of examples I could give to demonstrate this, but it has become obvious that the usual rules people apply to things they interact with in the world often go awry when talking about the Bible. Certainly, the Bible is a special book with some of its own rules, but many of the usual rules still apply. Specifically, I think people get fouled up over the category of genre.

stop-signAn example of a stop sign should suffice. If you are driving along and you see a stop sign on the end of a pole about 8 feet off of the ground, you’ll probably stop. But what if you see one on a billboard? Will you stop then? How can you tell the difference? What if you see a stop sign on the side of a city bus? My guess is that you’d be unlikely to stop. But what if it’s on the side of a school bus? Hopefully, you’d stop.

The point is that a stop sign has special rules for us to follow. We need to do something particular when we see one, and there can be consequences if we don’t. But, we also bring to bear the concept of genre when we look at a stop sign. Stop signs have to follow certain rules and be in certain places before those special rules can engage. Most people are adept at telling the difference, and can make the decision about how to appropriately categorize any stop sign in a snap.

Genre is a lot like figuring out a stop-sign. Books like Dracula might try to fool us, but, somehow, we know better. Many portions of The DaVinci Code make a claim similar to Dracula; Brown admits that there is some invention in his book, but that all of the practices and organizations and rituals described are completely accurate. Nevertheless, most of us recognize The DaVinci Code as pure fiction. If I was adventurous enough to peruse my bookshelf I could list others (I think there is a C.S. Lewis book that claims to be real while being a story about an extended conversation between demons) but the point is clear – even when literary works insinuate otherwise, most readers are able to discern the appropriate genre with ease.

The problem occurs when readers believe that the BEST way to take something seriously is to read it as it if ACTUALLY OCCURRED. Within this view, there is no room for myth or satire. There is little room for morality plays or hyperbole. Entire limbs of human communication are cut off in service to the anxiety of taking things seriously.

For most Christians the Bible falls squarely within this category of “serious”. We read its words as literal because we’re trying to take it seriously. But the BEST way to read scripture seriously is to read it the way it was intended to be read. As the Old Testament scholar John Walton says, “Taking the text seriously is not expressed by correlating it with modern science [or any other systems we consider the most serious]; it is expressed by understanding it in its ancient context.”

Genre is the the fundamental unit of this context.

So, how do you know if you tend to ignore genre when reading scripture?

  1. You believe Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation should be read literally.
    I’ve met people who spend time wondering how Ezekiel could spend full chapters describing the temple of God in the new Jerusalem, while Revelation says that there is no temple in the New Jerusalem. They believe that BOTH are LITERALLY true. If you are actively looking for things like a meteor to crash into the sea, or a worldwide earthquake, or genetically engineered locusts with the face of a woman and scorpion stingers to be unleashed on the general population, you might be reading scripture without attention to genre.
  2. You’re not familiar with the concepts like “Apocalyptic Literature”, or “Polemic”, or “Wisdom Literature” when referring to the Bible.
    Let’s face it, our Bible teachers have often dropped the ball on this. In order to identify genre, we have to be aware of our options. If we’re never taught what Wisdom Literature is, how it functioned in ancient times, and its key features, how can we be expected to use those ideas when reading scripture? If these concepts seem new or scary to you, you might be reading scripture without attention to genre.
  3. It bothers you when someone says “it’s just a parable”.
    If it bothers you when someone doesn’t think that the parables of Jesus accurately describe things like how to plan for the future, Heaven and Hell, or how to tend to the weeds in your garden, then might be reading scripture without attention to genre.

What would happen if we read Dracula as being a literal account of supernatural terror? We’d end up with the wrong beliefs about things. We’d be panicked by things that don’t matter, and we’d ultimately be shown as fools. I’m reminded of the “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast in 1938, which, as legend has it, many took to be a literal invasion by space aliens. But not only would we show ourselves to be fools, we’d miss the beauty of the story about the sacrifice of heroes in the face of indomitable evil. We’d fail to read between the lines of the relationships and see the emergence of strong women, and how Dracula’s lack of participation in the “civilized” world robbed him of the true power he sought.

So, what about the Bible? I’d argue that reading scripture without genre sensitivity has the same problems as reading Dracula as non-fiction. Namely, we lose the beauty of much of what’s going on. Instead of reading Genesis 1 as a literal, 7-day account, reading it as myth – as a an attack on the gods of the ancient near east – orients us to the beginning (genesis) of God’s interaction with humanity, and it opens the door to non-anxious interaction with modern science about origins.

What about Job? Taking Job as strictly historical turns the righteous Job into the object of a cruel cat-and-mouse game played by God and Satan. They carelessly torture Job through painful health conditions, the loss of his wealth and stability, and with the death of his children. Is it really wiser to read such a story as literal, rather than as a particular genre? Reading Job as wisdom literature means that Job is probably not “real” in the sense of him actually existing. Instead, he’s “real” in the sense that the trials and tribulations he, as a fictional character, experiences can teach us “real” things about the nature of God, evil, and the seemingly moral chaos of creation. As such, God is also a character in the book of Job, being manipulated by the author to teach us important things. Reading the book in a genre-sensitive way helps open up what the book is trying to teach, and is a more respectful way to honor scripture.

More could be said about the various ways genre can be brought to bear on scripture. What about Jonah, or the parables, or Proverbs, or Revelation, or even mixed-genre books like Genesis, Ezekiel, and Daniel? What might happen if we open ourselves to the possibility that we’ve interpreted them using the wrong genre? I’m willing to argue that we reduce anxiety and open up a world of meaning by taking these books as “real” only as far as the genre allows for it.

In conclusion, my suggestion for Bible readers is this: Respect scripture by approaching it with integrity and common sense. Figure out the genre and then use the images and statements in the text within the bounds of its genre. Read between the lines where appropriate to figure out what the author is trying to say. Over time, learn to have as good of an intuition about the Bible as you do about stop signs. And THEN apply the special rules of the Bible (such as infallibility) to give it the gravity it deserves as the rule of Christian faith. But never neglect genre.

Does this challenge your view of how to read scripture?

Where would you agree or disagree with this proposal?


One thought on “Reading with Genre, not Anxiety

  1. Pingback: Reading Esther | Ben Rhodes

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